Disclaimer: Not playing with my own toys, they belong to someone else.
A/N: I wrote this in under an hour…I apologize if it feels rushed or anything at places. I hope you can enjoy anyway! :)
"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it." –John 1:5
The war is over and Raphael is dead. And Castiel has sacrificed everything for this moment. He has given up everything. Including the relationships he had shared with Bobby, Sam, and Dean.
He has also sacrificed himself. Crowley is probably dead, too, either that or fled into the sanctuary he has made of Purgatory. But Castiel came into this knowing that he would give up everything and then be done with it. The human family he had before has given up on him, the look in their eyes when he last left them speaking of betrayal and fear. By the saints, they are afraid of him and he had just stopped the world from ending for them. They don't understand, though he had asked for it.
If Castiel were human again, he would weep.
But he is not human, and he is no longer angel—not really, though the Grace that slips from his chest alongside the blood still speaks of muted holiness. He settles back against the wall where he'd landed when Raphael's exploding Grace had thrown him. The abandoned building—a mill of some sort—still crumbles around him. He has already barely avoided rubble pinning him from the ceiling as it caves in, and he wonders if he will be more susceptible to the human brand of pain if he does get buried in concrete and steel.
No matter. He is not long for this world or any other, anyway. An angel, even one as tarnished and stained by corruption as he, exists nowhere once they die.
So Castiel settles himself in, goes lax against the wall that soon be covered in the burned impression of his wings (it will not be impressive; his wings have been tattered and practically destroyed by the battle with Raphael), and he remembers each time he has touched Dean Winchester's soul, the most precious thing he has ever held that has given him the greatest sense of peace.
It is forbidden for a Seraph such as he to approach the Pool where new souls are held until they fall to Earth. But the moment he senses the purity that shines from the newest soul resting there, like a flood of liquid warmth bleeding through the edges of his Grace, Castiel knows that he cannot resist the soul's call. It sings to him in color and crystalline light while he moves through the heart of Heaven, between the Fields where souls rest in Paradise and the area they are cared for at creation, and he steers himself toward it. He is met with resistance in the ether that fills the space of Heaven; it knows that he should not be here.
The resistance fades when he enters the golden gates that separate him from the Pool's edge, and he kneels there to watch. The other souls, golden-bright and dancing with vitality, eddy around within the Pool's center. The one he came here for, though, it eases away from its peers. The pure light that shines from the soul is like nothing Castiel has ever seen or experienced in all his days, and he reaches out tentatively toward it. The soul brushes against his fingertips, and for a moment his entire world is filled with goodness and righteousness such as he never imagined—the only sensation he has to compare this to is what he thinks laying eyes on the face of God might be like, and how strange to feel that way about a human soul.
He finds himself smiling, another strange sensation. This is the most beautiful soul he has ever seen. He wants to keep it with him for as long as he exists. Just as he realizes this raw, aching want, he also realizes that he has made a mistake. He startles, feels his Grace fluctuate as it responds to the colors of the soul he touches. It feels as though his Grace is bonding with the soul...though he cannot understand how. Perhaps this is why angels are forbidden from this place—perhaps they have a particular weakness to these souls.
The soul's sheen shines silver now, and he understands that its time is growing near.
It clings to him when he tries to draw away. "I am sorry," Castiel says sincerely. "I should never have..." He trails off. The soul continues to linger against him as he tries to coax it back to the Pool, so it can be drawn to its new human form. The soul bobs, pushes against him as if in annoyance. Castiel smiles, fond and amused. "You are a curious thing. I look forward to meeting you again." When the soul continues to persist, trying to entwine itself around him, he sighs. "Please, try to understand. I cannot stay with you."
He manages to slip away from the soul's grasp, and the instant that he does, it slips from the fabric of Heaven and eases its way to Earth. Castiel looks beyond Heaven, watches the soul make its descent for as long as he can. He feels calm, but not in the way that Heaven's wonder eases him. He smiles, and thinks that perhaps he will meet that soul again.
He hardly has time to check on the soul's progression through its human life, but he checks in on its otherworldly glow from time to time anyhow. Sometimes, the soul weeps with sorrow and loneliness. Others, it sings of joy and love so great Castiel wonders if it could fill all of Heaven. There is war going on between Heaven and Hell, though, and it has been coming to a climax over the last century. Castiel loses track of the soul for a short while.
The pain, when it comes, feels as though several garrisons of his brothers have swooped upon him and felled him with their heavenly weapons. He knows that the sensation is not one he himself is experiencing; he knows that he is feeling the pain of the soul. He tries to look in on the human, but the moment he does, the soul is covered in darkness so black he knows it can only be something to do with Hell. He reads the human's soul from afar, sees the contract that it has established, and feels the most tremendous despair that he thinks he has ever felt. Greater even than when the Father ordered the Host to look away from Earth while the Favored Son was crucified.
Castiel knows the moment Hell has claimed the soul, hearing the familiar haunting melody of it calling for him, desperate and clinging. Its desperation aggrieves him, twists his Grace with worry and chaos.
Soon after, the Host buzzes with news. Castiel hears of it from Zachariah, hears that his human is no ordinary human, and he is not surprised. "The Righteous Man of this Era," Zachariah tells him. "You, Castiel, will lead the charge to Hell and you will raise him."
He is asked to do this, and then told to wait for the command.
"A Righteous Man cannot be our Righteous Man until he breaks," Zachariah smirks, and Castiel thinks it is a good thing they are brothers and that Zachariah is the more powerful one. He may try something he would surely regret otherwise.
When the time finally comes, he rushes to make the Descent. His brothers clear a path for him, but they are aware that only one angel will return to Heaven. Their Grace urges him on, singing of wrath and might and magnificence. Their encouragement and the call of the soul he has been sent to retrieve strengthen him against the agonizing sensation of ice flooding him as the hellfire catches his wings and scorches them. Hell is a scourge, full of darkness and hate and absent of the presence of the Father. It tears at him and drags him from his flight. It tempts him to stray from his path. Lost souls call out to him, beg him for redemption as the shadow of his wings sweep over them. He does not stop, cannot stop, and he will never stray. It takes him far too long to battle his way through Hell's dominion, and he knows when each of his brothers fall as they keep his way clear to return. He does not let it sway him.
He nearly weeps when he sees the state of the bright soul he touched in Heaven.
Castiel notices that the youth's eyes are the color of a storm-ridden sky spackled with the gold of the sun; not the inky black of a demon's. The eyes are wild and tortured and angry, giving only a hint of the impish boy who dwelt within that verdant gaze before. The freckles are hidden behind streaks of blood and the scars that have been inflicted over the years that he has been trapped here. The soul is tortured, twisted in a way that no Righteous Man ever should have to be. It is mangled and not itself and it is not responsible for the gore it is covered in.
But there is the trap, Castiel knows. As Job before him, this Righteous Man must face trials in order to prove his ability to reflect the glory of the Lord.
"Dean Winchester," Castiel says while his human stares, "I have come for you, to take you back."
He watches confusion twist Dean Winchester's handsome features, watches as it morphs into rage. "No," he rasps, voice sandpaper-rough and choked full of the screams he has given to his torturers. "I can't," the human says then. "You aren't taking me."
Castiel expected emotion, but this is not the right one. He stares, uncomprehending, at the human for a moment, and says, "You are Chosen, Dean Winchester. It is all right..."
He sees that he is making little progress when Dean's soul lunges forward, the knife in his hand (is it carved of human bone?) arcing toward Castiel's wings. He does not flinch away as he ought, but rather ducks the attack and lets the blade catch in his wing. The pain is mild, nothing compared to the hellfire that has left his white feathers nothing but glowing, charred embers. Hell has tainted him, yes; but it seems to have broken his human. Try to understand this, Dean Winchester, he thinks and grabs Dean's knife by the hilt and curves his other hand over Dean's shoulder, which sizzles slightly at the contact with his Grace. And, oh—the feeling is still there, buried beneath the sorrow and the despair. Castiel is filled with reverence and awe and peace, and is overjoyed at the chance to touch this pure soul again.
Dean grows still, his eyes wide as he stares into Castiel's and whispers, "I know you."
Castiel smiles at him. He flexes his battered wings, tightens his hold on the Righteous Man. He is weary but only has to last long enuogh to heal the Soul as best he can, to erect what small barrier he is able around Dean's memories, and to rebuild the body that will house his essence. His charge is safe in his grasp, and he flies them both out of the Pit.
Dean Winchester is saved.
Castiel is tacked by his wings to one of the walls of Zachariah's favorite area in Heaven, the torture chamber. Not torture, his brother's voice corrects him, tough love.
His journey to this point has been long and his resolve tenuous at best, his will wavering between obedience and free will. He would like to say that he has been a friend to Dean Winchester, he would like to say that he may have developed an alliance at least with Sam. These relationships, the favor he bestows upon his charges have led to this. His brothers have dragged him back to Heaven, forcing him out of his vessel, and oh, Jimmy. The man must be confused and struggling. Castiel at the very least managed to protect his body from any harm before he was forced out of it.
Zachariah stands over him as he typically enjoys doing. Hours have passed on Earth, perhaps days, but it seems to have been years here in Heaven. He has seen so much pain, shoved down his throat by Zachariah's manipulation of human souls. His wings are broken, the pain pulsing through him like a heavy blanket of cold fire. They broke them before they pinned him in place, ensuring that he would not be able to escape. Between these sessions with Zachariah during which he takes a physical beating as his lesson, he is left in solitude, cut off from the Host and the light of Heaven in order to have all the pain of human souls pushed through his Grace. Every time a human feels pain, it is also experienced by Castiel. He has watched through the eyes of a woman as she is raped and beaten to death, has felt a child's terror as she was abused by her father, has experienced the haplessness of a man who can only find solace through the substance he injects into his veins.
It is, at times, worse than the beatings.
Zachariah is slow, takes his time. Castiel thinks and comments that he would make a very good partner for Alistair. Zachariah in turn puts a sword through each of Castiel's wrists, creating a perversion of the Son's pose on the cross. The grin upon Zachariah's face is twisted with malicious humor. "Ah, Castiel. Of all the angels in all the heavens, you were the one I least expected this from."
Angels older and more powerful than he have the ability to reach into their lesser brothers and twist their Grace. Castiel feels spent, but his Grace roils within him as Zachariah sharply works his way through Castiel's being, dragging and tearing and mauling everything that Castiel believes and represents. He tries to catch the broken sound threatening to rip free of his throat, but it still reverberates through him as a low keening noise.
Zachariah grins. "I'm so sorry, Castiel, did that hurt?" All of this anger, over a simple decision to warn Dean of Zachariah's intentions. Castiel thinks that his brother would make a very good human, indeed, were it not for his disdain for the race.
Castiel coughs, tastes metallic bitter. "You can't do this, brother," he tries to say, but Zachariah presses a hand to his throat, tracing his face with the blade in his other hand.
"Hush, Castiel. You, the basest of angels, are too simple a creature to understand. You favor these humans too much, and it has already nearly caused your downfall. Don't worry, though, little brother—I won't let you fall."
The lesson continues, and Castiel loses himself in the haze of pain. Time, never meaningful for an angel in most typical scenarios, becomes a torturous cycle in which Castiel remains trapped.
He hears a thought—a quiet, unintentional prayer that he is not meant to hear.
Cas, I don't know what's going on with you…but I hope you're okay.
His Grace is awash in rapture, the prayer's contact with it nearly as incandescent as contact with Dean's soul itself. I am here, Dean, he wills the hunter to know. I hoped that you would understand I would never intentionally abandon you. The prayer and its implication that Dean does understand give him strength enough to stand stoically through the long bouts of solitude intermingled with the different methods of torment that Zachariah inflicts.
Jimmy's voice is the next to reach him, railing at him accusingly.
Castiel, you son of a bitch! You promised me my family would be okay, you promised you were gonna take care of them!
And Castiel realizes that he is doomed to break.
The world has not ended, but the Apocalypse has. Sam Winchester and Adam Milligan have both descended along with his brothers to Lucifer's Cage, and Castiel takes a moment to wonder at his own resurrection as he makes quick work of healing Dean and bringing Bobby back.
He stands out of the way, making himself scarce so that Dean and Bobby can speak quietly amongst themselves for a short while. The drive to Bobby's house is silent. Castiel has chosen to accompany Dean, not wanting him to be alone during a time when his charge feels so lonely and lost.
Dean glances at him, eyes red though he will never admit to Castiel that he has been fighting tears this whole trip. Castiel is certain that it is his presence that leads Dean to push away his grief and his need to mourn in the manifest of tears—but even if Dean asks, he knows he will not leave. Dean's soul speaks only too well of his anguish. It is not the golden glow that Castiel recognizes and adulates the most, but rather a twisted thing of dark regret and quiet desolation and blazing rage. He cannot trace all the colors to the emotions they originate from, but picks out many different hues swaying around the soul's dimmed, honey-colored core.
"So I'm sure I told you to fuck off already," Dean drawls, voice roughened by emotion.
"You did." Castiel's simple agreement does not draw forth the anger he was expecting. Instead, Dean's mouth curls into a rueful smile. His smile is broken, and Castiel's Grace twinges. He cannot sense humor in it, though he suspects it is humor that Dean wishes to convey.
"You know you're not my personal watchdog. You don't have to stick around for every little thing." Dean gesticulates sharply with one hand, pinning his eyes to the road before them. "'s not like you've never left me to deal with my shithole life on my own before."
Dean means to be unkind, and Castiel recognizes it in his tone now. He sighs. He knows that apologies are not what Dean wants, but he is uncertain what his charge is asking for. So he says, "The circumstances were different, then."
Dean snorts, attempting to bring levity to a situation where he has lost a huge piece of himself. "Yeah, you were a total dick then." Castiel sees through the broken attempt at humor and the quiet aggression. Sam's presence is so sorely missed within his soul, Castiel wishes that he were powerful enough to descend to Hell himself and pull both Dean's brothers from the Cage. He has thought of attempting it several times already, though he is convinced he would not be successful in even reaching the Cage let alone surviving the experience. His wings have never fully recovered from his last Descent into Hell.
He turns, catches Dean's glance and holds his gaze in what he knows Dean thinks of as his creepy stalker stare. He says quietly but surely, "I will not leave you now, Dean. Not if you want me to stay." All you have to do is ask, Castiel adds mentally but knows better than to say out loud—Dean never does well when faced with emotional choices. He hopes that Dean knows him well enough to interpret his intended meaning nonetheless.
Dean's lips curve, and this time the small, timid smile seems at least somewhat sincere. His soul begins to stir, the golden center glowing brightly as though it beams at Castiel's Grace and fills it with the incredible sensation that he now knows as pure, uninhibited love. Castiel thinks that he has said the right thing.
The rest of the drive is silent, not uncomfortably so.
Castiel lets Dean and Bobby bid one another farewell in private, stays near as he said he would but gives them the courtesy of time and some distance.
Dean leaves Bobby to keep his promise. He does not ask Castiel to stay, not even when they speak again. Castiel decides that this is Dean's choice. He makes a decision and returns to Heaven, leaving Dean angry and his soul embittered. It is the last time for more than two years that Castiel will be allowed access to the soul, and it is the last time for more than a year that he and Dean will speak. His beloved hunter will not call for him, and he thinks as he wages war maybe it is better that way.
Castiel does not touch Dean's soul again. He cannot fathom what it would do to stain the brilliance of his hunter, to be touched by a warped, twisted angel who once stood with the might of Heaven and fought in the name of the Lord. Castiel sees his relationship with the Winchesters grow strained and begin to crumble. He sees his camaraderie with Bobby Singer become tense and full of suspicion and mistrust.
He can do nothing to stop this. He has no time to mend the brokenness in the bond he once shared with each of them. He has so little left to spare them to begin with. He is weary, he has not had the opportunity to rest for months in the humans' timeline. Everything has come down to this: if he loses, so does humanity and a large number of the angels in Heaven. So Castiel does what he must do, does it despite the fact that he knows he is not only poisoning his wilting Grace but also whatever ideas of trust and amity he ever hoped to find in his human family.
The eve of their final battle, Castiel uses the old cellular device Dean and Sam had purchased him to call Dean. The hunter doesn't answer. Castiel leaves a simple, short message. Then he drops the phone. He will no longer need it.
Raphael dies on a Thursday (three have passed since they started this battle on Earth), and the coincidence would make Castiel smile if he had not gone and done what Balthazar had warned him against. Dying by my own sword. This thought, strangely, does make him smile.
Castiel has been contemplating the ceiling above him for some several hours now, and he shivers as his Grace grows weaker and leaves him cold and bereft. He thinks, selfishly, that he would like to experience the warmth of Dean's soul brushing against his Grace one last time.
He is becoming impatient, and wishes that his Grace would quiver its last so that he can embrace oblivion. Death has ceased to frighten him. It is almost a familiar experience, at this point. He is only glad that Jimmy accepted the gift of Heaven the last time, with Lucifer. He would hate to make Jimmy experience death again, though his vessel had chosen to stay with him after their first death together.
Vaguely, he becomes aware of a strange sensation, cutting along the corners of his Grace the same way losing control mid-flight does. He struggles to lift his head, peers through narrowed eyes through the wreckage of the building. The feeling grows, colored a warm tangerine he recognizes as fear.
And then he hears his name being called.
"Cas! Where are you, you son of a bitch?"
A full-body shiver engulfs him, making it difficult to move let alone to reach out and guide Dean to him with simply a touch of his Grace. Here, Dean. I am here. He collapses, spent, and listens to the sounds of scuffling and half-grunted cursing as Dean tries to find him.
And then, by the saints finally, warmth seeps through him as he is grabbed by the lapels of his trench coat and heaved upward. "You stupid bastard!" Dean snarls, and Castiel does not need to look to know that his face is twisted in rage. He is shaken slightly, not enough to harm but certainly not comfortable. He must make a noise, for then Dean is circling his shoulders with one arm, shifting him so that he can look at the wound in Castiel's chest. "For fuck's sakes, Cas! I can't leave you alone for five fucking minutes!"
"How…" Castiel's voice is weak, even the true voice that remains hidden by this vessel. He coughs and feels the splatter of blood that stains his lips. "How did you find me?"
He opens his eyes, meeting a very concerned green-colored gaze that quickly grows stern. "I had to fucking ask Balthazar, you asshole!" Dean snaps. "Don't you ever put me in that position again. Smug bastard's gonna be holding this over my head for life."
Ah, so that is where Balthazar had disappeared to. Castiel had wondered.
"Cas." His focus is pulled back to Dean, who is giving him a very serious, very un-Dean look. "Are you…?"
Castiel sees no need to lie to him. "I don't think I'll survive this."
Dean looks skyward quickly, blinking his eyes furiously. His jaw tightens and his soul, what Castiel can still sense of it, burns red. "If it wouldn't break my frigging hand, I would kick your ass for this," he growls. "Why would you do this, Cas? Why would you wait until you were going off to die before you said anything?"
"I…" Castiel struggles to speak, to understand what Dean wants him to say. Dean cuts him off, lifting a hand to jerk sharply through the air.
"No. Don't even. Just shut the hell up. No talking for dicky nerd angels. You just listen." He nearly pokes Castiel's brow with his fingertip as he jabs it toward him. "You do not get to wait to explain shit about what you've been up to over the fucking phone, Cas. And you especially do not tell your best fucking friend you're in love with them that way. And you really especially do not say 'bye, I'm off to kill myself again for you' like a condescending prick! You got me?" There is a long pause, and then Castiel manages a weak nod. Dean exhales, the tension draining out of him as he does. He cradles Castiel closely. "Good. Now I got something else to say, and this is kinda important."
"I'm listening," Castiel croaks.
Dean inhales deeply, splotches of red coloring his face and highlighting each of the 52 freckles sprayed across his cheeks. Castiel would count them again to make sure that he hasn't missed any, but he is too tired.
"I didn't get it. I didn't understand. I'm sorry."
Castiel frowns. "Dean?"
Dean huffs in annoyance. "I get it now. I understand why you did what you did, even if I had to have Balthazar's smarmy ass fill in the blanks. And I didn't know what you wanted me to do before. Y'know, before you fluttered off back to Heaven. But I know now." He gives Castiel his most vehemently-threatening stare, the one reserved for Sam when a 'chick-flick moment' is imminent. "So I ain't letting you die on me, Wings. Y'hear? You and me, we got a good couple of years of unrequited shit to make up for. And you're totally making this whole freaking war thing up to me in the filthiest ways I can think of."
Castiel aches all over. The source of his pain is not the wound. "I'm…changed, Dean. I don't know that I am worth saving," he confesses softly.
"Well that's bullshit." Dean glares at him. "Look, Cas, if you were meant to turn into some high-class hellspawn, your dad wouldn't have brought you back. Don't you think?" He doesn't let Castiel answer before he hurries on, "So. Go on."
"Balthazar said if you were wounded by an archangel's sword, he wouldn't be able to heal it," Dean explains. Castiel furrows his brow, but nods in confirmation. "So, there's only one other way to save you, right?"
It takes a moment, but then Castiel's eyes widen. "No," he rasps, trying to pull back from Dean's grasp.
Dean scowls at him. "You already did this with Bobby," he points out.
"That was different." Castiel's head jerks back and forth, his body quaking with newly-known fear. "It was imperative—you would have been lost—those were desperate circumstances —"
"Yeah, and so are these." Dean's argument is laced with fury. "I'm desperate, here, Cas. You have to help me to save you. Do it, Cas. For me."
His eyes are daring Castiel to deny him.
Castiel's eyes grow liquid-hot and he blinks as he realizes, he's crying. Dean smiles at him, hand cupping his face for a moment as his thumb brushes away the wetness at the corner of his eyes. He leans in, presses a feather-soft, chaste kiss to Castiel's forehead, his cheeks, and finally his mouth. Peace overwhelms Castiel, not unlike the new life he'd been granted twice now by his Father. The kiss lasts only briefly, but Castiel can taste salvation in it, bordered by the sweet-sour taste of Dean.
Dean pulls away and stares at him for long moments. Then he reaches for Castiel's hand, tugs it to his chest. He makes it impossible to misunderstand him when he says warmly, "Save me again, Cas. Save us both."
And Castiel does.