The moment Sam crushed the spell, God threw his head back with a cry. His eyes started to glow, his limbs started to shake, and beyond that, beyond this small vessel he’d crafted for himself, Castiel could see his trueform–massive and incomprehensible even to him–start to contort. It was drawing back from its edges, an implosion contracting ever nearer to an infinitesimal point in space. Castiel squinted into the growing light, dimly registering Sam and Dean crying out and covering their faces, the shaking of the casino around them, the slot machines toppling over.
Be not afraid , Castiel thought wryly, as his Father shrank to the smallest of dots and winked out completely with an earth-shattering boom. What a load of shit.
Castiel had an instant to feel accomplished before the Mark burning itself into him knocked him to his knees. It was a feeling unlike anything he’d ever felt before, something both absolutely foreign and absolutely divine, wrapped and warped into one. It was awful, in the truest sense of the word.
Distantly, Castiel felt a warm palm on his face, an arm around his shoulders. He could vaguely feel another hand resting against his bicep and a familiar voice saying his name. They brought Castiel back to himself.
He opened his eyes and the first thing he saw was Dean, staring at him with wide, worried eyes. “Dean.”
Dean broke into a relieved smile. Sam, sitting next to them and gripping Castiel’s arm, did the same.
“Hey, buddy,” Dean said. He moved his hand from Castiel’s cheek to curve around the back of his head; his fingers curled slightly in Castiel’s hair. “You feeling okay?”
“As well as can be expected when one binds God himself,” Castiel said dryly.
Sam spluttered a laugh. Dean snorted. “So you feel like shit, got it.” He shifted, using the arm still curved around Castiel’s shoulders to pull him closer. “C’mon, let's get you up.”
As Sam and Dean helped him to his feet, as they steadied him when his knees threatened to buckle again, Castiel allowed himself to hope–for the first time since Jack had died–that they would be alright.
They drove back to the bunker, Sam electing to sit in the backseat with a shaken Eileen. Castiel spent the drive carefully examining the Mark. The way it felt reminded him a little of the rotted grace he’d carried in years past, both divinity and corruption in one. But the stain was already far more expansive, a persistent weight that Castiel found himself constantly needing to adjust to bear.
Dean hummed along softly with the music, fingers tapping absently on the steering wheel. He was clearly trying to restrain himself, in consideration of the somber mood emanating from the backseat, but Castiel could see the smile trying to escape onto his face, the light in his eyes every time he threw another glance at Castiel. Which was often.
Castiel deliberately met his eyes on one such glance and let his mouth curve into a small smile. Dean’s eyes crinkled with laugh lines seemingly automatically and he had to bite his lip to keep his own smile in. He aimed a sharp poke at Castiel’s side in retaliation.
“You guys go ahead,” Sam said when they pulled into the bunker’s garage. “We’ll catch up.”
Castiel nodded in understanding; he’d healed their physical wounds after God was bound, but there was little he could do for wounds of the mind and Eileen certainly bore those after today. Thank you, he signed to her. She smiled tremulously back.
“Damn, I hope those two will be alright,” Dean said, slumping into a seat at the war table. “Sam just got her back, y’know?”
Castiel took the seat across from him. “Do you mean–”
Dean laughed. “They’re not exactly subtle, man.”
Castiel thought about it, the way Sam and Eileen acted around each other, the fond glances, the teasing. They made a good match, but sometimes absence brought clarity. Even if Eileen left, it didn’t mean the end for them. A lesson Castiel finally felt he might be starting to learn himself.
Dean leaned across the table, jarring Castiel from his thoughts. “Alright, let me see this thing.”
Castiel shrugged out of his coat and suit jacket, then held out his left arm where he’d felt the Mark manifesting on his skin. Dean hesitated before carefully unbuttoning the fastenings on his sleeve, rolling it up to his elbow. Then they both laid eyes on the Mark for the first time.
The shape of Castiel’s Mark was a mirror opposite of the one Dean had borne. Instead of blood-red, it was a deep black, like the void itself etched into his skin and echoing through his grace.
“How does it feel?” Dean asked, turning Castiel’s wrist gently to study the Mark from every angle.
Dean’s eyes met his. “And how do you feel?”
Castiel shrugged. “I don’t feel angry, if that’s what you mean.”
Dean nodded. “That’s good.” He looked back down at the Mark, and swallowed heavily. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have had to do this.”
Castiel frowned. “There was no one else, Dean. And I’m more than able to carry this burden.”
Dean shook his head, looking back at Castiel’s face with that familiar earnest expression, the one he wore when he was most desperate to be understood. “That’s not–I know you are, Cas. I’m saying you shouldn’t have had to.”
“There was no other way, Dean,” Castiel said, gently, “I know the consequences of this and I accept them.”
“Yeah,” Dean said shortly. He was still holding Castiel’s wrist. Castiel thought about the warmth he could feel in Dean’s hand, a warmth that only days ago he thought he may never feel again. A warmth that, only days ago, he hadn’t known if he ever wanted to feel again, not from the hands that had held a gun on his son. Now, in this world where they were free, truly free, where the sound of Dean’s voice choking out apologies and forgiveness still echoed in his mind, those thoughts seemed completely alien. The consequences didn’t matter; the only place he wanted to be was here and he would take whatever hardship came with that.
In the end, Eileen left, wanting time and space. Sam joined them in the war room and the Winchesters spent the evening getting pleasantly inebriated while Castiel watched. He drank the beers Dean kept pressing on him more because he knew Dean enjoyed the implied act of providing than because of any effect they had on him.
Eventually, Sam turned in, clapping them both on the shoulder before toddling his way down the hallway. Dean sighed, loud and long, and slumped forward on the table to pillow his head on his arms.
“So, this is freedom, huh?” he asked.
Castiel watched him fondly, the way he was fighting to keep his eyes open, the way his cheek squished against his arm. “It appears so.”
Dean laughed softly, shooting Castiel a look full of fondness. “I could get used to that.”
He fell asleep there at the table. Castiel sat beside him the whole night and healed the ache in Dean’s back and neck before he could even complain about it in the morning.
Time passed and they indulged in their freedom.
Both Sam and Dean slept late the day after they defeated God. Once Dean finally woke, he went to shower, returning ensconced in his robe and determined to make them an elaborate breakfast. Sam arrived just as the eggs finished and he even managed to crack a smile reflected in the eggs and bacon Dean had artfully arranged on his plate. He was mourning Eileen’s departure, that much was clear, but that smile gave Castiel hope that he would be okay. Eventually.
Dean spent the rest of the day forcing them to watch Netflix. “I haven’t had time to watch anything in the last year. Let’s just relax,” he said, crowding them toward the room he’d once designated as his ‘cave’.
“Sounds good to me,” Sam said, settling in a chair. “What are we going to watch?”
Dean looked to Castiel. “You wanna choose?”
Castiel nodded and confidently clicked on the first true crime documentary in the Trending category. As he expected, Sam perked up immediately, while Dean groaned quietly. Castiel settled in his seat and barely noticed the way his fingers traced over the Mark, a quiet itch he couldn’t quite scratch.
Castiel enjoyed the next days at the bunker. He whiled away the hours, content in Sam and Dean’s company. Once, Dean roped him into baking a pie with him, watching eagle eyed as Castiel kneaded the dough. Another time, Sam and Castiel had an invigorating multi-hour discussion about the pronunciation of Enochian and the effects it had on spellwork. At some point, Dean sat beside him, passed out some beers, and good-naturedly called them nerds before settling in to listen. At night, while the Winchesters slept, Castiel sat in the library and methodically made his way through the Men of Letters’ collection.
It wasn’t all perfect of course. Sam and Dean both had quiet days when Castiel could see their many griefs pressing on their souls more harshly. Castiel had those days as well, when it seemed all he could do was look around the bunker and see Jack’s absence. He would spend those days in Jack’s former room, going over every memory he had of the boy he’d taken as his own, until he felt strong enough to get up again.
And there were days when both joy and grief seemed far from his mind. On those days, everything seemed an irritant, whether it was Dean handing him a coffee he knew tasted like molecules to Castiel, or Sam making a reference to a TV show he must have known Castiel had never seen. It was the Mark, Castiel knew, creeping through his being like a virus. He did his best not to snap at the Winchesters on those days, the knowledge that they would understand and forgive him for it just another in a long list of petty aggravations. Instead, he’d take himself out to the fields that surrounded the bunker and sit staring angrily at the sky, rubbing the Mark hard in a vain hope of relieving its effects through the pressure. Eventually, the anger would fade and Castiel would return to the bunker and Sam and Dean’s relieved faces.
The quiet couldn’t last, though.
The first case came from Bobby, passing on a tip he’d heard about some ghouls near West Bend, Iowa. They had just hit the road after that case when Jody called with another, conveniently nearby in Albert Lea, Minnesota, just across the border. They had only just checked into a motel there when Garth called with a third case in Mankato.
“Dude, are we the only hunters around?” Dean grumbled as he hung up the phone. “How hard can it be to get someone else?”
They were kept on the road non-stop for the next few weeks and the problem became gradually clear. It was not the availability of hunters causing this rush, but rather the sudden spike in the amount of monsters.
The calls kept coming in, from all over the country. The Google alerts that Sam had set up to track signs of monster activity pinged constantly, showing a dramatic increase of restless monsters all over the globe. It was an inexplicable flood and it kept them busy.
“Figures, that as soon as we actually get things settled, shit hits the fan,” Dean said, throwing their machetes into the trunk and slamming it shut.
Sam snorted, vainly trying to rub the congealed vampire blood out of his hair. “Story of our lives.”
Dean snorted too, then suddenly shot Castiel a worried look. “Actually, it is. You sure you got Chuck locked down tight?”
Castiel suppressed a burst of irritation. This hunt had been messy and he found the feeling of blood between his fingers disconcerting. “Yes, Dean. I think I would notice if the Mark suddenly disappeared.”
Dean’s brows raised. “Alright, just checking.” But he watched Castiel for the rest of the night, eyes drifting to him constantly in the rear view mirror.
It became a habit; Castiel lost track of the number of times he’d glance up and find Dean already watching him.
At first, it was endearing, a sign of Dean’s silent care for him. He had only to meet Dean’s eyes to know that he was wanted here. Maybe not in the way Castiel ultimately desired, but that didn’t make it meaningless.
But as time dragged on and the hunts continued, it became more and more annoying.
On a particularly bad day, running out of town after a grueling hunt, Castiel caught Dean staring again in the rear view mirror. The anger exploded out of him without warning.
“Dean,” he snapped, “stop staring. I’m fine.”
Dean’s eyes shot back to the road, his shoulders hunching around his ears. “Geez, sorry, didn’t mean anything by it.”
The anger was still there, burning hotter at the sound of Dean’s sulky tone. Castiel caught Sam shifting uncomfortably in the passenger seat out of the corner of his eye. Sam peeked over his shoulder at him and Castiel stared back hard until he looked away.
He pressed savagely on the Mark for the rest of the drive, hard enough he could feel the bruise forming. For the next hours back to the bunker, he felt that bruise form and heal over and over, until he finally felt calm enough to speak. Gingerly, he reached forward and pressed a hand to Dean and Sam’s shoulders.
“It’s okay, Cas, we get it,” Sam said. Dean just met his eyes again in the rear view mirror and smiled sadly.
It came to a head after the werewolf hunt near Silver City, New Mexico.
It appeared to be an open and shut case: hikers would go out to walk the paths of Gila National Forest and turn up mauled. Local authorities figured it was a bear or a mountain lion, but each victim’s heart was missing and it only ever seemed to happen around the full moon. It was clearly a werewolf and they prepared accordingly, Sam and Dean carefully loading their guns with silver bullets.
What they did not prepare for, was a pack of werewolves.
It went against everything that should have been possible. Of course, werewolves could have a familial structure–Garth was living proof of that. But these werewolves were wild, feral, with absolutely no control or memory of their actions on full moon nights. Co-existence shouldn’t have been possible, but here they were, slavering for the Winchesters’ blood, all the same.
It was a dirty fight, messy. Castiel grabbed the first werewolf that rushed him and smote it. He dodged a strike from the next and stabbed it in the heart with his blade. The calm that he’d always found in battle fell over him, his thoughts stripping away until his mind was only focused on the next strike.
That calm fell away the moment he saw a werewolf hurl Dean to the ground.
The anger came on like a storm front, sudden and inevitable. Castiel felt his grace boil up within him, his lips pull away from his teeth in a wordless snarl. In a second, he was across the clearing, dragging the werewolf off of Dean. He seized it by the throat, ignoring the snapping teeth and the slashing nails, and burned it alive.
When howling stopped and the beast was so much ash, Castiel looked to Dean. He was staring at Castiel, and the fear Castiel saw there cut through the anger, just a little. But then the next werewolf closed in and the anger swept back in, eclipsing everything else.
“We gotta talk about what happened back there,” Dean said lowly. They were speeding away from Silver City, making good time to the Arizona border. They needn’t have bothered; there were no remains to be discovered, no scene to cover up. Castiel had made sure of that in the towering inferno of his rage.
That rage had faded now to a slow boil. It was no longer the occasional fleeting thought, as it had been when he first took the Mark, there one minute and gone the next. It had crept up on him, gradually, minute by minute, the baseline rising higher and higher at such a pace that Castiel hadn’t even really noticed. Now it was more than a weight hanging from him; it was a present companion, closer to him than Dean was now.
Castiel hung his head. His fingers itched to grab the Mark, to rub it, to claw at it, to reach through to where it rested on his grace beneath and rip it out.
“There’s nothing to talk about. We all knew something like this was a possibility,” Castiel said tonelessly.
Dean’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Then we got to slow down. Give you some time to get a handle on this.”
Castiel looked at him. “Did that help you?”
Dean said nothing. He was gripping the wheel so tight his knuckles bleached white.
Sam twisted in his seat, meeting Castiel’s eyes. “Dean’s right, Cas. We get some breathing room from these back to back hunts, it’ll buy some time.”
“Time for what, Sam?” Castiel asked.
Sam shrugged. “I don’t know, something. We’ll figure it out, we always do. Just don’t give up, okay, Cas?”
The Castiel of the past, the one from before the Mark, would have nodded, agreed, been touched by the care in Sam’s voice and–as always–a little wondering at the friendship the two of them had managed to form, despite the pain Castiel had visited upon him.
The Castiel of now, the one with the Mark, only barely registered that care. He knew it was there, knew that well of compassion ran deep in Sam. But all he could hear was false promises, desperation, and condescension. As if Castiel was some child, some burden, that Sam had deigned to care for.
Castiel pressed on the Mark again, jerked a quick nod, and turned to stare out the window. He dared not speak or move for the rest of the drive.
Their plan to slow down came to nothing. The spike in monster activity continued, relentless, unending. Each day became a breathless run towards the next hunt. And each day, Castiel felt the presence of the Mark more and more.
He’d sit himself down with a book at night, curled in the armchair of the Winchesters’ motel room, and only be able to focus on the words on the page for a few short minutes before his mind wandered to the last fight, or the one before that, or one from years ago. He would turn it over from every angle, relive the thrust of the blade in his hand as it punctured flesh, the sight of one of his siblings burning out before his eyes, and the Mark would twist inside him with glee. He would only escape it when Dean startled him from his thoughts by shaking his shoulder, the night having passed without him noticing.
The hunts continued. The Winchesters looked more and more run-down, exhaustion pulling at their souls. They started to get sloppy, making mistakes that translated to injuries. Which, in turn, translated to that same anger in Castiel and the abrupt and bloody end of the hunt.
The Mark was affecting him more and more, there was no reason in denying it. But maybe, Castiel thought at night in the back of the Impala as they sped toward their next hunt, maybe he could use it. If this rage meant he could better protect the Winchesters, maybe he could look at it as a type of gift. Be their guardian as he’d always wanted to be.
He glanced down at his hands. They were still bloody, even hours after the last chupacabra died on his blade. He could wipe them clean at any time.
He left the blood alone and looked out the window, watching the headlights buzz by.
It was only three hunts later that Castiel could truly acknowledge that he had lost control of the situation.
They were in Grand Island, Nebraska, hunting a pack of vetala. They knew the pack had kidnapped some of the townsfolk, grabbing them from walking paths or along the river. Vetala didn’t always feed immediately, so some of the victims were probably still alive, though likely in poor shape. It was a complication, but not one they couldn’t handle.
They’d narrowed down the location of the potential vetala den to two old buildings along the river, squatting within eyesight of each other. It was unclear which one the vetala pack was in, so they’d have to hit both simultaneously, to avoid spooking the monsters and having them escape.
Vetala were dangerous, agile. Castiel insisted the brothers move on one house together while he handled the other one.
“Are you sure?” Sam asked, eyes dark and worried.
Castiel suppressed a flash of anger, as he always seemed to need to do these days. “Yes.”
Sam sighed and nodded. Dean said nothing, the grip on his silver knife tight.
Castiel would like to pretend that he didn’t remember what happened next. But that would be a lie. He remembered making his way to the building, easing silently inside through a broken window. He remembered realizing he’d gotten the right house, the scent of corpses and the sound of rending flesh lingering in the air. He remembered discovering the first vetala, hunched over one of its victims and feasting. He remembered killing that monster, digging his blade into its heart and twisting, watching the sparks in its eyes as it died. And then he remembered leaning over the victim, gasping for life, covered in blood. He was young, a soul with a long life ahead of him, just back in town for the summer before his last year of college. He was slowly choking on his own blood and thinking that he was too young to die.
And Castiel and his rage, flying high in the wake of his kill, disagreed. He watched that boy die and only when the light went out of his eyes did he move further into the den.
It felt like hours later when Castiel came back to himself, hunched over among the dead. He couldn’t tell what parts belonged to the monsters and what belonged to the people he’d meant to save when he’d walked in there.
He went back to find Winchesters, crushed by guilt and soaked in blood. It was all too familiar a sensation.
The drive back to the bunker was silent as a graveyard. Castiel picked quietly at the blood beneath his nails. He only washed it away with a lick of his grace as they pulled into the garage, too ashamed to let the Winchesters see it.
Dean slammed his duffle bag down on the war room table, his shoulders tense, his jaw grinding. He was angry, Castiel knew, not at him but at the situation. It didn’t help and the Mark reacted to all anger the same.
“You should’ve told us you weren’t a hundred percent, Cas,” Dean snapped, turning to glare at him. “Why the hell didn’t you say anything?”
Castiel tried to hold on to his guilt; at least if he was feeling guilty over what he’d done, he wasn’t feeling angry. But the guilt only fed the anger, shifted it, until he was raging at himself, at his own weakness, his unending failures. “What was there to say? The Mark is affecting me, yes. It’s not exactly a surprise.”
Dean snorted, turning away to glare at the wall.
“Well, no,” Sam said. He was leaning on the table, his eyes darting between Dean and Castiel. Castiel wondered if he found it hard to look at him now. “But there’s a big difference between being in a bad mood and this.”
Castiel glared at him, every part of him twisting into knots. “You think I don’t know that? You think I liked doing that? I have enough blood on my hands for several lifetimes, I don’t want to add more.”
But he would, Castiel knew that. The Mark had a firm hold on him and there was no stopping it, no real way to halt it. Its influence would grow and grow, its demand for blood ever higher. There was only so long Castiel could go without satisfying it.
He looked up and found Dean staring at him, eyes shrewd as if he could read Castiel’s thoughts as easily as Castiel had once been able to read his.
“Cas, we can fix this,” he said. Castiel wondered if he had purposely used those words, if Castiel’s actions had reminded him of betrayals and sins long past or if it was just an accidentally significant turn of phrase. It didn’t really matter.
“How?” Castiel asked. “This was our plan. The only way we’d ever be free.” He glanced at Sam and Dean, held both their gazes. “There is no fixing this.”
He left the war room, silent behind him, and went where he always did when all he could feel was despair.
The surfaces in Jack’s room were covered in dust, a sign of how long they’d been away from the bunker. But the bed was neatly made and it was there Castiel went, lying down on his side and curling in tight.
Jack had barely lived in this room, hardly spent any time here; the only personal touch he’d left was the picture of his mother, placed lovingly on the nightstand. And yet, Castiel felt close to him here, as though if he closed and opened his eyes, Jack would be sitting beside him.
Of course, Jack had barely lived at all. His room was as good a place as any to go to when Castiel missed him.
And Castiel did miss him. He could ignore the ache, sometimes; in some ways, the Mark made that easier. But Jack, the boy he’d sworn to protect before he was even born, the one who was meant to usher in a bright future of peace on Earth, was gone. Castiel had failed him, just like he failed every other thing he cared about.
So he laid there and he thought about Jack. His excitement for life, his infectious smile, his eagerness to please. The way he would fold into Castiel’s arms and let himself be held. That endless love and devotion that shone at the core of him.
He had been good; he had been so good.
Castiel curled up tighter, closed his eyes, imagined Jack in front of him. He was grateful for his exacting memory now; it meant he could picture Jack perfectly, down to the last hair.
But it turned, as everything always did now. He thought about Jack, thought about watching Jack as he read a book in his room and the image shifted. Jack was in his room, but he wasn’t reading. Instead, he was burning his pet snake to ash.
Castiel flinched away from the memory and all that had followed after, turning toward earlier memories. But even that was corrupted. Seeing Jack for the first time morphed into watching as Jack threw the security guard, morphed to looking down at that man’s body, the blood. Thinking about Jack before he was born, in all his glorious potential, turned into burning Dagon to ash, turned into walking into that basement with Kelly and this time, shooting without hesitation.
Castiel’s mind shied away, but the Mark dragged him onward, merciless. Suddenly, Jack was dead before him again, then he was Belphegor, that pustulant stain wearing his son’s body. The rage flared and Castiel thought about pinning Belphegor to the ground, of beating him, of burning him again, but slower this time. Just to really make him feel it, make him regret what he’d done.
His mind stuttered again and he imagined Jack on his knees in that graveyard, Dean standing above him. That gun pointed at Jack’s face with steely resolve. The rage and disgust on Dean’s face when he said you’re dead to me . To Sam, standing idly by as he always did, a tacit endorsement of Dean’s every action.
How easy it would be, to make them both pay for it. They were only human, after all. And humans always bled so easily.
Castiel lurched up from the bed, panting. He didn’t know how much time had passed since he’d come here, how long the Mark had spent drilling into his thoughts, twisting them. His fingers were digging into arm, hard enough he could feel his nails breaking the skin. His stomach twisted at the thought of seeing the blood and Castiel wished he could feel nausea like humans could.
He needed to get far away from here.
The bunker was dark, the Winchesters assumedly gone to bed. He had nothing to pack, no possessions to his name besides his blade and the keys to his truck. Quietly, he left Jack’s room and crept down the hall. He refused to look back; he couldn’t risk polluting this one-time refuge anymore than he already had.
He quickly made his way to the garage; his truck was still sitting there, unused in all these past months they’d hunted together. It suddenly seemed like a safe harbour, one he desperately needed. He had to pause when he reached it, just to lay his palms against it and close his eyes and breathe.
He thought he’d made his escape successfully until he felt a hand grab his shoulder.
Castiel seized his attacker’s wrist in a hard grip, whirled, and threw the person against the side of his truck. In an instant, his blade was pressed against their throat. Dean’s throat.
Dean held his hands up in surrender, but he looked at Castiel calmly; he didn’t even glance at the blade. “You said I should've stopped you,” he said, roughly, “this is me stopping you.”
Castiel held him there, blade shaking slightly against his throat. “I need to go. I’ll hurt you. I’ll hurt Sam.”
Dean shook his head, his brows knitting together, and that terrible earnest expression unfolded before Castiel’s eyes. “You don’t need to go anywhere. We’ll figure it out, Cas, like Sam said.”
Dean was so goddamn stubborn. Castiel shoved him hard into the truck, sharp enough to push a grunt from Dean. “There is nothing to figure out,” he snapped. “This is it, Dean.” He choked on his next words, but forced himself to say them. “I’m a monster.”
Dean shook his head, his hands coming forward to grip tight in Castiel’s coat. “No, you’re not. Don’t say that.”
“I am, Dean,” Castiel insisted. “What I did tonight, it was–”
Dean cut him off. “I know exactly what it was, okay? I know what you did, I even know what you want to do, the things you won’t tell me.” Dean shook him softly, uncaring of the blade Castiel still held to his throat. “I’ve been where you are, man. I know what that thing does to you.” Then, Dean moved his grip from Castiel’s coat and clenched his hand tightly over the Mark.
It flared in protest and Castiel gasped. No one but him had ever touched it before and the Mark hated it, it hated to be touched. It was all Castiel could do not to tear Dean's hand away, to lash out and make him regret even thinking of touching the Mark.
“Then you know you should let me go,” Castiel gritted out.
If anything, Dean held tighter. He must be able to see the fight in Castiel’s face, but he didn’t seem the least bit afraid. “I ain’t doing that, Cas.”
Castiel stared at him. There’s the door . You can’t stay . You’re dead to me . “You’ve made me leave before.”
Dean’s face crumpled. “I know I have, and I’m sorry. I regretted it every time, man, every time.” He looked away, over Castiel’s shoulder, for a moment, seemingly lost. Then he took a breath and met Castiel’s eyes directly. “This is your home, this is where you belong.” He let go of the Mark, slid his hand up Castiel’s arm to grab his shoulder. “Don’t leave. Don’t you give up on me.”
Even desperate, Dean was beautiful. There had never been a moment Castiel had not found him so.
Castiel lowered his blade, tucked it back up his sleeve. Then he cupped Dean’s cheek and healed the bruise starting to form on Dean’s back. He let his hand linger, felt Dean’s warmth skin to skin.
I can’t hurt you , Castiel thought. I couldn’t bear that again .
“There will come a time,” Castiel said softly, his hand still cupping Dean’s cheek, “when I’ll need to go. Don’t stop me then.”
Dean nodded, but Castiel could see it was a gesture of relief, not agreement. Dean had never let anything go without a fight, not his brother, not his car. Castiel used to think he was the one exception to that rule, an implicit signal of how little esteem Dean held him in. But looking at Dean now, the way he let Castiel hold his face with no fear, the pleading and relief in his eyes, the grip he still had on Castiel, he had to wonder if maybe he’d been wrong all these years, to doubt.
It was then that Castiel started construction on the Ma’lak box.
At first, he worked in secret. But the bunker was only so large, and the Winchesters knew every inch of it. It didn’t take long for them to find it.
“What the hell is this?” Dean asked, staring at the partially constructed box.
“A failsafe,” Castiel said. Dean stared at him and Castiel was unsurprised to see the spark of betrayal there.
“You aren’t using this,” he said.
“Not yet,” Castiel agreed. He turned back to the box and waited for them to leave.
Castiel knew now, it was only a matter of time before the box became a necessity. The Mark could not be controlled, they knew that better than anyone. One day, it would drive him completely mad. And it would be a long, slow, and bloody trail to that day. And the Mark could not be destroyed, or all they had done would be for nothing and God would be unleashed upon the world again.
Containment was the only option. And there were few things that could completely and securely contain an angel. The Ma’lak box was necessary. Castiel was only being realistic.
It took longer to make Dean and Sam see that.
Sam saw sense first, the night when Castiel smote three demons in a diner without thinking of the other guests first. Sam met his eyes afterward, the smell of charred flesh and the screams of those whose eyes had been burned out hanging heavy in the air, and Castiel saw acceptance there.
Dean took longer; he always refused to admit his helplessness in the face of his family’s pain. Castiel knew if Dean was the one bearing the Mark now, he would have long given up, and would be insisting on entering the Ma’lak box. He was always so much more stubborn when it came to the welfare of other people.
It wasn’t until Castiel almost killed Jody that Dean finally gave in.
It was an easy hunt, as much as a group of vampires could ever be easy. Jody, passing through from a hunt near Oklahoma City, had decided to lend a hand. She had simply ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which made it sound like more of an accident than it really was.
The truth was this: the Winchesters had learned to give Castiel a wide berth in a fight, to stand clear when he was at the height of his rage. Jody didn’t know this lesson.
What happened was this: Castiel took down a vampire and saw an unexpected movement out of the corner of his eye. He reacted, sweeping his angel blade around in one clear stroke, and stabbed Jody through the chest.
He stared into her surprised face for a long moment, watching the shock and fear in her eyes. She didn’t understand what was happening. The pain was overwhelming. She wanted to be at home with her girls.
Castiel lurched away, the blade tugging free of Jody’s chest. She sucked in a wet breath and crumpled to the ground.
“Jody!” Sam yelled, dropping to his knees beside her. He pressed his hands against the wound, uncaring of the pooling blood. Jody’s eyes flicked to Sam’s face and she wanted to be at home with her girls.
Her girls. Claire. Jody was mother to her now; it was clear how much Claire loved her, underneath her bluster. And here Castiel was, destroying another iteration of Claire’ family.
The horror overwhelmed the anger and Castiel crashed to his knees. He shoved Sam’s hand away and pressed his own to the wound and he poured every inch of grace he had into it.
He almost didn’t have enough to heal her. The knowledge was haunting.
As soon as the wound was healed, Castiel shoved himself to his feet and fled. Dean found him outside, leaning heavily on the Impala. He took Castiel by the shoulders and gripped him tight and kept him from flying apart.
“Do you see now?” Castiel said eventually.
Dean swallowed heavily. He couldn’t look Castiel in the eye. “Yeah. I read you.”
When the three of them returned home, Castiel turned toward the Mal’ak box. Neither of the Winchesters interrupted him.
The Winchesters refrained from hunting after that, other than the most desperate cases or those within a day’s drive. Castiel remained behind whenever they went, refusing point blank to step outside the bunker. He knew they were afraid to leave him, whether because they thought he’d run out on them and destroy something or because they thought he’d jump in the Mal’ak box as soon as it was finished, regardless of whether they were there or not. Rationally, he knew they stayed close simply because they wanted to spend his last days on this world with him. It was touching and Castiel wanted to take comfort in it, but he couldn't. Another reason to hate the Mark.
But it only takes so long to build anything, even something as powerful as the Mal’ak box. The day finally came when Castiel’s work was finished.
It was also the day Dean’s resolve finally broke.
They had a plan: Castiel would enter the box. That night, Dean and Sam would drive it out to some open field. There, they would dig a hole as deep as they could, and there, they would bury him. And there Castiel would stay, until the Earth burned in the heat death of the universe, and humanity would be safe from him.
He finished the Mal’ak box in the early morning but waited until after dinner to tell the Winchesters he was ready. It seemed more merciful, but he could still only watch as their faces crumpled with grief.
He preceded them down the hall to the room where the box awaited him. He paused, staring at the box. His tomb. He never really thought he would have one of those. He always figured if and when he died for good, he would be burned in a hunter’s pyre or unmade entirely. Now, eternity stretched before him again; even the threat of the Empty’s deal was meaningless, because how could he ever achieve true happiness now?
He took a deep breath, took one step forward, and was stopped by a hand grabbing his shoulder. Dean pulled him around and stared at him with such devastation he could hardly bear it.
“Please,” Dean said, “don’t do this. Please. I’m begging you here.”
Castiel put his hand over Dean’s. “I have to, Dean.”
“No, you don’t!” Dean shouted, shaking him by the shoulder.
As always, the Mark surged forward at the taste of anger. “Yes, I do,” Castiel snapped, biting back the vitriol of the Mark. Now was not the time, godammit. He wanted to say goodbye properly. “Dean, you’ve seen what I’ve done. I-I have no control.” He stared at Dean; Dean knew all this, intimately. He knew this was for the best, he just wasn’t letting himself see it right now. “I will burn the world before the end.”
Dean’s face twisted. “Then let it burn!” He grabbed Castiel with both hands, fisting the front of his coat tight.
“Listen, Cas, I have lost you too many goddamn times, okay?” he said, voice shaking. “I’m not adding another to the list. There has to be another way.”
Castiel sighed, raised his hands to cover Dean’s. “The only way to keep God bound is through the Mark. And the Mark needs a bearer to stay secure.”
Dean shook him. “Then give it to someone else!”
“Who?” Castiel asked. Dean opened his mouth, but could only shake his head mutely. “I will not curse someone else with this, Dean. Think about it, would you have?”
Dean said nothing for a long time, staring at the floor in silent despair. Castiel didn’t move, content in this moment to hold Dean’s hands and just look at him.
“I can’t lose you, man,” Dean finally whispered, almost too quiet to hear. “I just can’t.”
Castiel squeezed his hands and replied equally softly. “You already have, Dean. You did the moment I took the Mark. It’s just none of us knew it then.”
Dean’s face crumpled and he finally dropped his hands from Castiel’s coat. Castiel squeezed his hands one last time and let go.
He turned to Sam, who immediately seized him in a fierce embrace. Castiel closed his eyes, held him close. After a long moment, Sam pulled away, wiping his eyes.
“Take care of yourself,” Castiel told him, “and take care of your brother.”
Sam swallowed thickly. “I will,” he said. “Thank you. For everything.”
Castiel smiled, and found that it came easy for the first time in a long time. “It was my pleasure.”
He turned back to Dean and felt that smile fade. Dean was staring determinedly into a corner, as if by ignoring them he could also ignore what was about to happen. Castiel went to him, as he so often did when Dean was hurting. “Dean.”
Dean hung his head. A tear crawled down his cheek. “Please, please don’t,” he begged quietly, “just because. Please.”
“Dean,” Castiel said again, reaching up to hold Dean’s face. He thumbed the tears away and Dean met his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
Dean’s face shattered anew. “But I love you,” he said and he sounded as lost as a child, “I love you.” He leaned his forehead against Castiel’s, cupping his cheek in his hand. Then he pressed a soft kiss to Castiel’s lip, brief but still the sweetest thing Castiel had ever tasted.
“I love you,” Dean said again, kissing him again. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Castiel looked at him in wonder, stroked his thumb over Dean’s cheek. Trust Dean Winchester to rewrite his existence one last time before the end.
“I love you too,” Castiel said, and kissed the gasp out of Dean’s mouth.
For a long moment, Castiel wondered if they might have been granted a reprieve. Maybe this could be like one of the fairy tales humans liked to tell themselves, where love conquered all and the heroes lived happily ever after.
But if their lives were a fairy tale, they were one of the dark ones, full of blood and warning. Even as Castiel kissed Dean, as he reveled in receiving the one thing he’d wanted above all else, he could still feel the Mark whittling away at his self control. It was only a matter of time.
The kiss ended, as all things do. “I love you,” Castiel said; Dean closed his eyes in resignation. “But I have to go.”
Dean didn’t move. Then, slowly, he let go.
Castiel moved to the Mal’ak box and climbed awkwardly inside. He laid himself down on his back, staring at the ceiling until the Winchesters’ faces appeared above him. Sam reached in, touched his arm gently. Dean looked at him mutely for a long moment, then leaned over to turn Castiel’s face towards him. He stroked his fingers through his hair, traced a thumb over his eyebrow and down his cheek. Finally, he kissed him, holding his face like something precious.
“I love you,” Dean said. “I should’ve told you. I wasted so much goddamn time.”
Castiel smiled, held his wrist. “Dean. No time with you has been a waste.”
Dean stares him down. “I love you. You remember that.”
“I will.” Castiel promised. If there was one thing he would remember, even in the madness of his bloodlust, it would be that.
Castiel had many things he could say now: that Dean had changed him, irrevocably and for the better, that loving Dean was the best thing he had ever done because it had brought him everything else good in his life. That Dean shouldn’t give up, that he should keep going. That he should be happy. But all those words seemed too cruel to say now, in this moment of having and losing.
All he could do in the end was bring Dean close, kiss him again, and say, “I love you,” one last time.
The last thing he saw was Sam and Dean’s faces above him. Then the box closed and the world went black. And so it stayed.