Even as the Empty swallowed him up, Castiel would be lying if he said he had no hope of seeing Dean again, of seeing Sam and Jack, of seeing all the friends he’d made during his time on Earth. If the Winchesters had taught him anything, it was that any fate – including death – was optional if you were stubborn enough. And the Winchesters were certainly the most stubborn humans Cas had ever known. If he had faith in nothing else, he had faith in them. That faith made it easier to close his eyes as he fell into that eternal sleep.
Still, Cas would also be lying if he said he had expected his rescue to come so soon.
One moment, he was closing his eyes, hopeful yet accepting that he may never open them again, and in the next he was blinking awake, squinting at the ethereal light of Heaven. It was only the ethereal light of Heaven, Heaven in its most basic form. There were no signs of any of the walls, otherworldly facsimiles of human structures, that had divided it before. Cas was standing in a pure white void, with no signs of anyone, except –
“Cas!” Jack said brightly.
Physically, Jack looked the same as the last time Cas had seen him. He hadn’t aged, and he had the same open, earnest expression on his face that went all the way to his eyes. He was standing just out of reach, the only other being Cas could discern in the endless white.
Just like Cas, though, Jack had always been more than his physical form. It took Cas only a moment to realize just how much more of Jack there was now. Jack’s true form was blinding, even to an angel, and spread out far beyond what Cas could perceive. He was both everywhere and nowhere, his presence overwhelming yet reassuring in its infinity.
Cas was suddenly struck with a mixture of pride and sorrow. His son was the most powerful being in the universe, had usurped Chuck and set things right, but he was still just a kid. A kid that would never get to be a kid, now. Cas had always believed – as Kelly had, as so many people had – that Jack was destined to do great things, but he had never expected that time to come so soon, to be so final. Jack, whom he had understood from the moment he had touched his unborn soul, was now fundamentally unknowable, even to him.
“Jack,” Cas finally forced out, voice incredulous and sandpaper-rough.
God or not, Cas wasted no time closing the distance between them, wrapping Jack up in a crushing hug. Jack, for all his infinite power, didn’t seem to mind, and hugged him back just a tightly. Cas held him close for as long as he could manage, with all the questions fighting for his attention.
“What happened?” Cas finally asked, pulling back just far enough to hold Jack at arm’s length.
“We won,” Jack said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world “All that’s left is to clean up Chuck’s mess.” Jack smiled, glancing around at the empty void around them. “I’m rebuilding Heaven, just as it always should have been. No more walls.”
Cas couldn’t stop himself from pulling Jack into another hug. “I’m so proud of you, Jack.”
When Cas stepped back again, he was caught off guard by the expression on Jack’s face. He was beaming, brighter than Cas had ever seen, finally free of all the conflict that had defined his short life on Earth. Any regret Cas had felt about Jack’s fate faded away. Even as the most powerful being in the universe, he was also just a kid. A kid happy to see his father again and be comforted by his praise. Things were still just as they were before, but that only made the absences more noticeable.
“Where are Sam and Dean?” Cas was almost afraid to ask. Their victories rarely came without cost.
Jack paused, eyebrows furrowing as if his attention had drifted elsewhere. In an instant, his expression smoothed out again, and he met Cas with a smile. “Still living out their freedom. Dean’s taking Miracle for a walk right now.” Jack laughed at the questioning tilt of Cas’ head. “That’s the dog we found.”
“And they’re… happy?”
“You can go see for yourself, if you want. You still have free will.” Jack frowned. “I… decided not to interfere with things on Earth. You’re welcome to stay and help me rebuild, but I don’t mean to keep you here. We have eternity, and I knew you’d want to see them, too.”
Cas thought of the Winchesters, finally getting to live out their much-deserved peace after so long. What place did he have, in that life? What right did he have to intrude? He was a celestial being, and a former soldier at that. His presence would never allow them to leave behind the world of the supernatural, not entirely. Maybe such a life wasn’t possible for them, but they certainly deserved the opportunity to choose for themselves. Cas’ presence would only rob them of that choice.
At least, that’s the excuse Cas told himself as he shook his head, telling Jack he would stay for now. The new God looked torn, but gave his father a smile regardless, beginning his excited explanation of his ongoing plans for Heaven.
Even as Cas listened to Jack, overwhelmed with pride, he couldn’t stop his thoughts from straying to Dean. Cas had told him that happiness was in being, not in having, but the prospect of finding out exactly what kind of future he could be allowed to have made something seize in his chest. It was one thing to declare your love for someone with no hope of a response, it was another thing entirely to return to face the consequences.
Cas didn’t need anything to change to be happy, and he had meant that, but he also knew the knowledge would irrevocably change their relationship. Cas thought of Dean, unable to reciprocate but equally unwilling to cause Cas any pain, dancing carefully around their every interaction, trying not to lead him on. Cas wasn’t sure he could handle Dean hesitating at any sign of friendly affection, even out of kindness. It would only draw more attention to what he couldn’t have, and to what he could never have again. He couldn’t know for sure what their relationship would be like until he returned to Earth, and he couldn’t bring himself to unlock that box and find out if that hope was alive or dead.
Of course, he would need to talk to Dean eventually. Human lives were ultimately fleeting, and Cas would have even fewer excuses to avoid him once he came to Heaven, if Cas let it go on that long. For now, though, he could focus on getting Heaven ready for his arrival, until he was ready to deal with all he’d left behind.
Jack never pressed him on his decision to stay in Heaven for the time being, but he did give Cas periodic updates on what the Winchesters were up to. Or, more specifically, what Dean was up to at any given time. Cas wondered if Jack had always known of his attachment, or if he had put his new powers of omniscience to questionable use. Regardless, Cas couldn’t say he didn’t want to know what Dean was doing back on Earth, even if it made his absence hurt more.
He and Jack eventually decided that Heaven would work best as a reflection of Earth – familiar enough to feel like home but carefully expanded to make room for everyone that had lived and would ever live there. It would be impossible for a human mind to comprehend the shape of the overlapping realities of this new Heaven, to picture all the snapshots of Earth layered over one another, coexisting yet distinct. Earth, as it existed at the beginning of time, as it would exist at the end, and as it exists in every possible state in between, all happening simultaneously, forever. It was easy enough for God and his chosen angel to understand, though, even if it still required some grunt work to build.
It was when they were recreating the clouds in the sky that Cas heard Jack laugh – bright and childlike as always – and turned to look at him in askance.
“Sam just hit Dean in the face with a pie,” Jack explained, still giggling as he spun each water molecule into existence.
Cas chuckled in response and tried not to notice how it made his chest ache.
Cas hadn’t been in Heaven all that long before he heard Dean’s prayer. It was only a fluttering presence in the back of Cas’ awareness – not a deliberate prayer, but an involuntary thought directed his way. Dean’s voice faded in an out, like a bad radio signal. Cas paused in his conversation with Jack, placing a hand on his temple to focus on the sound.
I’m so sorry, Cas. After everything……... didn’t mean to……. I didn’t want to die like this…
Cas’ eyes snapped up to meet Jack’s. No words needed to pass between them. Jack only nodded in understanding as he snapped his fingers.
Cas was in a barn, the bright white of Heaven suddenly replaced with the muted browns of Earth. If he had a thought to spare, Cas might’ve smiled at the poetics of it, of reappearing in a barn like he had all those years ago, when Dean had first met him. He couldn’t think about that though, not with the sight in front of him.
Dean was pressed awkwardly against a wooden support beam, his feet not quite flat on the floor, while Sam hovered nervously over him. Cas was reminded of hanged men from those old cowboy movies Dean had made him watch, of bodies reaching fruitlessly for stable ground, stuck in suspended air. Dean’s eyes widened as he finally spotted Cas over Sam’s shoulder.
“Cas?” Dean’s voice was rough and wet with blood, staining his teeth crimson.
Sam turned at the sound, looking at Cas with the same slack-jawed expression.
But there was no time for greetings, no time for explanations.
Before either Sam or Dean could gather their wits, Cas had closed the distance between them in three long strides, pushing Sam to the side as he grabbed Dean by the shoulders. He felt his grace pulse into Dean, knitting together torn tissue as he gently eased him away from the beam, exposing the sharp metal that jutted out from the wood. Cas glared at the would-be murder weapon and, for good measure, sent it flying across the room in a shower of splintered wood, the sharp end burying itself in the opposite wall like the tip of a well-aimed dart.
Sam was the first to find his voice. “What the hell, Cas?”
Cas didn’t turn and look, simply held Dean at arms length, worried he might collapse as soon as he let go. He met Dean’s gaze, still wide and red-rimmed. “I heard your prayer.”
Dean managed to huff out a laugh, breathless with relief and also, perhaps, from having a piece of metal stabbed through his lung just a short minute ago. “You’re back. You came back.”
Cas could feel the remaining tension leave his body for the first time since he’d returned, his face softening into a smile. For that one moment, it was like nothing had changed at all. “Of course I came back.”
And, of course, Dean had to ruin it by almost immediately crumpling against him, unconscious.
Cas was the only other person in Dean’s room when he finally woke up, Sam having finally accepted Cas’ assurances that Dean would be fine and gone to bed. Sam had looked haggard, even beyond what could be expected after the day he’d had. Cas had wondered, as he had watched Sam shuffle off to bed as if his bones were somehow heavier than before, what weight was still hanging over the Winchesters’ heads after everything. They were supposed to have been free.
Dean jerked awake in an instant, dispelling any other thoughts. He looked wildly around the room until he found Cas, sitting quietly at the desk. Not taking his eyes of Cas, Dean leaned over and turned on the lamp beside the bed. His expression was torn between wonder and suspicion, but Cas was still loath to break the moment. Assuring Dean that he was really there would mean talking about it, and talking about it would mean acknowledging what had happened. Cas stayed silent for as long as he could.
“What time is it?” Dean asked, and Cas wanted to laugh at the unexpected normalcy of it.
“2:51AM,” Cas responded automatically “I would’ve woken you earlier, but it seemed like you needed the rest. Both of you.” Cas nodded his head in the direction of Sam’s room by way of explanation. Dean didn’t argue, only settled a little more against the headboard, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
“So… that really happened,” Dean finally said, tone unreadable “You’re alive.” Dean closed his eyes and tilted his head, reconsidering. “Actually, no. How are you alive right now?”
“Jack,” Cas said, “he brought me back.”
“Figures,” Dean let out a hollow laugh “Kid can’t come down for dinner every now and then but bringing people back to life is totally fine.”
“Dean,” Cas sighed “He’s trying his best but he’s still a child. He needed me. I was helping him rebuild Heaven when…” Cas trailed off, letting the reality of Dean’s near-death experience hang unspoken between them.
“You were – how long have you been back?”
“I don’t know,” Cas lied. He let his eyes fall to look at the floor. “A few weeks, maybe.” Cas couldn’t bring himself to look up at Dean’s expression. “Dean, I’m sor –”
“I – we thought you were dead, Cas.”
“I’m sorry,” Cas finished lamely.
“Why didn’t you come home?”
Cas looked up at the word. Home. It was true, of course. If there was anywhere in Heaven or on Earth that felt like home, it was here, but hearing it said aloud still felt overwhelming, a feeling too big to fit comfortably inside even his true angelic form.
“I was scared.”
“Of what?” Dean was incredulous. “Everything was over! We got our happy ending, all of us. What could you still be scared of?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Cas couldn’t help shooting Dean a withering look. “You know what.”
Dean seemed to deflate. “Cas,” he said gently “It doesn’t matter –”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter?” Cas shot back. He knew he was being difficult, but he couldn’t keep the acid from his tone. “You don’t owe me a response, Dean, and I never expected one. But don’t you dare tell me it didn’t matter.”
“You know I didn’t mean it like –” Dean cut himself off with a sigh. “Look, Cas. I’m trying.”
“I didn’t ask you to.” Cas’ words still came out bitter despite his best efforts. He paused to let out a breath. “I’m not sorry for loving you.” Cas tried not to notice Dean flinch at the word “But I’m sorry for making you… uncomfortable. That wasn’t my intention.”
“That’s not –” Dean made a frustrated noise, scrubbing his face with his hands. “It’s just – I’m scared, too, Cas.”
“I’ve never…” Dean clenched his jaw, looking away for a moment as if steeling himself. “I’ve never been good at… all this. I know I talk a big game, but the real deal – the ride off into the sunset happy ending kind of relationship – I’ve never had that, not really.” Dean swallowed. “I could never have that. I accepted that, you know?”
“Dean –” Cas couldn’t stop the old urge to reassure him of his worth, but Dean didn’t let him finish.
“I knew how you felt,” he confessed, like it was something shameful “Of course I knew. But there was always something else. There was one apocalypse after another, and someone was always dying.” Dean’s voice was wavering now, wet with suppressed tears. “But now we’ve defeated God. It’s all over. There is nothing left to deal with and I don’t know what to do. And that scares the hell out of me.”
“You don’t have to do anything, Dean.” Without thinking, Cas had risen from his seat at the desk, and was now sitting carefully on the edge of Dean’s bed. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Dean huffed out a laugh, finally letting a few tears sneak down his face. “Yeah, you better not.”
Suddenly, it was the easiest thing in the world to close the distance between them, wrapping each other up in a long-overdue hug. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of the night, it didn’t matter that things were complicated, and it didn’t matter that Cas could feel the dampness settling into the shoulder of his coat, Dean’s face pressed against it. What mattered was that, against all odds, Cas was home again.
Some things didn’t change.
They still went on hunts. They still stayed in the same shitty motel rooms when cases took them too far from Kansas. They still had movies nights, and Dean still picked Lost Boys more often than not. Dean still made dinner, shooing Sam out of the kitchen lest he ruin the process with a vegetable that couldn’t be comfortably shoved between two hamburger buns.
Some things did change, though.
Cases were fewer and farther between, the result of a world that seemed just a little bit calmer these days and the Winchesters slowly settling down into a different sort of life. On their way to these rare cases, Cas would pass the mixtape Dean had given him up to the front, the question unasked between them. Dean would put it in the tape deck with a private little smile while Sam rolled his eyes, but he would would still nod along with the rest of them as the sounds of Led Zeppelin filled the car.
There were still shitty motel rooms with two lumpy beds and Cas still didn’t need to sleep, but they were now a flimsy excuse for Cas to crawl in alongside Dean when they finally turned in for the night. Cas knew sharing a bed came with certain human connotations, but Dean never mentioned them or pushed him away, not anymore. They would lie together, barely touching, comforted by the sound of the other breathing softly beside them, still alive after everything.
On movie nights, the bowl of popcorn was now placed strategically between them, while Sam grumbled half-heartedly about having to make his own bowl. They still watched Lost Boys more than any human being – or angelic being, for that matter – should have to, but sometimes their hands would brush together accidentally-on-purpose when reaching for popcorn, or Dean would drift off and lean into Cas’ shoulder, and Cas would feel overwhelmed by the feeling of contentment that bloomed in his chest.
One night, a few months into their newfound freedom, Dean had beckoned Cas into the kitchen under the pretence of teaching him how to cook properly. Jody, Donna, and the girls were coming to visit later in the week, and Dean explained he would need some help from someone with taste. Cas didn’t remind him that everything tasted like molecules to him, because that excuse hadn’t stopped him from eating Dean’s cooking in a long time.
It was in that kitchen, when Cas had finally managed to crack an egg one-handed with a triumphant grin, that Dean said, beaming and breathless “God, I love you.”
And it was all Cas could do to smile and say, “I love you, too, Dean.”
Later, Dean would have to scrape burning egg off the frying pan, but for now Cas could lean in and feel Dean smile against his lips, without a thought to spare for the world beyond the two of them.
They didn’t bring up the incident in the barn until much later, when Dean’s bed had long become their bed and Cas had learned the simple pleasure of lying there as the sweat on their skin cooled, even if he had no intention of sleeping.
“I was ready to die, then, you know,” Dean said suddenly in the dark.
Cas didn’t need to ask what Dean was referring to. He did wonder if the words were easier for Dean to say like this, wrapped in shadows and Cas’ arms, his expression impossible to see from where Cas had pressed his face to the back of Dean’s neck. He didn’t say anything, worried any break in the silence would keep Dean from carrying on.
“I just kept thinking – what’s the point?” Dean continued eventually, voice as sharp and as fragile as glass “We’d killed God, it was over. There was nothing left to do, no reason for it all.” Dean laughed bitterly. “I’d been trained all my life to fight. I had no idea what to do when I didn’t have to anymore.”
“Sam was never like that,” Dean said. There was no envy in his voice, only pride. Love. “He could leave if he wanted to, live a good life. He deserves to live a good life away from all this.” Dean sighed. “But he’s too good. He wouldn’t leave the life without me, not now.”
“So, I thought he would be better off if,” Dean forced out. Cas could hear the tears in his voice, even if he couldn’t see them. “It would be easier if I were just… gone.”
Cas almost wished Dean’s words were more shocking. That would’ve been easier to deal with, to hold Dean and say of course the world is better with you in it, to remind him of all the people who loved him. Instead, the words were all too familiar. They were his own words. They were the same words the Empty has hissed back at him, his own voice made strange. There is nothing for you back there. They were the same words he’d been telling himself since he returned, that the Winchesters were better off without him, without any connection to a world that only put them in danger.
“I know,” Cas said, because he did know “But you don’t have to sacrifice yourselves for others anymore. You deserve to live just for yourself.” A beat. “So do I.”
“Yeah,” was all Dean said, like he didn’t really believe it.
That was fine, though, because Cas didn’t really believe it for himself, either. Maybe believing it for each other was enough, for now. They had eternity ahead of them.