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Here you go. This is officially the last epilogue-of-the-epilogues. Apologies for the inevitable typos - it's nearly midnight and I've run out of time for proofreading. Typos will be fixed later. Hope you enjoy. It's been so delightful having you all along for this journey.

 


 

Dean tried to focus on The Physiology of Angels, but the words were almost blurring in front of his eyes. It was getting late. He sighed and let his head sink back on the eyrie's pillow-wall, gazing up at the dark windows as he ran one hand through Cas's hair.

Cas was lying on his stomach next to Dean. As usual, despite being more or less in a coma he still had one wing over Dean's legs, an arm curled around Dean's waist, and his other hand knotted into Dean's shirt. Dean had gotten pretty used to having Cas "glued on" like this, as Sam had started calling it. It was nice, actually. Nice for a variety of reasons, one of which was that it made it very easy for Dean to keep monitoring him. Dean was aware of exactly how fast and how deeply Cas was breathing (every breath of Cas's was puffing onto Dean's waist, so it was easy to keep track). And Dean could rest one hand on Cas's head too, to keep track of how hot he felt.

Right now, Cas's forehead seemed its usual medium-hot. Probably still at 103F, Dean guessed. It had been constant touch-and-go all day to keep Cas from overheating again, after last night's crisis; but Sarah's amino-acid IVs and the cold towels seemed to be doing the trick. Dean was starting to hope that Cas might actually get through tonight in one piece. And hopefully Sam would get back tomorrow with another angel-tear or two. (Sam had finally made contact with the elusive hippie-grandmother just that afternoon, and had dashed off on one last desperate overnight trip to try to negotiate an angel-tear purchase.)

If Sam were successful, maybe that would buy Cas another day or two.

They all knew he only had to get through three more days.

The end was almost in sight.

Almost.

Dean glanced over at Sarah, who was curled up with Meg on a nearby cot, both of them catching some shut-eye. Dean smiled at the sight; it was good to know he had some medical back-up. And even Meg's presence seemed helpful, somehow. It seemed like good luck just to be able to hear her purring.

He stroked Cas's forehead again as he flipped to the color plates in the Schmidt-Nielsen book. It seemed he must've been through the text a thousand times by now, and he'd stared at all the wing illustrations so often he was certain he could redraw them each from memory, but he kept flipping back through the book anway looking for any last scraps of information that he might have missed. In fact the whole book was peppered by now with little post-it notes and index cards, covered with Dean's scribbles— notes, thoughts, questions.

Might as well take one more look, though, thought Dean. Just in case. He paged through the illustrations one more time, checking the notes on the post-its as he went.

He paused on Color Plate 8B. The legend said, "Angel Wing With Newly Molted Feathers (In Mortal Form, On Human Vessel) - Dorsal and Ventral Surfaces Illustrated".

Dean had studied this one before. He was always a little hesitant to look at it; it seemed almost like he might jinx Cas's luck if he started to hope too hard that Cas's wings might have this lovely "Newly Molted" appearance soon. But he lingered on it now. It was two illustrations actually, of the same fully spread left wing, one illustration from the back, and one from the front ("dorsal" and "ventral", apparently). Dean had long had a post-it stuck on this illustration, scribbled with some questions he'd had about the exact number of primaries, secondaries and tertials— apparently the numbers could vary a little with different angels.

Dean glanced at the post-it and realized the questions had become irrelevant; Dean now knew Cas's exact feather count by heart. Hell, I've got every damn feather in that trunk now, he thought. I can count 'em myself if I need. (As it happened, Cas had turned out to have the same number of primaries, secondaries and tertials that were in the illustration.)

He pulled the post-it off the page, crumbled it up one-handed, and tossed it into a trash can nearby.

When he looked back down at the book, stroking Cas's wing absent-mindedly, he noticed that the post-it had been covering up an unimportant part of the illustration. Just a bit of the edge of the sketch. It was an unimportant part because it was only covering part of the human vessel— the chest and the face of some African dude, looked like.

Dean looked at the angel's face, wondering if this angel, like so many others, might have died in the Fall. 

Then he looked closer.

The man's face seemed a little familiar.

No— not his face. His face was unfamiliar. The skin tone was unfamiliar, and the bone structure was unfamiliar. It was his expression that was familiar. That level, direct stare. That slightly sad look...

Blue eyes. On an African man.

And that slightly tilted head.

Dean's hand froze on Cas's wing.

"No friggin' way," he murmured to himself, glancing back and forth between Cas and the picture. He looked at the white wings in the illustration; and at the jet-black primaries of the wing across Dean's lap.

Dean puzzled over it for a few more minutes before he thought to flip to the back of the book and read the Acknowledgments.

 


 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

First and foremost, our especial gratitude to the seraph Castiel, who, almost alone of all seraphs contacted, appeared well-disposed toward humans and willing to converse with us, and perhaps was almost as curious about humans as we were about seraphs. In several illuminating conversations, this seraph Castiel explained many aspects of seraph physiology and behavior that otherwise would have remained utterly opaque. Further, it is Castiel's wings and feathers that are illustrated in Plates 4-9. We are deeply grateful that he was willing to let us see the wings of a real angel, and though he was clearly bemused and perhaps baffled by the request, he agreed, too, to let us illustrate them. We thank him humbly for his patience.

 


 

Dean stared at the paragraph, and then flipped back to Color Plate 8B.

"Whoa. Whoa, Cas... jeez... that's... you, Cas?"

It hadn't even occurred to Dean that the illustrations— and the book overall, of course— might have had anything to do with Castiel specifically.

Color Plate 8B turned out to be the only one that had happened to include its subject's face, and Dean stared at it for many long minutes. Cas must have had a different vessel then, of course. It was totally disconcerting to see him with a different face.

And yet, somehow, it was still recognizably him.

Something in the eyes, Dean thought. Had the blueness of his eyes, even now, been showing something of Castiel's true self, all along? 

But more even than the eye color, it was the expression that made him look so... Castiel.

And his wings back then...

Snowy white. Perfect white. Pristine, gleaming white. No blackened feathers, of course; no Hellfire burns. Dean swallowed to see such a vivid reminder of what that rescue from Hell had cost Castiel.

And no grey either.

Dean flipped back through the other plates, which illustrated different parts of the wings in close-up. White primaries. A single white feather in close-up. White flight feathers, diagrammed. White everywhere...

No, wait...

"Wait just a second here, Cas," Dean said. He reached over the pillow-wall to pull the lamp closer. "Wait just one friggin' second."

Plate 6a. "The Double Alulas Of A Seraph."

Plate 6a, if inspected closely, showed that there had been one little grey feather on Cas's left alula. Hidden. On the underside of the longer alula. It had only been apparent when he'd flared his alulas up for the illustration.

Every single feather on his wings had been white... except for one hidden grey alula-feather.

Dean couldn't stop grinning about it. "Atta boy, Cas," he kept saying, ruffling Cas's hair. He flipped back to Plate 8 and grinned down at the vessel's face, as if the Cas from nearly a century ago could somehow see him. "Atta boy! Gettin' your Free-Will Grey on even then, huh? Friggin' awesome, dude. On your goddam alula, too. Just hidden underneath! That's my angel. That's my angel."

 


 

An hour later Dean had finally gotten over chuckling about the grey alula-feather, and he'd finally switched back to On The Road. He was, again, absent-mindedly stroking Cas's wing as he read, and eventually his hand drifted down onto the left pin-feathers. He found the longest pin-feather by feel; Primary 1, one of the ones that had been bent. He ran his fingers down it, just to check.

It still felt straight. Still warm, still healthy, and still straight.

Wait—

Something felt different. There was something soft at the tip.

Feathery soft.

Dean glanced down at the wing, and saw gold.

 


 

It seemed something was stuck to the end of the longest pin-feather. A tiny little thing about half an inch wide. Dean squinted at it. It seemed to be a little triangular piece of golden silk, stuck somehow on the very end of the long silver rod of the pin-feather. A bit of gold fabric from the eyrie lining, maybe? Dean reached out one finger to brush it off.

It didn't brush off.

He flicked it. It didn't flick off.

He tugged at it.

The outer two inches of silver pin-feather crumbled under Dean's fingers, flaking to bits.

"Ah!" Dean yelled, jerking his hand back, and then he sat up straight and stared.

It turned out the part that had crumbled, the silver, was only an outer layer. And where it had crumbled away, something inside had unfurled.

A golden feather-tip. Much bigger now. Two inches long and nearly three inches wide.

feather-tip.

And it was gold. Shining gold.

Dean flung the book aside and twisted around to get on his knees for a better look. The silver of the pin-feather, it turned out, was merely an outer coating. Inside that silver cylinder, a feather had been growing all along, but curled up on itself neatly, like an umbrella coiled up for storage. Now the outermost part of the feather was breaking out of its crumbling silver shell, unfurling as a bright, shining gold feather-tip.

The rest of the feather was still just a thin silver rod. Dean reached out and gently rubbed the next part of the silver sheath, and a bit more immediately crumbled away. And a bit more of the feather fanned out—this part a snowy white that shimmered in the light.

A white feather, with a wide golden tip.

Dean touched the second-longest pin-feather gently, rubbing ever-so-softly against the tip. It, too, crumbled open, and another golden feather-tip fanned out.

"Cas, Cas, you've got feathers," Dean said to him. "Feathers, Cas! Your new feathers! They're coming in— and, dude, you've got gold tips!"

Cas was oblivious, his eyes still closed.

But Sarah materialized at Dean's shoulder a moment later— she'd heard the excitement in Dean's voice, even in her sleep, and had woken and come over. Even Meg's little head poked over the eyrie's pillow-wall, looking at them both in curiosity.

"Sarah, look!" said Dean, showing her the two golden feather-tips.

"Oh my god," she said. "Oh wow." She reached out and stroked them gently.

"He used to have some glittery tips on his feathers," said Dean. "Last year."

"I remember that," said Sarah. "From when I first saw his wings at the vet clinic. But... those were just little flecks. It wasn't anything like this."

"Yeah, this is much bigger. This is like, two solid inches of twenty-four carat."

"Maybe they were like this before? Originally I mean, when they were fresh? And they just wore down and faded a lot? Or is this something he hasn't had before?"

Dean gave a puzzled shrug. "We'll have to ask him. But, Sarah, you know what, the thing that's really awesome is, never mind about the color, his feathers are growing in okay. I mean, Sarah, look at that! It's definitely real feathers! Isn't that fantastic?"

"It is," said Sarah, grinning at him.

Though she frowned a little when she glanced at the heart rate on Cas's little pulse-ox monitor. Then her mouth tightened as she studied his heart-rate display, and Dean's heart sank. But she said nothing.


 

Soon after that all the pin-feathers started unfurling. More and more of each feather began to spread out, till all the pin-feathers had a half-and-half look— the inner half a silver rod, but the outer half a full feather.

All with a bright band of gold at the tip.

And they all put on an astonishing amount of length every day.

Dean preened the new feathers constantly. Every hour, every day, he preened all the feathers. The last primaries began growing in; then the last tertials, the last of the little wing-lining feathers, and finally the alulas. (The alulas had been the first to drop but then had been oddly delayed coming in— probably, Dean suspected, because of Cas's first week of low-power. It was a relief to see them growing in at last.) Cas's wings were twin fans of silver spikes now, the longest ones all with golden tips at the end.

Soon the center feathers‚ Primary 1 and Secondary 1, were fully unfurled, from the tip all the way down to the root.

They were gorgeous.

And as soon as the entire feather unfurled, it soon became clear that something else had changed, too.

Every flight feather had not just a band of gold on its very end, but also a golden shaft running right down the middle of the feather.

That was definitely new.

 


 

Sam was back only a day later, exhausted from his long drive but triumphantly bearing two new angel-tears.

"She didn't even ask anything for them!" he reported as Dean examined the two new tears. They were all up by the eyrie, while Sarah to heated up water for the tea. "Well, I mean, she did at first," explained Sam. "And I was ready to bargain. I had all our cash and I had those two primary feathers that I'd brought along, which obviously I didn't want to trade away but, you know, I was getting a little desperate. But as soon I showed her one of the black primaries she was all, "oh my god you're telling the truth." And she sorta got religion or something and just gave me the tears. I think she's hoping to meet him someday."

They soon coaxed a semi-awake Cas to chug down the angel-tear tea. It seemed to help only a little; Cas was still nearly comatose, still feverish, and his heart rate was still too high. (Though at least it didn't increase, either.)

"Hmm," said Sam a half-hour later, as it gradually became clear that Cas's condition wasn't really improving. "It just occurred to me. If he just took in two entire angel-tears and his temp and heart rate haven't improved at all..."

He paused.

"... Then he was about to crash," said Dean, finishing Sam's sentence. "Tonight. Now."

Sam nodded.

Sarah said quietly, "That's likely, actually. His heart's been getting faster and weaker. And he's losing weight. He's lost a lot of muscle. His temp keeps doing little upwards spikes. I think he could have been headed for another crisis tonight."

Dean said, "Sam..." He paused, and tried again. "Um... If you hadn't got the tears... Well."

He looked up at Sam.

"No prob, dude," said Sam.

Dean gave him an uncertain smile. He glanced over at Sarah. "Sarah, you too."

"Yeah," said Sam to Sarah. "Seriously."

Sarah frowned at them both. "Is this some weird Winchester code for 'thank you'?"

"Uh, yeah," said Dean.

"It's like deciphering semaphore signals," she said, crossing her arms. "I should probably hire a cryptographer, huh? But, you're welcome."

"Sarah, really, you've been, just, so awesome," said Dean. "I gotta thank you both."

"He's our friend too," said Sarah, smiling now. "He really is."

"I know. But seriously. If you guys weren't here..."

"It takes a village to molt an angel," said Sam, in a deliberately pompous tone. Dean felt obliged to throw a pillow at him.

 


 

That night the black primaries unfurled from their silver sheaths. It was instantly clear that Cas's old primaries, as lovely as they had been, had indeed been pretty faded. The old ones had seemed dark enough, but the new ones seemed shockingly gorgeous in comparison: a midnight-dark, rich, shimmering black that glittered with flecks of gold when the sun caught it right.

It was clear now that even the black primaries had that golden shaft. Running down the middle.

And every single feather, even the tiny little coverts that were growing now too, had a bright and beautiful golden tip.

The whole wing seemed speckled with little golden crescents. Gold everywhere, lines of it, scalloped waves of it, intricate laced designs of gold. Running all through the black, and the white, and the Free-Will Grey.

 


 

Finally the new tertials started unfurling.

Dean knew this was a critical time. Tertials! The damn tertials had to come in right. Everything depended on the tertials coming in right. Only with good tertials would Cas be able to steer, and brake, and do the transition to the etheric plane.

And only with tertials could he re-power himself. Which he'd need to do immediately. He was nearly at the end of his strength. He was getting thinner still, and as the power from Sam's two angel-tears was used up over the next day, Cas's heart rate crept ever higher. He only had two days to go, but it was going to be close.

So for the next forty-eight hours straight, the last two days of the molt, Dean stayed up with Cas. Dean fed him protein shakes and burgers every hour, as fast as Cas could take them in. He helped change Cas's IV bag (Dean had long since learned all the details).

Dean even took over most of the cleaning and hygiene details that Sarah had been doing till now. Once, he would have avoided all that (once he had avoided all that, actually, just last year). But now, somewhat to his surprise, he found he didn't mind in the least helping to keep Cas clean. It seemed trivial. It was easy. It seemed obvious; Cas couldn't keep himself clean on his own as he normally would, so Dean would help him. Simple as that.

And Dean wanted to help him. In every way that he could. Big ways, little ways, special ways, routine ways, and even the messy ways. In every way that he could.

Simple as that.

 


 

Cas really only had two mental states now: comatose or delirious. He never fully woke. But through all of it he always kept hold of Dean, one or both hands clutching Dean's wrist, or ankle, or clothes, and usually a wing across Dean as well. Dean was able to escape occasionally, for a bathroom break and a shower, by using the flannel-shirt trick. He'd gotten it down to a science now, gently sliding one of his own old shirts into Cas's hands just as he simultaneously pulled himself free. When he did it smoothly, Cas barely stirred. And Sam would talk to Cas then, reading aloud to him or praying to him, while Dean took his break.

Sam's voice did seem to calm Cas down. But just the same Dean always hurried through his breaks and headed back as soon as he could.

Sometimes, when Cas became aware that Dean was gone, he became convinced, in his delirium, that Dean was still in Hell. There were a few more incidents of flapping-bouts, but soon they figured out a way to arrange him so that at least his wings wouldn't hit anything when he did this.

Sometimes he was convinced that he and Dean were back in Purgatory together; as soon as Dean returned Cas would be whispering, "Shhh, Dean, stay quiet." Trying to hide Dean; spreading his wings over Dean to protect him.

Sometimes he wept.

And quite a few times Cas seemed to think he was stuck in the ether again, unable to contact Dean. "I'm right here, Dean," he would say, running feverish hands over Dean's face. "I'm right here, Dean, please don't cry, don't be sad— Sam's alive, Dean, I'm alive, too, I'm right here, please hear me—"

And as the last day dawned, Cas got worse.

 


 

His fever was spiking again. Even with the amino-acid IVs. They had to do another hurried rush of cold-wet-towel-baths. And worst of all, Sarah reported that his heartbeat was getting weaker.

"Fast," she said, her face grim, as she checked him at mid-morning. "Weak and thready. I need to call Mac for advice, but— It's quite fast. And rapid. And, um..."

Dean saw her hesitate.

She looked back and forth between Sam and Dean. "It's irregular. Skipping beats sometimes. Uneven."

"But, Sarah, he's only got one more day to get through," said Dean, waving a hand at Cas's wings, as if everything would be okay if he could just convince Sarah that Cas's wings were almost done. "There's just, like, an inch at the base to unfurl. And the alulas, they were late coming in but they're growing in now, and those are tiny, look, look, just tiny. One more day and all the feathers will be done!"

"Yeah," said Sarah, nodding. "Yeah. Just one more day. But you know what, Dean, I think it's time to go over something with you and Sam." She pulled a bright yellow box out from under the table. "Do you both know how to use a defibrillator? And when's the last time either of you got CPR training?"

Dean and Sam both looked at her.

"Why don't we go over it," said Sarah. "The defibrillator's easy to use. I'll show you both. I'll train you both right now on CPR; it's changed a bit in the last couple years. We should keep the defib close. I'll put it here on the mattress, just outside the eyrie. Actually I think I'll leave the lid open, okay?"

 


 

It was the last night.

Sarah and Sam had retreated to the far side of the attic. Sarah had pulled their sleeping bags and cots further away, which scared Dean more than he dared admit.

It scared him because he knew that the only reason Sarah would move further away was if she were trying to give Dean some last private time with Castiel.

One last night.

It was nearly midnight now. Dean lay on his side, one arm curled around Cas's head trying to hold the latest set of cold washcloths to his neck, the other stroking his wing.

"One more night, Cas, just one more night," Dean murmured to him. "One more night and then you're done. And then you can rest and heal up that heart of yours, okay? But you gotta get through this one night, dude. You cannot give up."

Cas had grown disturbingly still in the last few hours, his breathing going fast and shallow.

His grip on Dean had weakened, too.

With every minute that slid past, it seemed Dean could feel Cas's breathing growing ever more rapid and ever more shallow. Dean thought, But maybe he can hear me a little?

Maybe this is the last time he'll ever hear me.

So Dean started talking.

"Hang in there, buddy," Dean said. "Just keep breathing. You can do this, you're almost done." He took a breath. "Your feathers look so awesome, Cas, they've got all this flashy gold now... you gotta wake up and see them. Just keep on breathing." He could feel Cas's breaths, just faint fast puffs on Dean's shoulder. "That's it. I'm right here. I'm right here with you. You're almost done."

Dean paused a moment.

"Cas, I love you, you know that, right?"

It was remarkable how easy it was to say now.

"You hear me, Cas? Castiel? I really do love you, you crazy angel. You gotta not leave me, Cas."

Dean kept on talking. Whispering right into Cas's ear now, both his hands running along the top edge of the wings. He went on, saying softly into Cas's ear, "These last couple months, Cas... This whole summer. It's been... I haven't really told you, Cas, but it's been..."

Dean had to stop speaking. His hands ran along the little feathers at the leading edge of both wings, and stroked both sets of alulas.

It was painful to remember that usually when Dean stroked Cas's wings like that, the little feathers would fluff up. Usually when Dean stroked the alulas, they would close lightly over his fingers.

But, now.... the little feathers didn't fluff. The alulas didn't move.

"This summer, Cas," Dean whispered, his throat tight. He kept stroking the wings. "This summer with you? It's been good. We're good together, you know that? More than good. I don't know how I went so many years without seeing it, but we are friggin' awesome together. You fucking rock in bed, have I told you that enough? But it's more than that, Cas, it's so much more than that... you're... " He had to stop and swallow. "I've just been kicking myself that I wasted so many years! You, just, get me. You don't take any shit from me, and you forgive me damn everything, and you always tell me stuff straight. You get me. And you're, just, easy to be with... I like showing you movies... I like how you think, buddy, the way you look at the world... I like making you food, and... and... I like waking up with you... and... I even like your cookies, dude... I love you so damn much, angel."

Maybe Cas might hear him better if Dean gave him an angel-kiss?

Dean scritched him on the back of the neck. There was no response.

The little feathers didn't fluff.

He sat up and bent over Cas to give him a proper angel-kiss on the back of his neck. The real deal. Nibbles and all.

The little feathers didn't fluff. The alulas didn't move.

Cas lay still and quiet. Dean could just feel his back moving slightly with his fast, panting breaths.

Dean swallowed. 

"I want more than one damn summer with you, you hear that?" he said, curling up with Cas again and wrapping his arms around Cas's wings. "I don't know if I deserve it, but, ah, Cas, my god I want it, I want it so bad. I want years more with you. But— Cas, more than anything I just want to see you fly again. I want to hear that whoosh when you fly. I want to see you smile, and I want to see you fly, angel..."

It was a prayer. All of it. It was the longest prayer Dean had ever sent to Castiel. It was hours long, hours and hours. Dean prayed to him all night long.

 


 

Dean blinked. There'd been a soft touch on his shoulder.

"Sorry," said Sarah. She was checking Cas's IV. "Didn't meant to wake you. Go back to sleep."

It was dawn.

It was over.

"Is he— is he?" Dean snapped wide awake in an instant. Cas didn't feel warm enough— he felt cold— the panting breaths had stopped— had he— had he—

"He's fine," Sarah whispered. "His fever broke. His temp's normal. He's just sleeping now. Sam and I have been keeping watch. Dean, he's okay. He got through it."

"Hey, Dean," said Sam — he was right on Cas's other side, removing the last of the wet towels— "You should take a look. At his wings."

Dean sat up.

The grey, the white, the black; that was all familiar. The gorgeous little gold crescents on every feather-tip, and the golden shafts; those, Dean had known about already.

But now the entire leading edge of both wings had gone gold too. The part that Dean had had his arms wrapped around all night. All the little covert-feathers on the leading edge, the ones that tend to puff up so adorably, had all gone completely gold. And the alulas too; the alulas were pure gold.

The wings were spectacular.

Dean felt a little startled. Cas's wings had been lovely before, of course, but before they'd only had muted tones, in shades of black, grey and white. Now, with the gold highlights everywhere, the wings seemed radiantly dramatic.

"He looks like friggin' Fort Knox," whispered Dean.

"I know," whispered Sam. "He picked up some serious bling overnight. Look, leading edge of both wings. And his alulas! "

"Cas the rap angel," said Dean, and suddenly he was snorting with laughter, at the thought of Cas as a bling-encrusted rap star.

"He could have a whole new career," said Sam, starting to grin.

"He's got the voice for it, actually," said Sarah, and suddenly they were all in a fit of giggles.

"Okay, bling aside," said Sarah, once the giggles were under control. "I think it might actually be over, Dean. I think he's okay. His temp and HR are much better. But we have to bear in mind, his heart's probably still very weak so we should still watch him today. It'll take a while for the muscles to rebuild. We have to be sure he doesn't try to run around and suddenly keel over with a heart attack. So keep him quiet, and I'll leave him on the IV for another day or two till we're sure he's really stabilized."

"Yeah, got it," said Dean. "Okay, I can take a shift. I'm awake now. Why don't you both go crash for a bit."

They nodded and headed down the stairs. Dean sat next to Cas looking at his gorgeous gold-laced wings, numb with relief. The birds outside were singing. Cas stirred in his sleep, one wing twitching. Dean flopped back down on his back, letting out a huge gasp of air, and little Meg stepped calmly into the eyrie, curled up at Cas's feet and began to purr.

 


 

Cas slept clear through the day, and all that night, and into the next morning.

He finally woke the next day at noon.

It was a hot mid-August day, the fans whirring away. Meg was stretched out on a cool spot of tiled floor just outside the eyrie, right under a fan.

Dean was back to reading "On The Road" again, the book propped up on one knee, his other hand resting on Cas's shoulder.

He felt Cas stir, and looked down to see Cas blinking up at him.

"Mornin', sunshine," said Dean, setting the book down.

"Uh... good morning?" said Cas, squinting at him. "Is it morning?"

"Hot damn, you're fucking lucid," said Dean, and he leaned over to give Cas a nibble on the neck. An angel-kiss, just like usual, but Dean found he couldn't let go, hanging onto Cas's shoulders. Cas had to start squirming around and muttering, "Dean, you're suffocating me," before Dean could make himself let go. Cas twisted around to get on his side so he could give Dean the usual human-kiss in return, and instantly Dean was choking back tears, holding on to him tightly, scritching his neck.

"Dean, are you okay?" said Cas, pulling back a little to study him.

"Yeah, yeah," Dean said, wiping his eyes. "Yeah. Just glad you're okay. You kind of gave us a scare, you know."

Cas squinted at him. "What do you mean? Because of drinking the tea yesterday? But that's not hazardous." A doubtful look crossed his face. "Um... that was... yesterday, wasn't it?"At Dean's expression Cas frowned and asked, "Today's day five, isn't it? Did I miss a day? Is it day six already?"

Dean couldn't help giving a little laugh. "You missed just a day or two, yeah. It's day sixteen."

Cas stared at him.

"What?" said Cas.

"It's over, dude. You got through it. Brand-new feathers. Like 'em?"

Cas stared at him a moment longer. He glanced over his shoulder to look at his left wing, and froze.

Dean pointed out, "You picked up some new colors, too. Not sure why, but you got some gold. Like it? Gold feather-tips everywhere, and gold shafts and gold alulas. Pretty sharp, huh?"

Cas was completely still, just staring at his wing.

A moment later he was scrambling to his feet, still staring at his left wing.

"Whoa there! Wait a sec," said Dean, jumping to his feet. "Slow down, cowboy. Sarah says your heart's still pretty weak. Take it easy. Move slow." He helped Cas up. Cas staggered a little, holding both Dean's hands for balance, but soon he seemed to steady himself.

"There you go," said Dean. "Got your feet, huh?"

Cas didn't answer. He was still staring at his wings. He flared them fully, looking back and forth from one to the other. The sun caught them, the gold glinting brightly.

The little golden alulas lifted up, shining in the sun. Cas looked at the left two alulas for a long moment, and then turned his head to study the right ones. He shot a sharp glance at Dean, an intense look in his eyes that Dean couldn't place, and then returned to staring at his wings.

"How do they look?" Dean said. He was starting to get a little worried. He'd thought the feathers looked pretty great— every feather seemed straight and strong, every feather shining, and that gorgeous gold was showy as hell. But Cas seemed more stunned and shocked than anything else.

Was gold bad, maybe? It seemed like gold ought to be good. But with angels, who the hell knows, thought Dean.

Or were the wings damaged in some way?

Were the tertials okay?

"Cas, do they look okay?" Dean asked finally. "I tried to help. But you were out cold half the time and delirious the other half. Sarah and Sam helped a ton— Sarah was on you like every minute and she got your fever down and got this protein IV stuff into you, she was amazing, and Sam went tearing around the country and found some more angel-tears, and I... um... tried a bunch of stuff... I did the preening all I could, and I did this marinade thing to straighten out the pin-feathers, and... dammit, Cas, are your feathers okay?"

Cas swallowed. "Yes," he said, just one short, gruff word, still staring at his wings.

"And... uh... the tertials?"

"My tertials are fine," Cas said. His voice seemed uneven. He let go of one of Dean's hands and almost absent-mindedly reached back and ran his hand along the left tertials. "The tertials are perfect," he said again, but he barely seemed to be paying attention. He wasn't even looking at the tertials. He was staring once more at the alulas.

Cas said, "My alulas are gold."

"Oh. Yeah. Gold alulas. And gold tips and gold shafts on all the other feathers. Spiff, huh?"

Again Cas turned his head, to look at the other wing. Right wing, left wing, back and forth he looked, flaring his wings out more and tilting them back and forth in the sun. "Gold shafts," he said.

"Yes. Gold tips and gold shafts."

"Gold tips and gold shafts," Cas repeated. "Gold alulas."

"Yeah, I think we've established that now," said Dean, starting to grin a little. "Were they like that before? You didn't have gold shafts before. Do the gold shafts fade, or something?"

"Shaft color doesn't fade," said Cas. "I've never had gold shafts before. Or gold alulas." Slowly he folded both wings in, and his eyes shifted to Dean. Dean felt Cas's fingers tighten as Cas said, "Gold is... ah... the rarest of feather colors."

"Picked it up cheap for you at the feather-color store," Dean said. "They were having a special. Cas, c'mon, give it to me straight here: do your wings feel okay?"

At that question, Cas slowly flared both wings high overhead, his eyes closing. It was that fantastic wing-display move, the one Cas had done when Dean had first met him.

Dean fell silent for a moment, just looking at the glittering wings stretched high overhead, symmetrical and shining and perfect. And he looked at the expression on Cas's face.

He's an angel again, thought Dean. 

He's so gorgeous.

And he looks so happy.

Creature of flight...

Cas relaxed his wings slightly and said, opening his eyes with a sigh, "Dean. My wings haven't felt this good in years." The vast wings stroked the air once, cautiously, and Cas sighed, and said, "Centuries, I think." He did a couple more wingbeats, faster now; air went blasting through the huge room. "The feathers are perfect. Every one of them is rooted perfectly."

Cas beat the air again: once, twice, three times.

"I'm going to shift to the etheric plane," said Cas, and he dropped Dean's hands.

"Cas, no, wait—" said Dean, grabbing at his hands again. The memory of the catastrophic flight out of the fire was suddenly at the forefront of his mind. "Wait. You just woke up. Your heart's still weak. Take a minute to settle in. What if something goes wrong?"

"I'll be fine," said Cas. "But I need to power up a little before I'll be strong enough to carry a passenger along, so you should let go. I'll be fine on my own, though. My tertials are fine. I can feel it." He beat the air twice more, and announced firmly, "They're completely symmetrical again. I can feel it. I'll be able to steer."

"Cas—"

"Dean," said Cas, with a little smile. "I'm okay."

Dean hung on to Cas's hands for one more long moment, drinking in the sight of Castiel smiling at him.

Dean let go.

Whup-whuff. That eerily familiar sound that Dean hadn't heard in so many years. And Cas was gone.

Cas was gone, and Dean was alone, standing in the empty eyrie by himself.

 


 

Whup-whuff. Cas was back, standing right in front of Dean again.

He gave Dean such a wide smile that Dean almost began to cry.

"They work?" said Dean hoarsely, and Cas took two steps closer and wrapped Dean in a wing-hug. Dean closed his eyes and held Cas close.

They held onto each other, standing in the eyrie, in the warm summer afternoon.

"They work," said Cas a moment later, opening his wings to release Dean, and stepping back a little.

"You can... fly?" said Dean, his voice choking on the word "fly."

"I believe so. But that wasn't full flight. Not yet. I just transitioned to the etheric plane and back. To soak up a little power."

Sam and Sarah came scampering up the stairs then (it turned out Sam had heard the "whup-whuff" even from a couple floors down).  Cas grinned at them. They seemed bowled over to see him on his feet, and rushed over, Sarah springing on him with a little hug. Then he had to hold his wings out for inspection while they congratulated him on his lovely feathers.

"I need to thank you all," said Cas, very solemnly. "Dean, you are the very best molt-companion an angel could ever dream of. And, Sam, Sarah— Dean tells me you provided great assistance too. I'm so very grateful, I really am. To be honest I was certain I wouldn't get through week two. Completely certain. But— look at my wings, just look— and, look, I can get in and out of the ether!" With that, he disappeared again.

"Whoa," said Sam. "Haven't seen that in a while."

"HOLY FUCK," said Sarah, looking around wildly. Cas reappeared right in front of her. At her wide-eyed look, Cas said, "Oh, you haven't seen me do the etheric transition before, have you? I forgot about that. It works like this—" He disappeared again, right in front of her, and reappeared.

"See, it's really quite simple," he explained.

"HOLY FUCK," said Sarah.

"I could leave my wings over there, actually," said Cas. "I used to." His wings abruptly disappeared, leaving Castiel standing there wingless, looking just like any other human. Shirtless, in bare feet, in sweatpants... and no wings. Sam and Dean exchanged a shocked look; it was bizarre to see Cas without his wings, after all these months of having the wings around. Cas frowned. "That doesn't feel right anymore." The wings reappeared. "Ah. Yes, that's more comfortable."

"HOLY FUCKING SHIT," said Sarah.

Dean snorted. Sam said, "Sarah, we used to have that happen constantly. Cas would sort of bip in and bip out. Forgot you hadn't seen that. Freaked us out the first couple times too."

Cas seemed to be testing out his wings now, angling them this way and that, stretching them out, a rather distant look on his face. He announced, "I'm going to fly now. A real flight." He gave Dean a little smile.

For a moment he held Dean's eyes.

Everything that had happened in the last two years seemed to hang between them.

Two years. Two long years. The minotaur... The long months when Dean and Sam had forgotten who Castiel even was. Fighting Calcariel... Struggling through the forest... Cas giving almost all his lifespan to Sam... much later, the unthinkably terrible night in Zion... Cas with a shattered wing, in such agony.

The forest-fire. The flight off the planet. Kodiak Island.

The night Dean had pulled him back from the ether. The prayer that had pulled him back...

The front of the boat, Cas's arms around him.

The morning in the van.

The top of the hill. In winter, Cas alone with his crippled wing and a pistol in his hand; and then in summer, Dean by his side, lying in the grasses together under the summer sky.

Castiel held Dean's eyes for a long moment now, and then he closed his eyes. Dean watched him close his eyes, watched his strong wings flare out— oh, that beautiful left wing, so perfect now, so strong, so symmetrical with the right—

"I may be a few minutes," said Castiel. He disappeared.

This time he didn't return.

 


 

Dean waited.

Sam waited too. And Sarah.

The first minute seemed bursting with potential. Surely Cas would be back at any second.

But Cas did not appear.

The wind sighed through the leaves outside. Through the open windows they could hear crickets droning in the distance, and a squirrel chattering in the trees. Dean began to turn around, to look all around the vast attic, in case Cas had turned up in some unexpected corner. But he was nowhere in sight.

The second minute seemed very long. The eyrie remained empty; the whole attic was empty. Dean ended up leaning against the bureau; Sarah sat down on a chair.

"He's fine," said Sam, during the third minute. "He just went somewhere. He's probably enjoying a little flight around the world or something."

"Stretching his wings," said Sarah, nodding. "So to speak."

"Yeah," said Dean. He moved to the eyrie and sat on the pillow-wall, looking at the glyph design in the silk-and-fleece lining.

A fourth minute passed. Dean slid his bare feet idly against the silk and fleece, staring down at the glyph design.

"Guess I'll, um," said Sarah, "Clean up a bit." She started folding towels.

Sam cleared his throat and said, "He probably went to the top of Mount Everest to look around. You know how he is."

Sarah said, briskly folding a towel, "Maybe he's taking a minute to soak up some power."

Sam added, "His wings looked great. He wouldn't have flown if he weren't sure he had good control."

Dean nodded.

Five more minutes passed. Sarah had finished folding towels. She walked over to the eyrie and sat on the pillow-wall near Dean, and soon Sam joined them.

Sam said, "He said a few minutes. You know how angels are, Dean, a few minutes might mean something different to him than it does to us."

"Like a few centuries, maybe?" said Dean, his voice flat. He felt strangely calm. I knew this might happen, he was thinking.

It's okay. It's okay. As long as he's out there flying.

Sarah said, "Maybe he came back downstairs? Or landed outside?"

Sam volunteered to check around the bunker. Sarah volunteered to check all the other bunker rooms. Dean stayed in the eyrie, just in case.

Twenty minutes later, Sam and Sarah returned to find Dean still sitting in the eyrie alone, gazing out the windows at the blue sky outside.

 


 

"He'll be back," said Sarah.

"You didn't know him before," said Dean. "He used to, just, just, take off, just like this, take off, not come back, not answer, for months—"

"Maybe I didn't know him before," said Sarah, "but I know him now. He'll be back."

Dean was unable to keep himself from snapping, "How would you know?"

She just said calmly, "I know from how he looked when he was sitting by your bed."

"My bed?" Dean looked at her. He couldn't remember what she was talking about.

"Your hospital bed," said Sarah. "In the ICU. In Wyoming last year." She glanced over at Sam. "He kept checking on you, too, Sam. He obviously cared a lot about both of you. But with Dean... he had that look."

"What look?" said Dean.

"That look," said Sarah. "I know that look. He'll be back."

 


 

Whup-whuff. A burst of air fanned through the vast room. Dean twisted around, and there was Cas, standing just outside the eyrie. His radiant, gorgeous wings were half-spread behind his back, and he had a little smile on his face.

And his beautiful gold-tipped feathers were all fluffed up.

"I found it," he said.

"Where the fuck have you been?" Dean blurted out, jumping to his feet, Sam and Sarah scrambling to their feet behind him.

"Sorry, it took me a while," said Cas. "It took much more time than I expected to power up. There's not as much power in the ether as there usually is. Something to do with Heaven's gates being closed, I expect. But I found it." He turned to Sam and Sarah and said. "Oh, and, it would be my great pleasure to make a dinner for you all tonight. I feel I need to do something much more special than that— I can never express my gratitude enough— but, at least I can make a dinner, I hope. But first there's something I have to show to Dean. We'll be back in a few hours. Dean, let's go." He held his hand out to Dean.

Dean stared at him. "What? Where?"

Cas just held his hand out, looking at Dean expectantly, his eyes bright, his head high.

And all his feathers fluffed.

Dean reached out and took his hand.

Whup-whuff.

 


 

The world went grey; a thousand miles unspooled in an instant; then color burst all around them as the world snapped back into focus, all greens and blues this time. It seemed blazingly bright, after the cool shade of the attic room; they were somewhere outside in the bright summer sunshine, and Dean staggered. Cas braced him by one elbow, and Dean looked around, still hunched over, squinting. He felt unfamiliar wooden planks beneath his bare feet and saw the glint of water.

He gasped, straightening up.

They were at a lake.

No, they were on a lake. On a wooden pier that stretched out on a lake. Green leafy trees were visible on the far shore; cool blue water stretched out ahead.

"Is it the right one?" said Cas. He was standing right next to Dean, still bracing Dean's elbow, both of them facing out over the water. Dean turned to look at him, still gasping from the transition.

"The right... what?"

"Is it the right lake?" Cas asked. "I looked at thousands of them. There's quite a lot of lakes in North America. This one seemed to match yours the best."

Dean stared at him, and then turned to look around.

They were at... oh. That lake. That wooden pier. The one Bobby had taken him and Sam to a few times, when they were young, to go fishing.

The one Dean dreamed about sometimes.

The one he'd once dreamed about when Cas had visited him in a dream; the one he'd told Cas about, one desperate night not that many months ago, huddled in bed together, hoping against hope that everything would turn out all right.

Someday you'll fly me to the lake, Dean had said.

I'll fly you to the lake, Cas had replied, holding him close.

"Is it the right lake?" Cas repeated. He looked a little worried now, and his feathers had de-fluffed slightly. "I wanted this to be our first flight together. I've had it in mind for some time— that if I did get through molt, this would be my first flight: to bring you to your lake. I went and found some fishing apparatus, too, like you had in your dream—" He gestured to the side, and Dean realized there was a cooler of beer, and two folding chairs, and a fishing pole and even some bait. And two pairs of swim trunks, and some towels.

Cas added, sounding even more uncertain, "The gentleman at the fishing store recommended quite a variety of types of bait. I got a few of each of them."

"It's the right lake, Cas," Dean said, groping for Cas's hand and squeezing it tightly as he looked around. The lake was glittering, the sun was shining. It was a perfect day for a swim, warm and lovely. It was a great day for fishing, too. But all Dean could think was how much his throat was aching and how good it was to feel Cas's hand tighten around his.

He tried to make a joke of it, saying, "Thought you'd flown off for good, for a second there!" He'd meant for it to come out lighthearted, but his throat choked up at the words "for good" and the rest of the sentence came out in a sort of a squeak. In a flash the wings were around him, Cas's arms around him too, Cas saying with his voice full of worry, "Oh— I didn't think— I didn't realize. Oh, Dean. No, no, never that. I'm sorry I took so long. I kept running out of power and having to stop and soak up some more. The ether's very short on power now. And it took a while to find the right lake. I theorized it might be near your friend Bobby's home, so I had to check the states of Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska, and it took a little while."

"Four states?" Dean managed to mumble into Cas's feathers. "You could've just asked where it was."

"I wanted to surprise you. And I got lucky— it actually was in the first state I checked, here in Minnesota."

"Land of ten thousand lakes," said Dean, into the feathers.

"Eleven thousand eight hundred and forty-two," said Cas. 

Dean gave a hoarse laugh. "You checked eleven thousand lakes for me?"

"Well, I only had to check eight thousand four hundred and ninety-one. It was the next one after that." said Cas. "I had to turn back time a few times. I'm sorry I took so long."

"Only eight thousand four hundred and ninety-one. You took half an hour for that? You slacker," said Dean, laughing now, his arms still tight around Cas, snuffling into the beautiful soft feathers— gold feathers, he realized— which were all puffed up now around his face.

"I wanted to fly you to your lake, Dean. And especially after I saw the color of my feathers, I... " Cas pulled back a little from the embrace, his hands sliding down to rest on Dean's hips as he flared his wings out halfway and looked at them again.

"Cas, what does the gold mean?"

"Well, I started getting gold feather-tips about, um, about six years ago," said Cas, giving Dean an oddly shy look out of the corner of his eye. "Approximately, um, well, it was the molt after I met you that they first came in. And every year since there's been more. More feathers with gold tips. But I've never had gold shafts. And all-gold alulas are really quite rare, and this gold on the leading edge is something unusual—"

"Cas," said Dean, starting to grin now. "What does the gold mean?" He was pretty sure he knew the answer by now. But he wanted to hear Cas say it.

Cas fell silent a moment.

"Love," he said.

Cas folded in his left wing, bringing the bend of the wing quite close to Dean's shoulder, so that they could look at the wing together. "It's quite a rare color among angels," Cas added, as Dean ran his hand over the little golden feathers at the top of the wing.

"Gold feather tips tend to come in if the angel feels love for someone," said Cas quietly. "And as I said that's been happening for a while, since... well, since I met you. More and more every year. Most of all now. But gold shafts, that's something a little different... that means the pin-feathers were touched with love while they were growing in. It means the angel was assisted in molt by someone who, um." He hesitated, looking at Dean. "Someone who truly loves him."

Dean ran one finger down the long golden shaft of one of the flight feathers. "And gold alulas?"

Cas lifted his alulas; Dean ran his fingers under them and the alulas closed down lightly.

Castiel said, "I've never seen gold alulas before. On anybody."

"I had my hands on your wings all night last night," said Dean. "Like, the whole night. The alulas and the whole leading edge, actually. I was trying to... um... talk you through the last night, kind of. I was, uh... telling you a bunch of stuff all night. Trying to keep you going. Could that be it?"

"Ah," said Castiel. He was just looking at Dean now. "Ah. I see..." he said. "That could explain it." His hands were still on Dean's hips and he'd inched closer, staring at Dean from just a few inches away now, those blue eyes boring into him.

"So you're, um, not going to go off and fly around the world for a while?"

"Not alone," said Cas, as if that should have been obvious. "With you, maybe, if you'd like to."

Dean took a breath. "I need to tell you something. I need to make sure you know that you're free. Your wing's all fixed. You don't really need me anymore—"

"Yes, I do." Cas was getting that puzzled "what on earth are you talking about" look now, his head tilting a little.

"I mean, you can leave if you want, I mean, not that I want you to, but, I just wanna be sure you know that if you want to, um, live somewhere else or whatever, you can go— " This wasn't coming out right. Dean tried again: "You're not, like, trapped with me, I mean—"

Cas had gone into a full head-tilt now. Complete with puzzled squint. He said, "Dean, you're not normally this dumb."

"Yes, I am," said Dean, "Anyway, if you ever decide to just fly away—"

Dean had to shut up then, because suddenly Cas was right in his face saying, "Not ever, Dean," and then Cas was kissing him. An angel-kiss first, Cas bending half around Dean's shoulder to nibble the back of Dean's neck, the wings curving all around him in all their golden glory; and then a human kiss next, Cas coming back around to Dean's front, holding Dean's face in both his hands, the wings wrapped tight around him. The sun shone down, the breeze blew, the little waves on the lake lapped at the pier, but all Dean was aware of was Cas's long lean body pressed up to his, the wings wrapped around him, and the feathers all around; and the sound of Castiel's husky voice, saying over and over in between the kisses and the angel-nibbles, "Not ever. Not ever, Dean. Not ever."

 


 

 

A/N - And that is the last epilogue of the epilogues.

But will there be an epilogue to the epilogue to the epilogues? Put it this way, this was supposed to be a 20-chapter fic.

And now you know what gold feathers means! Many of you guessed it. For ages now, since the Mississippi River scene, I've had the idea in mind that gold feathers means the angel has either loved, or been loved. In this case it's both; gold tips occur when the angel feels love (and Cas did have "metallic" feather tips before - both gold and silver glints on his feathers actually - I had in mind that silver represents earlier stages of love - compassion/affection - and then gold represents a deeper love.) And then I thought that if Dean touched Cas's feathers while they were growing in, especially at a moment when Dean was feeling deep love for Cas, gold would start showing up on other parts of the feather, starting with the shaft and then spreading to the vanes. The gold glow in the last chapter was when the feather-shafts went gold, btw (and yes, that was basically the moment when the feather contacted the grace AND the grace recognized the love in Dean's touch.) (This'll all be in the next edition of the Schmidt-Nielsen book obviously) 

I got a request to sketch out my image of Cas's wings; I'll try to do that, but I couldn't get it done in time for tonight. The gold-shafts idea is patterned after the golden shafts of a real bird, the yellow-shafted flicker, one of my favorite birds, and though it might sound gaudy it's really quite a beautiful effect.

I really hope you enjoyed these epilogues, and this last one especially. If there was something in particular that you liked, please tell me what it was!