Castiel stayed by that payphone after he'd hung up, just as Dean had instructed him to. The Winchesters were on their way, and with that knowledge, he could exhale in some measure of relief and reassurance. The last stage of his journey home was almost over.
He was also nervous, though. Dean had sounded rough on the phone, but he had told Castiel not to move, that they were coming to get him, instead of telling him to make his way to the bunker and they'd see him there. So that was different. Encouraging. Even if the first thing Dean wanted to say to him was recrimination for messing up at the lake house with Lucifer, Castiel would take it.
He would take the company of friends, even angry, over being utterly alone…
Castiel stood absolutely still and listened to the distant whir of traffic, the rustle of leaves across the ground, basked in the myriad of lights surrounding him, even under the cover of night. Street lights, storefront signs, faint stars dimmed by light pollution. He could sense the tiny heartbeats of rodents scuttling through nearby dumpsters, and hear the hoot of an owl as it flew by. All of it to contrast starkly with the memory of that dreadful place he'd woken up in not too long ago.
To remind him he wasn't there anymore.
Castiel ran his hands over his coat, fingered the dark blue tie. He'd been sent back in a new body, he could tell. One that was an odd fusion of grace and flesh in a way he'd never been before. Not grace inside a vessel, but grace stitched throughout one. He didn't know what to make of it.
As if he hadn't had enough existential crises in his time.
He also had a dull headache, one that pulsed every so often inside his skull. He could still feel the places where the cosmic deity had plunged into his mind and raked its prying claws through his memories. His physical body may have been new, but his grace was feeling raw after the experience in the Empty.
The rumble of a familiar engine finally disrupted the cadence of nightly sounds, and Castiel froze, abruptly afraid to turn around and face them. Two doors slammed, and he took a deep breath before turning, hope and joy swelling within his chest and burning his eyes when he finally laid eyes on Sam and Dean.
They were staring at him, expressions slack with disbelief yet also wary. Castiel didn't move, somehow fearful that if he spooked them, they would run.
"Cas, is that really you?" Dean asked.
He gave a small nod.
"No," Sam sputtered. "You- you're dead."
Castiel's heart gave a pang. "Yeah, I was." He finally took a few steps, walking out away from the payphone and into the middle of the alley, still not yet approaching them. "But then I…annoyed an ancient cosmic being so much that he sent me back."
That was putting it lightly. Because maybe if he made light of it, the true magnitude of the horror he'd experienced in that place would diminish. Maybe the next sunrise would chase the last lingering shadows from his heart.
Sam just shook his head at Castiel, eyes still wide. "I don't even know what to say."
Castiel's breath hitched in his throat just slightly. What did they want to say? So much had been left unsaid between them—him stealing the Colt, running out on them with Kelly…making the stupid mistake of getting killed.
"Wouldn't you rather be a fond memory than a constant, festering disappointment?"
Castiel had been so sure back in the Empty, facing down that cosmic grave keeper, but now that he was standing in front of Sam and Dean and the way they just kept staring at him…he felt a flicker of doubt.
Until a small smile twitched Sam's mouth, one that was on the verge of sheer, giddy happiness.
Dean's expression turned staunch. "I do." He closed the distance between them. "Welcome home, pal."
Dean put his arms around Castiel, and he was both surprised and relieved. He gripped back, hard, clinging to the tactile sensation of a solid person standing in front of him, of warmth and being enfolded in love and safety. Nothing since being back on Earth had felt as real and tangible as this.
When Dean pulled back, it was with a smile, and Sam was pressing his way in to embrace Castiel next. Sam's hug was less firm than Dean's, but not for lack of sincerity. No, it was more like Sam was afraid Castiel would break in his arms, and he found the gentleness oddly touching. There was a soft exhale against his neck, and when Sam drew back, Castiel let his hands linger to give the young man's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
He saw it now, the depths of almost overwhelming grief shimmering behind wet eyes.
"How long was I gone?" Castiel asked, afraid of the answer.
A haunted expression flickered over Dean's face for a moment. "Too damn long."
Castiel nodded sadly. Right.
"Where were you?" Sam pressed, still caught up in astonishment. "Heaven?"
Cold blossomed in Castiel's chest, and his expression fell. There was no Heaven for angels, no peace in paradise after the war. At least, not that kind of peace.
"No," he replied. "No, I was in the Empty." And that still boggled his mind. He'd known that place existed, but to see it first hand… Castiel suppressed a shudder. He never wanted to go back there.
Dean's brows shot upward. "Really?"
"Apparently it's where angels and demons go when they die."
All of his brothers and sisters, the ones he killed, the ones he failed to save, trapped in eternal slumber. And yet when he'd woken up, he hadn't seen any of them. It had all still been so…empty.
Sam's brow furrowed. "What was it like?"
Memory flashed through Castiel's mind of wandering that black void, searching for anyone, anything, the terror of finding himself utterly alone, with no idea where he was or how to escape it, and then the knowledge that he couldn't escape it…
"Well, it's dark. And…nothing." He swallowed hard, and tried to focus on the sensation of air against his cheek, the flickering neon cross bright in the background, insects buzzing, the uneven grooves in the asphalt beneath his feet. Everything was grounding yet disorienting in its sensory overload.
"It's like, nothing," he managed to go on. "I was sleeping and then I heard a voice that said my name, and I woke up." Castiel glanced between them. "I thought you had done something."
But judging by the looks on their faces, that wasn't the case.
"No," Dean said, voice laced with shock. "We didn't even think we could bring you back."
Castiel's expression pinched in confusion. It hadn't been them? He'd been so sure, though, so sure when he'd faced off with that entity, insisting he be sent back to Sam and Dean… But they hadn't been the agents to stage his prison break?
"So who was it?" Sam said. "Chuck- uh, God?"
"No," Castiel responded, unsure what to make of things now. He'd thought the Winchesters had called him home. His one goal since returning had been to respond to that call. But he'd been wrong? So his arrival here now was not only a complete shock to them, but perhaps a complication. Castiel's previous resurrections had never been heralds of good things, after all.
"No," Castiel continued, trying to concentrate on the issue. "He has no power in the Empty."
"Well then who does?" Dean asked, gaze narrowed.
Castiel's chest constricted. He didn't have an answer for them. He'd come back, only to bring them more questions, more mysteries. More things to be concerned about. What if the cosmic deity had been right, and Castiel had made another mistake…?
Sam's face suddenly slackened. "Jack," he breathed.
Castiel lifted his head in bewilderment. "Jack? Is he all right? Is he with you?" He angled his head to look back at the Impala.
"Yeah, he's fine," Sam quickly assured him. "He's at the bunker."
Castiel felt a brief flash of relief before his eyes widened in alarm. "You left an infant alone?"
Dean snorted. "He's not an infant."
"Jack kinda…went through a growth spurt right after he was born," Sam explained. "He looks like a teenager."
Castiel gaped at him.
"He said he knew he had to grow up," Sam went on. "That he knew the world wasn't safe for a baby or young child."
Oh, that made sense. Sort of.
"Maybe he's the one who brought you back," Sam added. "Or, woke you up."
Castiel blinked. Could that have been it? Could Jack's power have reached all the way to the Empty? But why?
Castiel cleared his throat awkwardly. "Can I…?"
Dean smiled at him again. "Yeah. Let's go home."
Home. That word coming from Dean made Castiel's heart swell, just as it had that day in the barn after his previous miraculous return from the brink of death. The Winchesters may not have planned for Castiel to come back, but they at least seemed glad to see him. And Jack was here, whom Castiel had sworn to protect. He was getting a second chance. Well, for the dozenth time.
"There is nothing for you back there."
Castiel shook the voice away. No, there was.
There was everything.
Sam couldn't believe it. Cas was back. He was actually back. Dean had been so sure his death was permanent this time, but Sam had never given up hoping, just in the small corners of his mind, that it wasn't. That Cas had always come back to them in the past, and he still could.
And here he was. Sam had been right to have faith. And if he was right about this, then he could be right about Mom, too.
"So this thing in the Empty," Sam said. "What did it look like?"
He'd finished filling Cas in on Jack and what they'd been up to—leaving out Dean's less than stellar attitude toward the kid, of course—and now he wanted to know what Cas had been doing, because apparently being 'dead' was pretty eventful.
Cas didn't respond right away, and Sam craned his head to glance in the backseat. Cas's jaw was tight, eyes dark and somewhat far away.
"He…made himself look like me," Cas said in a low voice.
Sam furrowed his brow. That sounded disturbing.
"Okay, that's creepy," Dean interjected. "Why?"
Cas looked away, out the window at the vista shrouded by night. "To mess with me, I guess. He was very unhappy that I was awake."
Sam twisted around again, mouth turning down at the sudden rigidness in Cas's posture. "Well, what'd he say? Was he an angel or a demon?"
Not that it would make much difference, Sam supposed, though he would think a demon would have been more antagonistic than another angel.
Cas was silent, and then he suddenly winced and reached a hand up to rub the side of his temple.
"Cas, you okay?" Dean asked, flicking his gaze between the road and rearview mirror.
Cas quickly put his hand down. "Fine."
Sam exchanged a worried look with Dean. Cas didn't look fine. In fact, the lines around his mouth were tight and he kept squinting in what looked like pain.
Sam's stomach started to cramp, because Cas's sudden reappearance had seemed too good to be true. Maybe it was. Jack may have woken Cas up, but he didn't have control of his powers, and they had no idea what this entity was.
"When- when that being sent you back," he started. "Was it- a rough ride or something?"
"Sam." Cas paused and sucked in a sharp breath. When he spoke again, his tone was contrite. "I don't have answers for you, I'm sorry. I don't know how I woke up there or who that being was."
"Yeah, of course," Sam said, equally apologetic. "It's just…you didn't know how you got out of Purgatory, and that didn't really end so well."
Dean shot him a withering glare, which Sam ducked away from. But when he looked back at Cas again, the angel's expression had crumpled in devastation.
"The entity didn't brainwash me, if that's what you're worried about," he said in a low, soft voice.
"No!" Sam exclaimed. "Of course not."
"Drop it, Sam," Dean interjected. "Cas is back. We got our win."
"And I'm thrilled," Sam insisted, giving Dean a pointed look before turning a beseeching one to Cas. "I'm over the moon. But you were dead, Cas, and if God wasn't the one who brought you back, but this thing with a twisted copy fetish, then maybe it wasn't exactly competent, you know? So if something's wrong now, you gotta tell us so we can figure it out. We- we can't lose you again."
Cas's eyes glistened, expression wrecked in so many ways that Sam couldn't begin to decipher them all.
"Nothing's wrong," he said quietly. "I have a headache from…well, let's just say the being had worse personal boundaries than I once did."
Dean flicked a concerned look over his shoulder at that, then looked at Sam. Sam gave his brother another pointed brow raise that they should do something here.
Dean wordlessly took his foot off the gas, letting the Impala slow to a coast as he guided her off the road onto the shoulder. He then put the car in park and twisted around to face Cas.
"What did it do to you?" he demanded darkly.
Cas averted his gaze. "It doesn't matter. I'm back now."
"It does matter," Sam countered. "If you're in pain—"
"I'm not dying from a headache," Cas retorted. "And I'm sure it will go away eventually."
"What did the bastard do?" Dean reiterated.
Cas shook his head in apparent frustration. "He wanted to know why I was awake. Since I couldn't tell him because I didn't know, he…" A muscle in Cas's jaw ticked. "He tore into my head to see for himself."
A lump settled in Sam's throat. Shit.
Dean's eyes narrowed. "And you're still hurt from that?"
Cas shrugged. "This resurrection is…different. I'm still an angel, but I feel mortal in some ways. Maybe it was trying to punish me by sending me back this way." Cas let out a derisive sound and looked out the window again. "Even when I choose to come back, it ends up a punishment."
Sam quirked a confused look at him. "What? Cas—"
Cas pushed his door open and suddenly exited the car. Startled, Sam and Dean scrambled out after him, but Cas didn't go far, just a few steps off the gravel shoulder into a field. He tilted his head back to look up at the moon and stars.
"He wanted me to go back to sleep," Cas spoke softly, voice almost breaking. "I…I could have gone back to sleep."
Sam's heart gave a leap of fear. No, no, Cas was not regretting coming back to them. He couldn't do that.
"But I thought you had done something to wake me up," Cas continued. "That you needed me to come back."
"We did," Sam said earnestly. "We do."
Cas shook his head. "Even if that's true…every single time in the past, I've made things worse. He showed me that."
"Who showed you that?" Dean said harshly. "Evil Cas in the Empty? Because that dickhead doesn't know a thing about you."
"He knew everything about me," Cas replied bitterly.
Sam swallowed hard. Because the entity had torn through Cas's head, probably hadn't left a single memory unviolated. And 'showing' Cas his past mistakes? No way was that any less violent, Sam was betting.
Cas hung his head, still refusing to look at them. "Maybe I was wrong," he said in a soft voice. "Maybe I am just a complication in your lives that you're better off without."
"You son-of-a-bitch," Dean snapped, marching over and gripping Cas's shoulder to whirl him around. "Don't you ever think that, Cas. I've told you before and it's still true, I need you! You're family. I would have done anything to bring you back. I prayed to Chuck, to Amara. And when they didn't answer…when I realized they wouldn't bring you back, that there was nothing I could do…part of me died that day, too. You're not a complication; you're a vital member of this family and I need you."
Sam's throat almost closed off, and hot moisture pricked at his eyes. Cas may have been ripped from them violently, but yeah, Dean had been slowly dying right in front of him since. And Sam had been helpless in both situations. It felt like he'd lost his entire family that day. But now he had two of them back, and he was damn well not going to let them start slipping away now.
He took a step forward. "Cas, whatever that entity tried to convince you of…you know it wasn't true. That's why you fought. Because we do need you. Because you belong here. And Jack needs you, too." Sam lifted one shoulder helplessly. "I've been trying my best, but Jack chose you to look after him, to teach him." Sam gave Cas a soft smile. "He called you his father."
Cas blinked, looking stunned.
"We all need you," Sam went on. "We all wanted you back."
Cas's jaw quivered slightly, his eyes watery, but he nodded. "I- need you, too. I wanted to come back to you."
Dean put his arm around Cas's shoulder and pulled him into another, fierce hug. "And I am sure damn glad about that."
Sam moved closer and enveloped them both. So was he.
Cas clung to them, hands fisting in their jackets as he let out a shuddering breath, and Sam thought back to Cas's description of the Empty. Looked like Cas had just as much recent trauma to work through as they did.
Dean cleared his throat as he extricated himself. "Okay," he said gruffly.
Cas wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. "Yes, we should get back to Jack." His mouth turned down, and his brows knitted together as he paused to close his eyes.
"You want a bottle of aspirin?" Dean asked.
Sam reached out to squeeze Cas's shoulder. Hopefully the pain of that violating invasion would fade, and with it the doubts Sam knew Cas was still hearing. They'd all been there.
And so they all knew how to help each other get through it.
They walked back to the car and climbed back in. Dean retrieved a bottle of pain relievers from the trunk and handed them to Cas, then put the Impala in gear and turned back out onto the highway.
Sam took a deep breath and let it out.
He was taking his family home.