The first thing that Castiel notices is a prayer.
Existing is a fickle thing. One moment there was nothing, and the next, there was an irreversible burst of energy that didn’t even leave a tangible impression on the angels that came before him. It doesn’t matter; it’s how every angel comes into existence, and this is something they all know even as early as the beginning.
An unremarkable event by any standards. It’s why no one pays any mind as Castiel reaches out, just moments after his creation, to pull on the thread of a prayer unravelling in front of him. He pulls on it, and pulls on it, and pulls on it. He knits his wings out of the prayer, while his brothers or sisters make theirs out of stardust or sunlight or gold. The prayer says, I’m going to find you. I’m going to bring you back.
The longer he unravels it, the more uncertain Castiel becomes that it’s a prayer at all. How can it be? It carries the importance of a promise.
Don’t step on that fish, Castiel, says his brother. Castiel looks down, but there is nothing underneath his foot. Big plans for that fish.
What plans? Castiel asks. He is still young, his brother much older. Soon he will be assigned rank, will join his brethren and fight in a war that none of them seem willing or able to explain. Soon he will forget that he is even able to ask questions like this.
Nothing for you to worry about, his brother says, but even he sounds distant and uncertain.
A wave ripples underneath Castiel’s shoe, and the fish darts by. A blur of color. It’s fleeing, Castiel realizes, as a dark tar starts crawling through the water. Black oil that drips from the edges of Castiel’s wings.
Horrified, he tries to move—to leave—anything to stop the darkness from invading the water and killing the fish, but the tide is stronger and faster and it swallows the fish and Castiel up in one large, shrouded breath.
What do I do? he cries out.
What you have always done, Castiel, his brother answers. There’s a mischief in his voice that an archangel has no logical need for. Castiel doesn’t understand. This isn’t right, he’s certain—this happened before, and it wasn’t like this.
The black tar is going to devour him. But this isn’t right. He’s not meant to feel afraid. He’s meant to feel—
Breathe, Castiel, his brother pleads.
This isn’t how it happened, Castiel tells him. Why is it happening this way now?
Everything slows. The tar melts away, the water clears, and his brother appears before him. He raises a hand into the air and gives Castiel one final reminder, breathe, before his fingers snap, and a burst of lightning cracks Castiel’s chest.
Castiel opens his mouth to scream. To breathe. To—
A wave crashes down.
If there is to be one certainty about the world—a world that Castiel watched form out of nothing, that turned into something, that grew and flooded and burned and still always survived—it is that death is designed to be final.
Funny how it never seemed to stick for him.
Inside his cracked chest, his heart is on fire.
He can feel the heat of it licking his fingertips. His throat is full of smoke. Castiel had never expected fire to be so heavy, but he can feel the weight of it bearing down against his chest. The pressure almost begs him to breathe, but—he can’t. He can’t. If he opens his mouth, the smoke will tumble out, and this whole place will burn to the ground.
A tendril of heat caresses his cheek and the back of his neck. With startling clarity in the face of danger, Castiel realizes no one has ever touched him like this. A soft embrace, though it should frighten him, and embedded in it is the air of a promise. If Castiel succumbs to it, he’ll carry the flame for as long as he lives.
As long as he lives.
The fire crackles. Whatever is inside of him is boiling over. It’s odd, he thinks, as it breaks him into pieces and scatters him throughout the air, that he can feel it at all. He’s not meant to feel anything anymore.
He’s meant to be dead.
Dear Castiel, who art in… well. You know where. Cas. Listen, I need you to do something for me, alright? Stay where you are. Keep yourself safe. I’ve asked a lot of you over the years but this is probably the most damn important one, so. Listen tight. If you forget everything else, just don’t forget this.
You brought me back once, and I’ve never repaid the favor. I figure that means I owe you one. So make sure you’re packed and ready for me. Don’t let any of those sons of bitches get to you, alright? They can’t get you, ‘cause I’m on my way. I’m going to find you.
I’m going to bring you back.
You saved me and now it’s my turn. I haven’t saved you yet. I’m going to. I’m going to bring you back.
Breathe for me, buddy, c’mon. Son of a bitch. Breathe.
Listen, I need you to do something for me, alright? Stay where you are. Keep yourself safe. Do this for me and I’ll never ask you for anything again, I swear, Cas, please, just fucking breathe—
I’m going to find you. I’m going to bring you back. Come back. Come back. Come back.
The garrison receives their new commandment, and so an army of angels lays siege to Hell.
None of them are entirely sure how the assignment was given to them, but no angel is foolish enough to question it. They anoint Castiel to lead—he has long since given up curiosity in favor of strategy. With the element of surprise behind them, Castiel opens the gates, and the domain of their fallen brother parts for them as the Red Sea did once before.
They tear through Hell in a way that’s almost laughably easy, and Castiel grows more uneasy about it the further in they get. He doesn’t realize it right away but it soon dawns on him that there’s only one reason the demons would not put up a greater fight to stop them: they’re too late.
The Righteous Man has already broken. The unimaginable has become inevitable.
Castiel’s existence fills with fire and brimstone at the thought. Rage against these corrupt creatures for corrupting the Sword of Heaven. He tears through the remnants of Hell with a vicious fury, showing these demons even less mercy than they allow the souls they trap down here. Castiel’s certain that he’s going to find the Righteous Man mangled and scarred and ugly, as he’s been told all broken things are.
That is not what he finds.
The Righteous Man is a beacon of light that shines freely, cracking through the armor of Hell that was placed on his back, and he is beautiful.
Castiel understands it now. Why this creation became God’s favorite.
The first act of humanity, the moment in which divine beings became human, was an act of temptation. An apple pressed into the hands of creatures who knew what the consequences were and damned themselves anyway. Castiel understands. And so it goes that the first act of free will is a temptation, too.
He pulls the Righteous Man from Hell, cradling the soul even as it thrashes against him. He restores the soul to his former glory, returns him to the human body that was clearly loved if the way it was buried is any indication, and in one final act of blazing defiance and impulsivity, Castiel leaves a remnant of his grace with the Righteous Man. A branding, a mark, a bite out of a forbidden fruit. A hand on his shoulder no matter where he goes.
Dean Winchester wakes before he is meant to, and when he wakes he reaches out and clings to Castiel. He shouldn’t be able to, but he does it anyway. Dean holds on to him and Castiel becomes helpless under his hands. “Come back to me,” Dean pleads. The voice of a desperate man.
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” Castiel tells him. He doesn’t understand.
“I found you, you stupid son of a bitch,” Dean insists, voice breaking. Inexplicably, his soul begins to shine even brighter. There’s longing at the core of it, one that can only be grown from years of devotion, and it doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t make sense. And yet, it’s so tangible Castiel can taste it against his lips. “Meet me halfway here and come back to me. Breathe, Cas.”
The tide catches up to him. It barrels against his legs and knocks Castiel right off his feet. In the haste of it, his grip loosens, and Dean disappears. Castiel barely has a second to gasp for air before the wave comes crashing down. His lungs fill rapidly with water. He’s drowning. He’s drowning.
No. No, he can’t be—angels don’t drown. Angels don’t have lungs. He’s not—
“Dean,” Castiel cries out. Petrified. This is going to kill him, that much he is certain of. He’ll die time and time again, and it will always feel like this. It will always be in Dean Winchester’s name.
But it doesn’t make sense. Angels don’t drown. Angels don’t love. They can’t.
Defiant and impulsive, Cas does anyway.
His superiors grow frustrated at his inability to hold himself at an arm’s distance from the Winchesters. Time and time again, Castiel forgets that his orders entail getting the Winchesters to cooperate with the Host—his orders are not to cooperate with the Winchesters. It’s a lesson they repeatedly try to drill into his head.
Funny. Like death, the lesson never seems to stick.
The Michael Sword asks Castiel to betray the only home he’s ever known, betray his very reason for existing. And Castiel, the fool, does it without even hesitating.
It leads to his death, of course. Most acts of rebellion in Heaven end in either death or falling from grace, and his superiors are not stupid enough to allow Castiel the chance to choose the same path his sister Anna did.
It’s a shorter death than he expects it to be.
Someone restores him, down to every molecule, in a body that isn’t his but feels more like him than his true form does these days. Someone gives him a second chance at life—and later, though he doesn’t know it yet, he’ll get a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and so on. He will become known as the hardest angel to kill and he will wear that title with both pride and shame.
Dean Winchester is there when Castiel opens his eyes. He shouldn’t be; he wasn’t the first time around.
“Cas,” Dean breathes. His voice is rough even though his words are laced with relief, impossibly young and aged ten years all at once. The condition of his soul startles Castiel, too. Still the most beautiful one he’s ever seen, but quite more beaten than Castiel’s ever seen before. This war has tried hard to claim Dean as a casualty.
Castiel takes a deep breath. “I betrayed Heaven for you,” he states. The words fall from his mouth unbidden. And it’s a fact that should surprise him, though it doesn’t. It hardly seems to bother him at all.
Dean, surprisingly—magnificently—cracks a smile at that. “Yeah, buddy. You did.”
“And it got me killed,” Castiel continues. The smile drops from Dean’s face as quickly as it had appeared. Dean looks away.
“Yeah. Never said I’m sorry about that, did I?”
Castiel studies Dean’s face. Really, truly looks at him this time, and realizes that Dean doesn’t just sound like he’s aged—he has aged. A decade at minimum, perhaps more. The thought stings Castiel in a way it has no reason to. He reaches out to touch the crow’s feet at the corners of Dean’s eyes without thinking.
“You’re older,” Castiel breathes. “I’m sorry.”
This makes Dean laugh, a punched-out thing that’s more surprise than anything else. “I guess I would look older to you right now.”
For a moment, all they can do is look at one another. Castiel watches Dean in a way he’s never fully allowed himself to before. And Dean stares back at him like he can’t look away for a second, like he has to count all of Castiel’s breaths just to make sure they’re adequate. Then Castiel realizes he’s still caressing Dean’s face, and embarrassment floods through him. Dean catches his wrist when Castiel goes to move away. Both of them freeze.
Castiel clears his throat. “You’re not… You’re Dean Winchester from another time, aren’t you?”
“I, um. Guess I must be. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Raphael killed me,” Castiel answers, numb. The betrayal of his brother should sting more, but it’s as though it doesn’t even matter right now. As though the only thing that does matter is Dean, sitting across from him, unfamiliar and familiar all at the same time. “I rebelled, and the price I paid for it was my life. But something brought me back. Or someone… my Father—”
Dean recoils at that, as though Castiel has struck him, despite the fact Castiel’s wrist is still loosely held in his grip. Slowly, Dean tells him, “God, you barely even knew me back then. But, uh. Yeah, we got you back. You, uh, you do that a lot, just so you know.”
Castiel peers at him curiously. “Something tells me that, in your time, I haven’t come back yet.”
“We’re working on it, Cas, you gotta believe me,” Dean whispers, voice fierce despite how quiet it is. His thumb rubs absentmindedly at the tender skin on the inside of Castiel’s wrist. It’s a suffocating reminder of all the things Castiel can truly never have. “I don’t—we’re trying to figure it out, okay? So just. Hang tight.”
There’s an edge of desperation in Dean’s voice. Castiel wonders if any of this is real, if this is his life as it plays out, or if he’s just going through memories of a life he doesn’t remember living. And how can he even believe this is real? The tender way that Dean has touched him, the softness in his voice, all things Castiel has never earned before.
“I don’t want to spend eternity like this,” Castiel admits, though it hurts. He can’t bring himself to look away from Dean’s face either, and that hurts just as much. If this is his afterlife, and if his memories are being twisted, he can’t spend an eternity like this. Tormented by memories that are tainted by a desire he shouldn’t even be capable of. He’d rather be nothing at all.
“You don’t have to, Cas, I mean,” Dean starts, and he flinches again when he finally drops Castiel’s hand. “You don’t owe anyone a goddamn thing. You don’t owe me anything.”
“That isn’t true,” Castiel says. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath that he doesn’t even truly need. “I owe Dean Winchester more than I can even put into words. And even here, even in the afterlife, I will continue to owe him anything I have to offer.”
Castiel goes sick with power, and it’s a legacy he’ll never be able to outrun.
How many of his siblings lay dead at his feet, decimated by an angel who promised them freedom then proved himself no better than their God when they refused to adhere? How long will he spend clawing their blood off of his hands, tasting it on his tongue, seeing it in every reflection of his angel blade? Out, damned spot. He understands now just how murky Hell can be.
Castiel makes a terrible God. He wears it like an ill-fitting coat, one he’s all too familiar with, and when the coat starts to get heavier he walks himself into a river and wonders if they’ll count this as a baptism. Atonement. Oh, he fears he has so much to atone for, and not nearly enough time to recompense them all.
A man walks out of the same river, and the coat that had drowned a god is no longer on his shoulders. He’s been cleansed of his memories. He can’t say the same for his sins.
It’s strange. He spent so long drowning, that now he doesn’t know what to do with all the space in his lungs. Angels don’t need to breathe.
Defiant and impulsive, he does anyway.
It makes a convoluted sort of sense. Angels were created for a sole purpose, and it was to worship. And though the original purpose had been for the worship of God, Castiel did what almost all of God’s other creations did—he evolved.
The Winchesters are a far more reckless cause, quick to act and desperate to save one another, and Castiel gets caught under their tide every time they pray to him. They are reckless, he knows, but they are good. They are more than the roles they’re forced to play and they are loyal to one another and, most of the time, to him.
He falls. He falls time and time again, and he follows in the Winchester’s footsteps and makes stupid, impulsive decisions that he thinks are for the best, and he lives to regret the same way that they do. He redefines what faith is and he builds it out of a dictionary that Dean and Sam press into his hands.
People he loves die. Some come back. Most don’t.
The creation he’s spent so long adoring is unwelcoming when he joins their ranks, stripped of his wings and terrified and broke, and still he holds onto faith. He’s seen the better parts of humanity. He just has to find them again. He looks, and he gets hurt, and he’s saved, and he gets hurt again.
For a brief, fleeting moment, Castiel bitterly wonders what about humans could have compelled him so much. It’s a short-lived thought, replaced quickly by small things his days as a human award him.
A young boy draws a hopscotch pattern on the sidewalk outside of the gas station, and Castiel watches patron after patron stop and smile at it before skipping through, no matter how old they are. An older gentleman buys a candy ring and gives it to his wife of fifty years. Teenagers stop to fill up their cars and they sing along to their radio without a care in the world. Day in and day out, Cas will compliment a tie that he likes, or a pin on a backpack, or a streak of pink hair, and almost always he’s rewarded with a quietly pleased smile.
People are cruel, and those who claim to be family hurt you more than anyone else, but despite all of that they are still beautiful. And most of the time, they are still good.
A woman in a church is bathed by sunlight streaming through the stained glass window. Her voice is exceptionally kind, though Cas has done nothing to deserve it. “Do you believe in God?” she asks him, and. Well. If that isn’t a loaded question.
How much of his worship counts as faith? How many times can he claim the times he’s fallen to his knees in a fight has been his way of praying? No, he’s long-since stopped believing in the being who created him, but there’s something else in its place.
“I believe in something,” Cas tells her. “Though to be honest, it’s let me down a lot recently.”
“All gods let their people down,” the woman says softly. Her daughter approaches and takes her mother’s hand. Even she has a kind smile that she willingly shares with Cas. “It’s what makes us human. But is whatever you believe in greater than yourself?”
Cas doesn’t even hesitate. “Of course they are.”
“Then that’s all that really matters,” she murmurs. With another smile and a comforting press of her hand to the top of Cas’s, she and her daughter are gone. The doors close with a loud echo, more noticeable than they should be with no one else in the church to hear them.
Jack is there when Cas finally turns around.
He shouldn’t know who Jack is. He does anyway.
“You have to go through all of it, don’t you?” Jack asks. His voice is sad and yet full of understanding. Castiel lived a millennia, he was created to worship, and he is still taken aback at how someone so young could have so much faith.
“I think so,” Castiel admits.
Jack looks away. Lifts his head and turns his gaze upward, glancing out the stained glass window. He looks every ounce the angel that Castiel isn’t in this moment, and though the thought should feel like a heavy stone, it only gives him peace.
“We can wait for you,” Jack says decisively. Castiel closes his eyes.
Castiel devours the grace of an angel he may have once called a brother. He takes the crown his siblings place on his head and burns through it too fast, until he abdicates all of it to save Dean Winchester and loses him, anyway. He shoulders the brunt of everyone’s anger, and he swallows his pride, and he tries to claw himself to redemption until his fingers are raw and bloody.
He spits out one foolish little, “Yes,” and everything he’s worked for goes to shit.
They forgive him. They don’t. They do. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because he forgets to listen for a long time. He only remembers when it’s almost too late.
Dean Winchester dies, and dies, and dies. He refuses to let Castiel go with him.
His heart is still on fire. Even when he thinks Dean is gone, nothing stops the flame. So he devours that, too.
When Lucifer drives an angel blade through his sternum, Castiel makes a list of all the things he loves. He takes them with him as he’s carried into the afterlife yet again.
The list has no particular order, but everything on it has meaning. Humanity, most of the time. His truck. The mixtape Dean made him that’s currently jammed in the cassette player in his truck. The yellow curtains he and Kelly picked out for the kitchen. This house and the waterfront where he planned to raise his son. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His siblings, even when he feels like he should hate them. Those who showed him loyalty and taught him what it meant to be kind. Kelly. Meg. Jack. Mary Winchester, and Charlie Bradbury, and Eileen Leahy. Sam Winchester. Dean Winchester.
It’s the second-to-last time he’ll die, though he doesn’t know it yet.
What he does know is that death has one hell of a time keeping him down.
Cas wakes up to the sound of Jack Kline asking him to come home.
Because Jack wants it. Because Sam misses him. Because Dean needs it.
So Cas goes.
Fittingly, the sun scarcely shines in this alternate world that never knew the Winchesters. The sky is a starch grey, draining the colors out of everything. Cas was here once before, in an attempt to sacrifice himself to keep Jack Kline safe. He’ll resign himself to that same fate again if it means getting Jack out of this place.
Time bleeds together in a place like this, muddled with the ups and downs of losing Sam and reuniting with Jack, of getting Sam back, of watching Jack fall susceptible to Lucifer’s lies. There’s another fight they have to survive. Cas thinks there will always be another fight.
He doesn’t miss the irony in the way this fight ends with Cas struggling against a version of himself. He’s always been his own greatest downfall.
“You align yourself with the humans,” the angel spits out. He is a mirror image of Cas’s own vessel and yet there is a stark, obvious difference between them. Cas presses the tip of his angel blade firmer against his alternate’s throat. This is what he would have become, had he lived in a world that never knew Sam and Dean Winchester.
A life like that would practically be worthless to live at all.
“I vastly,” Cas says, and it carries the weight of a promise, “prefer them to angels.”
The unrecognizable Castiel laughs around a mouthful of blood. “Don’t think that you are better than me,” he spits. “We are the same.”
In some unknowable way, they are. Both of them began doing what they did out of fear. Cas was only allowed to veer from the path because Dean asked him to; and he’s certain, if given the chance, this Castiel would have done that, too. “Yes,” Castiel agrees. “We are.”
The alternate’s body falls to the ground with a dull thud as he dies. It’s rather anticlimactic. Less than a year ago, Cas himself had been the one with his wings burned into the ground. He was given another chance. It’s a bittersweet truth to know that this Castiel never will.
They win. The Winchesters almost always win. But victory always comes with a price.
Not very long ago, Cas told Lily Sunder that he couldn’t imagine the depths of losing a child. It was the truth, then. An unimaginable loss. Nothing could have prepared him for it, but he understands it now. Sitting at the bedside and cradling Jack’s cold hand between his own.
He wishes Lily Sunder had killed him when she had the chance.
Castiel’s parenting books from over a year ago warned him about the dangers of a cough in a child. He wishes he would have taken them more seriously.
Desperation is, perhaps, the most dangerous scope of emotion for any creation to feel.
Cas has seen a fair amount of it; more so in the last decade than ever in the remainder of his long existence. Most of it from the Winchesters, though plenty from himself. Deal after deal made and fulfilled all in the name of saving one another. Cas thought he knew the feeling once he started to call them his family, but it had only been a taste of it. The enormity of it only truly strikes him when he’s given the opportunity to save Jack’s life.
He takes the deal. Of course he takes the deal.
What good would a moment of true happiness serve him in a world without his son, anyway?
“Why?” Jack demands. “Why would you do that?”
Behind him, Kelly Kline locks eyes with Cas, and he knows she understands. He knows she would have done the same thing, had it been within her power. “Because I made a promise,” Cas says, before looking away from Kelly. “Because I love you, Jack.”
There isn’t enough time. There never is, not for anything, but how could there be enough time to adequately put into words why people do what they do for family?
When it’s time to go, Cas cradles Jack’s face between his hands, and his throat feels tight. He’s given Jack a chance for a longer life, and the price that Cas will pay for this is not being around to see Jack live it. He thinks about the first deal Dean made, knowing that it put a deadline on his life, and now more than ever he truly understands it. What you’d give to ensure that the person you raised gets a better chance than you.
“You should have told them,” Jack murmurs. He didn’t say it the first time but Cas knows how the rest of this story will go. Memories either happen as they were, or they don’t. The road ends at the same point regardless.
“They would have worried,” Cas tells him.
But Jack just shakes his head. “They worried anyway. You should have told them.”
Grace ebbs cautiously from Cas’s hands, and Jack begins to glow. There isn’t enough time. And isn’t that just the story of Cas’s life.
“I know,” Cas admits, and he closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to watch as Jack disappears.
Victory always comes with a price. It comes to collect earlier than it should have, and everything goes to hell. Everything always goes to hell.
Cas’s world dissolves into nothing with the sound of a gun cocking.
Jack resigns himself to his fate. He goes to his knees, a martyr just like all three of the men who raised him, and he waits patiently on the wrong side of a gun.
Cas wants to scream. He wants to beg and barter again, his life for Jack’s, and he wants to tear the whole world apart. He wants to raze this graveyard to the ground, and he wants to pour all of his grace into protecting Jack no matter what the cost would be. But he can’t do any of it. And when he opens his mouth, nothing comes out.
He’s losing them both. Even if neither of them die, Cas is losing them. He’s powerless to stop it.
Standing in the wings, a twisted version of a director for a play with no willing participants, Chuck waits and watches and grins. Ever the writer, the puppet-master, the man behind the curtain with all the grandeur in the world but no true lick of talent when it comes down to it. This is Chuck’s ending. And it’s sick.
Cas loathes Chuck now more than he has in any other moment.
All of this, and for what? How could any of that matter once the dust settles? When all is said and done, the shot that would kill Jack takes Dean too, and then all that’s left is Sam Winchester with his puppet strings cut and no more roles to play, stuck with two more bodies to burn and a guilt he’ll carry on his shoulders. Then all that’s left is Castiel, a ghost of the angel he used to be, who will live a miserable eternity waiting for a moment of true happiness that will never come. What good is a full-circle ending when there’s still people that survive through the end of it?
Dean must reach the same conclusion, because he tosses the gun aside.
“This isn’t how the story is supposed to end,” Chuck snarls. “The gathering storm, the gun! The father killing his own son, this is Abraham and Isaac! This is epic!”
Chuck can take his epic ending, Cas thinks, and shove it up his ass.
“Every other bad thing we've been killing, been dying over,” Sam scoffs. “Where were you? Just sitting back and watching us suffer so we can do this over and over and over again. Losing people we love! When does it end? Tell me.”
“This isn’t just a story,” Dean adds. He gestures to the last living members of his family, scattered throughout the graveyard. “It’s our lives! So, God or no God. You go to hell.”
The Winchesters close in on Chuck now. And for one glorious, stupid moment, Cas forgets that the brothers are only human. For one foolishly hopeful second, he actually believes that they can win.
But Chuck just laughs and snaps his fingers, and everything goes to hell.
They’re powerless to stop Jack’s grace from burning him inside out. Sam does the only thing anyone can do, shooting God with the gun he’d placed into their hands himself. It serves better to make him angry than to do him any harm. Chuck opens the gates to Hell, and so brings the beginning of the End.
He doesn’t even have time to grieve. There’s another fight they have to survive, because there will always be another fight. Cas carries his son’s body to safety, mourning and desperate and filled with anger, and then he does what he knows how to do best. He fights.
They tear their way through the corrupt souls. Cas defends the Winchesters and protects every human he can find. And when that isn’t enough, he fights with Belphegor. With Rowena. With Dean. He fights until he finds a good enough reason to leave, and when he has no one else to fight with, Cas goes to war with himself.
Cas was with Jack the second time he died. At least this time, he was there.
Cas? Cas, I hope you can hear me. That wherever you are, it’s not too late.
Overwhelmed with relief and exhaustion, Cas lets his head tilt back against the truck of the tree he’d chosen as refuge. Dean’s voice is clear as a bell. Same as it always is. Cas has lost a lot of things since he began to fall, and he may not be as powerful as he was once before, but it never affected his ability to hear prayers. Some days he wonders if that’s more out of his own stubborn determination to hear them than anything else.
He closes his eyes. He doesn’t have to, to hear prayers, but he always has with Dean, anyway. To feel them better, perhaps. To understand them purely.
I should’ve stopped you, Dean admits. At the base of his prayer there is growing reproach; Cas is grateful for it, if it means Dean is sincere. You’re my best friend—and, oh, there’s that brief and wondrous moment of hesitation at that, the term not quite strong enough—but I just let you go. ‘Cause it was easier than admitting I was wrong.
Cas can feel it, when Dean falls to his knees. It’s a sentiment he’s seen often out of only the most faithful. Those so overwhelmed with their love for the object of their worship that their legs can no longer bother to hold them up. It’s present, with Dean, but he also does it as an offering. A counterbalance for the last time the other half of Cas’s heart got to his knees like this, at mercy of another.
For as long as Dean Winchester has been praying to him, Cas has sensed every underlying word in the things he chooses not to say. He could make sense of it most of the time but chose to ignore it, until his own feelings got fuddled into the mix and then, impossibly, the reality of it became too difficult for him to wrap his head around.
Dean loves with his entire being—Cas has known that from the moment he pulled Dean free from the maws of Hell. Since the moment the broken soul under Cas’s care began to mourn for those he had hurt while under the Devil’s thumb, even as he was being saved from that same, wretched place.
I don’t know why I get so angry, Dean confesses, but Cas does. It was his own hands that reconstructed Dean, but even without that advantage, Cas knows every facet of him more than he can comprehend. Dean gets angry because it’s easier than getting hurt. He gets so angry because if he didn’t, he’d only be left with the undeniable truth that everything he does is out of love. It’s not an easy thing to face; Cas understands that now more than ever.
Dean’s prayer expands slowly, filling Cas’s lungs. Time after time he’s been caught in Dean’s tide, filling himself to the brink even though it threatens to kill him every time. It’s no different, not even in Purgatory. The last time they were here, Cas could no longer ignore the way he could taste Dean’s longing on the borders of his prayers. And it’s no different today.
Oh, maybe it is. Maybe here, away from prying hands and an unbeatable God and the shadow of his impending death hovering in the background, Cas can admit that Dean’s longing has changed. Has gotten stronger, perhaps even sweeter. Enough now that Cas has begun to believe that Dean would blossom under his touch, instead of shrivelling away. They’d both welcome it. If Cas is admitting things to himself, now, then he has to accept that he’s known this specific fact to be true for years.
I’m sorry it took me ‘til now to say it, Dean prays urgently, and Cas forgives him for that. The rest of it, he’ll forgive over time, but for this Cas can’t fault him. After all, he’s never said it out loud himself. I hope you can hear me.
It takes the last ounce of his power, all of the waning strength he has left after his fight, but Cas uses it to guide Dean back to him. Even as it drains him, it’s worth it. No amount of power will ever compare to knowing Dean Winchester will come back for him.
He does. He does. Solid and relieved and shaking in Cas’s arms as they embrace, Dean finds him. They’re almost out of time, but Cas thinks they’re both too used to that by now.
“You don’t have to say it,” Cas tells him, when Dean tries. Cas wishes he could smooth the furrow in Dean’s brow, wishes he could make Dean understand. They just don’t have enough time.
A police officer calls one of Sam’s phones while the Winchesters are out, and Cas answers it out of habit.
“Listen,” the officer says, “we got a homicide down here, and my file says that our suspect might be one of yours.”
Another case. There’s always another case. Sam and Dean are gone, and Cas feels a restless itch in his hollow bones and nowhere to go. He could waste his time and keep looking for something that could give them an upper hand, but. Cas sighs. At least with a case, he’ll feel like he’s helping someone. “The murderer is someone we’re looking for?”
There’s fumbling on the other end of the line as the officer looks for the information. “It says Agent Watts started a file on him last spring, and to call with any information regarding a, uh… Jack Kline?”
Cas’s too-human-heart skips a beat in his chest.
The patrons of the Patchwork Community center are bathed in the sunlight that streams through the large, ordinary windows. The pastor stands among his people, his voice exceptionally kind. He welcomes Jack with ease.
Jack hesitates when the pastor asks him to give testimony. So Cas steps forward.
“I do know what blind faith is,” Cas admits. His son’s eyes are on him, hanging on to every word. Cas does his best to make them count. “I used to just follow orders without question, and I did some pretty terrible things. I… would never look beyond the plan. And then, of course, when it all came crashing down, I found myself lost. I didn’t know what my purpose was anymore.”
The patrons of the church chuckle quietly with him. He doesn’t know their stories, but it’s evident they understand. He knows enough about them to be sure of that.
Cas thinks about a few years ago. Sitting in the pews of a church as a human and scorning God’s name. There was a woman, then, who asked him what he believed in. Who told him that it didn’t matter where his faith laid, as long as it was in something greater than himself.
“And then one day, something changed, something amazing, I…” Cas smiles softly to himself. Something greater than himself, indeed. He catches Jack’s gaze. “I guess I found a family. And I became a father. And in that, I rediscovered my faith. I rediscovered who I am.”
The pastor nods at him, encouraging and comforting. “That’s all that really matters,” the pastor says. An hour or so ago, he’d said something that Cas will carry with him for the rest of his life. A saint is a sinner who keeps trying.
Jack is behind him when Cas finally turns around.
“I never said it,” Jack says quietly, “but it meant a lot to hear you say that. And I’m really glad I chose you to be my father.”
Even still, Cas can’t believe that someone as young as Jack could believe in something so much. Earnestly, Cas says,“I’m very glad you did, too.”
Jack turns to glance out of a window, head lifted, more human than people give him credit for. It gives Cas hope—maybe, by the time all of this ends and the dust finally settles, it will give Jack a chance for a real life.
“We’re almost at the end,” Jack tells him, voice soft. Cas already knows.
“And what comes after all this?” Cas asks.
Jack just gives him a hopeful look. “Then you wake up.”
Ten years ago, Castiel and Dean Winchester appeared in the home of a man they believed to only be a prophet. They had stood there, oblivious, as God unknowingly gave them what should have been a crucial clue into understanding why everything was happening the way that it was. You’re not supposed to be here, God had said, and Castiel went off-book.
It shouldn’t have been possible. But Castiel had rebuilt every atom of Dean’s being. He painstakingly arranged every muscle and nerve and vein and tissue until the Michael Sword was exactly the person he used to be. Castiel used to be thrilled by the idea. Yes—God created man in His own image, but Castiel reconstructed Dean Winchester in the image of no one but himself.
Cas used to think his first act of free will came when he marked Dean’s soul with a branding of his own grace, but it wasn’t. It was creating Dean with his own design.
They’re almost out of time now. And Cas has one last choice to make. One final act of free will.
“Everything you have ever done, the good and the bad, you have done for love,” Cas says. He chooses his words carefully, praying that Dean understands. “You raised your little brother for love. You fought for this whole world for love. That is who you are. You're the most caring man on Earth. You are the most selfless, loving human being I will ever know.”
Even through his confusion, Dean continues to shine. Always beautiful. This is the soul that Cas remade; this is the soul that Cas was made for.
“You changed me, Dean,” Cas admits.
Dean’s figured out what’s going on—Cas can feel it in the way Dean’s unconscious, constant longing flickers with hope. He can see it in the way that Dean’s expression grows resigned. They have both wanted this for far too long, but never in this way.
“Why does this sound like a goodbye?” Dean asks quietly.
And Cas answers him, “Because it is.”
He puts his hand on Dean’s shoulder, holding him for the last time. The same shoulder where Castiel burned his grace onto a body he would never possess. If he were braver, he would pull Dean closer, maybe. Press their foreheads together in a way he’s longed to do before he ever figured out why he wanted to. Oh, if he were braver, perhaps he’d have the courage to kiss Dean, just once. So he’d know what it would feel like.
Dean reaches up before Cas can speak again, and wraps his fingers around Cas’s wrist. His eyes are wild, filled with tears, but his gaze never leaves Cas’s face. “It’s gonna take you, but we’re bringing you back, you hear me? We’re bringing you back.”
“I know,” Cas whispers. He shouldn’t know. He does anyway. They’re so close to the end, now, that Cas can taste black tar on the tip of his tongue. “I know, Dean.”
“Okay,” Dean says firmly. He squeezes Cas’s wrist—they’re both petrified to let go. “Cas. Cas, man, you gotta know… You know I…”
Cas changes the script one last time. His final chance. “I love you, too.”
The most honest truth of Castiel’s life is as such: the first thing he ever did that mattered was save Dean Winchester’s life, and so is the last thing. If there was ever a need for an ending so full circle, it would be this moment.
Dean Winchester’s soul shines, brighter than sunlight, lighting up the room. And Cas smiles.
It’s a very old story, Castiel thinks. Love.
The way people wish for it. The way people fall for it. The things people do in the name of it.
In the beginning, Castiel only knew one kind of love, and they could only call it worship. It was a blind loyalty more than it was ever love, but it was all he knew how to do. It nearly tore Heaven apart in the end. It was the damned kind of love that was hard to let go of, no matter how many times it hurt Castiel, and it was a love that got muddled when he found a new family to put it on. Something that made him defend them, even when they wouldn’t do the same for them. Familial love, or so he thought. He never had another name for it before.
But things change over the years, as they tend to do. And Castiel may have been the thing that changed the most.
There’s a formula to love, in most causes. People meet. One of them falls. If they’re lucky, so does the other. If they’re luckier, they find a way to make it work and they choose one another over and over again until the day one or both or all of them die. Nothing too extraordinary about it until one looks a little closer and chooses to examine the details.
In Castiel’s details, there are quite a few things. A soul brighter than anything else. A handprint on a shoulder. Dying confessions, tearful reunions. The beaming smile of their son the first time they meet, and every time after that. Loyalty, no matter how blind. A faithless man finding something to believe in out of a fallen angel. The trust and forgiveness of a dear friend. Laughter around a bunker that no one ever believed could be a home. Sacrifices. Pain. And love. Oh, Castiel thinks, there was so much damned love.
It saves him, time and time again.
And in its most crucial hour, it saves Castiel’s family. It saves Dean.
A very old story, indeed. One that should have ended the moment the door sealed shut behind him and brought him back to an eternal rest.
He should have known. Death never sticks when it comes to Castiel, but love always has.
He wakes up, a second time, to Jack asking him to come back to them. So Castiel goes.
Cas opens his eyes.
The first thing that Cas notices is that his throat is full of smoke.
Resurrection is a fickle thing. One moment there is nothing, and the next, Cas burns so brightly that those who love him will never lose sight of him again.
As Cas coughs and gasps for air, choking on all of the fire and water and tar that has tried to kill him in the past, someone turns him to his side. The hands are warm and steadying, and they hold Cas as he tries to claw his deathbed out of his throat.
A lifetime's worth of freedoms and fears and everything in between tumbles out of him, and after he’s given everything he has to give, Cas is finally able to breathe. Things start to come into focus after that—the vague details of the bunker’s dungeon, a sigil painted in blood on the door, the witchy smell of flowers and ozone. And, closest to him, right in Cas’s line of sight and one of the greatest things he’s ever seen, Dean Winchester.
“Dean,” he croaks out.
“Don’t try to speak yet, man,” Dean tells him, voice soft. “Just breathe for me, yeah?”
Someone else touches him, another presence in the room, and it takes a great deal of effort for Cas to tear his gaze away from Dean. It’s worth the reward. Sam Winchester is crouched next to his brother, and there’s a small amount of soot on his face and a bowl in his hands, lingering evidence of whatever spell they used to bring Cas back here. And then on the other side, cosmically powerful and still so young and undeniably the greatest part of Cas, Jack kneels beside him as the golden glow in his eyes dims slowly.
“You all brought me back,” Cas realizes.
“I’m gonna get you some water,” Jack says decisively, and he’s gone before Cas can even protest and ask him to stay.
Dean’s laughter is punched-out and wet, the way it gets when he’s trying not to cry. Cas can’t help but look back at him. Like gravity, Dean always manages to pull Cas back into his orbit. Sounding too serious for it to actually come off as a joke, Dean says, “Chill, Cas, the kid’ll be back in a second.”
“How do you feel, Cas?” Sam asks.
Cas blinks at the both of them. Thinks about the hundreds of years he lived before he ever knew them, and how he’s learned that none of those years even hold a candle to the life he’s lived with this family, in this place. His throat is tight in a way he can’t truly attest to the way he’d woken up coughing. “Like I drowned.”
Sam laughs. Dean chokes out a chuckle of his own, and when Jack rounds the corner with a glass of water in his hands, he smiles without even knowing what the joke was.
“God, Cas,” Dean breathes, and he tugs Cas up into a bone-crushing hug.
It goes like this:
Twelve years ago, Cas broke through the narrative for a mortal man, and they spent the next decade plus a few years dancing around it. Twelve weeks ago, Dean decided that the ending he was supposed to stick with wasn’t good enough, and he decided that he’d find a way to change it.
After they beat Chuck once and for all—after Amara ripped herself free, and after she took on the God mantle for herself—nearly everything went back to normal. For the things that didn’t, the Winchesters decided they’d take care of themselves.
There was this spell, apparently, and there was Jack’s incomprehensible powers, and there was everyone’s love for Cas. Miraculously, it was enough to get them inside of Cas’s head. And then they waited for Cas, as he relived an entire existence, until he was finally ready.
Jack used nearly all of his power to wake him up. A choice, Jack swears, that he’ll never regret.
It goes like this: Cas gets resurrected for the sixth time after giving everything to protect the very family that refused to let him go. After that, he resolves to never leave them again.
“Don’t step on that fish,” Dean warns, voice carried softly through the open space. Cas glances down. Next to his foot is a clay sculpture of a distorted-looking creature. Even with limited light, Cas can see that it’s painted colorfully and childishly. Jack’s name is on the gill, signing his art.
“Jack would never forgive me,” Cas says solemnly. Dean’s arm brushes against his as he reaches Cas, and they settle in together on the roof.
Dean has two bottles in his hands, and he passes one to Cas. The condensation feels miraculous against his fingers; most everything does, right now. Cas can’t help but smile. “Y’know, Jack will probably forgive just about anything you do for a while, actually,” Dean points out. “Kid missed you while you were gone. Kinda gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card.”
“That may be true,” Cas allows. He glances at the bottle Dean handed him. “Root beer?”
“Ah, hell,” Dean laughs, awkward and bashful. “Yeah, I, uh. We’re trying this new thing, Sammy n’ me. Sobriety. And it turns out, three year olds really like root beer, so. Two birds, one stone, or whatever.”
He’s beautiful. Dean is always beautiful, but there’s something to be said about the way he shines now that he’s free to do so. Dean Winchester is out from underneath God’s thumb, and the world is still turning and the stars are still illuminating the night, and Cas loves him. Oh, he loves Dean more than he can wrap his primordial mind around.
“You’ve become a good role model for Jack,” Cas says slowly, instead of any of the other things poised at the tip of his tongue. There are still many things that happened between Dean and Jack that Cas is unsure he’ll ever truly forgive, but Dean is trying now, and it counts for something.
Dean lifts his head to the sky instead of answering. He asked Cas, once, what it was like to see the creation of stars. If Cas knew then what he knew now, he might have told Dean that it felt the same as falling. It felt like rebirth.
“Rowena was gonna bring Mom back, you know,” Dean says suddenly. He takes a long sip of his root beer, nose wrinkling as he’s still adjusting to the sweet taste. “That’s what the spell that brought Eileen back was for. But she didn’t go through with it, after we found out that Mom was happy where she was.”
Cas can’t say anything.
But Dean doesn’t need him to. He huffs around a laugh and drops his head, and Cas lets go of the breath he was holding. “Call me a hypocrite, but I’m glad we used that spell for Eileen, instead. Sammy’s happy. Mom’s at peace. I can live with that.”
“Dean,” Cas murmurs.
“Y’know, there’s a lot of things I thought I was gonna say when we got you back,” Dean interrupts, whirling on his heels. Cas almost staggers back in surprise. “I had this whole… this big plan, or whatever. But I can’t—I can’t just. I can’t say any of it and have it be worth a damn thing until I say I’m so fucking sorry for everything else. Jesus, Cas, I’m so sorry. I was outta my head with grief, but I use that excuse every time I fuck up, and it ain’t even a good excuse.”
Habit nearly makes Cas tell Dean he can stop, that he doesn’t have to do this, that Cas knows what he means without having to hear the words. But it dies in his throat, and all Cas can do is keep blinking at Dean, a little bit stunned.
It’s amazing, how after twelve years and countless resurrections, one simple human can still surprise him so much.
“I shouldn’t have treated Jack the way I did,” Dean finally mutters. He looks away, frame wrought with chagrin. “He’s just a kid. I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did, either, or. Christ, even Sammy. I mean. I pointed a gun at every last one of you recently.”
“I know,” Cas says quietly.
Dean’s expression shutters. He turns again, walking to the edge of the roof, and he leans against the railing. Cas follows him with ease. Dean’s face is tilted towards the stars again, but his eyes are closed. His soul is flickering as Dean asks for forgiveness—Cas is going to miss being able to see that.
“I turned into my father,” Dean admits, incredulous, before he starts to laugh. Sharp, startled things that seem to be breaking out of him. He wipes his eyes, and Cas doesn’t know if he’s crying from the laughter or from everything else. “Shit, I mean, Mary Winchester died, and I just went berserk. I’m sorry, Cas.”
They catch each other’s eye. For a gentle moment, neither of them breathe.
“Thank you,” Cas murmurs, when he finds the strength to say it.
“I’m trying real hard to get better,” Dean vows, and he waves the root beer bottle in his hand like it proves his point. Cas finally cracks a smile at that.
He clinks his bottle against Dean’s. “You are,” he agrees.
They share the silence for a while after that, each taking slow drinks of their root beers and looking up at the sky. Cas came back so late that he wasn’t able to watch the sun set, which he would have liked to do, but he thinks he’ll stay for when it rises again. He likes nights like these in Kansas. Clear skies and quiet roads and the hum of the bunker below his feet. He isn’t fully human, not quite yet, but this is as close as he can get for now.
There was a moment, in one of Chuck’s books, somewhere near ten years ago, where he talked about how the brothers would park their cars some nights and just watch the sky. What he didn’t include is that Castiel was there, too, watching them from the sidelines and trying to understand what about the stars was so intriguing.
He understands it, now. Oh, he understands it. The peace that comes with looking at something bigger and greater than you and not fearing what it plans to do to you. The reassurance that the stars would always be the same, no matter where you are or when you looked. And the comfort that comes with sitting quietly with someone you trust with your life, not needing to fill the silence with anything because a moment like this, just being together, is enough.
“Are you okay?” Dean asks eventually, after enough time has passed that Cas is fairly sure they’re less than an hour away from the sunrise.
Dean’s already looking at him when Cas turns. He can’t help but smile. “I’m alive again,” he answers. “And I can allow myself to be happy now, without fear. It’s… I doubt it will always be easy, but right now? Yes, Dean, I’m. I’m okay.”
“What you said,” Dean begins, before getting embarrassed and clearing his throat. “You, uh.”
“I love you,” Cas says easily. Freely. This was once the burden, the inescapable truth, that Cas knew would lead him to his death, but that story doesn’t exist anymore. Whatever comes next, they get to make up as they go.
Dean clears his throat again. His cheeks are bright with blush, his eyes are shining, and even through the embarrassment Cas can tell how pleased he is to hear it. He catches Cas’s eye again. “Christ,” he says. “Right. Okay, yeah, so. Cas, you gotta know, I mean… You know I—”
“I know,” Cas promises. He reaches out with his free hand and grasps Dean’s shoulder. It steadies them both. “I remember you walking through my memories. And even if I didn’t, I know. I’ve known for years.”
“Christ,” Dean says again, vehemently, and he reels Cas in for a kiss.
It happens so quickly that both of them spill a bit of root beer on themselves, and it’s a terrible first kiss because they’re both laughing into it. Cas takes both of the bottles and tosses them over the edge of the roof, and Dean laughs again. “Sammy’s gonna kill us for that.”
“He’ll probably want to kill us for another reason first,” Cas points out. Dean’s face goes dazed, and Cas slides his hand underneath Dean’s shirt and pulls him closer for an actual kiss, a better one this time.
Inside his chest, Cas’s heart is on fire.
It lights him up from the inside out, starting at every point where Dean’s body brushes against his and intensifying any time Dean pulls away. One of Dean’s hands caresses his cheek and the back of his neck. A softer embrace than Cas has ever been given before. The flame is going to swallow up the remains of his grace soon, when Cas gives it up and falls from the Host one final time.
And in a small vial tied tightly with a string, Cas will place the grace and the flame around Dean’s neck and ask him to carry it for as long as they live.