There's a moment, between one and the next, when nothing means anything. Castiel is neither a being of light nor a man of flesh—he is memory, and sensation, and nothing more. Time stretches, impossibly thin, and Castiel feels the light of God run through him like an electric current.
"Is the tablet safe?" he asks aloud, and the sound of his voice startles him, strangely solid in the spinning void.
He shuts his mouth firmly, and his teeth click together, and yes, yes he has teeth, a face, a solid form. Reaching within he finds that the tablet is gone, nothing but a hollow space where it had been pressed, and he becomes aware of the body he claimed, little by little. His grace feels distant, unreachable as his wings, burned in the crossing.
He breathes out in relief, comforted in the knowledge that it had been worth it, and opens his eyes.
The Garden is bathed in snow. It reflects bright where it has fallen in mounds around colorful flowers, and it takes him a moment to understand why he recognises it. He'd been somewhere similar, years ago, when asking for guidance. For a sign.
It's beautiful, he thinks.
"That is the point," God says, and Castiel turns toward the voice.
God stands before him, and he looks like a man, bathed in light. It's disconcerting. He shakes it off, and is surprised to feel his wings snap back into being. In the midst of the Garden, he thinks himself like a tree in the spring, his grace coming back to him bud by bud, leaf by leaf.
"It's over, Castiel," God tells him, "your work is done."
The light around God flickers.
"I... forgive me, please, Father. I know it was to be my final flight, but please, just give me more time, just one hour, I only—" Castiel starts, panicked, but he's silenced with a bright roll of something that might be laughter, shimmering around God in waves.
"You're free, Castiel."
"Free," Castiel repeats cautiously, fearful of the hope that's blooming within him with his grace.
"It seems a great many of my words have been misinterpreted," God tells him patiently, "this was your final flight as the Shield; not entirely."
"You have earned it."
"I don't... what am I supposed to do?"
"You may return to Earth if you wish, or remain in Heaven. You may choose to fall or remain an angel. Your will is entirely your own. I will not intervene again."
Castiel hesitates. With all the time that he felt pass while he fought to reach the Garden, he fears that he has been gone too long, that all that waits for him on Earth is a grave.
"How long has it been?"
Relief sinks into his very bones.
"Thank you, Father," he says, and he feels that rumble again, rolling across Heaven.
"You may go now, Castiel."
Dean has barely slept. He knows it isn't helping.
"You need to at least try," Sam tells him from the doorway, and in answer, he gets up, crosses the room, and closes the door in his brother's face.
It only takes a couple of seconds for him to feel like shit about it, and he lets out a sigh, pulling it back open. Sam's still there, a crease between his eyes.
"I'm just worried," he goes on, as if he didn't even notice the door shut, "we all are."
It's been almost a week since God made a guest appearence in the bunker, and while Sam has been better since—a side effect of being touched by holy light, they think—Dean has been a mess.
Castiel hasn't come back.
The first day, they'd all gone out into the woods to give Chuck a proper send off, and digging the grave had taken up most of the daylight hours. Digging was hard work, exhausting on it's own, and with the added weight of Chuck's sacrifice, it gave him no room for thinking.
His mind had been occupied fully, and it stayed that way until nightfall, until they'd covered Chuck's body in salt and given it over to flame, until they'd all said their thanks and their goodbyes, and the last of the dirt had been shovelled back in.
After, though, as the four of them had trudged back to the bunker in silence, the nagging fear at the back of his mind had taken form. Still, at that point, while he'd been worried, it had been easy to tell himself that it was too soon to expect Castiel to be back. It hadn't even been twenty four hours.
But then, before he knew it, it had been. Then thirty hours. Then forty-eight. Time kept passing and they hadn't heard a thing.
Now, it's been just shy of a week, and he's still gone.
All day, he's felt the looks of pity settling on him, and he hates it. He wants to tell them that he's not worried. That it's fine. That Castiel is just making sure everything is properly squared away in Heaven, and that he'll be back in no time.
He wants to tell them all of that, but they'd see through it. He's worried sick.
"You think he's..." he starts, then clenches his jaw, looking back into his room, "you think there's still a chance?"
"I don't know," Sam says honestly, and Dean kind of wishes he'd lie to him, give him some false optimism for a change.
"Get some sleep, okay?"
"Yeah. I will."
On the side of a tree-lined road in Lebanon, Kansas, Castiel lands, and takes the cell from his pocket. His hands are shaking as he unlocks the screen.
It's late, a little after eleven in the evening, but he doubts Dean is asleep. The line only rings twice before Dean picks up.
He has a split second to savor the sound before he is struck sharply from behind, and the phone is knocked from his hand, skittering over asphalt. Turning, he sees Esper, and feels a chill. Behind him, there are others—Haxiel, Jarushiel, Malach, all holding blades—and with them, Naomi stands with fury in her eyes.
"God has forgiven you your sins," she says, stalking closer, "we have not."
"You blaspheme," Castiel tells her.
Distantly, he can hear Dean shouting through the phone, and his eyes dart toward it.
"He doesn't care, Castiel," Naomi says bitterly, and he frowns, looking at her in confusion.
"What are you talking about?"
"At least before we didn't know," she says, "now He's back, and He doesn't want us."
"That isn't true."
"Isn't it? He spoke through Joshua, and do you know what he told us? He told us that we need not remain in Heaven."
Her voice is shaking, though whether it is with rage or sadness Castiel cannot tell, and he looks at her with pity.
"Sister, don't you see? It is a gift."
"No! He has forsaken us and called it freedom," she shouts, and Castiel sees the tears in her eyes, hears the pain in her voice, and he hates it, hates that he feels the need to comfort her even as she advances, "and it's because of you."
"Naomi, please," Castiel says, holding up his hands in placation, "don't do this. I don't want to fight."
"Nor do I. I only want retribution."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Letting the blade drop from his sleeve, Castiel casts one last glance toward the cell phone, and hopes that wherever Dean is, he doesn't have to hear him die.
Dean's been driving for a full minute before he notices Sam in the passenger seat, and he nearly jerks the car off the road when he catches sight of movement in the back. Apparently this is a family affair.
He hadn't even noticed them follow him out of the bunker.
"You shouldn't have come," he says sharply, "we've only got the one angel blade."
"There's still holy oil in the trunk. And besides," Sam says, angling a thumb over his shoulder, "they wouldn't listen."
Looking at Charlie and Kevin in the rearview, Dean narrows his eyes.
"You're staying in the car."
He ignores the eyeroll he receives, and sets his sights back on the road ahead.
The call had come shortly after he'd given in and crawled into bed, and once he heard the sound a struggle on the other end, it had only taken a couple of minutes to pinpoint the location of Castiel using the cell phone's GPS.
Castiel was less than five minutes drive away if he stuck to the speed limit. Naturally, he's been driving at nearly double, and already he can see the flash of a tan coat ahead, the glint of blades in the moonlight.
He slams on the brakes at the last possible moment, barrelling out of the car with a blade in his hand, and jumps right into the fray. Two angels beside Castiel are still standing, and one of them he recognizes as Naomi. He launches himself at her, aiming for the neck, but is knocked aside by the other angel, stumbling down the embankment by the road and tripping over a third already laying there, his wings burned into the earth.
"Look out," Castiel shouts from the road, twisting to slash his blade toward Naomi, and Dean turns just in time to see the angel who knocked him down moving swiftly toward him.
He ducks, avoiding her blade by millimeters, and swings his arm up to drive his own home. It works between her ribs, sending flashes of bright blue-white through her eyes, and he pulls it out only to strike it upward, through her jaw, just to be safe.
He smells burnt feathers when she drops, but doesn't spare another glance; just scrambles up to the road to see Sam with a bottle in his hand and a lighter in the other, watching Castiel and Naomi fight and waiting for an opening.
In the end, he doesn't need it. There's an awful second when he's sure Naomi has won, but then Castiel spins, thrusting his blade up through her chest, directly through the heart. She flares bright, falling to the ground, and Castiel stares down at her empty vessel, the smell of ash rising from the wings burnt into the asphalt.
Sam slumps back against the hood as Kevin and Charlie climb out from the back, smiling with relief, and Dean grins right back at them before making his way toward Castiel.
He's halfway to him when he sees it; a glint of silver-white, seeping from Castiel's stomach.
For a second, Dean is confused; he doesn't know what he's looking at. Then Castiel looks down, brow furrowed, and his mouth splits open. Dean drops his blade.
Blue-white seeps out around the wound, from his mouth, his eyes, and Dean's running, running, desperate, but his feet feel too slow, and when he reaches Castiel, he's already on his knees, chest heaving.
"No, no, no Cas, hold on, you'll be okay," Dean rambles, suddenly on the ground beside him, "just hold on for me. Cas? No, no Cas, Cas!"
His hands sink into tan cloth, fingers dig into shaking shoulders, and he hears Castiel suck in a breath, shuddering, before he coughs. Castiel's hands lift up, then, to clutch at his collar, scrambling for purchase, and he stares at Dean, determined.
"Dean," he rasps, and there's blood in his mouth, seeping between each tooth, and some distant part of Deans mind thinks his teeth look too white amongst all that red, "Dean, I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about, Cas. You're gonna be fine," Dean hears himself saying through a tight smile, "just hold on okay?"
He can feel it now, the buzz, the ringing of grace, seeping out of Castiel's every pore with his blood. Behind him he hears the others call out, hears their feet slapping on bitumen as they hurry toward him, but he doesn't look, can't look away from Castiel. Not now.
He presses his fingers against the wound, tries to stem the bleeding, the draining grace, but it's not working. The wound might not have been enough to kill him instantly, but it's deep. Castiel heaves. Dean can feel the rattle and rasp of fluid in his lungs every time he breathes in, can feel it like it's his own pain, his own life fading. He aches, right down to his soul, and that's when he remembers. Another day, years ago, when Bobby had given him the strength he needed to recover, to bring him and Sam back from the past.
"Touch my soul," he says, and Castiel's eyes go wide. He shakes his head.
"Too... Too dangerous. Too much."
"Dammit, Cas, do it!"
He grabs Castiel's hand and presses it hard against his chest.
"Do it! I am not going to lose you now, do you hear me? So you either do this and heal, or I'm storming... Wherever it is angels go when they die and dragging you back myself."
"I-you'll be... hurt."
Castiel stares up at him, eyes pleading, as if begging him not to make him do this, risk this, but Dean can't deal with that right now.
"I'll be hurt if you fucking die!" Dean shouts, and Castiel flinches at the noise.
Something in Dean breaks, and he lowers his voice, drops his forehead to lean against Castiel's.
"I need you to be okay," he murmurs, "Please, Cas. Plea-"
He doesn't get the last word out; Castiel's hand is sinking into his chest, and he's on fire. His soul lights up like a beacon.
It's agonizing, exquisitely painful, like a slow-spreading heat that crawls through his veins, through his chest, and every molecule expands to bursting. He feels split in two, like his cells are breaking apart.
Distantly, he figures that's what is happening; he's giving away part of himself, it's being torn from him.
When Castiel finally pulls away, his breath coming heavy, forehead slick with sweat, Dean slumps forward against him, his eyes closed, face pressed against the collar of Castiel's shirt.
"Tell me it worked," he says against his neck, and his voice is wrecked, thick, "please tell me it worked."
"It worked," Castiel replies, a low rumble beside his ear, and Dean could cry from relief.
Instead he laughs, squeezing his arms more tightly around him, face pressing down into the hollow of Castiel's throat. He can feel Castiel's pulse under his lips, and it's so easy to press them harder against it, to move up, pressing over and over against cool skin, stubble, tasting the salt of his sweat, or tears, or both, and it's not a kiss, it's benediction, it's relief, it's gratitude and love, and they all come so naturally when it comes to Castiel that Dean just keeps giving. And when he lifts his face, feels Castiel's breath ghosts over his lips before he even knows he's so close, Castiel gives right back. His hands are on Castiel's face, pushing up, back into his damp hair, and he doesn't care that they've got an audience, doesn't even care if those goddamn books become best sellers, because this, right now, is his.
"I thought I lost you," he says, repeats with each second spared for breath, "I thought I lost you."
"Never," Castiel replies.
He says it like it's the simplest thing in the world. Right now, as Castiel kisses him in the dirt on the side of a road in Lebanon, Dean thinks maybe it is.
Wow. It's over. I don't know how to feel about this D: Thank you so much to everyone who stuck with this story over the past few months-without your continued support I would never have moved beyond the first chapters. Everyone who has left a comment or a simple kudos has helped me in ways I can't begin to explain, and I love you all for it. 3 (ps: I hope you aren't mad at me for killing Chuck, though it /is/ in the title, so you can't have been too shocked!)
(pps: Come visit me on tumblr and let me know what you thought, or just say hi-there's a link on my profile.)