"I love you," Cas says. For a moment, he allows himself to feel the full force of that love, finally, finally spoken out loud. It's warm and bright and painful, all at the same time, because he knows what happens after this.
This moment is all he gets.
He watches Dean's face, watches the tiny expressions that tell so much to anyone who knows how to read Dean, and Cas is an expert. He can see Dean's shock, the dawning terror, the realization that this is it.
There's a sort of peace settling over Cas. It's good to finally be known, for Dean to finally know that Cas loves him, far more than his own life. More than his own existence.
Then Dean's face twists into fury.
"You're dead to me," he says flatly. Cas feels a stab of something, too hot and too cold and too terrible to name, the knowledge that this isn't how it happened ringing in his head as Dean launches himself at Cas.
Cas stumbles backwards but finds himself tackled to the floor anyway, though his back never lands on the floor of the panic room.
He lands on the floor of the library, gasping in shock and pain a his nose spontaneously breaks. Blood runs down his chin and he's so disoriented that it's a surprise when the first punch hits his face.
And then the next. And the next.
It feels like a small eternity later when the blows finally stop and Cas tries to catch his breath, in pain from a hundred injuries he doesn't remember receving and many more he does.
It's the worst kind of deja vu when he lifts his head to see Dean pinning him to the floor, eye cold, an angel blade in hand.
"Dean-" he manages, tasting blood on his tongue. He remembers this, but it had been years ago, back when Dean still had the-
It's then that he sees it. The Mark of Cain pulses a dull, angry red on Dean's arm. Cas has just enough time to see it, to understand, and then Dean is bringing the blade down, down, down.
Then the knife plunges into Cas's bare chest and he screams out in pain, struggling against the ropes that keep him bound to the chair even as he feels his all-too-human lifeforce ebbing from him.
It's not Dean holding the blade.
April smiles sweetly at him and leans in, and even though Cas's hands are free now, he feels just as helpless. And so hungry, so cold, so weary, and the storm and his siblings are outside the door to the apartment, howling for his blood.
He'll die if he goes back out there. He's too weak from lack of food, too exhausted from lack of sleep. His shoulder still aches from his injury.
But if he stays here... there's apparently a price to be paid.
He hesitates, his need for warmth and safety and shelter and rest warring with the dawning realizaton of what she's going to demand from him. What she's going to take as recompense for the sandwich and a warm shower.
She touches her lips to his and the choice is taken from him.
Cas knows what's happening now. He feels sick, chilled to the bone and he can't tell if the feelings stem from the memory or his current consciousness.
'"It's full of sorrow and despair playing over and over again, of angels and demons dreaming about their regrets. Forever."'
All of his worst memories, brought back to life to torture him. All of his regrets, his sorrows, his fears, and his traumas re-lived over and over and over again.
Cas thinks he would rather be physically tortured than to go through all of his worst moments for the rest of eternity. Pain he can handle, which he bitterly supposes is exactly why the Empty prefers this method of driving its inhabitants insane. No screams to disrupt the quiet, not with all the Shadow's victims trapped inside their own heads.
The Empty spares him no part of the experience. Cas didn't expect it to.
When it's finally over (again), Castiel doesn't even have time to catch his breath before he's Falling, going straight through the bed to find open atmosphere beneath. He's clothed again and the chill is replaced by heat, burning and burning and burning until at last he strikes the Earth. He pushes himself to his feet weakly, feeling as though he's been flayed alive, and looks up just as the first bright lights appear in the sky.
His siblings. Falling and burning and it's his fault, all his fault.
He's rooted to the spot, forced to bear witness as the lights crash to Earth and abruptly vanish. He can't turn away until the memory releases him, so he stands there, and knowing what happens after does nothing to assuage his guilt at being the cause of Heaven's downfall.
When he's finally able to move again, he turns and stumbles directly into a brightly lit field. The sky is summer blue and a gentle breeze holds up a bright, primary-colored kite. THe grass is the greenest he's ever seen, except where it's not.
Except where it's been blackened by the outlines of wings, burned into the ground around the dozens of slain angels that lie there.
"Be obedient, children," he hears himself say. "Or this will be your fate."
He had been as cruel and cold a God as his Father before him had been. Worse, even, at least since the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even if the Leviathans had already been influencing him, Castiel knew it was still his fault, his hubris.
He stumbles through the aftermath of slaughter. Most of the faces he recognizes. Some he even knows their names and some he doesn't know at all, which just makes him feel sicker. He had killed them and he couldn't even remember who they were.
It's hours or years or minutes later when his next step hits tile, not grass. The open field has been replaced by a clinical white room, impossibly large, but the floor is still littered with bodies.
This time, however, they all have the same face.
Cas sees movement out of the corner of his eye. A flash of hunter green, the sound of sturdy boots striking the ground.
His quarry on the run.
His body reacts as it was programmed to and he gives chase, angel blade already in hand as he closes the distance. Dean hears him and turns, hands up as if to plead with Cas for mercy, for him to think.
But there is no mercy in the thing Naomi has turned Castiel into, nor room for thought. Only orders, and Castiel stabs his blade deep into Dean's chest. He can feel the blood as it coats his hand, can see the light go out in Dean's green, betrayed eyes.
The body falls and the room twists, turning sterile white into dark, damp stone.
Dean lands on his knees, somehow alive again, and he turns his bloody face up to look at Cas.
"Please," he says. "We need you. I need you."
Cas's knuckles are bloody and would be bruised if he were human. He can track each ache to a mark on Dean's face, and as he stares down at Dean, he feels nothing.
He summons his blade and lifts it, intending to kill Dean to protect the tablet, to bring it to Naomi as instructed, but there's a spark, buried deep down inside, that won't let him.
When he thrusts the blade forward, the tip of it comes out through the front of Balthazar's chest.
Cas hears his oldest friend gasp, shocked and in pain. Balthazar turns to face him in that forest clearing and Cas watches as he falls, wings scorching the ground around him.
White-hot pain lances through him and it's his turn to gasp as he falls in agony, his wings burning into the dirt around him.
Then there's pressure all around him. More than a dozen feet of water separate him from the surface he knows he'll never see again, and his last thought as the Leviathans rip through his flesh is that he'd failed.
He's in Purgatory, surrounded by every kind of monster, and he aches with longing when he hears Dean's voice.
It's the only thing keeping him going. It's the only thing holding him back.
"Please Cas, I'm begging here. You can't leave me like this, not now."
Cas can feel Dean's pain and a longing to rival his own in Dean's prayer. But he can't go back, not with the Leviathan still hunting him. Not when it could lead them straight to Dean, who is so fragile, so human.
He wants to beg Dean to go back to Sam, to return to the world of the living and leave Castiel to his fate, but he knows that one look into Dean's eyes and his resolve will crumble.
All he can do is keep moving and hope that Dean gives up on him.
"I'm not leaving here without you."
Cas understands, so he runs. He runs through Purgatory, feeling himself watched by dozens of pairs of malicious eyes. The branches of the trees are like grasping hands, reaching out to him to snag and tear at his clothing.
"I won't do it, Cas. Not this time."
Cas throws aside Dean's hand and yells at him to go. The portal closes on Dean's shocked face and winks out of existence, trapping Castiel forever in Purgatory.
Though if the angry Leviathans around him have a say, 'forever' won't be very long, and Cas can't help but feel it's no more than he deserves.
"You can't stay."
The words are like a bath in ice water. Cas stares at Dean's face, at his set jaw, and knows that Dean means it.
The burrito curdles in his stomach and tastes like ash in his mouth. He doesn't think he can finish eating it, even though he knows it may be the last food he'll get for a while.
"Dean-" he tries to say, but he can't speak. His throat is closed over and all he can think is 'please, please. Not this. Don't send me back out there'.
Out there where his fallen siblings still hunt him. Out there where evil lurks behind an innocent smile and the promise of food and warmth.
He needs time and space and safety to process everything that had happened, starting with the Fall and culminating in the night before. He needs familiar walls and familiar faces, hot showers and hot food.
He needs to not be terrified that the next person who offers to 'help' him has darker intentions in mind.
Dean turns away from him, seemingly unaffected, and Cas breaks.
Everything had gone so wrong when he'd been human.
"Oh yeah, and why does that 'something' always seem to be you?"
Cas turns to find Dean glaring at him, arms folded.
"The famous spanner in the works." Naomi's voice, this time. Cas looks up, straining against the manacles that keep him bound to the chair, but he's helpless to do anything as she lowers one of her many 'reprogramming' tools. Cas screams, his brain going white-hot with pain as the process begins.
"The one with a crack in his chassis."
It's Chuck's - God's - voice, but it's Metatron who leans over him now, angel blade held carefully to his throat. Cas feels the blade cut and his Grace drains from him. Cas can only stare as Metatron holds up the tiny vial containing everything that had once made Cas an angel, and Cas feels its loss more keenly than the cut on his neck.
"And Dean? He's dead, too," Metatron tells him.
The grief is immense and overwhelming, something in him crying out in denial while the rest of him screams at the sudden void inside his chest.
"Come on, you have to wake up, I can't-"
The voice is his own, but distorted. Garbled. He's kneeling, clutching Jack's body to himself and begging him to wake up, to open the eyes that are burned out of his skull.
Belphagor sits up instead and laughs, mocking him.
"I can't do this again. It's almost killed me before, but this time... this time it's worse."
Cas sees Micheal smile using Dean's lips and feels his own twist into Lucifer's smirk, and he wants to scream because this never happened, but he can't. His body is not his own, because he's useless to Dean and Sam as he was and the only way to ensure Dean's safety and to break him free from Amara's hold on him is Satan himself.
Micheal steps forward, sword drawn, and Lucifer moves to meet him.
"So you have to wake up. I... There's something I should've told you. A long time ago."
The words make no sense, but Cas can't think on it as Dean throws him into a bookcase. It rocks with the force of the blow and knocks the wind out of him, but he's left no time to recover as Dean comes after him again, slamming his fist into Cas's face.
Cas tries to block, to dodge, but he can't bring himself to attack. This isn't Dean, it's the Mark, and-
"I won't hurt Dean," Cas tells Naomi, but his voice wobbles. She shakes her head pityingly.
"You will. You are," she says, and it's true. He's killing Dean, over and over and over again, and every time it gets easier as his self gets eroded away with each visit to Naomi's chair.
Dean's hand grasps at his shoulder, grip strengthening even as the body in Cas's arms bleeds out.
"So wake up, and... and I'll tell you."
The dream is breaking up around him, mismatched bits of memory colliding. He's in the Cage, he's in a cell in Heaven, he's trapped in Hell with the doors closing to lock him in for good. He's in every Biggerson's in North America all at once and all of the patrons are dead in a trap his siblings had laid for him. He's in a diner with Sam and Dean, Ishim sitting across from them and sneering before Ishim suddenly stands and he's walking towards Dean in a ruined church, Castiel helpless to do anything as Ishim goes on about eradicating Castiel's 'human weakness'.
There's a hand on his shoulder.
"Cas, wake up."
It's like breaking through a thick layer of ice after too long underwater and taking a deep lungful of air.
Castiel's eyes snap open in the dark void of the Empty.
The hand is still on his shoulder, gripping it tight. Cas looks up and his eyes meet a pair of beautifully familiar green looking worriedly back at him.
"Dean..?" he says, his voice as hoarse as if he'd been shouting for days. Dean's worry softens and he moves back to help Castiel sit up.
Cas can't stop staring and Dean, for his part, can't seem to stop touching him. Dean's hand squeezes his shoulder, then slides down his arm to hesitantly rest on top of Cas's hand.
It's as if Dean is afraid, should he lose contact with Castiel for even an instant, Cas would fall back into his eternal sleep and this time, Dean would be unable to wake him again.
He never should have been able to in the first place. This is the Empty, the final resting place of angels and demons, and one doesn't simply wake up from death.
"Dean, what are-" Cas starts to ask, but he's interrupted.
"What are you doing here?"
It's the Entity, viscous black and radiating fury. Cas struggles to his feet, determined to put himself between it and Dean, though he knows he stands little chance.
But Dean is rising with him and the hand that had been resting on the back of Cas's slides, coming palm-to-palm as Dean's fingers find the spaces between Cas's own.
Castiel stops. Stares. Dean's hand tightens around his and Dean steps forward to stand beside him, staring up at the Entity without fear.
"I'm taking Cas back," Dean says. The Entity laughs, high and horrible.
"I have no idea how you found your way in here, but Castiel is mine," the Entity said. "We had a deal-"
"I know," Dean cuts in. "And you broke it."
Dead silence follows Dean's accusation. The Entity may not have eyes, but Cas can feel it staring at them.
"Dean..." Cas says softly. He can feel the Entity's malevolence rising and the urge to get Dean out, to get him to safety, far outweighs any concern Castiel might have for himself. "It's all right, I-"
"What do you mean?" the Entity asks, speaking over Cas as if he isn't there.
"This 'deal' of yours," Dean says, setting his chin stubbornly. "Cas told me a little bit about it, right before you took him. You said when Cas was at his happiest, you'd come for him, right?"
"... yes," the Entity says reluctantly. Dean smiles coldly.
"You collected early," he says. "So the deal's off, and since you broke it, that means Cas gets to come back with me and you don't get to touch him."
The silence is loud, oppressive. Cas can feel his heart pounding, the pieces slowly coming together to form a picture he never imagined possible. One he had never dared let himself hope for.
But Dean came for him. Dean is standing next to him, holding his hand, and staring down the Entity on his behalf.
"What," the Entity says flatly. "Do. You. Mean?"
Dean turns away from the Entity to face Cas. His expression softens from cold anger to something tentative and warm.
"Cas," he says, and his voice is thick with emotion. "There's something I- that I've been meaning to tell you. For a long time now, but I was... I was scared."
Dean chuckles, a little self-deprecating, and shakes his head.
"And you know me, Cas, I'm not good at being scared. I've done and said things I regret, and the people I care about are the ones I hurt the most."
Dean looks up, naked honesty in his gaze, and locks eyes with Cas.
"I'm sorry, Cas."
Cas swallows around a lump in his throat. Dean had prayed similar sentiments to him before, but it was surprisingly affecting to hear Dean say it out loud, to his face, and to mean it so sincerely.
"I know," Cas says, because what else is there for him to say?
Is that all Dean had come to tell him? That he was sorry?
Was this it?
"Touching as all this is-" the Entity starts.
"I'm not done," Dean says sharply, never taking his eyes away from Cas. "I just had to say that first."
Dean takes a deep breath and reaches to take Cas's other hand in his.
Cas can't breathe.
"Cas, you said that happiness was in just saying it, in just... being it. Maybe that makes you a better person than me, or maybe I'm just a selfish sonofabitch, but for me? That would never be enough," Dean says. His hands tighten around Castiel's as though drawing strength from the connection. "As good as it is to be known, to just... be yourself, without worrying about who might see, what they might think, to know that the people important to you accept you as you are... wanting something you know you can't have still hurts."
"Dean, what are you saying?" Cas asks, voice low. He doesn't dare hope, but he can't stop his heart from pounding, his breath from shaking. He feels absolutely invincible and like a feather could knock him over and shatter him to pieces. He's on a great precipice and about to be shoved over the edge with no way of knowing if he's going to fly or fall.
"No," the Entity says suddenly, stepping forward. "Stop, don't you da-"
"I'm saying," Dean says loudly. "-that sometimes the impossible happens. Sometimes you're wrong about what you 'can't have', because sometimes the angel that pulled you out of Hell... Sometimes, he loves you, too."
There's a roaring in Castiel's ears like the sound of rushing wind.
"... 'too'?" Cas croaks. Had he heard Dean correctly? Did Dean actually mean-
"I'm no good at showing it, but Cas... I love you," Dean says.
The words light something in Castiel, an incandescent spark that flashes through him like holy fire.
He had thought it was enough, that true happiness was simply in telling Dean that he loved him. That joy pales in comparison to finding out that the love he'd thought impossible is returned.
Dean loves him back.
And from the look in Dean's eyes, there is no mistaking it for the love of a brother. Even so, it still surprises Cas when Dean lets go of one of his hands to gently cup his cheek, his thumb stroking the corner of Cas's mouth.
"Cas," Dean says, eyes alight with intent, flicking down to glance at Cas's mouth. He leans in slowly, giving Cas ample time to pull away, if he wishes.
He does not wish.
Cas meets Dean halfway and kisses him, and the happiness this ignites in him glows brighter than the sun, brighter than the light of Heaven and a thousand times more warm. It's like an explosion centered on him and Dean and the places they touch, the places their bodies connect and the spaces in between.
The Entity screams in rage, but there are some forces that even it has no control over, inside or out of its domain.
Dean kisses Castiel, and the Empty dissolves around them.