It's like being buried at the bottom of a very deep, very dark well. Castiel has lived enough, sinned enough, for the weight of his mistakes to pin him flat in the darkness. It's shame and guilt and grief and each memory anchors him with a razor specificity, there in the lightless silence. This is how it works, he supposes. His own thoughts will devour him alive until he sips oblivion by choice, out of sheer desperation, and the void will know peace at last.
But that was the bargain. He took that upon himself. His choice. Choice, he thinks, and would laugh if he still had a mouth to laugh with. Freedom is a length of rope.
Then, after what could have been many eternities or just one, a pang of agony comes that isn't his own. It's a judder of pain and terror and grief, shot through with a raw longing that's as forked and intricate as an electric discharge—and incredibly, impossibly, in this place where Castiel should be abandoned to nothing but his own sorrows—none of it is his. He knows it isn't his own because he knows whose it is; because he knows the feel of that soul better than he knows anything else in God's creation.
He thinks he has hands, maybe. Knees. He crawls on them.
The void claws at him, lashes at him with the torrent of its emptiness. But it's weaker than it's been before—rattled and off-kilter, like something blazed through and hammered away at all of its foundations. Jarred the seams loose enough for something to slip in, or out.
There's light, maybe. So maybe he has eyes to see it, too. He drags himself toward it, a concatenation of tiny, painful eternities. The shadow laps at his face, dredges through his past like so much riverbed silt. Tells him there's nothing for him out there.
Don't you want to rest? It comes as a coaxing hiss. He has ears, he supposes, if he's hearing it. A skull for its sibilant whisper to echo off of.
Castiel thinks of oblivion, of letting go, of the void's warped measure of peace. Weighs it against the freckles he placed on a body, once, when he rebuilt it from moldering scraps in a pine box six feet under the earth. It's not even close. No.
You made a bargain, the Empty snarls.
The light is right there, a knife blade's edge of it, a crack in the darkness. Castiel levers himself toward it. It's faint and washed-out like a dying fluorescent bulb, but it's enough. Castiel did make a bargain, yes, but he's bent and broken more than bargains, before. He'll let the Empty take what it wants from him—whatever it wants, as much as it wants, not all of him is going to fit through that pale and flickering rent in the void anyway—but he's not going to stay.
If you leave, storms the shadow, with increasing fury, you will wish you had stayed, and become nothing. Because out there, you will be nothing too.
Castiel finds he has a mouth, now. "Bite me," he tells the Empty, and tumbles through the rip in the dark.
It strips him, the crossing. Flays his grace like he's pulling himself through a maelstrom of blades, tears through the immense and intangible form of him like he's a tissue paper being, a creature being butchered for parts. Castiel lets it because he has to—because he can't cling to what he is, if he wants to make it out of this place designed to imprison exactly that. He grips tight to the components of himself that weren't part of the original design—memory, choice, love, everything he wasn't made for, everything he made for himself anyway—and lets the rest go.
He lands in an ungainly heap on a flat surface and for several long moments he can't do much more than curl into a juddering ball, hands clawing at what feels like earth, lungs seizing around damp woodsy air. The sensory overload is—significant.
The air still hurts to breathe, feels like sandpaper against his skin, but Castiel finally stumbles to his feet, spurred by a nameless, frantic urgency. He turns his head and sees a dilapidated barn mere yards away, the doors shut. Dread wells up in the hollow spaces of his chest, a fear that he can't name—something terrible has happened here.
He still has just enough grace to feel the agony again, lightning-quick, a white-hot flicker in the small of his back, licking at his nearly-human heart. Something terrible is still happening here.
Castiel bursts through the barn doors at a dead run, skidding to a halt a car's length into the barn.
Sam twists to stare at him, phone lifted in one hand, face streaked and blotchy with tears. Castiel goes cold all over—he can only think of one thing to make Sam Winchester weep like that.
And there—beyond Sam, is Dean, who looks—thank creation, thank the stars and all of space between—who looks up, his face tear-streaked as well, drawn taut with pain, his eyes wide and desperate and disbelieving. Alive. Alive, so there's still time.
"Cas—" Sam chokes out, but he might as well not have spoken because Castiel barely hears him, all Castiel can hear is the weak bird's-wing flutter of Dean's flagging heart, the metal rasping at organ walls and bone inside Dean, the unsteady lilt of Dean's pulse, which is so bravely dragging blood through vein and artery, dragging Dean onward towards death—
Castiel's barely aware of moving, only that between one instant and the next he's beside Sam and Dean, the three of them an awful, biblical tableau, Sam's hand coming up to clutch at Castiel's sleeve even as Dean draws in one more rattling breath from where he's hung up on a beam like a sacrificial animal—
Cas, Dean mouths, his eyes still caught somewhere between wonder and agony. There's no sound to it, no air to give it volume; at least, none that can be heard over the horrible, hitching gurgle in Dean's throat. There's only the shape of the word, the holiness of Dean's mouth as he stands dying. His hand twitches up, like he would reach for Castiel's if he had the strength.
"Sam?" Castiel says, urgent. He doesn't look at the younger Winchester, even as he grits out the question. He'd see Hell and Heaven burn both, before he turns away from Dean at a moment like this.
"Rebar," Sam rasps. "In his back—"
"Get him off of it."
"No," Dean blurts, voice surfacing at last, and something gleams in his eyes, a frantic terror. "No, please, don't—"
"Sam," says Castiel, and he must sound more self-assured than he feels because Sam nods and braces his hands around Dean's shoulder and arm. Sam's face is white as a sheet, but his long fingers are steady and careful. One of his hands is already stained red, like he'd felt behind Dean to try to find what was killing him.
"No," Dean pleads, the word cracking like glass, "no, S'm, Cas, don't, don't—" His voice flattens into a wordless keen as Sam and Castiel lift him up and forward and then he's off, the wound in his back bubbling a dark red, the rebar scarlet all the way down its vicious length.
For a moment Castiel thinks, what if there isn't enough. He quells the thought. There will be. There has to be.
The last spark of his grace is lodged deep in the core of him, sutured into his being. Castiel seizes it and wrenches, ruthless, ignoring the agony that rips through him as he tears this last, rooted piece free. He feels his body—his body, his human body—shudder with the loss, an involuntary reflex. He needn't have worried: it's only a spark, but it's the deepest, holiest core of who he was, and it's powerful enough to level this barn, char a human to ashes, melt the Impala into a heap of slag. It coils and blazes like starfire in the very tips of his fingers, and Castiel places his palm squarely over the hole in Dean's back and releases all of it in a single burst of silver-bright light.
The healing lasts only a split second. One moment Dean is arching his back, crying out as the internal damage is undone, the wound knitting itself forcefully back together under the irradiated torrent. The next moment, the grace and its silvery glow have winked out like a switch was flipped, and Dean is suddenly straightening up, jerking out of their grips.
"Dean," Sam chokes out, "oh my god, Dean—"
Dean twists awkwardly, groping a hand over his own spine. A ragged exhale punches out of him as he looks from Sam to Castiel. Castiel, for his part, can't look away; he feels light-headed, pain still roiling through him, but that doesn't seem nearly so important as the fact that all he needs to do is just stand and stare at Dean. At the living solidity of him, the curve of his mouth as he sucks another breath into unpunctured lungs, the wideness of his eyes—and oh, he's so beautiful, Castiel has always thought this, and he thinks it again now, hazily. Apocalypses come and go but Dean Winchester has never stopped being the most beautiful thing in any universe God ever cared to create.
"Cas," Dean sputters, his hands hovering in the air like blurry doves, "you're—you—"
"Yes," says Castiel, and passes out.
Castiel wakes to warmth and a familiar, bone-deep rumble that he recognizes as the Impala; when he opens his eyes, it's to see the car's roof close overhead and, closer still, Dean's worried expression. They're in the back seat. Castiel is curled across most of the bench, his head pillowed on Dean's lap; Dean's hand is cupped against his jaw.
"Cas," Dean breathes. His face, which is still wet with tears, slackens in abrupt relief.
Castiel tries to breathe lightly, afraid suddenly that the slightest movement will cause Dean to lift his hand away. Dean seems to have no intention of removing it, though; on the contrary, he curls his fingers into Castiel's hair a little, thumb stroking over Castiel's cheekbone as if to wipe away a tear. Which is odd, as Dean is the one crying here.
"He's awake, Sam," Dean says, glancing up in response to a questioning sound from what Castiel presumes is the driver's seat.
"How...how long?" Castiel whispers. He isn't talking about just now.
Dean looks back down on him, understanding clear in his eyes, in the trembling line of his mouth. "Three months," he rasps.
"Three months," Castiel echoes. "So...Chuck?"
"We beat him," Dean says, hoarsely. "Cas, we..." He closes his eyes for a moment. A muscle works in his jaw. "We tried everything, after. We were still trying, right up until this hunt, I was never gonna—we were never gonna stop trying to bring you back."
Castiel didn't really expect that, but he supposes he shouldn't be surprised. The Winchesters are nothing if not stubborn.
"And Jack?" he murmurs.
Dean gives him a watery grin. "He's alright—he's back at the Bunker. Undoing all of Chuck's bullshit—he did great, you'da been proud, but it burned through his powers. He's got enough mojo for his body not to disintegrate like it did last time, but—he's human, basically."
"Good. He's safe, that's...good. That's what matters."
"You're human, too." It's not really a question. "You've been breathing, this whole time. That was the last of your grace?"
Castiel nods, careful not to dislodge Dean's palm. He shies away from the thought of—of Dean holding Castiel's head in his lap, listening to Castiel breathe, watching him sleep—it makes something warm and fizzing unfurl in his chest, a fluttering feeling that he can't unstitch from the mortal ebb and flow of his body.
Dean exhales. "Cas, man—"
"Dean," Castiel sighs. "Don't."
"No, I just—what you gave up—just because I was stupid and I let a vamp get the jump on me—"
"Dean," says Castiel again. "I did not renege on a cosmic bargain and claw my way out of the Empty just to watch you die from being impaled on a rusty piece of metal, right in front of me."
Dean stares down at him. "You got yourself out," he says, wonderingly. "And you found us, and you—and I—Cas, you shouldn't have had to save yourself, you shouldn't have had to save me, you shouldn't have had to give that up, I should've—I should've been able to—"
"Angelhood was what I was, Dean. It was important, but it wasn't...who I was. Who I was is just—me. I'm still that."
"I know," says Dean, and his expression is suddenly so fierce and so achingly tender that Castiel has to fight the reflex to look away, to avert his gaze like he's in the presence of something too holy to perceive head-on. Dean's thumb strokes, again, over the edge of Castiel's face, like the brush of a wing. "I know you're still you. Always. I'm just saying—you had to sacrifice all that power to save my ass, and I'm not—"
"If you say you're not worth it," says Castiel tiredly, "I will simply pass out again, right now."
A laugh punches out of Dean, a sound that's half a sob. He curls down over Castiel, a movement that brings his face closer, and Castiel looks at Dean, which isn't anything new for him, anyway.
He can't sense Dean's soul the way he used to be able to. But—he can feel Dean's warmth through his layers of clothing, against his own cheek where it's pressed to Dean's side. He can see, with his ordinary, human eyes, the freckles dotting the bridge of Dean's nose, the curl of his lashes, the green of his eyes. He thinks maybe, if he turned his head a little, pressed his lips to Dean's wrist, he'd be able to feel Dean's pulse, steady and sure. It's enough. It's always been enough.
Sam waits until Castiel has clambered out of the car in the Bunker's garage—Dean still gripping his sleeve as though afraid that Castiel's legs are going to buckle under him again. And then Sam, being Sam, continues to wait, his eyes meeting Castiel's steadily. Castiel flexes his limbs, noting that the pain has receded to a faint aching. He nods, musters up a weak but genuine smile to go with the permission; Sam surges forward immediately and pulls him into a tight, careful hug.
"Thank you," Sam says into Castiel's ear, his voice still wet like he's been holding a lump of tears in his throat the entire drive. And then, the words bursting out of him like waters overrunning a dam— "Cas, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry we couldn't get you out—"
"It's alright," says Castiel. He presses his hands against Sam's shoulders. Listens to the tremor in Sam's breathing. "Sam, it's alright."
The Bunker is—a mess. The map table is cluttered with enormous tomes, scraps of parchment, bowls of ritual ingredients that Castiel recognizes from the archives. A singed chalk pentagram is etched in a corner of the room.
"Told you we weren't going to stop," says Dean quietly. There's a haunted expression on his face, and he looks away from the forest of empty bottles cluttering one end of the table.
The library looks no better, piles of books scattered on the table and the floor, interspersed with pages of notes in Sam's looping cursive and Dean's untidy scrawl. Jack is hunched over one of the books, gnawing on a pencil, his brow creased in a worried furrow.
"I—didn't want to tell him over the phone," Sam is murmuring, and then Jack looks up and the pencil clatters from his fingers.
"Jack," Castiel manages, and then Jack is running toward him. He runs full force into Castiel, and Castiel is, after all, only human now, so he has to stumble a half-step back to absorb the impact, even as his arms fly up to catch Jack. Jack buries his face in Castiel's shoulder.
"It's really you," Jack gasps, and it isn't a question, but Castiel confirms anyway.
"It's me." He holds Jack to him. He didn't think he would get to do this—didn't think he would hug any of his family ever again, didn't think he'd hear their voices or get to know how they saved the world or be there with them for any of the seasons yet to come.
"I'm sorry," Jack sobs. His tears are soaking through the lapel of Castiel's coat. "You saved me—so many times—and I couldn't save you, I wasn't strong enough, I—"
"Jack, it wasn't your job to rescue me," says Castiel, cutting off the torrent of grief and guilt currently being wept into his collar. "They told me that you saved the world. You did more than any of us could ever have asked of you. I am so, so proud of you."
Jack gulps down another sob. "I missed you so much."
"I missed you too," Castiel says, soft.
Castiel used to have wings, a garrison, a divine purpose. Now he stands in his home, in his human body, and he wraps his human arms around his human son, and he thinks that there aren't words, not really, not enough, to describe all that he has now.
"We, uh," Dean says, from the doorway to Castiel's room. "We can get you some clothes and stuff, this week."
Castiel nods, glancing up at Dean as he shrugs out of his coat and suit jacket. He doesn't have a duffel to drop onto the bed the way he's seen Dean and Sam do countless times during or after hunts. His room looks as he'd left it, down to the book on the nightstand. A little lived-in, a little lonesome. It's comforting, almost.
Dean scrubs a hand through his hair, gestures at the folded garments he has tucked under one arm. "You can—uh, you can wear some of my things in the meantime." A scarlet blush crawls up his cheeks. "Probably fit you better than Sam's shit."
"Thank you," says Castiel. This generosity is characteristic of Dean, who is always so conscious of all the small and vital details of survival, always wanting to provide for the people in his home however he can. Castiel runs a hand absent-mindedly along the edge of his desk. There's no dust on it, not even a slight layer, and Castiel has the sudden mental image of Dean cleaning the empty room, week after week with no hope of the occupant ever returning.
Dean enters the room, but he doesn't cross to the dresser to set the clothes down. Instead, he walks directly up to Castiel, so close he doesn't even have to reach out to pass the bundle over.
"Thank you," says Castiel again, acutely aware that their fingers are brushing as he takes the clothes from Dean. He is, additionally, aware that the clothes are going to smell like Dean, and the thought causes another embarrassing flutter in his chest.
Dean drops his arm but doesn't move away. He's looking at Cas with an unreadable expression, his lips slightly parted, his eyes very steady, his breath not steady at all. They're standing so close to each other that their sleeves are almost touching. Castiel hears Dean's voice in his ear, pained, measured: personal space, Cas. He isn't—he doesn't know if he's allowed this. He doesn't know what to do, here, whether to back away or move forward or let Dean open up space between them or—or—
With a kind of gradually congealing resignation, Castiel realizes that they probably need to talk about—about what he'd said, before the Empty took him. He's been carefully avoiding dwelling on it or even cursorily thinking about it. What he feels is the farthest thing from regret; he'd do it again in a heartbeat, would do it a million times over for the same reasons. But he didn't think there'd be an after, at least not for him. This is a different set of consequences than what he'd been prepared for.
Dean, he thinks, might be happy to let it sit unspoken forever, but Castiel would rather not let the wound fester. He was the one who said it, who twined that tension into the air between them, so the onus ought to be on him to clear that air. Make absolutely certain that Dean knows Castiel doesn't expect anything different from him. Make certain Dean knows that this, what they have now, Dean's friendship, their shared home, their family, is enough for Castiel. Has always been enough.
Dean's thumb grazes over Castiel's wrist, feather-light, and Castiel freezes.
"Dean?" he manages. He doesn't know what this is. He holds the bundle of Dean's clothes against his chest with his other hand, and he doesn't move at all.
Dean's gaze roves past Castiel's shoulder, over the sparsely furnished room, the mattress that just yesterday had belonged to a dead person. "You know you don't—have to sleep in here."
It doesn't make sense, it's not logical, but even so Castiel can't stop the split second of knee-jerk terror that lances up his spine. "You—you want me to leave?" he chokes out unthinkingly.
"Oh, Jesus, no—" Dean flinches and seizes Castiel's hand, hard, as if on reflex. "No. No, Cas, you never have to leave, I'm so sorry. I meant—um. My room. My bed's got memory—"
"Memory foam, yes," says Castiel faintly. Dean is still holding onto his hand, and that can't be reflex. Dean is so close. He'd showered after dinner and he smells like the cheap shampoo that Castiel knows he buys in bulk from the supermarket. He smells clean, warm. He smells like home. It's a dangerous line of thinking and Castiel attempts, without much success, to quash it.
"Yeah, so, do you—?"
"I don't want to take your bed from you, Dean," says Castiel. "I'm not injured—there's no need to give me special treatment."
"You're not—" says Dean. He swallows; Castiel follows the motion of his jaw, the bob of his adam's apple. "You're not making this easy for me, man."
"Dean, I don't understa—"
Dean leans forward and kisses him.
It's a little off-center, the kiss; either deliberately or through haste, Dean lands near the corner of Castiel's mouth, and it's brief as well—a dry press of the lips followed by a careful withdrawal. It's brief, and it's hasty, and it's off-center, and it knocks the fucking air out of Castiel's lungs.
"Oh," says Castiel, which he thinks is very eloquent of him, under the circumstances.
"I love—I love you," says Dean. He stumbles over the words, but he doesn't drop his gaze. They're standing so close together that Castiel could probably count Dean's eyelashes, if he were in any state to count anything right now. "I love you, I've loved you for—god, years I guess. I fucking cried for hours on the floor after the Empty took you. I've been a goddamn wreck these past three months, ask Sam and Eileen. I get if—if you don't feel the same way anymore, or if you um, if you changed your mind, I just—" He pauses, gulps visibly for breath. "I didn't say anything to you before you died, and it's been fucking eating me alive, Cas. Everything was happening so fast, and then you were gone, god, you were dead, and I—but I would've said it, I swear to you, I would've said it back. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry you died thinking you couldn't have—that I didn't—I just. I wanted to say it."
Castiel swallows. Belatedly, he remembers that he needs to breathe now, too. He inhales carefully and the sensation of lightheadedness recedes a little.
"Well," says Dean, the scarlet creeping back into his face, "say something."
"Let," says Castiel. He pulls in another ragged breath. "Let go of my hand."
Dean drops it like he's been burned. There's a stricken expression on his face. "Cas, I—"
Castiel moves his freed hand to the back of Dean's neck and pulls Dean into him.
Dean's mouth is warm against his, open a little in a soft gasp of surprise, and then Dean is pressing into Castiel, hands curling into the fabric of Castiel's dress shirt, the bundle of Dean's faded jeans and t-shirts getting crushed between their chests. Castiel twines his fingers through Dean's hair, drags his tongue over Dean's bottom lip, lets out a quiet gasp of his own as heat hums in the base of his spine, runs sweet and electric through his limbs and pools low in his belly. Dean is making the most marvelous wrecked noise directly into Castiel's mouth, his body is a long, taut line of solid warmth, and Castiel wants to hold them like this forever, lean into this forever. He wants to wrap Dean in himself and himself in Dean until he can heal the memory of all of their sorrows, all of their grief, all of their years spent yearning and wanting and not knowing, not hoping, not daring.
"Cas," Dean pants into the join of their mouths. He runs his hands up Castiel's arms, digs his fingers into the muscle there, pulls himself even closer.
"Dean," Castiel murmurs. He breaks the kiss so that he can press another to the curve just above Dean's lips. "Dean, Dean."
"I fucking—I fucking missed you so much, you self-sacrificing—you idiot, you—"
"You're crying," Castiel says, with wonder. He kisses Dean's cheek, the bridge of his nose. Runs his thumb along the edge of Dean's jaw.
"I'm not," says Dean, as another tear rolls down his face. "You're crying."
"So I am," says Castiel, vision briefly blurring with said tears, as his human body betrays him in what he suspects is not the end of a long line of such audacities. He smiles. "I think we're both entitled."
"No more deals," Dean mumbles. He skims his hands over Castiel's shoulders, lays his palms against the sides of Castiel's face. His hands are broad and warm and gentle. His jaw is trembling. Castiel loves him, loves him, loves him. "Okay? Never do that again. Okay?"
Castiel lets out a sound that's half a laugh, half a sob. He's never been so happy in all his life. "Okay."