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When the Empty appears to him, this final time, the face it wears is not his own, or Meg’s. The face it wears is Dean Winchester’s, exactly as Castiel last saw him. That bit of cruelty is enough to make Castiel collapse, the composure he had been holding onto slipping, the happiness — pure and sharp as it was — draining from him. Left behind there is only exhaustion.

“There you are,” the Empty says, in Dean’s voice. It’s cold, like Dean’s eyes are cold, his expression set in contempt. It’s the expression Cas feared, he realizes, all the times he thought about saying it. Revulsion. It makes him feel sick in the way that goes beyond physical, here where there is nothing physical left.

The moment before it happened had been so sweet it covered up all the hurt. For years, Cas had been holding back those words, biting down on his tongue to keep from saying them. And now he had said it, and he knew that it was good, knew that it was worth it. But on the other side there is only this.

“Was that it?” the Empty asks him, raising one of Dean’s eyebrows in amusement. “Not exactly the most impressive moment of happiness, was it?”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Cas says. The Empty isn’t listening.

“Not even a kiss,” it says. Sneering at him, those green eyes cold and hard, that beloved face distorted by something like loathing. Dean has never looked at him like that, not in their worst moments. “Not even ‘I love you, too.’ That’s all it takes, Cas?”

The Empty shouldn’t be calling him that, not in Dean’s voice. The hatred it wears on Dean’s face is personal, when it bends down to his level. “Was that all you ever wanted? Just to die for him?”

No, it is not all Cas has wanted. But then, everything he has known he wanted from Dean has come with the accompanying realization that he couldn’t have it. And really, what they had is more than Cas ever thought he would get. There were times, in the past few years, when it has felt like everything. When Dean would make dinner and the four of them would gather around the kitchen table, and Cas would eat something even though in his mouth, it only tasted of its component elements. They would raise a toast to a job well done at the end of a hard day, and Cas would feel as close as he had ever been to belonging.

Sometimes, afterward, he would help wash the dishes, handing them wordlessly for Dean to stock the dishwasher. He would think of how years ago he had watched Dean do the same with Lisa Braeden and he would feel a kind of near-satisfaction, warm and bright, and Dean would look over at him and smile.

They were a family. A fragile one that sometimes barely held together, but a family in the true, human sense.

It’s not all he wanted. But it is all he can give. To Dean, and to Jack, and they will have to keep each other safe now. He hopes they’ll be grateful enough to do that for him.

The Empty laughs at him, and it’s so unfair, Cas thinks, that this is the last memory he will have of Dean’s face, and not the reality of it.

Somewhere in the distance there are other voices calling out, the faint sounds of angels and demons screaming in their sleep. The Empty looks annoyed by it, and Cas feels a ghost of pride that Jack has made it impossible for the Empty to sleep peacefully.

“You’ll never see him again,” the Empty says. “You’re happy with that?”

“It was a good deal,” Cas says, and it was. His son’s life, and Dean’s, and killing death into the bargain. You wouldn’t get that from any crossroads demon.

He closes his eyes. He doesn’t want to look at the Empty wearing Dean’s face anymore, twisted into that expression of contempt.

“Fine,” the Empty snaps. “Go to sleep.” Castiel feels the touch of the Empty’s hand on his forehead, and then he is dreaming.

It’s a long story. It goes all the way back to the beginning.

In the beginning there was the Darkness, and then there was Light, and the Light would be called God. On the first day, once God had created days, He divided the night from the day, and He saw that it was good.

On the fourth day God created the sun to shine over the Earth and have dominion over the day, and He created the moon to orbit the Earth and have dominion over the night, and He created Castiel, the angel of Thursday.

When Lucifer rebelled against God, that was disobedience, but not in a way that mattered. Michael was angry, and Gabriel smiled in bitter amusement, but deep down they knew this: it was all part of the plan.

Later, a serpent wound itself around Eve’s feet, and it told her about the forbidden fruit and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eve listened. She took a bite of the fruit and she tempted her husband to do the same.

That wasn’t disobedience either. Not in the truest sense. The real kind of disobedience would come much, much later.

“They’re weak,” the serpent said to the angel of Thursday. He was trying to turn as many to his side as he could. Castiel was nothing special among the angels, nothing extraordinary, but still, he was the guardian of one of the seven days, and that counted for something in a power struggle. “They’re already defying His will, and still He loves them more than He loves us. Doesn’t that bother you?”

Castiel considered this. He had watched the humans; Eve’s hair was growing long, and he watched Adam carefully braid it, so it would stay out of her face. There was nothing like that among angels. There were things God left out, when creating them. Humans, not angels, were made in His image.

He told the serpent that it made sense to him.

Castiel doesn’t remember that anymore. There are a lot of things he doesn’t remember.

One of the first things Castiel does remember is the Tower of Babel. He had existed some time before that, but through the years of heavenly interference, most of the memories didn’t stick.

He watched the humans again, afterward, watched a pair of sisters gesturing frantically to each other as they tried to understand one another’s languages. Back then, Castiel did not feel things, as such. Angels didn’t. But there was a sense of wrongness about it, like an error that needed to be corrected.

God did not make errors.

“They will start wars over this,” he told his commander, the angel who would later fall to Earth and be reborn as Anna Milton. She was a good soldier, back then. They both were. “So many of them will die.”

His commander nodded. “That is part of the plan, Castiel.”

There was a look in her eyes that in another context, on a human face, might have been called sadness.

“Is it revealed to you?” he asked her. “The plan, or some part of it?”

“No,” she said. “No, they don’t tell me much more than they tell you.”

Later, Castiel would wonder why Anna had never spoken a word of doubt out loud, in the long time they had known each other. She had never sought reassurance, never made any indication she had doubts, until he was told one day by stern-faced Michael that she had fallen, and Castiel was to take her place.

Later, he understands. Doubt is a difficult thing to speak aloud. It gets under your skin of quickly, changing you completely while you are still afraid to speak it aloud. And then it is only a matter of time until you fall.

In his dreams he is back home in Lebanon, sitting in the kitchen of the bunker. The child sitting across the table from him is blond and missing two front teeth, maybe four years old, and Cas knows instinctively this is Jack, although he’s never been that young. This is Jack if he’d been allowed to grow up, to have a childhood.

“Cas, look,” Jack says. He’s lisping, around the missing teeth. Cas’ heart aches.

“What are you drawing?” he asks. It’s not real, it’s not real, but Jack is looking at him with wide eyes and he can’t resist playing along.

“It’s our family!” Jack says, delighted, brandishing his clumsy, childish drawing. There are five figures in the picture; one with long blonde hair which is clearly Mary, two somewhat generic stick figures — the taller is presumably Sam, the other Dean — a smaller one meant to represent Jack, and Cas, complete with his tie and scribbled, brightly colored wings.

Cas thinks he should have said something, before. Should have told Dean to look after Jack, reminded him that whatever he looks like, whatever he says, he is only a child.

“That’s wonderful,” Cas says. “You should sign it. Can you remember how to spell your name?” Sam taught him his letters and numbers, when Cas wasn’t around. He’s a quick learner, but he still writes his Js backwards.

Jack — this younger, more human Jack — prints his name carefully in the corner of the drawing and hands it back to Cas, waiting for his approval.

Cas smiles at him. “Perfect,” he says. “We’ll put it up on the refrigerator.” But the moment he turns away from Jack, the dream is gone, and he is somewhere else.

In his dreams, he is in the cemetery in Lebanon, and Dean is aiming the gun at Jack’s head.

Cas knows it is only a dream, but he intervenes anyway, plants himself in front of Jack and shields him with his body, standing between the two people he loves most in the world.

“Don’t make me watch this,” he pleads to the Empty, or to its illusion of Dean. “Not this, please.”

Sam is standing behind Dean, his expression frozen in a look of horror, and then Chuck appears alongside Sam. It’s Chuck that smirks at him — Chuck, or the Empty, or both. Everything else freezes then, too, Dean with his hand raised and his finger on the trigger, and Jack, soulless but still so young, kneeling and waiting.

“You gave up everything to save him,” the Empty says with Chuck’s voice. “‘Now the Winchesters are going to turn your little boy into a smoking crater.”

Everything is blurring around him, and he tries to remember that this isn’t real. He feels it slipping, feels himself being drawn further into the illusion.

Cas shakes his head. “You don’t know them,” he says. “They wouldn’t. They won’t.”

Chuck looks down at him with something like pity. “Jack would hardly say no,” he says. “Then again, I suppose he learned that from you, didn’t he? You may have rebelled, but you know how I wrote you.” He laughs humorlessly. “As a secondary character.”

Anger burns in Cas’ throat, and he thinks of himself years ago, searching for the God he still had faith in, never knowing there was only this man. He had loved that God, in his absence. He had even read the books when he believed they were prophecy. Chuck is worth none of that devotion, none of the worship humans have for the God who doesn’t speak to them. He is spiteful, selfish, small.

“Poor little Jack is just a means to an end,” Chuck says, “just like his father.”

“What would you know,” Castiel spits, “about being a father?”

Chuck smiles at him, joylessly. “You were never my children,” he says.

He snaps his fingers. Dean looks down the barrel of the gun at Jack, at Cas still shielding him with his body. He pulls the trigger.

After that, Castiel doesn’t know that he’s dreaming at all.

In the Empty there is plenty of time, infinite time, to relive your regrets.

There are so many things Castiel regrets now. Every time, across all those years of service in Heaven’s armies, that he had stood by and watched a smiting or sacrifice play out and not intervened, every time he had fought on what he was told was the right side in wars that seemed arbitrary. Every time he had ignored that faint itch in the back of his mind that he knew now to call doubt.

The past dozen years have far more than their share of regrets. He sees them all again, clearer than ordinary memory: his betrayal of the Winchesters, the Leviathan and his mad grab for the throne of Heaven, the bargain he’d struck with Lucifer. All the lives he’d failed to save and the ones he’d shattered — Jimmy Novak, especially, and Claire left behind in his wake.

There’s one moment the Empty replays for him more than any other. It’s a pivotal point in Castiel’s life, he supposes. A breaking point, or a moment of truth.

No matter how many times the Empty runs through it, he always makes the same choice. He always cuts his arm open with his own blade, smears his grace-infected human blood on the wall. He always chooses Dean Winchester.

They’re in a diner somewhere in the Midwest — Iowa, maybe, Cas thinks. Now that he’s human, his mind doesn’t have a good grasp of American geography, not like when he was in possession of all his powers and could pinpoint exactly where on the Earth’s surface he was at any time. They’re on their way somewhere, but he’s a little fuzzy on the details of that too, remembers that Sam was talking about the case involving ghouls.

Across the plastic tabletop, Sam is talking right now, a stack of newspaper clippings spread out in front of him. Bloody deaths of older men fitting a certain profile. Dean is listening, next to Cas, but Cas can’t focus. Is it always this hard, for humans to stay awake and alert?

“Dude, you need some coffee,” Dean says to him. He pushes Cas his own cup, freshly refilled, and Cas just looks at it. After a minute, Dean sighs and rips open two packets of sugar, stirs them into the coffee with a long-suffering look.

Cas takes a sip. “This is not good coffee,” he proclaims, and Dean laughs.

“Yeah, but you need the caffeine, man,” he says.

“He can sleep in the car,” Sam says absently, flipping through his papers. “We’ve still got a long drive to go.”

“Yes.” Cas pushes aside the coffee. “I can sleep.”

He doesn’t want to wait until they’re back in the Impala. He shuffles closer to Dean in the vinyl booth seat they’re sharing and puts his head on Dean’s shoulder.

Instantly, Dean laughs awkwardly and shrugs him off. “Okay, buddy,” he says. “You really have been awake for too long.”

Cas looks over at him sorrowfully. He feels like he’s looking through a fog, like Dean is distant and hard to make out. “There are so many rules,” he says.

Sam is looking at them sharply, his eyebrows raised, saying nothing.

“It’s not a rule,” Dean says. “It’s just not what… it’s not what people do.”

Cas knows what he means. Cas wants to say that no one ever taught him the rules, that he wasn’t born human and didn’t inherit the weight of its customs the way Sam and Dean did. He wants to say that Dean never makes it clear where the line is drawn, that he can’t be expected to know that Dean can drape an arm casually around Cas whenever he wants to but Cas can’t put his head on his shoulder. He knows better. He keeps his hands to himself, blinking rapidly and trying to stay awake, but it isn’t long before he falls asleep.

Over and over again, Naomi makes him kill.

Her precision is exquisite. There is only ever one target, repeated again and again until the strike of his blade becomes automatic. Castiel is a solider and Dean is not so much a member of an opposing army as a fortress, the walls protecting Castiel’s own weakness. Harboring what would, if he were human, be called his sin.

In an earlier life, it had meant nothing to him — the crunch of a broken bone, the spray of blood from a puncture wound. He had never understood the attachment to the physical form. For angels, even if it was impolite to say so explicitly, humans were divided into two categories: those who would be better off in Heaven, and those who deserved the punishment they would receive in Hell.

He’s killed enough that some essential part of him should be dead too, should be burned away. But still he knows Dean Winchester when he sees him again. Cas would know him anywhere. And Dean, the real Dean, he can’t hurt.

Cas doesn’t deserve the way Dean looks at him, the trust he has. But maybe one day he could be worthy of it again.

“What broke the connection?” Dean asks him.

Cas looks at Dean, his face open and sincere. Cas wants to tell him the truth. “You,” he says. “I love you more than they wanted me to hurt you.”

It is an easy thing to say, after everything. It’s very simple.

Dean stares. There’s shock in his eyes, and he makes a strange, incomplete hand gesture, and if he considers reaching out to Cas and then thinks better of it.

“Cas,” Dean says, and he trails off, and then Cas blinks.

Castiel is in the passenger seat of the Impala, driving along some winding country road. Dean is in the drivers’ seat, drumming his fingers on the wheel in tune to the song on the radio. Cas looks out the window, watching the rows of corn fields and the farmhouses go by. He doesn’t remember where they are, or where they’re going.

It’s quiet, calm, no other cars on the road, and Cas feels oddly pleased by that, the idea that the two of them are completely alone. He watches Dean out of the corner of his eye. The radio is playing a song about Heaven.

Dean always looks his most peaceful when he’s driving, one of his well-worn cassette tapes playing and the destination fixed firmly in his mind. He never allows the intrusion of more modern technology into this space: no auxiliary cord, no phone application for finding the best routes. Dean knows the interstate highways like you might memorize a sacred text, and they always get to where they need to be. Cas would be happy, in any case, to go with him anywhere.

Heaven is a place on Earth, the woman on the radio says.

Sam isn’t there, Cas realizes, looking over his shoulder. He should remember the reason for that. Is Sam in danger? Cas should be doing something about it, if he is. He shouldn’t enjoy being here, in the passengers’ seat, if Sam isn’t safe. It’s his job to keep both of the Winchesters safe.

“Where’s Sam?” he says.

“He couldn’t come with me,” Dean says, enigmatically. “Cas, listen —“

The song has changed — another song about Heaven and angels. They are such common motifs in music about love, Cas thinks. It’s not right — an angel is a poor choice for an object of romantic affection, and there is no love in Heaven like the love on Earth. The music on Earth is not like the resonance of celestial spheres. It is more beautiful.

“What song is this?” Cas asks. He recognizes it, he thinks, from somewhere.

Dean laughs. “I think they said Melissa Etheridge,” he said. “Why do you know Melissa Etheridge, anyway?”

Cas frowns. “I don’t,” he says. “It’s just what’s on the radio.”

Dean turns toward him, looking away from the road. Cas opens his mouth to scold him for being an irresponsible driver. “No, it’s not, Cas,” he says. “I need you to listen to me—“

And then he’s gone.

Castiel doesn’t understand what he did wrong, at the club Dean took him to. Sexual interaction between humans is based on connection and emotional resonance, in his understanding. That is why God created it. He doesn’t understand why the woman was offended by the offer of human connection rather than mindless sexual congress. Certainly the latter occurs frequently, but Castiel can’t imagine it is truly pleasurable.

Dean is laughing at him in the streetlights, an arm over Castiel’s shoulder and his hand almost touching the back of his neck. He smiles, and it is so bright that Castiel can’t help smiling back, although he doesn’t follow Dean’s sense of humor. Dean says they’re having fun, and Cas finds that he agrees with him.

“You’re sweet on him,” Anna had said the last time they met, and Castiel didn’t understand what she met. She’d smiled at him a little pityingly. “It’s alright, you know,” she’d said before he turned away from her. “I understand. I guess we have the same taste.”

What did she understand? The two of them weren’t the same. She was fallen, she had given up her grace. And in exchange she got — human things. A family, a childhood, a kiss. Castiel is still an angel and still built for higher things.

Cas follows Dean back to the car, sitting in the passenger seat. “I’m sorry,” Dean says, not making a move to begin driving. He doesn’t sound terribly remorseful. There is a song about long American highways playing through the car’s speakers. “I should’ve given you a little bit more instruction before throwing you off the deep end like that.”

Cas inclines his head in acknowledgment. “I suppose I will die a ‘virgin’ after all, then,” he says, the word uncomfortable in his mouth.

“Well,” Dean says. He clears his throat. “It sounds like you’ll just have to live.”

He smiles at Cas again, and Cas thinks that it is not like the way Dean usually smiles. He seems sincere. For a moment, Cas just looks at him, really looks.

All angels know that humans, molded in God’s image, are His most beautiful creations. They know this, but angels like Uriel and Zachariah don’t really believe it. Castiel thinks that he does. There is something in Dean Winchester’s eyes, the angle of his nose, the sweep of his shoulders.

Maybe this is what Anna meant, when she said that Castiel was sweet on him. It feels sweet, a fizz of feeling that is pure human, pure doubt.

“Uh, space cadet,” Dean says. “What’re you thinking about?”

He hasn’t started the car yet, and he’s looking at Cas from the driver’s seat, waiting on an answer. It’s easy to lean across that small space and kiss him on the mouth, the way humans do when they want someone very badly.

Cas isn’t sure if he knows how to do it right, kissing, but he presses his lips to Dean’s and hopes there is some sort of instinct in the vessel that will help him figure it out.

It doesn’t occur to him until the moment after he’s done it that Dean might not want to be kissed, that he might push him away, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, Dean kisses him back, softly and briefly, and Cas can’t think. It is dizzying, this kind of human contact, and he feels drunk on it, wants more and more, whatever Dean will let him have.

He leans forward, hoping to be kissed again, but Dean just looks at him, with something like sorrow in his eyes.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean says. “Not bad for a first kiss.”

And then it occurs to Cas that this feels wrong. Dean told him about personal space and not always saying what you mean. He doesn’t — he wouldn’t — want this.

“That’s not right,” Cas says. “That isn’t what he’d say.”

Dean — or is it Dean? Something wearing Dean’s face — looks pained by the words, like they’re an insult. “Cas,” he says. “Can you hear me, man? This isn’t real. I need to you to believe me when I say — this isn’t real. But it’s me.”

He reaches out and touches Cas’ shoulder, just for a moment, and he’s gone again.

Castiel’s been watching for a while now.

Sam prays to him often. His prayers have the hollow and insincere ring of the soulless; Castiel ignores them. If Dean prays, he does not pray to Castiel. Castiel doesn’t think he would be able to resist responding, if he heard that call.

Dean doesn’t pray, but Castiel watches over him. He feels responsible for both of the Winchesters; Sam, tearing across the country hunting monsters in search of adrenaline, and Dean, firmly ensconced in suburbia.

Cas wishes he could say domestic life suits Dean. Sometimes, it seems that it might. Other times, Dean appears tired and haunted, eyes shadowed by the guilt he will perhaps never recover from. Cas thinks of telling him that Sam is alive. He thinks of telling Dean that he needs help.

He should; Dean would not want this information withheld from him. But then he sees Dean at a moment when he looks happy, and it feels impossible to do.

Today, Dean and Lisa and her son are sitting on her porch together, Ben telling a long story about something that had happened at soccer practice while Dean and Lisa each drink a beer. They are sitting close together, their shoulders bumping together when they laugh. Dean turns to Lisa and smiles at her, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear.

Cas feels himself flinch away from it, but at the same time, he can’t stop watching.

He remembers this feeling — he felt it last watching Dean kiss Anna. It is similar to sorrow, and to anger, but that’s not right. He isn’t angry with Dean, or with Lisa. He just wants —

He wants. There is something possessive about it. And hadn’t Anna implied as much? She was a traitor twice over, but she did know him well, once.

He lets himself gaze at Dean — it’s safe like this, when he can’t be seen. He grants himself the privilege of watching the smallest changes of expression on Dean’s face without having to look away, the movements of his eyelashes, the way his head tips back when he laughs.

And then Dean catches his eye.

He stands frozen to the spot as Dean looks back to him, raising an eyebrow in acknowledgment. While Ben and Lisa appear to notice nothing, he stands up and walks over to Cas. “Hey,” Dean says. “Don’t teleport away, okay?”

“You can see me,” Cas says dumbly, unable to think of anything else to say. It shouldn’t be possible.

“Yes.” Dean takes a few steps toward him, cautiously. “Cas, this isn’t real. This is — we’re in the Empty.”

“In the Empty?” Cas looks out of the corner of his eye at Lisa and Ben. Now that he’s no longer focusing on them, they seem to have frozen, like automatons with no one to perform for.

“We’re in some kind of dream, right? You’re dreaming about the past.”

“I—“ Cas hesitates. He can’t quite grasp the idea that this is a dream, can’t remember how he might have ended up in the Empty, but it doesn’t feel real either. “Maybe. I’m not sure.”

Dean advances a little closer. “This is the past,” he says. “Indiana, that must’ve been — god, almost ten years ago.”

“It was?” Cas tries to remember, tries to envision what might happen after this. It isn’t difficult to believe this is an illusion — there is clearly something off about it — but what Dean’s saying can’t be true, it doesn’t make sense.

“Dean, that can’t be right. You’re human, you couldn’t be in the Empty.”

“I had help,” Dean says. He takes his eyes off Cas, looks around him as if searching for something else, and then looks up at the blank sky above them. “You listening? I’m not supposed to be here, right? You want me out? Let’s talk.”

“Who are you—“ Cas starts to say, but then everything fades away again.

When Castiel finally finds a vessel, he goes looking for the Righteous Man.

He’s disappointed, a little, in Dean Winchester. If he is supposed to be so important to the fight between Heaven and Hell, surely Castiel should be able to communicate with him directly, in his true form, like Gabriel delivering messages to the mother of that prophet from Bethlehem.

No matter, though: Castiel has found a vessel powerful enough for this purpose, a man devoted enough to accept.

He finds Dean and the other human man with him in the warehouse in Sioux Falls. Bullets pierce through him, painlessly, as he advances toward him.

Castiel has to admit, his handiwork is impressive. Michael’s intended vessel had been immensely damaged, but Castiel had put him back together. Improved on the state he had died in, even, repairing years of damage and scars and leaving only the handprint to mark his work. He had been very careful with Dean Winchester.

The Righteous Man has a soul that shone even in the darkness of Hell, and he has a face to match it, a body clearly created by God for a grand purpose. Beautiful, Castiel thinks.

Then he realizes Dean isn’t shooting. He’s looking at Castiel with a strange expression, almost as if he’s seen him before. Maybe, Castiel thinks, Dean does recognize his grace after all.

“Okay, Cas,” Dean says abruptly, and steps toward him. Cas? No one has ever called him that before, and yet it feels familiar. “Let’s get it over with quickly this time. You’re dreaming, okay? We’re in the Empty. But I’m gonna get you out. Just stick with me, man, keep up here.”

No. This isn’t right. Castiel looks around at the other man to find that he is perfectly still and unmoving, and then he abruptly remembers his name: Bobby Singer. It isn’t right, Castiel thinks. He knows what Dean does next: be stabs Castiel in the heart with his knife, he asks who Castiel is and Castiel answers.

Why does he know that?

“You can’t be in the Empty,” Castiel says. “I can’t be in the Empty. How did I —“

“You made a deal,” Dean says. “For Jack, remember that?”

Jack. Something about the name sparks a distant flicker in his mind. Jack is important, Castiel knows this. He just can’t quite remember who is he.

“You made a deal,” Dean is saying slowly. As he speaks, he gradually inches closer to Castiel with his hands open, showing that he’s not holding a weapon. It’s the way someone would approach a skittish animal. Castiel refuses to feel threatened by it and back away; he holds his ground. He could shatter this human into pieces, if he needed to. “And you cashed it in, when Billie was after us.”

Castiel shakes his head, uncomprehending.

“The Empty would come for you when you had a moment of real happiness, that was the deal,” Dean says. A strange expression comes over his face as he says it. “And you said — do you remember what you said to me, Cas? Can you try and remember?”

There’s something mesmerizing about it, the way he speaks. Castiel finds that he believes Dean Winchester, when he says there is something he doesn’t remember. “I can try,” he says, and closes his eyes.

He thinks, Jack. I made a deal with the Empty. I told Dean Winchester something important.

He thinks of the phrase, a moment of real happiness. It doesn’t seem possible, this concept in relationship to himself. Angels do not experience happiness. Angels do not experience emotions. Happiness is a human concept, and Castiel cannot conceive of what could possibly have made him feel happy.

“Cas?” Dean says hesitantly. “I know it’s hard, man, but I need —“ His voice is breaking, Castiel realizes, fascinated. “I really need you to remember.”

And then Dean Winchester puts a hand on his shoulder, and something clicks into place.

I love you, Castiel thinks, a bright flare of light through his mind, and he knows then that he has thought it many times before.

Castiel opens his eyes and looks at Dean, and he remembers.

“Dean, what are you doing here?” he snaps.

Dean laughs at him. He can tell that Dean knows, at once, that he remembers. “Classic Cas,” he says. “Blaming me for coming to rescue you. Jack gave me a way in.”

Cas squints at him. “As what? A projection?”

“No,” Dean says. “It’s physical, I think. As much as anything can be in a place like this. I walked through a portal. I didn’t expect that I’d get stuck in your head, or whatever this is.” He looks around at their surroundings as if he’s seeing them for the first time.

“It’s Sioux Falls,” Cas says. “After you were resurrected.”

Dean smiles, and Cas thinks it looks— bittersweet, maybe. Maybe that’s the right word. “This is where we met.”

“After Hell and the multiple times I tried to speak to you without you understanding me, yes.”

“Right.” Dean’s smiling at him. He seems — well, seems happy to see him. And Cas supposes he often does, when they’ve been separated, but. Circumstances have changed.

Cas thinks of the kiss in the Impala, his memory of that long-ago night. It had been his subconscious rewriting the past, filling in what he had wanted — if not consciously — even then. But if this version of Dean is real, was he in the other dreams as well?

““You didn’t have to come looking for me,” Cas says. “I can’t leave the Empty this time. I chose that, Dean. It’s alright.”

“It’s alright with who?” Dean demands. “Not with me. I don’t remember getting a vote on that. In fact, Cas, I don’t remember you telling me a damn thing about it.”

He’s angry. Cas knows Dean well enough to understand that this is one of the surest ways to draw Dean’s ire — to keep a problem from him, even if it’s one he would never be able to solve.

“You should be focusing on Chuck—“

“Chuck’s dead.” Dean says it sharply. “Killed the son of a bitch myself. I know what you said about killing, but I figured you wouldn’t mind it I made an exception for our favorite hack writer.”

Cas can’t help taking a step back. “You killed God.”

Dean shrugs. “Wasn’t God anymore. Anyway, everything’s back the way it should be. Jack took care of that.” He smiles, looking distant. “Hell of a kid. Just like his dad.”

God is dead. Cas tries to process it, to wrap his mind around the idea of a universe without its creator. This has been their mission for some time, of course, but perhaps deep down he never believed he would live to see it. What is an angel, in a universe without God?

“Dean, this could be an illusion,” he says. “A fabrication by the Empty created to, to torment me.”

He can see Dean thinking about it for a brief moment, and then coming to a conclusion. “So test me,” he says, spreading his arms out like he’s about to embrace the whole world. “I’ll pass.”

Cas raises an eyebrow. “What do you expect me to do?” he says. “Use iron and holy water? None of that would work in the Empty.”

“There’s one thing you could do, right?” Dean says. “I’ve seen you do it before, when you, y’know, reach into someone and poke around in their soul.”

The examination of a soul is something Cas hasn’t done in a long time. Generally, there are much easier ways to tell if something that looks human is only an impersonator, but here…

“It’s painful,” he says. “Very painful, generally.”

Dean raises an eyebrow. “When has that ever stopped me,” he says, flatly.

Cas considers it. He could quiz Dean about things that only he would know, but he doesn’t doubt his own subconscious ability to provide an answer. A soul, though — a soul can’t be fabricated, not even by the Empty.

“Fine,” he says. “I’ll do it.”

He rolls up his sleeve, and Dean opens his arms in a position like surrender. He gives Cas a challenging look, eyebrows raised, almost smirking. Cas swallows hard.

“Hold still,” he says.

It’s a rare thing, touching a soul this directly. Cas doesn’t do it often. On Earth, there are much easier ways to tell whether someone is human. The souls Cas has come into contact with directly are mostly those of Purgatory’s creatures, who he knew as a twisted, terrified mass, howling with bloodthirst and pain. And before that, of course, a human soul in Hell, battered and sore.

Cas hasn’t laid a hand on Dean’s soul in more than ten years. It is familiar, when his grace touches it. The core of a soul is always the same. Dean was easy to find in Hell, a shining beacon that Castiel, when he possessed full angelic power, could have found anywhere. It is so bright here, too, so real.

Dean’s soul is brilliant and burning. It couldn’t be said to have a color, but Cas always remembers it as gold, resplendent like nothing else, the most pure essence of humanity he can imagine. In the handful of vessels he’s possessed, Castiel’s angelic essence has always sat uneasily alongside the human soul they belong to, but this is different. He touches Dean’s soul and there is, instantly, an overwhelming sense of peace.

There is pain and anger written into it, of course, and sorrow, so much of that. All that is engraved deeply into Dean’s soul. But there is more, has always been more, of love. Love for his family and love in a more general sense, for people he will only see once or who he will never meet but who he wants dearly to keep safe, which is a kind of love all its own.

But there’s something else there too, something that wasn’t there the last time Cas touched Dean’s soul, seared as deep into it as anything. And that’s a kind of love Cas has only felt before from the inside, and as it washes over him, he knows. He knows it belongs to him.

If he tried to describe it in human language, there wouldn’t be the right words. This is more like prayer, but a prayer which is years long and which has been accompanied, until now, by the desperate wish that it not be heard. It speaks to him about love, and desire, and long-buried longing, and it says his name, the only name Dean has ever called him. Cas, Cas, Cas.

The feeling washes over him, and he tries to process it, to hold this new knowledge without it overwhelming him. It’s hidden so deep and guarded so well that Cas could never have seen it any other way than this direct touch. He loves me, Cas thinks, the words feeling foreign. Oh, he loves me.

And here they are, in this place they can never leave together.

Cas lingers longer than he has to. He feels as if he could get caught in this, like a fish tangled a net, and he wouldn’t try to get free. But Dean, he remembers, is only human and this will cause him pain. Cas withdraws his hand.

Dean looks — oddly unaffected, Cas realizes, by what should be a wholly unnatural invasion of self. Cas stares at him, breathless, and feels new and strange. The world is a different place now, fundamentally changed.

“Are you hurt?” Cas asks.

“No,” Dean says. “I guess… I mean, I know you, right?”

Cas nods. “You’re here,” he says, dazed. “You came looking for me.”

“Uh,” Dean says, and laughs ruefully. “Do you — do you believe me now?”

Cas can’t stop looking at him, but there’s nothing he can say that seems adequate. “You came here, where no human has ever been, for me.”

“Of course I did,” Dean says fiercely. “I wasn’t gonna let it end like that.” He looks at Cas the way he did in Purgatory, as if he’s trying to convince himself to say something. “You can tell, can’t you?” he says. “Why I — how I feel.”

“Yes,” Cas says. “I could feel it.”

He says nothing else, because Dean has not said it yet. He doesn’t move. It’s almost like the two of them are suspended as well, in this not-quite-real world, outside of time.

Dean sighs, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket. He looks embarrassed, Cas thinks, but it’s embarrassment in that way that is happiness too, and Cas feels a kind of frantic hope begin to take hold.

“I wish I had known,” Dean says. “I just wish — if I had any idea, when you walked into this place and told me you just pulled me outta Hell.” He shakes his head. “There’s a lot of things I would do differently.”

That they both would, Cas thinks, if they had the time again.

“Dean,” Cas says, “what was your plan, when you came here?”

Dean shrugs, sort of sheepishly. “I was gonna speak to the Empty,” he says. “Make a deal of some kind. There’s gotta be something I can offer.”

“It has no interest in a human soul. Not that I would allow you to trade yours in the first place.”

“Well, I just thought there would be something,” Dean says. His voice is rough, a sudden outburst of emotion that sounds almost angry. “I don’t know, Cas, okay, I don’t know what the plan was. I just couldn’t let that be the end of it. Not after what you said to me. I can’t — I lose it every time you’re gone, you know? And there’ve been enough times. The whole free will, write your own story shit — I don’t want to do it without you.”

He looks at Cas with so much feeling in those eyes, so much sincerity, and it feels like a shock to Cas’ system, to try and process it. He wants nothing more than to throw himself forward and kiss Dean again, wrap himself around him and never let go, but he stands still and wide-eyed, watching. This is not the place for it, not here where they are not safe, where they would be seen.

Dean’s hands are clenched and shaking, and there are tears in his eyes. “When I let myself think about what I’d do when this was all over, if it was ever over — I mean, Cas. You gotta know, I didn’t want any of it if it wasn’t with you.”

Cas believes him, he realizes. This is real, this one thing in the universe, untouched by God or anything else. And as he thinks it, he knows the answer.

“There’s one way out of the Empty,” he says. “There’s no place here for humans. It will cast you out eventually, when it fully detects your presence. You’re lucky the dead here are so restless now.”

Dean looks, abruptly, panicked. “Then I have to—“

“Listen to me,” Cas says sharply. “My grace is failing. It has been for some time. Without my connection to Heaven, it’s a finite resource and I have used it until it’s almost run dry.”

And without grace, what is he? What is an angel who falls? Just human, that’s all. That’s all that would be left.

“If I give up the rest of it,” he says slowly, “if I were not an angel anymore — the Empty couldn’t keep me here.”

Understanding flashes in Dean’s eyes. “I’m not asking you to do that,” he says sharply. “No.”

“You’re not asking.” Cas, for the first time, reaches out and takes Dean’s hand. Dean looks startled by it. He looks wild-eyed, desperate, almost like he had when Cas had summoned the Empty, but again, he doesn’t understand. “I’m offering it. And Dean, we can go home.”

Dean stares down at their joined hands. Cas could almost imagine that he can feel Dean’s soul again, under his skin, calling out to him. He will be sorry to lose that, he thinks, but he will learn to understand it in the human way.

“That’s what you want?” Dean says. “Not for me. No more self-sacrificing. For — for you, that’s what you want?”

Cas smiles. “I have a life on Earth,” he says. “I have a family. What else in creation could compare? I told you what I want, Dean. Please believe me.”

Dean squeezes his hand tightly. He nods, once. “Okay,” he says. “One more time. Let’s go home.”

When Castiel pulled Dean out of Hell all those years ago, he healed decades worth of wear and tear, breaks and bruises. He was careful and precise, and he rebuilt the man he had rescued in the best condition he could manage. The touch of grace was left in every cell of Dean Winchester’s body, washing away the accumulated damage of a life on the road, of fighting and drinking and sleeping at odd angles in cars. It was only what he had been ordered to do, but Cas thinks now that it was perhaps his first act of love.

Dean has had years with that rebuilt body and, of course, he has not been kind to it. Cas has healed him when possible, tried to set right as much of the damage as he could, but Dean hasn’t always allowed it, and healing has become more difficult in recent years. There are many small injuries that have been remedied, but left a mark behind. Dean has undoubtedly shaved off again many of the years of life that Castiel gave back to him.

No matter. It can be fixed. He has enough grace left to do that.

Cas raises Dean’s hand to his mouth and presses his lips to it. He hears Dean’s quick intake of breath, but he doesn’t move. This is not quite a kiss; it is a point of contact. Cas summons all of his remaining angelic grace and, as he has so many times before, uses it to heal.

“Don’t move,” Cas says, pressing Dean’s hand to his cheek, when Dean looks at him in alarm. “Let me finish this.”

“Cas, you’re shaking.”

It does hurt, giving up his grace. It bleeds through his skin into Dean’s, finding the damage in his body and setting it right. It illuminates both of them. It’s not like dying, and Cas has done it often enough to know. Dean says his name again, frightened, and Cas holds his hand in place.

“Dean,” he says. And then all the lights in the room explode, and the Empty screams as Cas falls forward into Dean’s arms.

An angel’s true form, any angel will tell you, is terrifying. No human could understand its non-Euclidean dimensions. Angels manage to be both beings of pure light and chimeric creatures with too many eyes. They are both lovely and horrifying to look upon. Mostly, angels are energy.

When an angel falls, that form burns out, streaking to Earth in a bright star of pure creation. Angels who fall traditionally do not retain their memories of being something else — it’s too difficult, to tether that long memory and cosmic knowledge to a human form. But for Castiel, the line is easier to cross.

Castiel falls from grace a final time without much ceremony. The remains of his angelic energy burn away from him, and in its wake there is only a human soul that was never meant to be there, one that has been crowding out his angelic grace for years.

Castiel has lived the past twelve years in a body that first was not his and then was rebuilt, for him alone, in someone else’s image. He has been human and angelic, possessor and possessed. His true form was once something great and terrifying, but now his true form is this — an unremarkable man in a beige overcoat.

An angel falls to Earth for the final time, and in Sioux Falls, near an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, a tree takes root in the embattled soil. For years, that tree will grow just a little taller and a little stronger than anything in its location should. Development efforts will pass it by, its branches allowed to stretch upward to the sun until it is the tallest thing around for a mile. Soon, people in the neighborhood won’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. A story will take root, too — just an urban legend, who knows how these things start.

The story goes that a couple who carve their initials into the tree will lead a charmed life together. Not anything like Cupid magic, according to the little entry on this bit of magic written in the journal of one of the Midwest’s great hunters, passed down through generations of Winchesters to come. Nothing that interferes with free will. Just a little luck, a little safety, a little easier road.

That all comes later, though. For now, there is this.

The Empty spits them both back up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Back where they started.

When Cas wakes up, he is lying in a motel bed and Dean is stilling next to him, eyes red, holding his hand.

“Dean,” Cas just about manages to say.

Cas.” Dean grips his hand more tightly, and then he’s leaning toward him, looking desperately relieved. Cas’ trenchcoat and tie, he realizes, are draped over the back of Dean’s chair. “How are you feeling, buddy? Are you okay?”

Dean says it so gently, and Cas’ heart beats too loudly in his chest. It doesn’t, usually, and then he remembers — he is human now, all of him fully contained in this small body.

He takes stock of his physical condition. He is slightly hungry and more than a little thirsty, but otherwise, his body appears to be no worse for wear. It contains everything that he is now, no grace left over, no trace of the being he was. No wings, no special strength or power.

The strange thing is that it doesn’t feel so different.

“I’m alright,” he tells Dean, looking at their joined hands. He remembers what Dean said to him, in the Empty. It seems impossible, a wild fantasy, but here it is. Dean’s fingers are callused, but his hand is warm. He doesn’t look much different either — a little healthier, maybe a little younger. “I’m alright.”

Dean laughs. “You’re coping well with mortality,” he says, and raises the hand that isn’t holding Cas’ to wipe tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.

Immediately, Cas tries to sit up, to comfort him, but Dean pushes him back down by the shoulder. “Slow down,” he says. “You’re still recovering from — I don’t know, basically cutting your own wings off with a pair of rusty scissors.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Cas says. Dean hasn’t taken his eyes off him for a second since he woke up. He is leaning over him, hovering worriedly, and he looks — well, he looks the way he always has when Cas is hurt, but it feels different now. “I healed you. You should have fewer scars now, and… significantly less damage to your liver.”

Dean stares at him, looking fond, and it squeezes at Cas’ heart again. He will have to learn to regulate that pulse.

“How do you feel,” Dean says uncertainly, “being human again?”

“Good,” Cas says honestly. “I think it will suit me better this time.”

Dean’s still trying not to cry, and Cas brushes his thumb over the back of his knuckles gently, hoping to convey some sense of comfort.

“Thank you,” Dean says. His voice is strained. “I know it ain’t anywhere close to enough, Cas, but thank you.”

Cas smiles. There’s no way to convey it, the way he feels, freer and lighter than he ever has. “If you don’t mind,” he says, “let’s consider it even.”

They look at one another for a moment. There is this great unspoken thing between them, a kind of energy that will break eventually, but Cas isn’t afraid of it. He thinks Dean might still be, a little, but he isn’t looking away.

“I called Sam and Jack,” Dean says. “They wanna hear from you, when you feel up to it. Let ‘em know you’re alright.”

“Yes,” Cas says. “We should call soon,” but neither of them makes any move to do that.

Distantly, on the streets outside, there are the sounds of cars passing by. There are footsteps in the hall outside and the faint murmur of conversation a few doors down. The world is, once again, filled with humanity.

“Cas, I want you to know,” Dean says. He pauses for a moment, taking a deep breath. “I want you to know that if I hadn’t — if we hadn’t been able to get you back, if we’d tried everything. I would’ve. I would’ve taken care of Jack, I wouldn’t have let anything happen to him.” He smiles ruefully. “The kid deserves better than me, but I would have — I would have tried.”

“I know you would have,” Cas says softly. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think you would be there for him, Dean.”

Dean laughs, his head bowing low over their joined hands. “He missed you,” he says. “We both really, really missed you, Cas.”

And Cas thinks, yet again, how grateful he is to know Dean Winchester, how lucky. But that, too, is different now.

I felt your soul,” Cas says, and Dean does look away from him then, flushing.

“Yeah, you sure did. What did you — um. What did you think?”

“Thank you for letting me see that.” Cas says earnestly, and Dean laughs his self-deprecating laugh. “I mean it. I just didn’t know… Dean, I never thought that you could…”

“Yeah.” Dean’s shoulders slump slightly, a gesture Cas knows is one of shame. “I guess I tried pretty hard to keep anyone from finding out.”

There is another moment of still and silence, but Cas breaks it quickly.

“Please come here,” he says, and Dean does.

It’s strange, to settle next to one another like this without any pretext about what they’re doing. Dean sits next to Cas on the bed and moves closer to him until they’re sitting knee to knee, shoulder to shoulder. Cas thinks of those vague dream memories of a diner somewhere on the highway, the front seat of the Impala, and Dean is looking at him with soft eyes, and Cas sees his own hope reflected there.

“Can I—“ Cas starts to say, but then Dean is kissing him.

It’s tentative, nothing like a climatic kiss at the end of a movie, which is Cas’ only real frame of reference for how he has wanted this to happen — and he has wanted this, since he was conscious of wanting, since he was capable of desire. Cas is hardly an expert in these things, but Dean doesn’t kiss him like an expert, either. He kisses like it is desperately important, like this thing between them is precious. He presses one hand into Cas’ hip and cradles his jaw in the other, and all Cas can think to do is pull him closer, taking two fistfuls of Dean’s shirt and holding on tight. He tastes like motel coffee, and Cas’ newly human senses interpret it as the best thing he’s ever experienced.

Dean pulls away from him after a few moments, but he doesn’t go far. His hand strokes the side of Cas’ face slowly, like he’s memorizing how it feels under his fingertips. He’s beautiful, and he’s smiling, and Cas wants a thousand things at once.

All those years, Cas never really let himself think about what this would feel like, to be wanted — to be loved — in return. It was a solitary thing for him, being in love. When he thought of what he wanted, it was just to say it out loud. He wanted Dean to know, to accept it and to see it, to see himself the way Cas has always seen him. It hadn't been bad, that kind of love. He’d felt blessed to have it. But this, this thing he couldn’t even imagine properly…

“I was wrong,” Cas says.

Dean looks alarmed. “About what?”

“That was better than saying it,” Cas says. “That was — I’m very happy.”

Dean grins at him, ducking his head a little like like he does when he’s embarrassed. One of his hands finds Cas’ again and he winds their fingers together.

“There’s some things I still need to say,” Dean says. Cas opens his mouth to speak, but Dean cuts him off. “No, don’t — I need to, I need to say it my way, and I think you should hear it.”

Dean takes a deep breath, and Cas, on impulse, kisses the back of his hand again. Dean smiles at him, looking relieved, that seems to give him something he needs to say it.

“When we found out about Chuck, about the way he was running our lives, I was so fucking scared of that,” Dean starts haltingly. “Because I guess, I always have been, right? Of the idea that I’m not — real. That I’m just whatever people wanted me to be. And then I find out I’m whatever God wanted me to be.”

As much as Cas wants to interrupt, to tell him he’s wrong, he stays silent. He stays close, both of them leaning against each other.

“I mean, you, Cas, you’ve been seeing through the Matrix since the minute we met, right? And I’ve still been stuck in it. And I’m not brave the way you are. I was just scared, because…”

Dean takes a deep breath, eyes closed. His hand is clenched tightly in the fabric of Cas’ shirt. “Because I knew what I wanted. I knew, and I thought it wouldn’t ever happen. I always thought, you know, that’s not gonna happen for me. I’m not gonna find someone, I’m not gonna have a family. But every reason I thought that — those are Chuck’s reasons. I had that right in front of me, and because of everything he threw at us I never saw it.”

His eyes are wet with tears; Cas wipes one of them away with the pad of his thumb, and it feels like a miracle in itself that Dean lets him.

“I love you, Cas. And that’s — that’s real. I’m sorry I couldn’t say it sooner, but please, you gotta know, I love you.”

Cas kisses him, just for a moment, a kiss of saying thank you. “I know,” he says.

Dean laughs in a surprised burst, and he knocks his knee lightly against Cas’. “Don’t Han Solo me, man. You know I’d be Han.”

“Oh, was that a pop culture reference?” Cas says innocently. Happiness is so warm, heating his human body from the inside out, and Dean gives him a kiss that makes them both laugh.

“I love you,” he says again into the kiss. “Love you, love you, Cas.”

It may not always be so easy for him to say it, but that will be alright. Cas does know it now, the same way he knows every other part of Dean Winchester.

In the morning, Cas thinks, they will wake up together, and perhaps wake up still tangled together, and Dean might look at him with sleepy eyes and kiss him on the mouth. They’ll start driving home together, back to their family, and there will be just the two of them for miles of open highway, windows rolled down and Zeppelin playing over the speakers. But for now, Cas is human, and Cas is tired. He rests his head on Dean’s shoulder. Dean kisses him on the forehead, bringing a hand up to stroke through Cas’ hair, and they stay that way for a long time.