It was always the good dreams that got messed up. No one ever came around to interrupt the nightmares about Hell or the times his subconscious made him relive all those hunts that went bad; no, it was always when a rescued damsel was about to shower Dean with well-earned gratitude.
Or in this case, a whole cheerleading squad of grateful damsels. One had just leaned down to whisper in his ear when he felt a tap on his shoulder; the party he'd just been surrounded by dissolved and he felt silence drape around him like a shroud. He wondered if he kept his eyes closed and wanted it really, really, hard maybe this would all just go away, too.
"You'll have to open your eyes eventually, Dean."
Dean sighed and surrendered, opening his eyes to find himself in a misty, dimly lit forest. Just as he'd expected Castiel was standing in front of him, although he was a little surprised – and relieved, frankly – to see they were alone. "Hey, Cas," he said, unable to keep the wary tone out of his voice. "Where's your sidekick?"
Castiel tilted his head. "Balthazar won't be joining us, if that's who you mean. This is too dangerous to bring in anyone else."
"So you brought me. Great." Dean gave Castiel a hard look; he looked roughed up, not bruised but more rumpled than usual with tight lines around his eyes and mouth - all of which Dean stopped
himself from asking about, telling himself he didn't care anymore. He remembered he used to be happy when Castiel would randomly show up, instead of this lingering dread of oh, what now? He tried to push all that deep down and didn't quite succeed. "Where are we, Cas? You look like shit."
"This is...possibility, Dean," Castiel said, his eyes bright as he looked around at things Dean couldn't see. He caught what Dean assumed was one hell of a confused look on his face and explained further, "We're in a time nexus. A place where time lines converge." He looked up, clearly seeing more than leaves. "My timeline, in particular."
"A nexus? What, like on Star Trek? Is Malcolm McDowell gonna show up and yell at us?"
Castiel frowned. "I never understand your references. I don't know why you keep making them."
Dean swallowed the impulse to explain that was the movie that made Kirk go out like a punk, knowing Castiel wouldn't appreciate it. "Just looks like some forest to me."
"Does it? I'd wondered how it would appear to you."
"Why are we here, Cas?"
"I received word that Raphael had opened a doorway and lain a trap for me, intending to throw me in here. I allowed him to think he'd succeeded."
Dean remembered that it used to be Castiel would make sense at least some of the time. "Why would you go along with anything that dick wanted?"
Castiel had that familiar I-know-something-you-don't glint in his eye. "Because there's a prophecy about this place. One that mentions a weapon hidden here, something powerful enough that if I possess it the war will swing in my favor."
"Yeah? What kind of weapon?"
Castiel shook his head. "It doesn't say. Only that it can be found here."
Dean rubbed his forehead. "Y'know what? Let me rephrase everything. Why am I here?"
"You're very unique, Dean. I believe you're the only human alive today who could even perceive this place."
"I never like it when you guys go on about how unique I am. What the hell is it about me now?"
"It's because you've been here before, Dean. Don't you remember? Zachariah sent you through here, that night I waited for you by the highway."
Dean felt his stomach churn. "I didn't...." He looked around, almost expecting Croats to come lumbering out of the shadows. "Kind of always hoped that had all just been in my head, you know?"
"No," Castiel said. "That experience was real."
Dean shoved his hands into his jacket pockets, willing that nightmare far away. "So basically you brought me here because you knew I could come here?"
Castiel nodded. "You could see it that way. And because I'll need a guide."
"Great. Let's find this thing you want so much so I can wake the hell up."
"Sooner would be better than later."
Dean rolled his eyes and started down the path, feeling Castiel fall in close behind. Within a few minutes the road forked off in two different directions and Dean paused, unable to see any difference between the two. "Which way, Cas?"
Castiel shrugged. "I won't know until you choose."
"All on me then." Dean shook his head and went off to the left before he could change his mind, stepping into the mist shrouding the path. He blinked, one hand in front of his face, then when his vision cleared he found himself standing in Bobby's study. The place was trashed, papers and books everywhere like a bomb had gone off; he didn't see Bobby but he saw himself from behind and then Castiel backed up against the wall. The look on Castiel's face turned Dean's blood to ice; he was looking at the other Dean with horror in his eyes, with fear. Dean had never seen Cas look that afraid of anything, not even that night before they were going to face down Raphael.
"Castiel," Dean heard his own voice say, the wrongness of the sound wrapping around his spine. That wasn't his voice. Dean saw an angelic sword in his other self's right hand and understood the horror on Castiel's face.
"Michael," Castiel whispered, confirming what Dean already knew.
"Cas, get outta here," Dean said, his hands balling into fists when there was no response. He didn't know why they couldn't see or hear him when the last time he'd been reality hopping he'd definitely been really there. Maybe there needed to be an extra dose of angel mojo, Dean didn't know; all he knew was that whatever was about to happen (had happened, Dean realized), there wasn't a damn thing he could do to stop it.
Michael raised one hand and Castiel cried out, jerking backward into the wall hard enough to drop his own sword. "Been a long time," Michael said, and Dean remembered hearing that mocking tone wrapped in his father's voice. "You don't come home as often as you used to." Dean heard the sound of Cas' wings but all that happened was Castiel doubling over in agony, one hand reaching out to brace himself against the wall so he could stay on his feet. "No," Michael said, closing the distance between them. "No, I don't think so."
Castiel looked up at Michael as he straightened back up, the fear rapidly turning to resignation. "Dean, you can fight him," he whispered, but there was no hope in his voice. Dean shifted over so he could get a look at Michael's face and saw his own eyes narrow. "Dean---"
Michael swung his sword so quickly it looked like a flash of silver in the air. Castiel staggered back a step, his hand pressed against his throat and Dean didn't think he'd ever seen anyone look so surprised. He mouthed Dean's name again as blood and light leaked through his fingers but no sound came out; Dean knew with sick certainty that was why Michael had done it, that he was afraid Cas might get through. Dean wondered if he was awake in there, watching Castiel beg him for help. If he'd felt his own hand slit Castiel's throat.
Castiel's legs buckled and he fell hard, his eyes wide with panic. Michael stepped forward, looming over him with the same curious expression he'd seen on Castiel's face so many times. "Finish this," Dean urged, not understanding why Michael was drawing it out. There were things that could only be killed with a throat slash and Dean always hated those hunts; bleeding something out was never like it was in the movies, it took a damned long time. Castiel pushed himself back to his knees, fumbling for his dropped sword, and Dean felt a surge of pride that Cas was trying to go out fighting.
Michael kicked the sword away, taking a step back as Castiel fell forward. He nudged Castiel over onto his back with the toe of his boot (Dean's boot, this was happening because Dean had let him in and he felt like throwing up just thinking about it) and just watched as Cas started choking on blood. It hit Dean like a truck that these two were brothers. He tried to picture himself standing by while Sam suffered like this, even when things were at their worst between them and couldn't imagine it. He almost said a little prayer of thanks when Castiel's eyes started to lose focus, just because that meant he wouldn't feel it anymore. "Stop fighting, Cas. Just let go man, please."
Castiel's head snapped to the side, his glazed over eyes looking past Michael to where Dean was standing. His brow furrowed, confusion creeping into his expression as the blood pooled beneath him. "Cas, I can't...." Dean didn't know if he wanted Castiel to be able to hear him or not. "I can't help, Cas, I'm so fucking sorry."
Castiel's body spasmed once as his lungs made one last, reflexive gasp for air before his chest finally went still. Dean saw Michael curl his lips up as the light pouring from Castiel exploded out in a blinding flash and Dean didn't think he'd ever hated anything so much in his life. He closed his eyes, not because of the light but because he didn't want to see those wings burn themselves out. Hearing them was bad enough.
Dean felt a hand on his shoulder and when he opened his eyes he found himself back in the forest, Castiel looking at him with his head tilted to the side. He fought down the absurd impulse to hug him. "That's not the way, Dean. We won't find anything moving backward."
He felt like the couldn't breathe. "That didn't happen," he insisted. "None of that, that never fucking happened."
Castiel's brow furrowed, way too close to the expression he'd had on his face just before he'd died. Dean knew he'd go to his grave wondering if the last thought going through that Castiel's mind had been to wonder why Dean wasn't helping him. "It happened somewhere," Castiel said. He took his hand from Dean's shoulder and looked back at the trees surrounding them. "I told you, this is a place of possibility. Time isn't linear, it branches. Whatever choice you make, there's another version of you that chose the opposite. And you did come very close to saying yes to Michael."
Dean just shook his head. "I fucking killed you."
"No, you didn't. Michael did."
"You're pretty calm about this."
Castiel just shrugged. "There are many realities where I don't survive, Dean."
Dean reached out and tipped Castiel's chin up, moving his face out of shadow. "Dude. You're bleeding."
Castiel wiped away the blood trickling from his nose, staring at his hand as if he could will the blood away if he tried hard enough. "It's nothing," he finally said, as if that settled things.
Dean turned away and started up the right side of the fork, needing to clear his head. He got about thirty feet before the path bent into a curve; Dean was too busy stewing to pay attention and almost walked into a large boulder just off the path. The entire surface of the rock was covered with black, burnt-in angel wings, almost a dozen that Dean could count. He recoiled, bumping into Castiel and saw emotion Cas couldn't quite bury. "Where did you bring me?" he said, his voice a low growl. "Where the fuck are we?"
Castiel stared at the wings. "We need to keep moving," was all he said.
Dean didn't know how he hadn't seen the wings before. He wondered if Castiel had been keeping him from seeing because they seemed to be everywhere, strewn across the trees and ground, even stretched across the path. It was like walking through a graveyard, something Dean had too much bad experience with to ever be comfortable doing. The mist was so heavy Dean didn't know he'd hit another fork until it rose up to envelop him, just like before.
When Dean blinked his eyes back open he found himself standing in a wood-walled cabin. There was a man lying on the bed in front of him, one arm over his face. Dean had just enough time to wonder oh, what now when the man stirred, the arm moving to expose bleary, familiar blue eyes staring up at him. "Oh, fuck," Dean blurted out. "Not back here."
Cas frowned up at him. "Dean? What're you doing here? How long was I out?"
"Um...a while," Dean said, trying to imitate the tone he remembered his doppelganger using. "Figured it was time to see if you were still breathing." C'mon, Cas, get me out of here. "Finish sleeping it off, we've got shit to do in the morning."
Cas gave him a hard look, then rolled over and eased a metal box out from under the bed. "Come off it, Dean," he said, opening the box and laying out rolling paper and leaves Dean was very sure weren't tobacco. "What's going on?"
"Whatever you're on has you paranoid, Cas," Dean said, desperate to not explain any of this. "Like I said---"
"Dean, you smell like time," Cas said, and Dean felt himself wilt. "What are you doing here?"
"Thought you couldn't do that angel stuff anymore."
Cas quirked one eyebrow at him. "It's fading. Although I guess it goes away entirely, huh?" He finished rolling the joint and lit it. For a second Dean thought about asking if he would share. "So, knows-me-in-the-future-Dean, what brings you here? Assuming you're not a hallucination, of course. Always have to ask that nowadays."
Dean sighed. "You called it a time nexus."
Cas' eyebrows rose. "I'm in a nexus? Well, that's not good. How the hell did that happen?"
"Apparently you let Raphael toss you in there."
Cas frowned, exhaling a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke. "That doesn't sound like me."
"You said there was a prophecy about the place, some weapon."
"I take it back, that sounds exactly like me." He fell back against the bed, one arm bent behind his head. "Man, you should see your face. You look completely freaked out."
"Yeah, no kidding." Dean raked one hand through his hair and dropped down on the bed when Cas scooted over to give him room. "What the hell did I get myself into?"
"The nexus is a tool," Cas said. "Our Father made it to be able to see all realities at a glance and, um, nudge things the way He wants them to go. Y'know, back when He got up to that kind of thing."
"There are angel wings all over the damn place and when I asked you about it, real---other you, I mean," Dean said, seeing Cas' lips quirk up at the flub, "you shut down. What the hell happened? It looked like there was a war."
Cas' eyes went distant for a moment. "When Lucifer rebelled he didn't go it alone. He managed to talk a full third of the Host into joining up. He was always kind of a sweet talker that way."
Dean remembered Lucifer wearing Sam's face and shivered. "So what? Didn't they get chucked down into hell too?"
Cas shook his head. "Nope. Just Lucifer in the Cage, all alone until he got the bright idea to make himself a few demons." He took another hit from the joint. "I remember the surrender. After Michael threw Lucifer out, all the rest of the Third who'd lived that long gathered in front of everyone, Michael and Raphael and Gabriel standing out in front, and they exalted and groveled and all that." He exhaled another mouthful of smoke and Dean felt the beginnings of a contact high. "Then Michael smiled, accepted their surrender and threw them all into the nexus." He frowned. "Gabriel took off right after that, now that I think about it."
"Why the hell did he accept the surrender and then do that?"
"Because my brothers tend to be dicks, Dean, I thought you'd gathered that. It was Michael's idea of punishment, that they'd wander through there and see what could have been, how their lives would have turned out if they hadn't signed on with Lucifer."
"So, it's like a prison then."
Cas nodded. "Something like that." He tapped ash off the side of the bed. "The gas chamber's still technically part of the prison, right?"
Dean stared at Cas for a long, silent minute. "Maybe you wanna go back and explain that."
"What? You saw the wings."
"I know, but you said the angels were all put there to, I don't know, think about what they'd done."
Cas started rolling a second joint. "Well, yeah, right up until they started bleeding internally and dropped dead. Um. Figuratively speaking, anyway, we don't really have blood per se." His lips pursed together for a second. "Although I'm in a vessel so I guess I do. Huh." He licked the new joint closed and lit it. "You have these cat ears," Cas said, making a vague gesture around his head and looking up at Dean with an intoxicated giggle.
"C'mon, don't drift off here."
"'s funny. There's a joke...but it doesn't translate right, 'suckled by' has a double meaning in Enochian, I...." He lost his train of thought, a bleak look in his eyes. "No one's ever gonna get that joke again."
"Stay with me, Cas. Why would everyone just die?"
"Because the place is toxic to us. Didn't I say that?"
Dean started pacing up and down the room. "That can't be right. You're walking around in there just fine."
Cas shrugged. "You could walk around in a sulfur mine, you just wouldn't have much fun doing it or be able to stand it very long." He looked up and it freaked Dean out how quickly he could go from addled back to that laser focus. "How am I doing? Other me, I mean. Can I still see?"
"I...yeah. Yeah, you're...." And because I'll need a guide. "You were bleeding a little bit. Nosebleed."
Cas nodded. "Well, I'm in a vessel. That should prop me up for a while."
"I saw you die." Cas tilted his head and it was weird, how every so often he would do something just like regular Castiel. "In one of the futures, realities, whatever. I said yes to Michael and he killed you."
"Why are you never upset about that?"
Cas just shrugged again. "Ooh, in some alternate future I died a gory death. Can't imagine that ever happening."
Dean fought down the memory of screams and gunfire and wondered how far from now that day was. "Why out of all the possibilities would that be the first thing I see?"
"Because, unfortunately, we are not our Father. He can use the nexus with an objective eye. We're not so good at that. When we try to use it, what we always see are our fears. The things we're terrified will happen because, you know, somewhere they did."
"You never told me you were scared Michael would kill you."
Cas just gave him a look, like that was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard someone say. "Did I have to? What did you think would happen if you said yes?"
Suddenly that fight in the alley made so much more sense. "Why didn't you just say something?"
Cas raised an eyebrow at Dean. "Probably because I figured that if the, y'know, fate of the world couldn't convince you to keep saying no, me mentioning I was freaked out wouldn't have much of an impact."
"Yeah, well," Cas said, taking a long hit from the joint. "Considering how things worked out here, maybe I should have bucked up and let him stab me in the heart."
"Slit your throat," Dean whispered. "He slit your throat."
"Oh yeah? I used to run through a few possibilities."
Dean shook his head. "Why am I here, then? I never told you about this, no way you would be afraid of this." Cas gave him another look and this time Dean did feel like an idiot. "Oh."
"Apparently I scare the shit out of you."
Dean was so close to asking for a hit. He thought he'd earned it. "Why can you hear me right now?"
"Well, vibrations produce sound waves, and these sound waves travel through the air...."
"So not in the mood." Cas just grinned at him. "That other time, it was like I wasn't there."
"This is probably a concurrent timeline. Basically, it's the same date here as it would be for you if you woke up. It's not easy to hit on, but when you do you should be able to walk around like you belong there. Anything that's past or future for you and you're pretty much the ghost of Christmas past. Or, y'know, future. Whichever. Sometimes impressions can seep through if the emotions are strong enough, but that's about it." Cas gave Dean a long, probing look. "So, what did I do to make you tired of putting up with me?" Dean spun around and Cas shrugged again. "What? I know the look."
It took Dean a second to realize what he was getting at. "No," Dean said, shaking his head. "It's not like that. I'm not like him."
Cas frowned. "Didn't say you were. Just said I know the look."
Dean sighed. "This year, man. You've just been...I don't know. Up to a lot of shit I don't get. Hell, right now you've dreamnapped me and won't let me wake up until I find this stupid weapon of yours."
Cas outright laughed at that. "Man, you're gullible. I told you that?" He tapped out the last of the ash. "I can't do anything like that. It's all suggestion. You can just wake up."
"I don't...why the hell would you lie?"
"I must really want that weapon."
Dean sank back on the bed, his face in his hands. "What am I looking for? I just want this done."
Cas shook his head. "Don't know. I know the prophecy, but no one's seen it. Supposedly once you find it, a new path opens and you can find the way out. At least that's one translation."
Dean stared at Cas. "Don't trust me." When Cas quirked an eyebrow, Dean continued, "Other me. Him. Don't trust him. He's gonna ask you to do something and you're gonna know it's a stupid idea but you'll do it anyway. Just don't."
The sad smile on Cas' face tied Dean into knots. "C'mon, Dean. You think I don't know how this ends?"
"I don't get you. I'm trying to warn you."
"If I need to be led around in the dark apparently there's only one person I ask. If you're in the dark too I guess that's just bad for both of us."
Cas tilted his head to the side again. "You really don't know? Still?"
"Don't know what?"
Cas shook head again, that smile still on his face. "Maybe there's a reality where I answer that, but I don't feel like it right now.”
Dean was about to ask what that meant when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up and found himself back in the forest, Castiel beside him looking supremely frustrated. "It took a long time to find you that time. Don't get so far ahead."
Dean nodded, looking behind him as if he expected that other Cas to be waving goodbye. "Old nightmares," was all Dean would say.
Castiel gave him a look but Dean didn't care; he was too busy noticing that Castiel's eyes weren't quite focusing right. He stepped right up to Castiel and looked into his eyes. "Can you see me, Cas?"
Castiel backed away. "Of course I can," he said, too defensively for Dean's comfort. "We need to keep moving."
When a few minutes later he felt Castiel's hand on his arm, his fingertips just brushing his sleeve like he needed to make sure Dean was really there, Dean swallowed the cold rush of fear and kept going down the path.
The light in the dim forest never changed and dreamwalking meant Dean didn't get tired or hungry, so he wasn't sure how much time passed before Castiel started coughing. He could almost ignore it at first – Cas was certainly trying to – but before too long it turned into the full-body, hacking cough of a forty year smoker. Each attack stopped Castiel in his tracks, shaking him so hard Dean didn't know how he was staying upright. More than once Dean saw drops of blood spattered on the ground, leaving a trail behind them like they were trapped in a sick fairy tale. All Castiel would say was that it was "to be expected" but his poker face had never been as solid as he liked to think. Dean had seen Castiel desperate enough times to not be fooled now.
Dean was so busy keeping an eye on Castiel he almost stumbled into the next fork without seeing it. "Shit, Cas. I really don't wanna keep doing this."
"No choice," Castiel said, his voice so raw from coughing it sounded like someone else's. "We'll never find the way by standing still."
"Can you give me a head's up on which way won't drop me into a nightmare?"
Castiel shook his head, a grim expression on his face. "You're not understanding, Dean. What you see is a symbolic interpretation. There is only the nightmare." He crossed his arms, his shoulders hunched as he shivered like he was standing in a blizzard.
"This has gotta rank up there as one of your worst ideas, Cas." Dean shook his head and took a step forward.
He didn't know if this was Castiel's fear or one of his again. Maybe they were starting to work together on them now. They were in a desolate field in the middle of a storm, and not there alone; Raphael had his arm buried in Dean's chest, just the way Castiel had that time he went looking for Sam's soul. Watching Raphael made Dean realize how gentle Castiel had been.
Cas had Raphael at sword point but the archangel just smiled. "Go ahead, Castiel. Kill me. Win your war." He moved his arm and Dean heard himself make a sound that brought back too many memories of hell. "But remember what I hold in my hand. We both know which of us is faster."
"If I let you go you'll destroy his soul out of spite anyway."
"Will I?" He smiled wider and Dean could tell he was clenching his fist. "Perhaps. Or not. What do you choose, Castiel? The certainty or the gamble?" Dean heard himself let out another groan of pain, his eyes rolling back, and Castiel flinched. "One soul for all of Heaven. Choose, Castiel."
Dean never heard the answer; Castiel yanked him out of the vision so quickly he lost his footing and fell backwards on the path. Cas was shaking and Dean didn't think it was just because he was sick. "Cas." Dean didn't think Castiel heard him; he kept staring into the mists, his hands tight fists at his sides. Dean wondered if he could see how that story ended. "Cas."
Castiel finally turned around, his eyes wide. "That will never happen. That path has been left behind." Dean wasn't sure which of them he was trying to convince.
Dean picked himself up. "Happened somewhere, right? That's what you said?" Castiel stared back into the mist. "So what did you do?" He just shook his head, as if Dean wasn't making sense. "Nobody reacted to me, so either that was the past or the future, and you're damn sure it wasn't the future. Why? What did you do?"
Castiel gave him a disbelieving look. "Dean, did you think I stayed away for a year because I found it fulfilling?"
Dean didn't know what to say to that. "So what did you pick?" he said instead, gesturing at the mist. "Only two options. Which one was it in there?"
Castiel shook his head. "There was only one choice, Dean."
Dean was actually okay with that. He knew that if he'd been able he would've been telling Cas to just kill the son of a bitch and be done with it. "Maybe you should lead for a while. I'm not giving us much luck."
"Look at me." Castiel turned toward him – or at least made good show of it, because Dean was suddenly damned certain what he was actually doing was following Dean's voice. He backed up a few yards. "Why don't you walk toward me."
He saw Cas' jaw go tight but there was no way out of it. He managed the first few feet (concentrating the entire way, Dean noticed) but before he'd covered half the distance Dean saw him veer off to the right. "C'mon, Cas. Not that hard." Castiel pulled up short and grimaced when he realized Dean's voice wasn't where he expected it to be. He tried to course correct and still didn't quite make it; Dean finally rushed forward and caught him when he stumbled over debris in the road he clearly had no idea was there. "Can't walk a straight line blind, Cas," Dean said, tipping his chin up. "Now I'm gonna ask again if you can see me, and this time you're gonna tell the truth."
"Not...very well," Castiel admitted.
"What can you see? How bad is it?"
Castiel shook his head. "Shapes. Shadows. It's easier when you're moving."
"How about when we're in vision-land?"
Castiel's mouth twisted into a sneer. "That I see clearly."
"Figures." Dean took a step back, letting Castiel go. "You good to keep---" Without warning Castiel's legs buckled under him; Dean managed to get his arm around Cas' waist to keep him from falling. "Whoa! Cas, steady, I got you." Dean lowered him carefully to the ground. "Am I gonna have to carry you?" Dean didn't know why he'd said it like that, like he would resent having to do it. It wasn't true.
He felt even worse when Castiel growled out "No," and tried to stand back up.
"Easy. Don't push too hard," he said, wrapping his arm back tight around his chest when Cas' legs still wouldn't support him.
Castiel finally gave up, leaning against Dean as he tried to catch his breath. His teeth were chattering; Dean took off his jacket and draped it around Castiel's shoulders. "The cold isn't external, Dean."
"Yeah, you're welcome."
Castiel was quiet for a few moments. "I thought I would be able to withstand this longer," he finally whispered.
"What's our plan?"
Castiel shook his head. "I need to rest."
"I'm not sure sitting in the poison is the best idea."
"I can advance my ability to heal my vessel. It should buy some more time." He shivered so hard Dean had to hold him steady. "Why can't we find our way, Dean?"
Dean didn't think it would help if he said he was convinced the prophecy was a lie and there wasn't anything to find here. "I don't get why you thought I could do this."
"The prophecy...says the weapon will be found in an unexpected place." Dean saw the hint of a smile on his face. "You're very good at defying expectations." Despite what he'd said earlier Castiel huddled inside the jacket, pulling it close around him. "If we reach the point where I can't continue I'll release you."
Dean shook his head. "I know I can just wake up when I want, Cas. Knock it off."
Castiel frowned. "Some version of me talks too much." His brow furrowed. "Why are you still here, then?"
Dean could only sigh. "Dude, I'm not leaving you here in Horror Forest. Give me some credit." Castiel's coat was twisted around him in a way that looked painful and Dean straightened it. "Why the hell did you think you had to lie?"
Castiel was quiet for a long time. "It's been a very difficult year." He leaned his head against Dean's shoulder, exhaustion lining his face. "I've had to get skilled at deception."
"Lie to your dick brothers all you want, Cas, but leave me out of it."
Castiel didn't seem to have an answer for that. "Do you still consider me a friend, Dean?"
Dean leaned against a tree jutting into the road. For something supposedly in his head it felt pretty solid. "Yeah," he finally said. "I wouldn't get pissed off about stuff if I didn't."
"I wasn't sure what your answer would be," Castiel admitted, very softly. His lips twitched up. "Somewhere a path just opened where you said no. I'm glad I'm not on it."
"I doubt it, Cas. Some questions only have the one answer, y'know? Like how that other you ganked Raphael."
Castiel let out a harsh sound, a funhouse mirror version of a laugh. "Is that what you think happened?" A coughing fit wracking him for a few seconds. When it passed and he wiped his lips Dean saw blood on his sleeve. "Dean, I held your soul in my hands. I soothed its fears as I built flesh and bone around it. I sealed its wounds with my own Grace so it could survive the journey from Hell," he said, his fingers brushing against Dean's shoulder. "I could no sooner destroy your soul than I could myself." He pulled his knees up to his chest as he shook. "In fact, I'm certain I could destroy myself much more readily."
Dean was almost relieved when Castiel started coughing again because it kept him from having to respond. "Shh, Cas," he said, rubbing his back. "We'll figure this out."
Castiel sagged against him as the spell passed. "I never had a friend until I met you. Did I ever tell you that? I've had siblings I was friendly with, but that's not the same." Dean saw his lips twist into a scowl. "It's a very difficult process."
"Yeah. Guess it is." He let out a long breath. "While we're all bearing our souls here, I haven't had too many friends I didn't inherit from my dad. And I've got less of an excuse than you do."
"We're a pair, aren't we?"
Dean chuckled. "Take your nap. We'll get this all sorted when you're done."
"I'm not taking a nap. It's a restorative trance."
"Whatever, Cas. Hurry up and do your angel thing."
Another coughing fit hit him as he tried to adjust his position to sit more comfortably and Dean told himself he only wrapped one arm back around Cas to hold him steady. It was easier to breathe sitting up, it was such basic first aid everyone knew it. "I can still see the wings," Castiel murmured, his voice slurred and tinged with horror. "They glow in the darkness. I remember all of their names."
"Close your eyes and you won't see them."
"Do you think their spirits are waiting for me?"
Dean tightened his arm around Castiel. He would rationalize that was also somehow first aid later. "You guys even have spirits?"
"I don't know." He sounded genuinely curious. "If we did, they would be here."
"Good thing I've had some practice keeping away evil spirits, then."
Castiel nodded, finally closing his eyes. Dean counted the seconds until his breathing evened out – still more labored than Dean liked, but better than a few minutes ago. "Call it whatever you want, Cas. Looks like a nap to me." Dean checked his pulse and that wasn't any more reassuring, although Dean told himself that he wasn't entirely sure what normal was for Cas. His fingertips were icy, though, like his circulation was going bad, and the nosebleed was back. Dean wiped the blood from his face, careful to not jostle him too much. "I will carry you out of here if I have to," Dean whispered into his ear.
Dean could feel the nexus' unnatural silence making him paranoid. He kept catching the rolling mist form itself into shapes from the corner of his eye and wondered what angel ghosts would look like if they existed, if they would look like vessels or their monstrous true forms. "You all can have all the wings and faces you want, just stay the hell away," he said to the air.
Castiel shivered in his sleep, like something cold had touched him; Dean tightened his grip again and this time he didn't bother rationalizing a reason why. He glared into the silent forest, daring anything to come out.
If any vengeful angels were out there waiting for their brother, Dean wanted to make sure they knew they were going to be waiting a long damn time.
Dean had never been more relieved than when he saw Castiel begin to stir. "C'mon, Cas, up and at 'em." It took a lot of coaxing to bring him all the way back around, enough that Dean knew he wouldn't have woken on his own. Any lingering resentment over having been dragged into this faded as he imagined Castiel dying alone here, fading away until there was nothing left but one more impression of wings. "Cas, c'mon, we gotta move," he said, giving him a quick shake as he pushed that image away.
Castiel groaned, sounding for all the world like a teenager being dragged out of bed. "Dean?" he murmured, rubbing his forehead. "How long was I under?"
"'Cause I can tell time in this place. It work? You feel better?"
Cas nodded. "In some ways, yes."
"Yeah, you sound like you're about to throw a party. How about your eyes? They any better?"
Castiel just shook his head. He pushed himself back to his feet; Dean held his breath as he swayed but he managed to stay standing. "Are you ready to continue?" he said, as if Dean was the one they were waiting on.
Dean rolled his eyes as he also stood; he turned Castiel around and waved his hand in front of his face, swearing softly when his eyes didn't track. "They're worse, aren't they."
"I can walk. That's what matters."
"When we get outta here, are you gonna be back in fighting shape?"
"I believe so. No one's escaped from a nexus before."
"So you hope so, is what you're saying." Castiel didn't justify that with a response and Dean shook his head. "All right, let's go." Dean moved too quickly up the path, going a few steps before he realized Castiel wasn't following. "Cas?" he said, turning back around.
Castiel's head picked up, turning toward Dean's voice and Dean didn't think he'd ever seen that kind of panic on someone's face before. "Dean? I...I didn't know where you'd...."
"Don't worry about it. My fault," he said, making as much noise as he could walking back. "Got ahead of myself." He placed Castiel's hand on his arm, the overwhelming relief in Castiel's eyes almost making him look away. "Keep up, okay?" Castiel nodded, the quick flash of shame burying itself under intense concentration as he focused on staying upright.
The next fork came all too soon. "Don't get away from me," Dean sighed, looking down the diverging paths and knowing there were no good choices.
"I'll be able to find you in there. It's everywhere else that's a problem."
Dean nodded. "Time to get it over with, then. Think happy thoughts."
For one second Dean thought that had worked; the very first thing he saw was Raphael sprawled out against the far wall, his eyes sightless and open and his wings burned black into the floor. Then he took another look at the room and felt his heart sink.
Castiel was curled on his side, a dark pool of blood forming under him. He pushed himself over to his back and Dean let out a sigh of relief that he seemed slashed up rather than stabbed; it looked bad and there was a lot of blood but Dean thought he might be okay if he got patched up.
The problem was the version of himself there – a future version, maybe, no one was looking at him – was just sitting back on his heels watching. "Happy now, Cas?" he heard his own voice say, the tone sending a chill through him. "You finally won your war."
The sword wounds were glowing, faint light leaking from their edges. "Dean," Castiel whispered. "I didn't intend...."
"Shut up." Castiel's expression shuttered, resignation in his eyes. "You knew exactly how this would turn out. More sacrifices."
Castiel closed his eyes. "Why did you come?" He was breathing hard between each word, his hand pressed over his chest in a futile attempt to stem the bleeding.
"Wanted to stop you. Didn't get here in time for that, but at least I can know with my own eyes you won't ever hurt anyone else."
Dean didn't want to watch how this ended. The look in his other self's eyes reminded him of looking at Sam all those months he was soulless, reminded him of Sam and of the dead look he remembered in his own eyes from the Croatoan future.
Mercifully just then he felt Castiel pull him back. He couldn't look at him for a second. "What did you do in there, Cas?"
"It could have been any number of things."
Dean finally turned around; Castiel didn't look at all surprised by what they'd both seen. "Must have been something bad enough that I was wiling to sit back and watch you die."
"I know the path I've chosen. I don't expect any ending other than destruction."
"Bullshit. That's giving up."
"It's reality." He stared off into the mist. "I've done so many things you're not aware of yet. I know the price I'll pay."
"All the more reason to knock it off now, Cas. Before you hit that point of no return."
Castiel actually laughed, a bitter, hopeless sound. "I passed that point so long ago I'll never find it again."
Dean didn't know why, but the past year had come to a sudden, desperate head. "Find a different way. God knows there's no shortage here."
"There is no other. Not for me. This is the path I'm on, Dean."
Dean grabbed Castiel by his coat and dragged him backward off the path and into the dense underbrush; Cas cried out when they crossed that threshold and Dean also felt a quick surge of pain, like a hard punch to the chest. "There. Now it's not." Dean was done with walking. He was done with destiny, with prophecy, with the no-win situation that had been the thirty odd years of his life so far. He was done with denying what it meant when he saw time after time that an angel's worst nightmares all centered around Dean Winchester.
You really don't know? echoed through his mind again. He wrapped one arm around Castiel's waist to hold him up. "You should've let Raphael burn me back there," Dean whispered into his ear. "Would've prevented everything. Saved yourself a lot of trouble."
Castiel shook his head. "I couldn't."
Dean remembered the mocking, desperate eyes of that other Cas, the one he'd let slowly break and drown until there was only the shell left. He was done with that, too. Castiel had claimed Dean was good at defying expectations but when Dean kissed him under those ghostly trees he felt like the only surprising thing about it was that it had taken so long to happen. Dean felt a tight weight slip from him, almost like how he'd always imagined it felt for a shifter to slip its skin. He wondered if that was all those possible worlds where he'd never had the guts to do this falling away. All he could muster for those other Deans was pity. "I'm not gonna let you burn either, Cas." He trailed the pad of his thumb along Cas' jawline before kissing him again and this time Castiel returned the kiss, a hard, breathless, desperate kiss as if all Castiel wanted to do was crawl inside Dean. Dean didn't know what the hell had been wrong with them all this time.
It felt like hours had passed when the kiss finally ended. Considering where they were, for all Dean knew that was true. It should take a while to distill several thousand lifetimes into one kiss. "You okay?" Dean whispered.
Castiel nodded. "The ground feels different."
Dean opened his eyes; the path they'd just left was gone and so were the trees they'd been under, everything blanketed by white, swirling mists. Beneath their feet was a new, glowing path but instead of winding like the previous ones this stretched out straight as a rifle barrel. Dean could only laugh. "Think we found that way out, Cas."
"But...I don't...." He shook his head. "I don't understand. We didn't find the weapon."
"Well," Dean said, looking down the length of the path, "maybe that's a matter of translation." He kissed Castiel's forehead, smoothing his furrowed brow. "You ready to check out what's down there?"
Castiel's hands clutched tight on Dean's arms. "Yes."
"Good, 'cause I'm ready to get the fuck out of here." Dean took the lead again, one hand on Castiel's arm to guide him.
Neither felt any urge to look back.