"I will fight you. Fight you and fight you for…ever. For eternity."
Castiel opened his eyes to fresh air and the smell of cut grass, disorienting in its complete contrast to the black nothingness of the Empty. Even the light was sharp to his senses, and he slowly got to his feet. He looked down at himself, lifting the flaps of a trench coat that was not the one he'd last been wearing, yet somehow managed to fit him. Even his tie was different.
Castiel was too overcome with relief to question it much, and at the kiss of warmth on his cheek, he turned his face up toward the sun and closed his eyes in bliss. He was back. He was alive.
A sharp pain in his back stole his breath away, and Castiel flinched as he turned his attention to his grace. Like his clothes, it, too, was different. Not wholly changed; it was still his, but it was currently on fire, engaged in some kind of chain reaction that seemed to be regenerating itself.
Something stabbed between his shoulder blades again, and Castiel sucked in a ragged gasp as he realized what was happening. His physical body had been refashioned with ease, but his true form was still in a state of rebirth—as were his wings.
It shouldn't be possible. His wings had been devastated in the wake of Metatron's spell to cast the angels from Heaven. Getting the scant remnants of his own grace back hadn't healed them, and Castiel had accepted years ago that nothing ever would.
Until now, it seemed. Whatever the entity in the Empty had done to send him back, it seemed to have infused a spark of primordial energy into Castiel's being, enough to trigger a sort of reset.
Castiel roved his gaze around the field he'd woken up in. He needed to find shelter. He didn't quite know what to expect with this, but if the increasing throbbing in his back was any indication, regrowing wings was not going to be pleasant.
Castiel needed to find Sam and Dean. They must have been all right, if they'd done something to wake him in the Empty. But what about Jack? And Kelly?
Castiel scanned the field in every direction until he spotted the distant outline of a town. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, he set off toward it.
At first, the pain was just localized and bearable, but as he walked, it began to feel as though appendages had burst out through his back. Not physically, of course; angel wings typically weren't manifested on this plane. But Castiel could feel the protrusions in his true form, the way the bone spurs of wing tips were tearing through his back and fiery grace poured into the marrow. He stumbled several times, but forced himself to keep going.
The sun had been high in the sky when he'd started, but had set by the time he reached the town limits. Now what?
Call Sam and Dean.
Castiel patted his pockets for a cell phone, but of course that hadn't been miraculously reformed in his resurrection.
He found a payphone in an alley and bent down to laboriously pick out discarded coins off the ground. Luckily, he found just enough to make one call.
Castiel dialed Dean's number and held his breath as his wings extended another few inches. They were growing too fast and too forcefully, rending his grace as much as restoring it.
"Yeah," Dean's gruff voice answered.
Castiel closed his eyes as a wave of sheer relief washed over him. "Dean."
There was silence on the other end, and it belatedly occurred to him that he was supposed to be dead.
"I-I'm back," he said, biting down on a pained grimace. "And I…need a ride."
"Where are you?" Dean immediately asked.
Castiel looked around. It took him a moment to orient himself, his sense of the cosmos blunted by the agony in his back. When he finally came up with a town name and street, he relayed them to Dean.
"Don't move. We're coming."
Castiel had no intention of going anywhere. He hung up and sagged against the phone box wearily. The stabbing pain in his back had finally receded to a dull throb, and he chanced a look over his shoulder. The skeletal appendages were hideous, but the joints were intact and nothing was broken. He supposed that was improvement on some level, but he was finding it difficult to be grateful at the moment.
He wondered how long it would take Sam and Dean to get there. There wasn't anywhere to sit in the alley, and he longed for the backseat of the Impala. How sentimental he'd become.
As an hour ticked by, Castiel focused on breathing deeply. His wings had reached their full size and had stopped their violent blossoming from his shoulder blades, and with it, his grace had settled down. Castiel wondered if that was it, if that was the extent to which they would regrow. Wouldn't that be a cruel twist of humor.
He almost didn't hear the blessedly familiar engine as it pulled up in the alley behind him. The shutting of the car door snapped him back to attention, and Castiel turned around, tears of utter relief and joy prickling his eyes at the sight of Sam and Dean.
They both stopped in front of the Impala, eyes wide and expressions shocked.
"Cas, is that really you?" Dean asked, and there was a tremble in his voice as though he was afraid this was all some falsehood.
Castiel had trouble finding his voice in that moment.
"No," Sam sputtered. "You're- you're dead."
Castiel smiled fondly. "Yeah, I was." He took a few steps out into the middle of the alley and away from the shadows. "But then I…annoyed an ancient cosmic being so much that he sent me back."
That seemed the easiest explanation, anyway.
Sam continued to gape at him in bewilderment. "I don't know what to say."
Dean shook his head. "I do." He moved forward. "Welcome home, pal."
And with that, he put his arms around Castiel in a firm hug. Castiel jolted slightly as his back twinged, but he returned the embrace, relishing the tangible contact of friend and family.
Dean stepped back, and Sam quickly moved in for his own hug, though his was gentler, almost as though afraid Castiel would snap like a twig. He actually did appreciate the care, since his back was still quite sore.
"How long was I gone?" he asked when Sam drew back.
"Too damn long," Dean replied, and Castiel saw a glimmer of the grief he must have gone through. It ached Castiel's heart to see.
"Where were you?" Sam asked earnestly. "In Heaven?"
Castiel couldn't help the chill that ran down his spine. "No. No, I was in the Empty."
Dean's brows rose dubiously. "Really?"
"Apparently, it's where angels and demons go when they die."
Sam furrowed his brows. "What was it like?"
Castiel swallowed. "Well, it's dark and…nothing." He suppressed a shudder at the memory of that wretched place. "It's like…nothing. I was sleeping, and then I heard a voice that said my name, and I woke up. I thought you…had done something."
But given the unadulterated shock in their reactions at seeing him, he was beginning to doubt that.
"No," Dean confirmed. "We…we didn't even think we could bring you back."
Castiel frowned. But if it wasn't them, then how…?
"So who was it?" Sam asked, voicing Castiel's question. "Chuck- uh, God?"
"No," Castiel shot down. "No, he has no power in the Empty." According to that ancient cosmic being.
Dean visibly stiffened. "Well, then, who does?"
Castiel didn't know, and that was a worrying thought.
Sam's expression suddenly smoothed with revelation. "Jack."
"Jack?" Castiel repeated. "Wait, is he…is he all right?"
Sam nodded fervently. "Yeah, he's good. I mean, uh, he's kind of a teenager."
"Skipped the whole diaper phase and went straight to puberty," Dean muttered.
Castiel shook his head in dismay. Could Jack have woken him up?
"Where is he?"
"At the bunker," Sam said, then broke into a giddy smile. "He's gonna be so happy to see you."
Castiel felt an overwhelming amount of joy at the prospect, too, but it was tempered by the pain returning to his wings, this time as fire sizzling across the raw flesh. His grace continued to broil under the surface, making Castiel feel hot and cold by turns.
He pushed the discomfort aside, though, as he followed the Winchesters to the car, and did his best to focus on Sam telling him about Jack during the drive back to the bunker. Though he'd been hoping to rest once they got there, meeting Jack obviously took more precedence. Perhaps his grace would calm down again by the time they got there, anyway.
No such luck. If anything, he was in even worse pain than before. Quills were beginning to poke through shafts in his wings, little spines filled with electrified grace that shot his nerve endings to hell. No wonder God had created angels with their wings already formed. This was excruciating.
Castiel gritted his teeth as he exited the Impala in the bunker's garage. He could get through this. He'd endured worse.
He followed Sam and Dean downstairs, unintentionally lagging behind. They didn't notice, too eager to talk to Jack, probably. Castiel heard a young male's voice speak from the library.
"How'd it go?"
"Well…" Dean started.
"Jack, um…" Sam trailed off.
Castiel finally caught up, and stepped up the two stairs into the library, getting his first look at the young man with light colored hair and a grace signature he recognized even from across the room. He couldn't help but feel a swell of pride.
"Castiel?" the boy replied.
Castiel nodded. "Yeah, it's me."
Jack shook his head. "No. We burned your body, and what's burned stays dead. How…?" He looked at Dean.
Burned his body. They must have given him a hunter's pyre. Castiel…felt oddly touched by that.
"Well, that's the question we've been askin'," Dean said.
"Jack," Sam spoke up. "Did you, uh…did you bring Cas back?"
Jack's brow pinched. "I don't know. I wanted him back. I…" He lifted a pained gaze to Castiel. "Begged for him to come back, but…"
"Well, here he is," Dean said.
"Because of me?" Jack asked uncertainly.
"We don't know," Sam answered quickly. "We don't know, Jack. But we- we think maybe."
Castiel looked on this boy with love and fondness, and a twinge of regret that he hadn't been there like he'd promised. But he was here now. "Thank you, Jack."
Jack walked over and immediately put his arms around Castiel.
And fire exploded in his back.
Castiel let out a garbled cry as his legs buckled, and Jack leaped backward.
"Cas?" Dean shouted, rushing over.
Castiel caught himself on the edge of the table, but it was too late. Some of the quills had burst from Jack's nephilim energy brushing against them, and now grace was bleeding down his back.
"What did you do?" Dean snapped.
"I- I didn't…" Jack stammered fearfully.
"No," Castiel managed to get out. "My wings…are growing back. It started the moment I woke up on Earth again."
"What? Why didn't you say anything?" Dean demanded.
"I was hoping it'd resolve itself," Castiel growled.
Sam was quickly at his side and gripping his arm to hold him up. "Cas, are they supposed to cause this much pain?"
Castiel inhaled sharply through his nose. "Angels don't normally grow wings," he gasped. "I think this is why…ungh." He staggered, and would have collapsed to the floor were it not for Sam's grip on his arm.
"What do we do?" Sam asked worriedly.
Castiel shook his head. "Nothing. I just have to…wait it out."
"You're bleeding," Jack spoke up.
Dean whipped his gaze to him. "What?"
Even Castiel blinked at that.
Jack was standing off to the side and frowning at Castiel's back. "I can see your wings," he said. "And the…feathers?…coming in. Some of them are broken and bleeding grace."
"Cas, you're burning up," Sam added.
His grace was churning inside him, that was why.
"I just need to wait it out," he repeated. At least, he certainly hoped that was all he needed to do.
"Okay," Dean stepped in. "Let's get you to your room."
Dean took his other arm, and together with Sam, they helped Castiel down the hall to the room that'd been designated as his when he stayed in the bunker. But when they tried to ease him down onto the bed, his back arched and he let out a strangled cry.
"Shit," Dean muttered. "What the hell?"
Castiel twisted away from him and lay down on his side. "It's fine," he rasped. "Just…just leave it."
His eyelids fluttered closed as exhaustion finally got the better of him, and he drifted away into fiery dreams.
Dean ran a hand down his face as he watched Cas writhe and shiver on the bed, curled up in the fetal position. This wasn't how their reunion should have gone. Cas had just gotten back from the dead, for crying out loud, and already he had to go through this? It looked like torture. And yeah, yeah, his wings growing in sounded like a good thing. Cas hadn't had his wings for a few years now, and he missed them. But Dean hated seeing him like this.
He bent down and took off the angel's shoes. He thought about grabbing a blanket from the closet, but gazed dubiously at the empty space behind Cas, wondering if he'd accidentally brush the wings if he laid a blanket over that spot.
Sam came in with a bowl of water and a small hand towel; Dean hadn't even noticed he'd gone, to be honest. He also realized Jack was in the room with him, standing in a far corner and watching with a furrowed expression.
Sam settled on the side of the bed Cas was facing, and wrung out the cloth before placing it on the angel's forehead. Dean stood there, wanting to help but having no idea how to. Cas moaned and shuddered.
"Can you see what's happening?" Dean asked, turning to Jack sharply.
The kid nodded slowly, his frown deepening. "I can shift my perception to see his wings, even though they're on a different frequency." He took a tentative step closer, cocking his head at Cas. "His wings are bare. But there are shafts poking through the skin. Some are longer than others, and they have this fuzzy stuff coming out." Jack paused. "His grace is seething everywhere. It's filling the center of the quills as they're coming in and letting off a ton of energy."
"The fever," Sam said.
Dean just shook his head. He'd only ever seen shadows or charcoal imprints of angel wings—the latter an image that was seared into his brain, and he couldn't help but feel sick at the thought that Cas's wings were, in a sense, on fire right now.
Sam stood up and passed the bowl and cloth to Dean. "Maybe there's something in the Men of Letters books. I'll go check the stuff we have on angel lore."
Dean didn't protest, and moved around to take his brother's vacated spot on the edge of bed. He dunked the small towel and squeezed out the excess, then placed it on Cas's brow. Cas let out a low moan.
"Come on, man, we just got you back," Dean murmured. Not that he was afraid Cas was going to die from this—he certainly hoped not—but why couldn't their wins ever come without hurtful consequences?
"Did I do this?" Jack asked quietly after a while, and Dean startled to find the kid hadn't left the room yet.
He shrugged. "I don't think so. Cas said he heard his name in the Empty and woke up, and I think that was you. But he also said there was a cosmic deity there, and it was what sent him back." Dean didn't know how regrowing wings fit into that, not that it really mattered at this point.
Silence filled the room again, save for a whimper from Cas now and then. Heat was radiating from him like he was on the verge of going nuclear, and Dean started thinking they might need to bring in some ice packs.
Sam eventually came hurrying back into the room with an open book in his arms. "Okay, get this," he said without preamble. "I found a spell for manifesting an angel's wings."
Dean quirked a perplexed look at him. "What good will that do?"
"Well, I also looked up wing care for birds when they're growing in new feathers, so if we can get Cas's wings to manifest, then maybe we can do some stuff to ease some of the discomfort."
Dean gaped at his brother. "Are you serious?"
Sam made an exasperated sound. "It's better than doing nothing."
Dean pressed his lips into a thin line as he glanced at Cas, then back to Sam. "Will it hurt him?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But he's already hurting."
Dean couldn't argue with that. "Alright."
Sam gave a resolute nod. "Jack, uh, will you help me get the ingredients together?"
The kid finally moved away from the corner and followed Sam out. Dean set the bowl of water on the nightstand and stared at Cas for a few moments in consideration before deciding to remove the angel's trench coat and shirt. By the time he got the last layer off, Cas was shivering more violently, and Dean decided to get that blanket after all, but he was careful to drape it over Cas's chest. He supposed it didn't do much with his back still exposed, but they'd wait for the wings to become physical before figuring out how better to make him comfortable.
Sam and Jack returned with the spell ingredients and some spray bottles, and set everything on the writing desk. Dean watched tensely as his brother mixed a few things in a spell bowl and said an incantation. The contents began to glow, and then there was a blinding flash of light that had Dean squeezing his eyes shut.
When he looked again, he was rendered completely stunned at the sight of two gaunt appendages protruding from Cas's back. At first glance, 'wings' wasn't the word Dean would use to describe them, or at least not angel wings. Those out of a video game with demons, maybe.
The tips were bony like talons, and the flesh was light brown and grey. Dozens of sharp looking spines were sticking out all along the wingspan, which probably would have been impressive fully extended, and Dean noticed that several of them had pale grey tufts. New feathers?
He moved around the side with morbid curiosity to look at Cas's back…and yeah, the wing bones were definitely attached to his shoulder blades, feather down blending with skin seamlessly. Dean's eyes widened.
Shit, now that the wings were physical and Cas was laying on his side, one wing was crumpled under the other, and Dean could see that several of the quills had broken off. Glittery blue light trickled down bare flesh and bone to drip onto the floor.
Dean quickly leaped into action and gently rolled Cas onto his stomach, nervously reaching for a wing to guide it over. Sam went for the other and just as gingerly spread it out until both wings were fanning out on either side of the bed.
Dean let out a tense breath. "Now what?"
Sam's throat bobbed, but he carefully stepped around the wing and went to grab the spray bottles. He passed one to Dean and said, "Tepid water baths are supposed to help with itching. So is aloe vera. Since we can't get Cas into an actual bath, the article I read said spraying should be fine."
Dean gave the spray bottle in his hand a skeptical look, but whatever. If there was any slim chance this crap would work, he'd do it.
He and Sam started spritzing down Cas's wings. Jack hesitantly moved toward the head of the bed and picked up the bowl of water and cloth, and started tentatively wiping Cas's brow as Dean and Sam had been doing. Dean wasn't sure they were helping, but Cas did seem to settle after a few minutes of it all.
Over the next several hours, the three of them repeated the cycle of misting Cas's wings, first with water, then with aloe vera, and keeping cool cloths on his skin to help with the fever. All while bushels of feathers grew in at a rapid rate, gradually filling out the gaps and transforming those gnarly skeletons into lush and vibrant wings.
Dean couldn't help but reach out and reverently touch one of the filled out vanes. The obsidian black felt like velvet, and had streaks of iridescent indigo and emerald that took his breath away.
The wing rustled, and Dean jerked his hand back like he'd been caught doing something sacrilegious.
"Castiel?" Jack suddenly called.
Dean hurried around the foot of the bed, Sam crowding in behind him as Cas started to shift on the bed.
His brow scrunched up before he managed to pry his eyelids open, and then he was blinking at them dazedly. "Mmph," he grunted, and tried to lift himself up, only to freeze and his pupils to blow wide.
"We, uh, manifested your wings," Sam quickly explained.
Cas twisted his neck around sharply and went completely still as he took in the massive wings draped down across his back.
"The Men of Letters had a spell for it," Sam rushed on. "We thought if we could make them physical then we could do some stuff to help with the new feathers growing in. I looked up websites on bird care and figured the same principles applied. I mean, I'm sorry if we did something wrong. We just really wanted to help."
Dean stayed silent, watching Cas like a hawk and trying to gauge his reaction. He just kept staring at his wings, though.
"Cas," Dean finally spoke up. "You okay?"
Cas slowly propped himself up onto his arms. "I…haven't been this good in years," he breathed.
Dean felt both a wave of encouragement and pang of regret at that. Sam looked relieved.
Cas's gaze slid over to where Jack was sitting on the edge of the bed, the bowl of water and damp cloth next to him on the nightstand. And behind that were the spray bottles. His expression softened.
"Thank you," he said sincerely, shifting to meet Dean and Sam's eyes, too. "You didn't have to stay through that."
"Of course we did," Jack replied. "We're family." He looked to Dean as though for confirmation. "That's what family does."
Dean's lips curved upward. "The kid has it right."
Cas gave them a small smile, and then slowly sat up. His wings folded down carefully behind him, and Cas was very cautious as he moved, like he was being conscientious about knocking things over. Dean wondered if he'd ever had his wings manifested like this before.
Sam's eyes were wide with awe as he took in the shiny sable wings. "Does this mean you can fly again?"
Cas craned his head to regard the inky appendages. "I think so," he said. "But I'm not going to try just yet. I'm still a little tired and sore from the process. But at least the burning has stopped."
'A little tired and sore' probably meant 'exhausted' in Cas-speak, so Dean was glad the stubborn angel was going to take it easy for once.
Jack abruptly leaned forward and put his arms around Cas, mindful of the wings. "I missed you so much," he said, voice strained with emotion.
Cas looked taken aback for a split second, but then he brought his arms up to hug back, and his eyes closed in a moment of sheer relief and joy that Dean had never seen on his friend's face before.
And he thought that maybe, even though they'd gone through so much hurt…sometimes what came through on the other side was worth the pain.