Surely, even Dean wouldn't have tried to fall asleep here. Out in the open, alone in a forest old enough that even demons were hesitant to trespass upon it.
Castiel's grace trembled, sending waves throughout the fragile new peace of Heaven. He breathed a thought of apology to his brothers and sisters even as he increased the pace of his search. The night, never quiet on the Earth, whispered low, soft words of malice and hatred, of a stillness colder than the dark sky, of unmaking.
He found Dean lying far below, his still figure stretched out on a bed of thick moss. His head was lost in the shadows, cradled in the gnarled, blackened roots at the stump of a dead oak tree. Long before Castiel's feet touched the earth, the stump twisted, its bark flexing like a stolen skin as it leaned over Dean. Needle-like fingers broke through the earth to tear through clothing, leaving deep gashes which dripped onto the cursed, greedy ground below.
A thought of displacement, and then the thing, soul-eater, mannen-drake, was before him. Castiel reached out to it. Everything he was had been focused, poured into a single point inside, completely pure in intent. He was what he had been created to be: the instrument of a greater purpose.
It was defiling Dean's soul. It must die.
Focused will, wild and unstoppable, struck more quickly than light. The monster blackened and burst. Holy flame devoured it until nothing remained but ashes.
Intent satisfied, Castiel slipped out of the moment. Everything that had happened between his finding and the present returned in a rush: the trembling of each leaf as he approached, the overwhelming scent of fertile earth and decay, the abrupt ending of the hateful chanting he'd heard while flying above. He saw that Dean had been awake, lying passively, smiling up at the soul-stealer as it tore into his flesh.
Such creatures as that had no power to seduce their prey. Thoughts swirled through Castiel's mind, chasing each other in an attempt to run away from logic that didn't make any sense: Dean had chosen this.
A rattling, wet breath drew his attention, and he looked around quickly. They were alone. The Reaper may not have come yet, but there wasn't much time.
"Dean." Castiel slipped through the space between them to kneel at Dean's side. His vessel's hands shook as they peeled back blood-soaked strips of torn t-shirt from lacerated skin.
The wounds were deep, but this, this was something Castiel could fix. "Let me," he said, stretching his hands out over Dean's chest.
"I thought you couldn't do that anymore." Dean coughed, flecks of blood spraying from his lips.
"Things are different now." The love and goodwill of his family coursed through him, unexpected in the sudden force of its power. Muscle and skin reknit, grew whole beneath his hands, wounds vanishing as quickly and effortlessly as if Dean's body were his own.
"Not everything," Dean said. Bitter emptiness swirled around the words, the sharpness of them cutting through the light of Dean's soul.
"You did this on purpose." Castiel thought he'd become good at recognizing his own emotions, giving them their simple human names in an attempt at mastering them. For this, he had no words, only absence of every kind of comfort: of hope, of light, of love.
"Like you care. What are you even doing here, Cas? Making sure the goods are delivered on time?" Dean struggled to sit up, and it was then Castiel realized his hands were still pressed against Dean's chest. Every heartbeat pulsed against his fingertips.
His hands stayed put, refusing to let go. "Why?"
Dean refused to answer, pushing against Castiel's grip the way he'd once fought to return to Hell. His thoughts then had shone through like a stained glass window, four-dimensional and alive with color and passion. Now, they were muted, oversaturated with dark red fear and something else, something Castiel had seen once before.
"Dean-" he began.
"What are you doing here? Why you? Your buddy Zach have a date or something?" Dean stopped fighting, and his gaze slid to the side, hiding.
"I came because I was worried for you. Because I care. That thing would have destroyed you utterly." The nearness of the loss was too real. Eternity stretched before and behind him, time and creation a single constant of endless existence. Lonely, even in the warmth of a restored Heaven.
Dean's heartbeat, too fast beneath his hand, did nothing to reassure him.
"If you really care, you'll finish the job."
A sharp cry left Castiel unchecked, nearly shattering Dean's eardrums (damage quickly healed). "Why?" he asked again when he found his human voice. "Tomorrow-" Tomorrow, Dean would come home, for good.
"So you know all about it." Dean looked at him then, challenging. "Were you planning to tell me?"
He hadn't wanted Dean to know, had wanted to spare him the pain that comes from the certain approach of mortal death. "Dean, there was nothing I could do. Your soul was walking the earth on borrowed time. You were raised for a purpose, which you have fulfilled beyond Heaven's hopes. You returned our brother to us."
A low, lost laugh, resonant with forty years of pain in Hell and thirty years of bitter struggles in life, caused his wings to shiver behind him in the shadows where Dean could not see. "So I got to hear about it from Zach. And now you're done with me. Once a dick, always a dick, I guess."
Before Castiel could make sense of it, could shove aside the weight of crushing feeling in order to function, Dean continued: "I'm not going back."
Too often, Dean said things that made no sense, and now, when it really mattered, Castiel was lost. "This is the Will of the Lord."
"Well scew your…just screw it, okay?" They had found God together, and even Dean could no longer curse Him so easily. "I don't want to go back, Cas. You saw what I became." Dean swallowed, breaking open beneath Castiel's eyes. "Why does God want that?" he asked in the voice of a child.
Finally, Castiel thought he understood. "You believe you are going back to Hell."
"Don't let it happen. Please. You owe me that much, you son of a bitch."
"You believe you are damned, and so you attempted to destroy yourself while you were still able to do so." The danger could have been avoided, if Dean had simply come to him and asked. But Dean never asked. He never asked Castiel for anything – for the world, for his brother, yes, but never for himself.
For a moment, Castiel's world began to narrow again. Frustration and love and the horrible fear that one day Dean would do something like this and Castiel wouldn't make it in time spun into a terrible wrath.
He grabbed Dean's shoulder, pulling him up roughly to sit, their faces nearly level. "I raised you once. Do you really think I wouldn't return for you?" The words came out fast and hard, as though he was throwing them at Dean.
For once, Dean had nothing to say.
"You still believe you're unworthy. Do you think no one cares? What would Sam have done when he found out?" Castiel was well within Dean's personal space now, and the thought that he was making Dean uncomfortable was gratifying, but not nearly enough. "He isn't going to live forever. How would he have felt, going to Heaven and learning you'd destroyed yourself?"
The mention of his brother seemed to snap Dean out of it. He shifted, glanced up. "Sammy is-"
"Zachariah lied, Dean. Sam fulfilled his role. He is to be rewarded. As are you." There was no room left for anger at his dead brother, killed at the hand of his own family like so many others. Better to be angry that Dean had trusted Zachariah's words, clinging to cynicism as though it could ever bring absolution.
Dean shook his head, licked his lips. "Or maybe they just didn't want to tell you the truth."
"What will it take for you to have faith?" Castiel moved closer still, as though his borrowed human eyes could search Dean's face and find the answer when his natural senses kept failing him.
The night remained quiet around them, between them. The breeze picked up, scented with smoke and scorched wood, carrying a chill that pebbled Dean's exposed skin. They were much closer than Dean allowed, but Castiel couldn't move back because now Dean was looking at him as though he'd found an answer. Inspiration flashed through Dean golden-white, cutting through the miasma that swirled, suffocated his soul, clearing it away.
"You really would, wouldn't you. Stupid son of a bitch." The corners of Dean's eyes crinkled in what was very nearly a smile. He was shining now, glowing to Castiel like the brightest melody of triumph played in Heaven.
There was almost nothing Castiel wouldn't do, little he hadn't already done, despite the frustration of dealing with a human who seemed incapable of expressing himself clearly. And the way Dean was looking at him now, full of warmth and life and even love, was the perfected reflection of God's greatest achievement.
Castiel could only hope it meant Dean would listen, for a change. "You are," he paused, angelic words for favored and cherished and belovéd crowding into his thoughts, words that would break Dean if he could understand them. "You are important. You cannot keep doing these things. If I had not made it here in time-"
"I'm sorry," Dean said, his smile widening, dazzling. So quickly, he had changed, and Castiel did not try to resist the comfort the change had brought. Dean's hand came up and settled on Castiel's arm. "I'll try not to make you worry again."
Somehow, Castiel very much doubted this.
Quiet fell between them once more. This time, the silence seemed too loud, muting out the background noise with its absence like the sound of a breath being held.
"So," Dean broke the silence, his voice normal but still shatteringly loud. He stretched his arms out wide and rolled his neck, and then leaned back on his arms, his legs stretched out in a pose that was dramatically casual. He looked down for a moment, then right at Castiel, mischief in his eyes. "Looks like this is my last night on earth."
It was, by Castiel's careful count, the seventh time the phrase had been spoken since the apocalypse began. "Yes," he agreed because this time, it was true. By now, he'd learned the appropriate response. "How would you like to spend it?"
Anything that would make Dean happy, Castiel would do. Warmth flooded through him, and he sent a silent prayer of gratitude that, if only this once, he would finally be able to give Dean something he wanted.
"You have to ask? Sex! What better way to spend my last few moments before becoming a blissed-out zombie in Heaven?"
"I told you, things in Heaven are different now."
Dean blinked, but did not ask. Instead, he continued, his voice going quiet, the light within him softening. "There's something I always kind of wanted to try, but never let myself. Couldn't man up and admit it, and now-"
"Anything you like." Castiel raised his arm and moved his fingers toward Dean's forehead. "Where do you want to go?"
His wrist was intercepted, Dean's hand holding on tight. "Actually, I thought we could just sit here quietly," he said, the corner of his mouth turned up slightly.
That would be something you never tried, was what Castiel wanted to say, but found he could not speak because Dean's lips were moving against his. Only for a few seconds, but once it was over, Castiel understood what time was to humans, how a single moment could be so precious, only to pass and be gone.
"If, um, you're interested," Dean said, his breath cool against Castiel's moistened lips.
Dean fidgeted, seeming to expect an answer, so Castiel replied: "Yes. I am interested."
Instead of moving in again for another kiss, Dean pulled away, his rare laugh clear and careless and seemingly unstoppable. It was not the reaction that Castiel had hoped for, and he frowned. But Dean's joy was infectious, and he leaned over to smile down at Dean, now rolling back and forth in his mirth.
He watched as the laughter slowly subsided, and Dean was looking up at him. "Come here," Dean said, his eyes wide as he reached out to take Castiel's tie, pulling him down.
The forest was different the next morning. Almost invisibly, new plants were beginning to sprout where the soul eater had fallen, tiny roots digging in and taking nourishment from its ashes. The early, pale strands of light which slipped in between the leaves overhead grew stronger, kissing the small smile on Dean's sleeping face. Castiel could do nothing to stop the sun from rising, so he watched and tightened his arms around Dean's body, warm and naked, wrapped around his own beneath a very wrinkled trench coat.
He knew without looking when they were no longer alone. Softly, he pressed his lips to Dean's forehead, wishing him a safe journey until they were reunited.
"It's time," Tessa said.
Castiel nodded. Even as he did, he was clothed and standing beside her. He would give anything not to leave, but this, he knew, was not allowed. So he did what he could, dressing Dean with a thought. Dean wouldn't want his body to be found that way, if it ever was.
"I will take good care of him for you," Tessa said. It was a courtesy he hadn't expected; Reapers had no respect for Heaven or Hell. He followed her gaze to where Dean lay. He had curled in on himself more tightly beneath the trench coat Castiel had left behind, his breath beginning to shallow.
"Thank you," he said. "I will be waiting."