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It’s loud in the Empty. Unbelievably, inescapably loud, at least according to the Shadow. Loud isn’t how Castiel would describe the noise, per se, although he isn’t the Shadow, so perhaps the perception differs. Or the entity is just that sensitive. It does feel different in the endless void this time, though. There’s a humming—a vague, distant buzzing, like—forgive him—a gnat who has discovered a lamp. 

In the recesses of Castiel’s mind, that buzzing becomes an echo of times past. Of Angel Radio and what it used to be, back in the days when the angels’ numbers were plentiful, and when Dean Winchester was saved for the very first time. 

The entity hasn’t bothered with him yet, not since he was yanked unceremoniously through the summoning portal. The last Castiel saw of the Shadow was when it left (grumbling angrily about “Loud”), presumably to take care of an already-half-swallowed Billie. Whatever end the second incarnation of Death came to in this awful place, Castiel wasn’t made privy to that, either. All he experienced was the resonance of her last primal scream shivering down his spine, and all the faint yet consistent buzzing that’s continued on since

Minutes, hours, days, years might have already passed—time is different here, and Castiel has no way of tracking it, and still the Shadow doesn’t come. 

Castiel sits, he stands, he walks and walks and walks and walks. All he ever discovers is more darkness, more nothing. 

The buzzing decreases, but only in barely-perceptible increments at infrequent intervals. Finally, after seconds or centuries of putting one foot in front of the other for no discernible reason, Castiel figures it out. Once he does, he’s somewhat irritated at himself for not slotting the clues together sooner, but in truth, he’s still in shock from the events that brought him here in the first place. 

At the very edges of his brain, the insistent humming dims again. It reduces so faintly that if it weren’t for his angelic senses operating on sharpened edge here in the near-complete dark, even he would have missed it. 

Beings are going back to sleep. Other beings, here in the Empty, that are awake. That’s why the Shadow hasn’t come to taunt him, to put him down permanently itself. The realm entity—that both ended his life and saved Dean’s—is being put through its own version of a worst nightmare where everyone and everything occupying this place is awake. 

The realization makes Castiel smile, and it’s not long after (or perhaps it is, time is relative) that he grasps at the remaining pieces of the puzzle. Jack. Jack exploding in the Empty, and now this. Jack did this, Jack woke everyone up. Jack made it loud. If nothing else, Castiel did two things right in his life. He used his last breath to save the man that he loves, and he raised the only other being in this entire universe capable of irritating the Shadow more than him. 

Castiel’s smile wavers when he thinks of Jack and how he wasn’t able to say goodbye. Wasn’t able to tell Jack one last time that he is everything Castiel could have hoped for in a son. That he is exactly who he’s meant to be, and that Castiel will go to his eternal rest never doubting for a single moment that Jack will do great and wonderful things. That he’s always had the power and strength of character to do so. That Castiel is proud, that he loves him endlessly and always will.

For a while, Castiel pointedly does not think about Dean. 

But the buzzinghummingscratching in the farthest reaches of his mind gradually becomes quieter and quieter, and Castiel feels the non-existent walls closing in. 

Soon, the Shadow will come for him, too. Tease him, gloat—whatever entities like this do when they’re definitively occupying the Winner’s Circle. It’s not that part Castiel is dreading—he’s spent the better part of twelve years being mocked and teased by demons, angels, and God-like beings who all saw through his poorly-disguised affection for the Righteous Man. 

No, Castiel almost looks forward to hearing those things directed his way one last time. At least now, he can be satisfied knowing that he spoke his truth to the only person who needs to hear it.

It’ll be—nostalgic.

It’s what comes after that Castiel dreads.

It’s the thought of being sent—trapped—in the dark of his own mind, instead of only this void. 

After all, the Empty is still a place. A vast bubble of pure nothingness upon nothingness, but a place nonetheless. Unpleasant, unyielding, but it isn’t painful here. It isn’t Hell. It is, by definition, Empty. It is nothing at all. 

His own unconscious mind, though. Castiel may have overcome much, may have stood in his own power in a moment of self-actualization and confidence and triumph, but he cannot control what his mind will do when loosed upon itself. That—that is the real curse of the Empty. One’s own fears and failings, played on a loop in perpetuity, with not even the knowledge that this is what’s happening. 

Castiel knows perfectly well what he will see when the Shadow has had its fill of teasing and taunting and finally puts him down. He knows what scenes his mind will play, over and over like an old projection film in a theater.

Flash, flicker, countdown 3...2...1...

An eternity of losing Dean on repeat, of Castiel letting him and Sam and Jack down. Of watching Jack die because Castiel wasn’t fast or smart enough to save him. Of his brief time playing God, opening Purgatory, containing all of the Leviathans. Murdering a thousand copies of Dean, stealing the Angel Tablet. Slaughtering all the angels who sided with Raphael. Teaming up with Crowley, breaking Sam’s wall, being tricked by Metatron, causing the Fall. Being kicked out from the Bunker. Failing to cure Dean of the Mark of Cain, saying yes to Lucifer, losing Kelly Kline. Lily Sunder and her child. Dying and leaving Jack behind.

All of it, everything Castiel’s ever failed to do right, will surge and overwhelm, will never allow him to think of his one shining moment in the sun ever again. Of Dean’s handsome face and the swell of pride Castiel felt in his own chest at finally living his truth, at using his love for something that would undoubtedly change the world.

Because Dean would, Castiel is wholly sure of that, even now. Dean and Sam—the Winchesters can’t fail, not if they do the same thing he did—believe in themselves and the power to rise about the fate Chuck wrote for them. That’s why it was easy for Castiel to go, why it will be easy for him to sleep, knowing that he did the right thing. The only thing. 

For Dean, for Team Free Will, for the world.

Except, Castiel knows full well that when he does sleep, in the place of all of those wonderful certainties will arise a vicious mental parade, courtesy of the Shadow. Endless clips of his own inadequacy, his own subpar existence, and nothing else. No glimmer of hope, no light, nothing but... nothing, and pain. 

Castiel stops walking. He crouches down on nothing, wraps arms that are still dressed in the same suit and trenchcoat he was expelled from the Empty wearing after Lucifer stabbed him, before The Deal ever existed. 

He thinks about Dean, ponders the lines of his beautiful, confused face and the way his brimming eyes are burned into the back of Castiel’s lids. A part of him (if he’s honest) is more than the tiniest bit glad there was no time for Dean to respond. Long before his confession came about, Castiel came to terms with the belief that Dean did not reciprocate his feelings, and he wasn’t lying when he told Dean that it didn’t matter.

Happiness isn't in the having. It's in just being. It's in just saying it.

All the same, Castiel was equally happy not to hear Dean’s rejection uttered aloud—it was better that he was taken before he could. 

More time goes by, and Castiel uses every millisecond. He examines each and every memory he has of his family, of Sam and Jack but especially Dean. Memorizes each freckle on Dean’s face, the precise green shade of his irises. The curve of his smile and the ridiculous bow of his legs. He hopes, prays (to no one) that if he just focuses hard enough, he’ll be able to pull those thoughts with him, to keep them when he goes to sleep. 

He fought the Empty and the Shadow once, there’s no reason he can’t do it again. A last act of defiance, to try and keep this one tiny thing for himself. A cold comfort that will help Castiel stay warm for the rest of eternity. 

Emptiness is truly something. 

The last time Castiel experienced it, the Shadow shattered the illusion fairly quickly. Now, there is no such reprieve. Nothing is an understatement of its own character: the Empty is not simply a lack of light and sound and sensation, it’s the absolute absence of it. Completely, wholly.

Absence, as it turns out, feels cold, even though it isn’t anything at all.

At some point, Castiel realizes the background white noise (as he’s come to think of it) of everyone that’s awake hasn’t changed in a while. Hasn’t lessened. They’re all still awake, no one is returning to sleep. Of course, a while is relative—perhaps he’s losing his sanity, and only seconds have passed. Or no time at all. 

No, Castiel thinks, lying in an approximation of horizontal and blinking into the heavy dark. He’s fairly certain that things have—probably—gone unchanged for longer than any previous arbitrary amount of time. 

There’s nothing for him to do about it, though. Throughout all of his walking, Castiel never encountered another soul. Or an angel or a demon, for that matter. He’s not even very well-versed in how the Empty works—for all he knows, he’s in his own pocket of space and time, unable to access anyone else’s. Similar to Heaven, infinitely less interesting.

For all he knows, he’s walking in circles, or on a hamster wheel. 

For all he knows, the Empty is watching him right now.

Is this the plan? Is this the torture? Will this be nothing but waiting for sleep from now unto forever, expecting a reprieve that never comes?

Suddenly, Castiel is engulfed by a paralyzing wave of fear that nearly makes him feel human again. Zipping jolts of anxiety-laced lightning shooting through his veins, as if he still has a functioning mortal body to cause him pain and suffering at all. 

Does he? 

He gets down on his knees again—unnecessary since the entire construct of nothing shifts any which way he moves to keep him off-balance and unsteady—and covers his head with his arms. 

“Please,” Castiel says softly, unable to stop himself from leaning into the fear, the absolute devastation of being alone and forgotten and surrounded by nothing until the end of time. “Please.” 

Who is he even talking to? No one is here, no one is coming.

If he once thought not being put to sleep immediately was a blessing, now it feels dangerous. Terrifying. Alone with his thoughts and awake forever? Castiel can’t say that in actuality, that seems an improved outcome.

It all breaks suddenly.

The problem with utilizing nothing to torture and terrorize is that it’s an extremely easy illusion to destroy. All one needs to do in order to release the grip that nothing holds, is to materialize something.

In this case, it’s light.

Not just any light, but a gash, a tear in the very fabric of reality, and—if Castiel’s not mistaken—sunshine pouring in from the other side. 

He can’t help it, it’s been so long—or perhaps no time at all—that the mere presence of anything that isn’t an endless empty void instantly rips a strangled, desperate sob from Castiel’s throat. He can feel wetness on his cheeks and vaguely wonders if tears exist in the Empty, if he even exists in the Empty anymore, or if he’s become a part of it, too.

“Cas!” 

There’s a shape framed by the light, a shape that’s so familiar, in part because Castiel’s been focusing on memorizing its every line and curve for—however long it’s been. 

This is a trick. It must be. His deal is permanent, iron-clad. Whatever this phantom apparition is, Castiel is sure the Shadow is behind it. 

This is how it begins. His last teasing and torture. The Shadow has finally decided it’s time. 

This is how it will end—with Castiel being put to sleep or left alone again

“Cas!” 

The voice sounds so painfully real, though, and the hands on Castiel’s face—he can’t help but moan from the contact, even as he’s squeezing his eyes shut against being subjected to such cruel deception. This is not how he wishes to remember Dean. This parlor trick, this tool to twist the knife. He won’t give the Shadow that satisfaction.

“Cas, you idiot, open your fuckin’ eyes and look at me. Dammit, Cas, I got no clue how long that gateway is gonna last.” 

Even in Castiel’s confused, fear-infused mindscape it penetrates that no copy or illusion of Dean could ever sound quite as annoyed with him as this one does. He cracks an eyelid, swallowing hard when he finds Dean’s concerned face staring down at him, still haloed by the light streaming in from the tear in the fabric of the Empty.

“Hey,” Dean says. He’s dressed in different clothes than the last time Castiel saw him, and the lines on his face age him a painful few years past forty. Despite that, his hair isn’t any greyer, and Castiel can’t help but wonder if a lot of time has passed, or if Dean’s recent days have simply been that stressful that he looks older. He hates how hope rises in his chest at the thought that Dean could have cared enough to be miserable over him. As he gapes, Dean smiles, a little sadly, looking all at once terribly soft and furious and miserable and hopeful. “I’m here to grip you tight and raise you from Perdition.”

“How—Dean?” Castiel’s brow furrows, still in disbelief even as a very solid Dean is sliding arms underneath his and encouraging him to his feet.

Dean nods as he pulls back. “Long story, fill you in later. Short version? Jack and Amara ate the Shadow in the name of Free Will, your dead buddies are staging a coup up in here, and I want you to come home with me before any of them get a shot at convincing you to stay, you self-sacrificing son-of-a-bitch.” Despite the harsh words, the last part of Dean’s complaint is less fiery anger and more abject relief, and his hand never leaves the small of Castiel’s back. Dean huffs a breath and steps closer, opening his mouth but looking away at the last second to swipe at his eyes.

“Jack opened the portal?” Castiel ventures, brain still swimming, not entirely comprehending anything that’s going on. “Jack... ate a cosmic entity?” 

“Like, three of them,” Dean replies, a little too enthusiastically. “God, Amara, this douchebag. That’s it though, he’s like...raindrops on roses and shit now, it’s a whole thing.” Castiel just stares, and thankfully, Dean takes pity on him. “I told you, I’ll explain later.” He tugs Castiel towards the light, but Castiel resists.

Why is he resisting? He’s going to regret this. He’s definitely going to regret this when he’s alone again and—

“I can’t,” Castiel says quietly. “Dean, I—I’m finished.”

Dean turns around, glaring at him. “The hell you are,” he says. “Shadow’s dead, you’re free. You—”

“Have no reason to return to Earth,” Castiel finishes, dropping his hands to his side in resignation. “Surely you can understand—”

The groan that spills from Dean’s mouth seems to echo off of every not-wall the Empty doesn’t have, reverberating into infinity in a way that is just so Dean, Castiel would smile, were it not for the circumstances. “We’re in the fucking Empty,” Dean says, gesturing around as if that explains everything. 

Castiel remains silent and waits, raising an eyebrow.

“Fine,” Dean grunts, throwing his hands into the air. “Fine, we do this here.” He turns to face Castiel, squaring his shoulders and seeming to summon a kind of internal resolve as his face goes through about a thousand different iterations of—something. 

“I opened that portal,” Dean says, after a long moment that, here, could represent seconds or days. “Jack is—he’s taking this whole hands-off approach to being God.”

“Being God?” Castiel echoes in disbelief, but Dean ignores him.

“We had some of the kid’s blood, though, from before. And Sam—Sam knew the details of Nick’s spell to summon Lucifer from the Empty, back before Jack turned him into Cinnamon Toast Devil Crunch.” Dean tugs down the collar of his flannel, revealing a small scab on his throat. “Powered it with Michael’s grace that was left behind—let me tell you, I wasn’t entirely sure that doorway wasn’t dropping me into his own personal Empty-cell and nooo-ho-fucking thank you to that.”

“Why didn’t it?” Castiel asks, entirely confused and knowing that the emotion is likely written all over his face.

“Because,” Dean replies, advancing towards him with a purpose and intent Castiel’s never seen on him before (at least, not directed his way—oh, what mad hope). “The most important ingredient in that spell is the bond the summoner and the angel in the Empty share. And, you know. You and me? We do share a more profound bond.” 

Castiel’s useless heart pounds in his chest, breath he doesn’t need aching in his lungs, and his blood roaring in his ears. It’s so loud that he almost misses what Dean says next—but not quite.

“You asshole,” Dean growls. “I didn’t know. I didn’t think you could love me, not like—” Dean breaks off and runs a hand through his hair in frustration, messing it up. “You—Cas, you’re an Angel of the Lord.” Dean’s eyes are wide and almost pleading, his expression—sort of angry? Castiel isn’t entirely sure.

“Yes,” he tells Dean carefully. “I...am that.” 

“I didn’t know,” Dean repeats, stepping closer. “How could I tell you that you could have me, if I didn’t know you wanted me the same goddamn way I want you?”

It’s a damn good thing Castiel doesn’t need to breathe, that the Empty is a place of suspension, because he’s certain that his body couldn’t take this on the mortal plane. He wouldn’t survive it.

“Cas,” Dean half-gasps, and it takes Castiel a second to realize that there are tears running down his cheeks. “You told me you loved me, and you saved me, and you left me. You gotta know, man. It worked. You—you changed me too. I get it now, I do. Making it up as we go, writing our own story—you and me? Neither of us are our fathers’ blunt instruments. You never were, and it’s because of that that I’m here to bring you home.”

At that, Dean stops—abruptly, like he ran out of steam. He’s only a scant few inches away from Castiel’s face now, and at some point, their hands became intertwined, held up between their chests in the death-grip of Dean’s shaky fingers. He hesitates, searching Castiel’s eyes for something unknown, and then takes a deep breath. “Because I love you,” he says bluntly. “Of course I do. I’m sorry for not—for not saying it sooner.” 

As Castiel briefly wonders if indeed he was accidentally sent to Heaven somehow (a delayed arrival, but nonetheless), Dean’s brow furrows and he swallows, eyes darting to Castiel’s lips.

“Dean?” Castiel prompts, unable to come up with anything else intelligible, and also somewhat fearful that anything he does will pop this bubble and he’ll find out it was all a joke, a trick, a figment of his depressed and lonely imagination. 

“It’s just,” Dean says hesitantly, eyes still locked on his mouth. “This would normally be where we’d kiss. I just wasn’t sure if you wanted—” 

That isn’t something Castiel’s willing to pass up. While he’s mostly convinced that Dean is real (ninety-five percent), figment of his imagination or not, Castiel is not missing this particular opportunity. Not for anything, any fear in the multiverse.

He silences Dean, cuts him off mid-sentence to press their mouths together. It’s too rushed and he misses his target a little, but Dean’s quick to slide a hand over his jaw and guide him back to where he belongs. 

Soft, sweet. All the times he's imagined kissing Dean—this is both everything and nothing like the vignettes his imagination dreamed up.

In all of Castiel’s entire existence, every passing millennia and slow-crawl of a light-year, every newborn galaxy to dying supernova, from the first fish that crawled out of the muck to the first time he laid a hand on Dean in Hell—nothing compares. Fireworks don’t begin to cover the sensation of finally, finally getting the one thing he’s always wanted, always dreamed of having, even before he understood what those feelings meant.

Having to hold Dean at arm’s length for all the years that he’s known and loved him, never being able to touch him, to hold him, to lie next to him in the dark or profess his love in the light—this, this is everything. 

“There’s only one thing left to do,” Castiel says against Dean’s lips when they pull away. He reaches down to Dean’s belt, where an angel blade is tucked between the leather strip and his jeans. Pulling it out, Castiel steps back and turns the tip on his own neck. 

“Cas—” Dean starts, reaching out in a startled motion as if to stop him, but Castiel is quicker. He cuts a line across his own throat, precisely. He knows exactly how deep to go, couldn’t miss if he tried. Instantly, grace seeps out, and because this is the Empty, this is nothing, it rebels. The non-existent walls almost seem to shake around them, rumbling and angry.

As Dean looks on, half-fascinated and half-apparently horrified, the very essence of the Empty drinks his grace in, vanishing it into nothingness before Castiel can even think about changing his mind. His eyes and the tips of his fingers glow briefly as the remainder of the grace burns itself out, and then it’s over. It’s gone, and Castiel is—actually human, forever this time. So long as he returns to Earth, the Empty will have no claim over him the next time he dies.

“With...the entity gone, my grace remaining here should satisfy my end of the deal, even if the Shadow managed to build the terms into the fabric of what this place is, so that it would remember,” Castiel says, unsurprised when Dean narrows his eyes in response.

“Are you kidding me? You couldn’t have just done that in the first place?” 

“I doubt very much that it would have worked while the Shadow was alive,” Castiel admits, this time taking Dean’s hand himself and steering them towards the now-dwindling portal opening. “Nor would it have accepted such an offering in my stead. Nor did I think I had any reason to try.” 

Dean opens his mouth like he’s going to protest and then closes it, shrugging. “Fine,” he says, sighing like he’s beyond exhausted. He stops Castiel before they can step through the opening, though, leaving it swirling bright and sparkling like the heat-death of a star in front of them. 

“This is it, though,” Dean says, his hand vice-tight on Castiel’s arm and his voice doing its best to mask the tremble laced through it. “No more bullshit. We’re going home and—and you’re gonna stay, and we’re gonna be in this together. Right?” 

Castiel can finally admit that he knows Dean well enough to recognize the fear in what he’s saying, what he’s asking. Will you leave me? Will you change your mind? He stares at Dean for a long moment before removing his hand and relocating it to twist into his own. 

“I died for you, Dean, and I’d do it again. The difference is, until now, I’ve never so badly wanted to live.” 

Dean has to take a moment and look up towards the would-be ceiling until his vision clears and he nods. “Yeah,” he says with a nod. “Yeah, alright. Then I’ll—I’ll live with you. You ready? Let’s go home.” 

As they’re stepping through, the buzzing in Castiel’s head changes, suddenly becoming clear as day, like someone flipped a switch. It’s loud—a chorus of painfully familiar voices, all attempting to speak over each other, all arguing about their path forward and what they should do next. Angel Radio is definitely back online and from the sounds of it, no one will be returning to sleep any time soon. He doesn’t think to question why it is that he can still hear it. The Empty is a strange place.

“What’s wrong?” Dean asks, noting his hesitation and squeezing Castiel’s hand.

Castiel just looks up at him and smiles, before letting himself be tugged back to Earth once and for all. “I think,” he says cautiously, “we might still have work to do.” 

***