Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural.
"False idols are a sin, Castiel."
The voice rang through his head as he lay, beaten and bruised, in a stranger's idea of heaven. He knew he was lying because surely he didn't have the strength to stand any longer. But he couldn't see the environment. All he was aware of was the sudden emptiness and the searing pain of his punishment. That and the regret. The regret that crippled him more than any pain ever could.
He was only vaguely aware of what he was regretting. Something about earth. And humans. Was it two? Or three? He couldn't remember. He couldn't think of a name or picture a face. But he knew they, whoever they were, were of the utmost importance. To him, at least.
"You had to know that I would never allow this."
The voice was booming again and the pain peaked once more. How long had it been? How long had he been laying there, wishing help would come but not knowing who to call for? He opened his mouth but was unable to form even a scream. Could anyone help even if they tried? Would anyone come at all?
But, Cas, you'll call, right? If you get into real trouble?
This voice was different. Gruff and full of genuine concern. And Castiel wanted to call out to the speaker, but he couldn't remember his name.
"You were once one of my brightest creations. How could you have been so foolish?"
Every time the voice spoke, Castiel felt the pain increase and each time he wished for death or salvation. He wished something would make it all stop.
The torture and taunts continued for what felt like an eternity, though he couldn't be sure that time was passing at all. He tried to focus his energy elsewhere, to block out the pain. His mind, what was left of it, searched for a distraction. A memory. A time when had he felt happiness.
It seemed to take a million years for the thought to form and when it did, it was only a series of flashes; scenes from his days on earth. Was earth even still there? Or had its time ended during his punishment?
He saw tacky wallpaper and cheap bedspreads. Open roads and a mountain of rusted automobiles. He saw a black car with leather upholstery. A trunk full of firearms. He saw city after unfamiliar city but none them came with a sense of being lost. Strange sights flashed before him but something always told him he was home.
He focused on that word. Home. What was home? His first instinct was heaven. But what was heaven? Just an endless display of the highlights of one's existence. What were Castiel's highlights?
He focused deeper, through the pain that he hadn't noticed was slowly lessening.
Highlights. Happiness. Home.
And there they were. The faces. Three of them.
An old man with a greying beard and ever-present cap.
A young man with a strong jaw who towered over him.
And the last one. A man with green eyes and a determined look.
A GED and a give'em hell attitude.
There was the voice again. Not the bringer of pain but the welcome one. Castiel focused on that voice. On that face. Those green eyes which had communicated so much to him during his time on earth.
And finally, Castiel remembered the name. And slowly he managed to make a sound. The first one he had uttered in what was surely a millennia.
And then, suddenly, the pain ceased. Castiel was left gasping for breath as his surroundings slowly came into focus. He was alone in a dank, dark dungeon. It smelled of mould and age and fear. This wasn't anyone's idea of heaven. This was the prison, reserved for only the most disobedient of angels.
"I now know what will hurt you the most."
Castiel recognized the voice now. It was that of his father. He didn't bother to look up, knowing perfectly well that he was alone in the cell.
"The Winchesters," God said.
"They're still alive?" Castiel asked.
"Yes, Castiel, they are still alive. Little time has passed for them. A matter of weeks," God answered and Castiel thought angrily of the times he had begged for signs and answers and his father had ignored him. "They will continue on, fighting and aging and eventually they will die. And your punishment, Castiel, will be to watch it all happen. You will never speak to them again, only seeing them from afar. You will never return to earth. And once they are dead, you will go on and never forget. Your punishment – the torture you must endure – is an eternity of regret."
And then Castiel knew that he was gone.
Time passed. Weeks, months, and finally a year.
Castiel watched the Winchesters every day. He followed the progress of that black impala as it made its way from one side of the United States to the other and back again. And he listened every night when Dean stood outside, looking up at the stars, and calling out to him.
Tonight the boys were back in Sioux Falls, at Bobby's. Castiel had been keeping an eye on the old hunter as well. It was the times when the three of them were together that were the hardest for Castiel. On the one hand, he was happy that his family was still a family, but on the other, he was sad that he was could no longer be a part of it. Despite what Dean may say.
"You're welcome back here any time, Cas," Dean was telling him. "If you ever decide to be you again."
Castiel sighed and cast his eyes downward. They didn't know what had happened to him. They didn't know that the souls had been sent back to purgatory almost has soon as they'd left. They didn't know he was only an angel again.
"Cas, please," Dean began desperately, making Castiel turn his attention back to the hunter. "Please just be you again. 'Cause whenever you decide to do whatever you're gonna do; whenever you decide that you're gonna go all biblical on us, I don't want to be the one that has to stop you. But I will, Cas. If you make me."
Dean paused for a moment to take a long swallow from the bottle in his hand.
"You're still my friend, Cas," he said. "I know you screwed up royally, but you are still my friend. You're still family to us. And we will welcome you back with open arms. Just please, man, make the right choice."
The voice made Castiel jump. He had been so engrossed in Dean that he hadn't noticed the other being appear next to him. He turned in awe to look upon the face of his creator.
"Father." Castiel's voice caught in his throat.
"Interesting," God repeated. "Human beings, I mean. They have a saying down there that time heals all wounds and yet the Winchesters are still suffering. They never cease to amaze even me. I had assumed that after a short while they would recover from the loss of their friend, especially one so resourceful as Dean. But they haven't and their performance is suffering for it."
"Performance?" Castiel asked.
"You do know that Sam and Dean Winchester were created with a purpose," God said.
"The apocalypse..." Castiel trailed off, not understanding. The apocalypse had been averted, they had seen to that. What performance was his father referring to?
"Yes, there was that unfortunate debacle," God replied. "But more importantly, their life's purpose. The hunt. But they are distracted now. And more reckless, which I don't think anyone thought was possible."
God chuckled and Castiel looked back down to Dean.
"Their recklessness will get them killed," Castiel said. He had known that for a long time, but it had been different when he was with them. He knew he had always been a voice of reason to the often over-emotional brothers.
"And we can't have that, now can we?" God asked. "I should have realized that the sentence handed down to you would also punish them."
Castiel turned to his father.
"I don't understand," he said.
"I'm giving you a choice, Castiel," God told him. "I can go down to them. Wipe their memories. They will have no recollection of you or the things you've done for them. Or I can send you back. Without your abilities. Without you grace. You will never be able to return to heaven."
"Never?" Castiel asked, looking up at his father.
God chuckled again. "Not until your time comes. You will have a human soul. You will be subject to all the emotional turmoil and physical pain of humanity. You will grow old and feel your body degrade around you. You will die. And then you may return to heaven. Or hell. It will be your soul subject to your free will and judgement. It is time to choose Castiel. Are the Winchesters worth mortality?"
Castiel looked back down to earth. To Dean. The answer was clear. It always had been.
"Send me back," Castiel said.
"Very well," God replied.
And then he fell.
Dean Winchester had just torn his eyes away from the starlit sky and turned back to Bobby's house when he heard it. The agonizing scream of a voice that was all too familiar.
He spun back around, dropping his bottle and letting it smash on the ground. He ran toward the huddled, writhing mass of dark hair and beige trench coat, falling to his knees at its side. Dean rolled him over to look at him; part of him trying to help, the other part needing to verify that this was real. Castiel was still screaming, alerting the two men in the house who came running out.
"Cas!" Dean was yelling, trying to figure out what was wrong and calm him. He looked up at his brother; fear and confusion clear on his face. "Help me!"
Sam came running, also dropping to his knees. Together they tried to steady the angel who was clawing and pounding at his own chest, still screaming. And then it happened.
A ball of white light rose from the centre of his torso. The brothers both jumped, falling backwards. The ball hovered above the now silent and still Castiel for a moment before shooting upwards. The boys watched it until it was lost among the stars.
And then something else happened. A bright, white light with no apparent source shone down on Castiel. All at once his mouth opened in a silent scream and his body lurched, his chest being thrust upward. The light grew brighter until the hunters were forced to look away. Castiel gasped and the light went out, his body falling back to the ground with a thud.
Bobby had made his way forward now and the three men stared at Cas, no one daring to move. Finally, Dean pushed himself up and crawled towards him.
"Cas?" he said, patting his face in an attempt to wake him. "Cas!"
Sam made his way forward as well, placing two fingers on his neck and searching for a pulse. "He's alive."
"Let's get him inside," Bobby instructed.
The brothers lifted the former angel, Dean at his shoulders and Sam at his feet, and carried him into Bobby's house, laying him down on the couch. The three men stood back and stared at him for a moment before looking around at each other. Confusion, fear, and worry were etched on all of their faces.
"It's Cas," Sam finally said.
"I think we'd noticed," Bobby shot back.
"But, I mean, is it Cas?" Sam continued, sorting out his thoughts. "Like, Cas-Cas? Or God-Cas?"
"What could do that to a god?" Bobby asked.
They were silent for a moment before Dean spoke. "We'll just have to wait till he wakes up."
"We should keep an eye on him," Bobby said and none of the three were completely sure if that caution stemmed from the worry that Cas might need help in the night or if they needed to be on their guard from him.
"I'll watch him," Dean volunteered.
No one argued and eventually Bobby and Sam both made their way to bed.
Dean had fallen asleep sitting in one of Bobby's kitchen chairs, his feet propped up on the desk. It was four uneventful hours before he was awoken by a groan. His eyes flew open and his body jerked awake, causing him to fall from his precarious perch onto the floor.
"Son of a bitch," he mumbled, rubbing at the kink in his neck.
"Dean?" Cas' voice was barely audible but Dean's head snapped upwards to look at him.
"Cas?" he asked, inching forward slightly.
"Where am I?" Cas questioned.
"Bobby's," Dean answered. "What the hell happened?"
Cas finally opened his eyes and turned to the hunter. "Where would you like me to start?"
"How 'bout the beginning," Dean replied. "Where did you go after that night?"
Cas slowly pushed himself up so he was sitting. Dean repositioned himself on the chair. They stared at each other for a moment.
"Back to heaven," Cas began. "I'm not sure why. To claim my throne, perhaps. But he was waiting for me."
"My father," Cas said. "And he was not pleased. He ripped the monster souls from my body, sending them all back to purgatory. And then my punishment began. It was excruciating. I lost all track of time and space. I didn't know where I was or even who I was."
Cas' eyes had glazed over as he spoke, as though he wasn't even speaking to Dean at all. Dean didn't make an attempt to question or interrupt. He was still trying to comprehend the fact that Cas had been Cas for over a year now, that he had endured punishment. That he had been in pain and there had been nothing Dean could do about it. He hadn't even known.
"I couldn't escape it," Cas was speaking again. "Not physically, anyway. So I made an attempt to escape mentally; to hide within my own mind. I did my best to remember a time when I had been happy and at peace. And all that came to mind was my time on earth with you and Sam and Bobby. But in doing so I gave myself away."
"What do you mean?" Dean asked, his voice hoarse.
Cas looked back at him. "I said your name, Dean, and he knew. He knew what the ultimate punishment for me would be. To never allow me to come back. To watch the only beings in the universe that had ever truly mattered to me die. That's why I never came back. I couldn't."
"But you are back," Dean said.
"Yes," Cas replied, nodding his head. "Because God cares for you and your brother. He saw that you were suffering and felt your job performance was as well."
"Hunting," Cas answered. "As I was built to be a soldier so were you and your brother built to be hunters. It is your life's purpose. He sent me back for you, Dean."
Dean stared at him for a moment, skeptical. "Just like that? Your eternal punishment lasts a year and you're free to go?"
"Not entirely," Cas told him. "There was a catch."
"What catch?" Dean asked but before Cas could answer he continued. "What was it that happened to you when you got here? You were in pain and then this little ball of light flew out of you."
"Yes," Cas said again. "That was my grace."
"Your grace? You mean, you're not an angel anymore?"
"No, Dean, I am not," Cas answered. "I assume there was more light after that."
"Yeah. What the hell was that one about?"
Cas smiled softly, reaching a hand up to place on his own chest. "I have a human soul now, Dean."
"You're human?" Dean breathed. He cast his eyes downward for a moment, thinking about it all. Then his gaze quickly shot back up. "This is my fault, Cas. I did this to you. If I'd just kept my damned mouth shut and moved on with my life you'd still have your wings."
"No, Dean," Cas began. "This was my choice."
"Yes, my father gave me a choice," Cas explained. "I could return to earth as a human or he could erase me from your memories entirely. I chose humanity."
"Why the hell would you do that?" Dean's voice raised a bit. "Humanity is nothing to be desired, especially when you've got another option."
"The small shred of hope that things might one day change was all that kept me going," Cas told him. "If you didn't know who I was I could never return."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Dean asked, still angry. "You had it good, man."
"No, I didn't," Cas said, just as forcefully. "The only time I ever had anything even remotely close to good was the time I spent here with you and Sam and Bobby. I have existed since nearly the dawn of time but the only days I ever truly lived were spent here."
Dean looked down at his clasped hands, thinking it all over. He sighed softly before looking back up.
"We're gonna have to teach you how to shoot," he said.
"How to shoot?" Cas asked.
"You lost your angel mojo, Cas," Dean replied. "You're damn good at hand-to-hand but you're gonna need to learn how to shoot if you're gonna be a hunter. You are planning on being a hunter, right?"
Cas thought about it briefly. He imagined travelling the country with the brothers, sitting in the back of the impala, living from cheap motel to cheap motel. The idea seemed more appealing than it probably should to a rational being. He smiled softly.
"Good," Dean said, getting to his feet. "We'll start tomorrow. Get some sleep."
Cas chuckled darkly. "Sleep," he said, looking down at the couch.
"Aw, the perks of humanity," Dean replied. He turned to leave but looked back, staring at Cas for a moment. "And we're gonna need to get you some new clothes. Maybe something that fits."
Cas looked down at Jimmy Novak's suit and coat. "You're probably right."
"Good night, Cas," Dean said. "I'm glad you're back."
"Me too," Cas answered.
Dean left, going to sleep in one of the spare bedrooms upstairs, and Cas lay back on the couch. He stared out the window, watching the stars and thinking of how some humans referred to them as 'the heavens'. But heaven wasn't stars and dark skies, not for him at least. Cas' idea of heaven was a ramshackle house in the middle of a scrap yard. It was a black 1967 Chevrolet Impala. It was a family that knew all his faults and transgressions and welcomed him back despite them.
And with that thought, he drifted back to sleep.