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took a turn into dead end street and lost our way

Chapter Text

This, is a one way dead end street
The only place where we will meet
We're on a one way dead end street
All alone and no way home all chances blown

Fury In The Slaughterhouse, “One Way Dead End Street”

 


“...Dean?”

The voice on the other end of the line was soft and scratchy and at first Dean thought it was just bad reception, nothing special considering all the places Castiel could flap to with a beat of his wings. He groaned, turned over and squinted at the red numbers blinking on the bedside clock. Jesus. “Dude. Humans. Sleep. Haven’t we had this conversation before, Cass?”

“We’ve had many conversations that I don’t care to remember,” Castiel said, a hint of rancor entering his voice and apparently someone had grabbed that stick in his ass and shoved it even further since the last time they'd seen each other, a feat Dean had previously thought impossible. “I don’t have time for this. You need to come over and get me.”

“What, Air Angel suddenly not good enough for you?” Struck by a sudden thought, concerned, Dean sat up, clutching at the phone tightly; across the room Sam stirred and turned sleepy eyes onto his brother, questioning. “What’s going on here, Cass? Are you…hurt?” By those winged dicks you call your family? he barely refrained from saying.

Castiel let out a whuff of air into the phone, as though he had heard anyway. “No.” A pause, in which Dean could hear the sound of quick, light breathing over the line. A half-formed thought flickered through his mind, only to be driven away when Castiel started speaking again. “For a given definition, anyway. Please hurry, it’s hardly dignified to faint by the roadside.”

“What was it?” Sam looked on, alarmed, as Dean all but leaped out of bed and ran towards the door.

“It’s Cass,” Dean said tersely, pulling out his car keys. “He needs a ride. Stay here and man the fort, Sammy, we’ll be back soon.”

Sam’s face tightened, all the questions he wanted to ask swarming behind the tense line of his mouth but he nodded once and that was good enough for Dean. In a handful of minutes he was pulling out from the parking lot and aiming the Impala down the lamplit road, phone still glued to his ear as Cass rattled out his current location.

“Gotcha, Cass,” he said. “I’m coming for you.”

“About time,” Castiel replied snappishly, hanging up, leaving Dean to make an incredulous face at the dial tone and veer between worry and a desire to throttle the angel when they finally met up. If it’s anything less than a fatal wound… he vowed.



The figure lit up by the Impala’s headlights was so different that for a moment Dean mistook it for someone else. His eyes were already sliding past when the man stumbled, leaning against a lamppost for balance; that was when Dean recognized the dark hair, the slender silhouette he had seen only a few times without the usual trenchcoat to bulk it out. His heart slammed into the shelf of his chin at what felt like Mach 5 speeds, and for a moment he could only stare, knuckles turning white on the steering wheel.

Then he had to stomp on the brakes when the Impala threatened to cruise past. She came to a halt with an ungodly screech; uncharacteristically unconcerned for his car’s welfare, Dean threw the door open and jumped out, nearly falling over in his haste; through all this his eyes remained fixed on Castiel, the pale face turned away into shadow.

“Cass.” Dean couldn’t fit any more words around the freezing block of emotion dropped down his throat. This can’t be real. When he reached out, however, the shoulder that his hand alighted on was solid flesh and bone, bleeding warmth through the thin cotton shirt that Castiel was sporting.

In response Castiel started like a cornered animal—a twitch that went all the way down to his feet, planted carefully apart on the ground. For a moment he stared at Dean as if in the middle of a thick fog, his eyes wide as saucers, pupils blown nearly as large. The silence stretched, Dean struggling to process what he was seeing, Castiel unmoving with the blank inscrutable face of the angel.

“Dean,” Cass finally said, attempting a smile. With a studied nonchalance he stepped away from the lamppost, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of the worn jeans hanging low on his hips. “Glad to see you could make it.”

“With that kind of SOS, did you think I wouldn’t—” Dean took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down. At least the sudden surge of anger had succeeded in thawing some of the ice; his voice was back again. “What the hell is this, Cass?”

Castiel lowered his head to take in his own body; raised it again with the ghost of a smirk on his lips. “Do restrain your excitement, Dean,” he remarked. “I’m only back from the dead and all.” He sounded nothing like himself. He sounded too much like the stranger Dean had met for three days in a desolate future that would never be, an experience that had been, up to now, only as real and vivid as a fever dream.

“How,” Dean said, still holding on too tightly, both of them pretending that Castiel wasn’t leaning into the touch without the lamppost to lean on. He swallowed and started again. “Of course it’s great that you’re still kickin’. But how—how could this happen, Cass? Zach up to his old tricks again?” If that bastard thought to use Cass as some sort of pawn to pound in another of his retarded lessons, Dean swore that he’d shoot him in the balls next time they met, angel or not.

Castiel shrugged, an elaborate gesture that Dean could practically see travel from one shoulder to another. “Maybe. Who cares?” he asked flippantly. “I’m out of that hellhole. If it was him and he showed up right now I’d drop to my knees and kiss his sanctimonious ass.”

“I wouldn’t trust Zachariah if he turned up with a one-way ticket back to Hell with Lucy’s name on it,” Dean warned. It felt strange to be the cautious one here, in comparison; usually Cass was so grave and stiff-backed that hanging out with him was like being under the watchful eye of a fusty old guardian. Hell, the angel couldn’t even bag a hooker on the supposedly last night of his life. When Cass frowned at him he could see the remains of the angel in there, like a jagged reflection in the shards of a cracked mirror. That illusion was quickly dispelled, however, anytime this warped version of Cass opened his mouth.

“Yeah, I know.” Cass sighed, slightly irritated but willing to admit that Dean had a point. “Anyplace to hide out from my murderous kin? Other than your car, I mean. I swear I have every groove in your backseat etched into my skin.”

Dean twitched at the reminder of the disproportionately large influence that his future self had wielded over Cass. “Yeah, we’re staying at a motel. I can take the floor.”

Cass’ eyes sharpened, piercing through the haze of whatever shit was freewheeling through his much-abused veins. “Your brother?” he asked. “Or can I hope for some attractive female company?”

Dean paused in the act of taking out his keys. The word had dropped out of his mouth so easily, the reconciliation with Sam having gone much better than either of them could have hoped for, but of course it would mean so much more to Cass, to the future he had lived through. He let the silence drag a little more, letting that be answer enough, before saying, “I could get Sam to make his bitchface for you, if you asked really nicely.”

There was a delay before Castiel chuckled, blank expression flooding with apparently genuine humor. “No, that won’t be necessary.” Quietly, with more sentiment than Dean had come to expect from him, he added, “It’d be good to see him again.”

Dean nodded, fighting the lump in his throat—the one that rose unbidden every time he thought about how close he had come to losing his brother, over something that hadn’t really mattered—okay, so it did, but he should have known better. He still didn’t know why Sam had said yes in the timeline next door, if he had wanted to or if it had been tortured out of him. He didn’t care. It wouldn’t happen now with them together and that was the important part.

Dean clapped Cass on the shoulder once before finally letting go. “Come on,” he muttered gruffly, a little embarrassed at the depth of emotion running through him. “Get in here before you fall down or something.”

“Yes, fearless leader,” Castiel said, with little apparent sarcasm. He trailed Dean obediently, right up to the car door where he suddenly dropped his weight onto Dean, sending them both staggering. Dean only had a moment to realize that it was no accident before Castiel was sliding thin arms around his waist, burying his face in Dean’s shoulder. He smelled, faintly, of smoke and metal and gunpowder, laced with a bitter tang. Dean was long used to Castiel’s cluelessness regarding the concept of personal space, but this felt like something else altogether, too sudden and too fast and he had to fight the rising urge to pull away and put a mile of distance between them like a shield.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Suddenly the body against his felt as fragile as glass and bird bones, as though just by moving he could break something irreparable. He cleared his throat, patting Cass cautiously on the back—as much as he could allow himself to do despite the already flagrant violation of the guy-touching code. “Cass...” he said awkwardly.

Castiel eased away, smirking, even as something soft and strange swam beneath like water under oil. “Just making sure it’s you,” he explained, putting his head to one side and looking at Dean very deliberately.

What do you mean by that, Dean wanted to ask, stunned. Before he could Castiel had already squirmed into the backseat, parking his butt firmly and tilting his head back as though he had always belonged there. “I’m tired,” he announced very definitely. “I don’t want to talk anymore.”

Dean shut up and drove. At fixed intervals the passing lamps slid bars of light in and out of the windows, pinning the glint of Castiel’s open, watchful eyes to the rearview mirror; all the way back along the long, quiet road.

Chapter Text

"Let me get this straight," Sam said. "In this hypothetical future, which was going to happen but now never will, the world ends B-movie zombie apocalypse style, Lucifer is king of a heap of ashes and you're the last hope on earth, which sucks pretty bad because you get killed. All because the two of us didn't kiss and make up?"

"Well." Dean shrugged, trying to conceal the tension in the line of his shoulders. When he'd shown up with an extremely out-of-character Castiel—from Sam's perspective, anyway—in tow and promised to tell Sam everythingmaybe he had not quite meant everything. "You know what they say about epic family feuds..."

"Also, Cass turns into a drug-ridden, alcoholic love guru," Sam said in a tone that suggested that he was questioning his own sanity at even uttering those words in that order, much less in the same sentence.

"I know, man," Dean said. "I know."

They shared a contemplative moment that Sam was kind enough not to break with an I told you so. It was Castiel who broke it, in a low agitated murmur made up of, as far as Dean can tell, nonsense syllables. They looked at him in unison; taking in the uneasy roll of his body under the sheets, the self-protective arch of his spine.

"Should we...?" Sam asked, tentative, as though Dean had any more expertise than him in dealing with the many problems of ex-angels. Dean hesitated, torn between letting Castiel have his much-needed sleep and shaking him awake. And he knew firsthand just the wonderful varieties of shit Cass might stumble upon in his dreams.

Then it's all taken out of his hands when Castiel screamed, high and full of fear, bolting upright so violently that his back thwacked against the headboard. By the time it faded, Dean was at his side, hitting the sides of his face gently. "Hey, man, you're safe now," he whispered, not even caring that Sam was just behind him seeing everything. "You're with us, you're safe."

Castiel was slow to return to wakefulness, his breathing rising harsh and ragged from his half-open mouth. His eyes stared blindly at them, body pressing itself backward, and with a painful jolt Dean realized that his gaze, pinned to a very specific spot, was not quite as aimless as it first appeared, and that not all the stark terror on his face came from the nightmare.

"Um," Sam said, uncertain and confused, and, Dean could tell, slightly hurt in the bargain. "...Castiel? It's all right, we aren't going to hurt you."

Of course he doesn't know, Dean thought in slow, dawning horror—I should have told him after all—and braces himself for the inevitable.

But the moment passed quickly, Castiel scrubbing the nightmare from his eyes with an abrupt gesture and then forcing a smile, hand reaching out to grasp Sam's. "Long time no see," he said, his voice hoarse but warm, and with relief Dean realized that Castiel was willing to share this burden with him. (The nightmare went unremarked upon.) He wondered fleetingly if Sam was going to get ambushed by a hug too. It didn't happen. Maybe Cass had little desire to hug a guy with Lucifer's future public face, or, even more plausibly, Dean was putting way too much thought into this.

"Nice to meet you too," Sam answered, his eyes round. Dean could only sympathize. This was who Castiel might have become, he kept thinking, feeling as though someone was trying to lever his heart out of his ribcage. With a rusty spoon. This is who my future self let him become.

With a surge of protectiveness that surprised even him, he thought, but he's with me now.

"Cass," Dean said, coughing a little to rid his voice of all those feelings, even as he was certain everyone in the room could hear them anyway. "Are you feeling better? Can you tell us what happened?"

Castiel's eyes grew distant, following the trail of a line of thought only he could see. "I don't…I don't really recall," he said after a pause. "But I can say for sure that I shouldn't be here."

"What do you mean?" Sam asked before Dean could. "You would have been dead or nonexistent if it wasn't for…" he made a vague hand gesture. "…whatever this is. Are you saying whatever did this wasn't gunning to save you?"

Castiel's lip curled. "First off—" and he held up a finger, like he's lecturing—"only an angel or a god has the means to manipulate time. Last I checked, my Father's fucked off to only He knows where, the other gods don't give a shit and my so-called brothers were all scrambling to save their own feathered behinds from sharing my sorry fate." He held up another finger. "Second... this whole blast to the past business never actually happened…before."

"Before...?" Dean sat down on the side of Castiel's bed, struggling against all common sense to understand this. If he'd thought poofing in and out of existence was annoying, time travel had to be the most game-breaking, illogical power ever. "You mean..."

"Yeah, something like that tends to stick in the memory." Castiel smiled sardonically and patted Dean on the head. "Congratulations, you've succeeded in changing the future. In a way that must have seriously pissed someone important off." He chuckled at the thought. "I hope Zach burned for it, that pompous ass."

"This isn't funny, Cass!" Dean snapped, feeling only slightly bad about it. Future Cass had the whole hippie gig going, as a sort of armor against the shittiness of the post-apocalyptic world, he knew, but as he was forcibly reminded now long exposure to it tended to grate on the nerves. "If your psychotic family have something nasty in store for you, there's something we should be able to do. Anti-angel things."

"The condemned man always gets a last meal, didn't he?" Castiel said, kicking the sheets back and swinging his legs over the side of the bed before anyone could stop him. His legs trembled a little when he put his weight on them, and he had to put a hand against the wall to steady himself.

Dean grabbed his wrist. "What do you think you're doing?" Up close, he looked even worse, a skeleton of a man tied together with bits of string, spit and sheer willpower. His bones pushed against his skin, against Dean's grip.

Castiel gritted his teeth, a surge of irritation twisting his mouth like a ripple across previously calm waters. "We didn't exactly have six-course restaurants in zombie town, Dean. So, please,could we please drop by a burger joint before I drop dead of starvation?"

"You look like you're going to drop dead of exhaustion first, Cass," Sam said, eyeing Castiel carefully. "That won't help if Zach and his merry band decide to ambush us in the middle of breakfast."

Castiel looked steadily back, his usual indifferent mask snapping back on, the one that made Dean want to crack it open with his fist. "Yeah, good idea. Let's all take a nap right here and now. I hope you don't mind the screaming nightmares every hour or so."

This effectively stabbed the discussion in the heart and buried it right on the spot.

 


Dean drove again in silence.

This, he suspected, was probably going to become something of a trend.

Chapter Text

Castiel ate like a street rat, a survivor from the wars – hunched over his food, tearing into it with a ravenous but practical sort of hunger that put filling his stomach several dozen ticks above enjoyment on the priority list. Dean was strongly reminded of Jimmy Novak, scarfing down his first post-Cass meal with the same desperate zeal – gone now, another victim of the apocalypse, the only remnants of him surfacing with Cass' obsessive taste for burgers. Or at least he hoped so. The poor guy had suffered enough without going through the end of the world – to say nothing of Cass' wild orgies –in the bargain.

"Slow down, Cass," Dean said after long moments in which he only stared, strangely fascinated at the sight of Cass eating, at Cass being human enough to need to. "You're going to give yourself heartburn." And that reminded him – Cass could get sick now, couldn't he? He had fallen asleep in the car. He had to eat, piss, shit – all the unpleasant necessities of human life and then some. For all of Cass' respect for free will, it was actually something of a bitch. Freedom to make your own choices, sure, don't forget the freedom to live – or die – with the consequences.

Chitaqua had been more a dream than a memory of something that had actually happened – his mind's way of handling his impossible trip down the rabbit hole. Every time he looked at Cass he had to fight not to reach out and just touch him, a solid reminder under his hands that he wasn't going crazy – or just wallow in his guilt. That one never went away, cosmic reset be damned; a constant, accusing weight against his back.

Cass did pause, but only to throw back a snarky reply. "Is that an order, fearless leader?"

Dean's hands clenched under the shelter of the table. He hated that title, like Cass was a subordinate and no longer the pretty good friend he had been. "I'm not your leader," he muttered. "Not anymore."

Cass lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "It's just a formality, Dean." His eyes caught Dean's in an even stare. "I'm still following you now, aren't I? Past, future, it doesn't matter."

"You're making a mistake." It hurt Dean to speak so baldly, to go digging places he would rather leave alone. But Cass deserved this; the chance to break things off, be his own person other than Dean Winchester's pet soldier and emotional punching bag. "I'm somebody who could drag you into a goddamned suicide mission 'cause it made tactical sense." He spit the last words out.

"I always knew what was going to happen," Castiel assured him with complete and utter blaséness, made all the more cruel by the shadows under his eyes and the empty sauce-stained wrappers around his elbows. "You'd sacrifice anything to end Lucifer. We all knew, we all accepted it. You were the kind of leader we needed. As long as you lived…"

The roiling in Dean's gut intensified. He realized that Castiel didn't know that future Dean – his actual, asshole leader – was dead, probably still lying there on the cold earth, neck snapped like a twig. It hadn't happened, it never would happen. But the scene was burned into his retinas as though by a red-hot brand. It was all for nothing, Cass. But he would sooner swallow poison before he said it aloud.

Castiel said, very softly, "Lucifer showed me his body."

Everything seemed to freeze. The colors grew over-bright, the sounds of eating and talking and laughing faded like a volume knob had been turned down. Dean's tongue was heavy with all the emotion sitting on top of it, every half-formed and ultimately meaningless word. Horror didn't even begin to describe the possible scenarios that his mind was churning out like a mass-production factory in a third world country.

"Don't worry," Castiel said. "He didn't hurt me badly. He was...merciful, as one brother to another." He let out a short, sharp laugh. "He wanted me to go back and spread the word. Shout it from the mountaintops, that kind of thing. My big brother always had a somewhat...grandiose sense of self." He smirked. "As well as a particularly innovative style of cruelty."

"I'm sorry, Cass," Dean said. He felt the inadequacy of the phrase deeply as it left his lips, but it was also nothing more than the truth in a handy two-word summary. He was sorry for too many sins. Cass was an anchor around his neck, a broken promise stabbing him in the face; Dean was abruptly reminded of opening the hood of the Impala not long after they had burned John Winchester's body, looking at all the broken parts and at a loss where to begin. The difference was that cars could, with a lot of money, time and effort, be fixed no matter how trashed they were; angels turned bitter, druggie humans were rather trickier in that department.

Castiel shrugged and finished off his fries. He was trembling, Dean noticed; his arm bumping against the polished tabletop and rippling the surface of the juice in Dean's glass. "It's okay, Dean." His eyes were clear and blue, warm and earnest and terrible; filled with that unwavering devotion, the one constant rock against which Cass had wrecked himself to pieces again and again. "You changed the future; it never happened. You have nothing to apologize for."

Dean fought against the pull of his gaze; the connection between them crawling like an electrical current over his skin. Don't look at me that way. He said, instead, "That's bullshit. I…"

They looked away from each other at the absurdly cheerful tinkle of the bell hung over the glass doors. Once again Castiel flinched, losing and regaining equilibrium between fractions of a second as Sam re-entered the diner. "Cass—uh, that is, past you—isn't picking up his phone," he said, worried. "I'd say it isn't a coincidence, what with who's sitting there." He jerked his chin at Castiel, who suddenly became very interested in the juice stain on his napkin.

"Knowing him, he's probably scuba-diving in the Marianna Trench," Dean said lightly to overcome his own concern. He had always thought Castiel's big Easter Egg hunt a time-sink of godly proportions, but never more than now. Damnit, Cass. If only he would stay near the people who would actually lift more than a cursory finger to help him...

Castiel stood up, shoving his chair back. "Need a piss," he muttered, and shoved his way to the back of the diner, ignoring the glares and curses he left in his wake, including Sam's call of "You shouldn't go alone!"

"I'll go," Dean said, retrieving his jacket. Before he can take more than a step, Sam grabbed him by the shoulder.

"He's hiding something," Sam said carefully. "Look—I know you feel—responsible—for him, but if our Cass is in trouble, we have to pry whatever he knows out of him if that's what it takes."

"He's Cass too," Dean insisted, growing angry. "You can't talk about him as though he's two different people—"

"The way you talk about your future self, he didn't give two shits about Cass," Sam argued. "He wasn't like you at all. Five years is a long time, Dean. Imagine five years straight of Apocalypse Now." He made a face. "Hell, I don't want to imagine my own horror story."

Dean said nothing.

"Just because our Cass still has his powers doesn't mean a little help wouldn't come in handy, Dean," Sam said, more gently.

"Is that all?" Dean said flatly. "'Cause if I get in there and find some asshole angel standing over his dead body..."

Sam gave him a shake. "You're hiding something from me too," he said pointedly. "Don't think I've missed all the grimacing and meaningful looks that's been passing between you guys. When all this is over, we're gonna have a long talk, starting with rule number one: No more secrets."

As if you're the expert, Dean almost said, until he remembered giving Sam Ruby's knife, telling him: "We keep each other human." And sharing everything, with nothing in between them to drive them apart, was how it begun.

Sam understood that better than anyone else.

"Okay," he promised, meaning it, and Sam let him go.

Chapter Text

The tap was running when Dean walked in. Castiel was standing hunched over a basin, the curve of his back a tense, straining bow, his face dripping with water. He whirled around at the sound of the door, poised as though to flee; relaxing only marginally when he saw who it was. The violent legacy of the world he had come from was written all over him – in the fear shadowing his eyes, the quick jerk of one hand to the hip for a weapon – and once again the sour taste of guilt flooded Dean's mouth.

"Privacy, Dean," Castiel said into the stony silence, in a mocking echo of Dean's futile attempts to get his angelic version to grok personal space. "I suggest you learn what it means."

Dean made to lean against the wall, then thought better of it before he could come into contact with any mysterious stains. He opted to move further away from the door without crowding Cass—he was strung out enough already. "If you're angry with me, Cass, I understand," he tried.

"I've told you before, I'm not angry." Castiel shut off the flow of water with a force that belied his casual words. His reflection in the tarnished mirror flicked its eyes back and forth in agitation. "It's absolutely wonderful that you're alive and kicking and treating me to my first halfway edible meal in years. Quit the one-man angst band, Dean, it's not becoming at all."

Dean bit back his first, instinctive retort. As much as he hated it, Sam was right. This wasn't Cass. This was Cass up to his neck in five years of shit and blood, a Cass used to playing his cards close to his chest. No one could be happy working with a crappy leader like future Dean, no matter how effective or necessary he was.

"It's not a crime to care about how a friend is doing," Dean retorted, perhaps a little too defensively. "Jesus, Cass, I'm trying to be – nice, okay? I'm trying to be different from that guy!"

If anything, this raised Cass' hackles even further. "You don't understand," he bit out, spinning around. "You saw, what, a couple days in that hellhole? If you think being a goddamned tourist gives you the right to judge us, think again. We lived that hell. We had to do things you can't even imagine. So, yeah, you're different from that guy. It isn't that hard. If you want some shiny gold star—"

The absurdity of the situation struck Dean, and he held up his hand "Wait—are you seriously defending me to myself?"

Cass paused mid-rant, a reluctant smile crooking one side of his mouth. "Yes, I suppose I am." The moment of humor over, he looked at Dean seriously. "All of us changed, Dean. If you're going to forgive me, you're going to have to forgive your other self as well."

Dean started to protest, and it was Cass' turn to raise his hand and stop him. "I assure you, I've done more than my fair share of morally ambiguous deeds," he said. "If you want a list, we'll be standing here all day, and…" He closed his eyes and gripped the side of the sink, knuckles turning almost the same color. "…and I'm not really in the mood to…relive the nastier moments of my life all over again…"

Upon which his knees folded and he collapsed right into Dean's arms.

"This can't go on," Sam said.

"I know," Dean said, glancing through the window at where he knew Cass was huddled on the bed, still shivering under the blankets. Just five minutes ago he had woken again screaming Dean's name and only now calmed down enough to swear off sleep for as long as sheer stubborn will and caffeine would allow. "Shit, maybe we could forge some kind of prescription or something…"

"That's just going to make things worse in the long run, Dean," Sam pointed out, the voice of practicality. He sighed. "But that isn't only what I'm talking about. Have you forgotten we're in the middle of a war here?"

Dean hadn't. He had just pushed it back to the back of his head, hoping the situation with Cass would resolve, but obviously Sam wouldn't be too impressed with this answer. "He's our friend, Sam," he said instead. "What the hell else are we supposed to do?"

"Leave him at Bobby's, maybe?" Sam shrugged. He did appear genuinely sorry, which strongly lessened Dean's desire to punch him in the face. "Look. We've already had to give this hunt away to someone else, but we can't keep dropping everything for Cass' behalf. Besides…" he added, with a peculiar smile, "I don't think my presence is helping. I may just be imagining things, but he seems…sort of…scared of me."

"I'll keep my promise, okay?" Dean snapped, though not without yet another flash of regret. There was too much on their collective plate for one more of them to be incapacitated by guilt over their dubious life choices. "Just not right now." He looked into the window again, already itching to go back in and check on Cass.

"We should call Cass," Sam said suddenly, with the air of a great pronouncement.

Dean raised an eyebrow at him. "Isn't that what you've been doing the whole day? You know him. If he's off-radar, it's because he's on a hot scent."

"No, I mean…" Sam made his bitchface, obviously aware Dean had little tolerance for any suspicions falling upon either of Cass' persons. "Remember the ritual you used to ring him up the first time? He doesn't have to come, but he'll hear. And he should hear about this; he could be in danger as we speak. The angels didn't bring his future self back out of the kindness of their hearts."

Dean had to concede this. He had little wish to put any weight on Sam's concerns, but he had to admit that seeing present Castiel alive and well would be a relief. Not to mention he might pick up a few pointers on how to loosen the stick in his ass from his future self. "Okay," he said grudgingly. "We might as well head to Bobby's then, to pick up what we need."

Sam managed to restrain a victorious smile, so Dean ended up not punching him after all for being practical and putting the battle over the life and death of the world first. When they went back inside and conveyed the new plan to Cass, he just shrugged and said okay without once breaking the zombie-eyed stare from the coffee in his hands.

Remembering how once Castiel had the power to send him off into peaceful sleep when he needed it, away from the nightmares of Hell, Dean couldn't help but feel like a complete asshole for being unable to do the same, but then he was human. They were all human here, and they would have to make do with a lot less than perfection.

For the first time, Dean realized that putting the two Castiels in the same room might be a mistake.

He might have changed the world's future, but not Cass' future. He was going to be human one day, at the end of the long fall that had already started. And this shaking, miserable Cass, going through the throes of withdrawal, was hardly anything to aspire to.

But so what? Cass should have a choice. That was what they were fighting for, after all: to have choices. And Dean still had a brother. He wouldn't be alone. And better to lose a friend this way than through the usual mutilation and death.

Still, Dean was afraid, in a way beyond articulation or even the barest acknowledgment. The fear persisted, all the way through the long drive to South Dakota, and even the music he cranked up to its fullest couldn't drown it or Cass' agonized screams when he inevitably slept again, and dreamed.

Chapter Text

The look on Bobby's face reminded Dean why he really, really hadn't wanted to do this. The vision of that blasted, desolate future hadn't exactly been something he was all fired up to shout from the rooftops, and now the two closest people in his life knew—people who in the first time round had not lived to see that future. Briefly, the overturned, bloody wheelchair flashed in front of Dean, and he hoped no one noticed when his hands shook and his eyes lingered on Bobby in a stare that bordered on stalker territory. If Bobby noticed, he didn't press Dean when he failed to elaborate or fudged over details. The promise to Sam burned in the back of his mind. What was the point of knowing? Dean knew what it was like to live life on a deadline, and it sucked. The future had changed, but there was always that whisper of what if, what if. Dean let on only as much as Bobby needed to understand the present situation, and that was that.

At the end of it, Bobby shook his head and looked at the kitchen, where Sam was standing guard over Cass—and, with no pretense at subtlety, guarding Bobby's stash of alcohol from him. "Poor bastard," he muttered. Then, with uncanny precision he asked the one question that had been plaguing Dean the whole car ride: "Sure it's good for them to see each other?"

Dean winced, leaning away as though Bobby had scored that bull's eye literally as well as metaphorically. He pushed his fingers into his hair and sighed, mouth twisting wryly. "I'm not thrilled about this myself, but if there's any danger Cass—damn it, the angel Cass—needs to know about, I can't let him go flapping about in the dark. Plus I figure he can do his freaky angel mojo—" like he did for me—"and help Cass—human Cass— catch a break. At this point, I'm out of ideas short of raiding the closest pharmacy."

Bobby snorted at that. "As if I'd allow that sort of thing under my roof. You're not doing him any favors, dragging him up and down the road like that. You ain't exactly a doctor licensed to care for a recovering addict, you know."

"Well, it's not like I can just dump him in the closest rehab with demons and angels after him!" Dean snapped back in frustration. Realizing his hair was standing on end from all the tugging, he smoothed it down and strived for calm. "He's…not in a good state, Bobby."

Bobby sighed. "I guess we're doing this, then."

Dean forced a smile, mostly for Bobby's benefit. Right now, he felt so drained he couldn't be wrung out enough to fill a thimble. "Thanks," he said quietly, catching one-handed the keys that Bobby tossed at him.

Bobby grunted, jerking his head towards the library. "C'mon. I think I still have some of those books laid out."

The spell failed.

No goddamn fanfare, no thunder and lightning disgorging an angel in a trenchcoat in need of a serious attitude readjustment. No shadow wings or cryptic talk.

They had all come a long way since then. Dean didn't like to dwell too long on it. The angel he'd first met had not been happy, but he had not beenunhappy either, what with holy missions and Heavenly purpose and all that crap giving him direction in life. Yanking that out from under his feet—Dean imagined sometimes that it had to feel akin to the time the doubt had started to worm into him that John Winchester could, at times, actually benot in the right.

With a deliberate effort, Dean stopped thinking about it. He stared at the book in Bobby's hands, at the strange whorls and curves of the symbols scrawling across the yellowed pages. Bobby's expression dissuaded him from asking if anything had gone wrong. This spell had far better range and reception than the cheap-ass phone in Cass' pocket. Dean couldn't even whip out the lame scuba-diving excuse to reassure himself.

They waited some more. Absolutely nothing continued to happen.

Sam spoke flatly from where he had been poised with an angel blade, waiting to smite any uninvited guests. "Okay. So what now?"

"This was your idea, big guy," Dean sniped back at him to hide his worry. "So…what now?"

"This was our best lead," Sam said, a frown scrunching his forehead. "I don't like that our Cass isn't answering our calls. There's something wrong…"

"Brilliant deduction, Sherlock," Dean muttered.

Sam very obviously resisted the urge to reach over and slap him upside the head. "Cass blasts back from the future, and suddenly our Cass straight up vanishes? There must be a connection." He rolled the angel knife absently between his palms, staring at the glint of light as it travelled up and down the blade. "I wonder…"

"Well, spit it out," Dean said, growing antsy at Sam's verbal pussyfooting. "You were so eager to share with the class before."

Sam stood. "I want to do some research first. Have to make sure my hypothesis is right." He walked out, while Dean scowled at his retreating back.

"He's just trying to help, idjit," Bobby said, rolling up behind him and punctuating his words with a sharp poke. "While Sam hits the books, go on and make sure Cass doesn't puke onto my bed sheets. He'll enjoy the company." The unspoken he'll need it resounded between them.

The dreams were getting worse.

Cass just stared whenever Dean asked, until he forced himself to shut up on the topic. Uncomfortably, he was reminded of Sam trying to pry him out of his Hell-induced shell; guy would speak when he found the words for it, and right now it was enough that he was there providing non-judgmental silence and tons of ice water and caffeine on hand. Great, just hook up the recovering junkie up with a new addiction. Cass absolutely refused to sleep though, even if it would kill him doing it; to say he looked like warmed-over death would actually be a compliment.

He was pacing up and down the length of his room when Dean found him, eyes trained firmly on the ground under his feet. "It didn't work," he announced flatly before Dean could even open his mouth.

Dean leaned against the doorway. "Dude, even when you're human you're still reading my mind. How did you know?"

Cass gave him the merest trace of a smirk that was soon wiped off by the jumpy twitch of his facial muscles. "I didn't. This was one case where I hoped you would prove me wrong, shockingly enough." He sighed with a sound like a rusty hinge in a breeze. "However, it was not unexpected."

"First Sam, now you." Dean rolled his eyes. "Any chance one of you will stop speaking in riddles and let me in on what's actually going on?"

"Trust me, I'm doing you a favor here," Cass said. "Sam will figure it out. You will too, if you haven't already—you're just too stubborn an idiot not to see what's staring you straight in the eyes."

"Thank you." Dean folded his arms. "Well, what I see right now is someone who doesn't know when he's elbow-deep in shit creek. You aren't in good shape, Cass. If you've figured out something that can help us help you—"

Cass just shook his head, smiling weirdly. "Nothing can help," he said in a whisper that barely made it into Dean's hearing range. "Absolutely nothing will help."

Then he added, "Well, if I get myself roaring shit-faced drunk—"

"You'll regret it in the morning," Dean said, but only half-heartedly. More and more, it seemed almost cruel to deny Cass the oblivion he so desperately craved. It was the freaking Apocalypse, for God's sakeIf there ever was a time for a man to drug or fuck himself into blissful stupor like there was no tomorrow, this was it. It wasn't like Cass had any meaningful life left to poison away.

"There are more hours in a day than there are mornings left," Cass murmured, the smirk flashing quicksilver across his mouth again—this time as a knife that cut both ways. "Listen to me. What must you think of me, Dean?"

Sad. Hollow. Pathetic. Dean looked away like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar, but even without his angel powers Cass was as capable of reading him as ever. "You were hoping for your angel friend to come and fix me up, am I right?" He let out a light, amused chuckle that tore at Dean. "He can take this away." Dean looked back to see Cass touching his head. "But he can't take this away." Cass touched his chest, his fingers turning briefly into claws as a spasm rippled up his arm. "It'll happen again. You know."

Dean thought of the fire, the chains, the knife. Sometimes he could still feel all that as though it had happened yesterday. He knew. Hell had breached him at some deep, fundamental level and all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put him back together again. Castiel had tried, though. He had tried.

A hand took his arm. Cass leaned against his shoulder, far too light for a man of his age and size, but still solid and warm and alive. "Still, if you insist on playing nursemaid, I'm hungry," he said as though they had only been discussing the weather. "I'm glad I came back, if it was only for the food."

He would probably throw it all up again, but Dean wasted no time in leading the way. It was the least he could do.

Chapter Text

Dean whipped upright, a silent scream boiling in his throat. He bent over, gasps spilling out of his mouth as he struggled to bring himself under control. Even now he could still smell the roses - heavy and sweet and cloying, as though there was pollen clinging to the inside of his lungs. He could see the white suit, glowing in the faint light from the sun; hear the gunfire, the breaking glass -

Enough. It never happened. He shook his head violently and glanced towards the other bed, one hand pressed hard on the jackhammering beat of his heart to bully it quiet. His eyes, blurred with sweat and ghosts, took time to adjust to the dark -

A soft curse slipped out from his lips. The bed was empty, the sheets pushed aside. The door swung wide.

Despite his confusion, and general feelings of pissed-offness that Cass was apparently sneaking about like a thief in the night, Dean followed. Of course he did.

Light in the hall, under one particular door - the room where they had tried and failed to summon an angel. Dean stood close and listened to the murmur of two voices from within, but it was too soft for him to make out of the words. He could tell, though, that one of them belonged to Cass. The other...

Dean’s first hand pulled out the angel blade in his jacket. The second pushed open the door.

The speakers turned to face him, words dropping over a chasm into abrupt silence. Cass looked shocked and then just resigned, while his angel buddy stared in fixed interest, unbothered by Dean’s obvious burning desire to turn him into angel shish kebab. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time,” he said with fake cheer, eyes hard with a look of deep, intense dislike. “After all...Castiel here just can’t shut up about you.”

“Balthazar...” Cass murmured, flicking a warning look his way. “Would it help,” he said to Dean, “if I said this isn’t what it looks like?”

“Yeah, it would,” Dean agreed, not relaxing his grip on the angel sword the slightest. “Go ahead, you can start talking any moment now.”

“Cool it, cowboy.” The angel stepped forward with a sneer, hands raised in a gesture of peace that did little to calm Dean’s nerves. Zachariah had managed to inflict a number of deeply unpleasant and imaginative tortures on them with nothing more than a wave of a hand, after all. “We were just having a pleasant chat, brother to brother, catching up on old times, that sort of thing – before we were so rudely interrupted.” He smiled, no more convincingly than before. “No chance you could nicely bugger off so we could finish in peace?”

Dean ignored him. “I’m waiting, Cass,” he ground out.

The first signs of annoyance tightened the skin around Cass’ mouth. “Despite the way he acts, Balthazar can be trusted. I wouldn’t have called him otherwise.” He even managed to smirk a little, despite the bitterness darkening his eyes, rubbing the timbre of his voice raw with just pain instead of power - “Forgive me for thinking an unfallen angel would have a lot more access to the knowledge we need to solve this little problem of mine.”

“Cass...” Dean faltered, the knife in his hand slipping down until it pointed at the floor. He shouldn’t be off his guard, he should be stepping forward to offer some aid and comfort to his friend...but at the moment he couldn’t seem to bring himself to do anything.

“And I’d like to keep it that way,” Balthazar broke in, insinuating himself subtly between the two of them. For the first time, his face and manner softened into something that was almost sympathy. “This is as far as I go, Castiel. For the record, I think you aren’t completely off your rocker like our big brothers do...but I have little desire to bet my wings on a long shot.” He sighed. “I do hope you will change your mind, but I’m sure I know you enough that you won’t, stubborn fool that you are.”

At that Cass smiled - sad but also warm, as he reached out to clasp Balthazar’s shoulder. “We’ve always understood each other well.” A beat, strangely comfortable, in which they stared at each other and Dean shifted from foot to foot, suddenly an intruder blind and deaf to everything that was passing by unsaid. “Goodbye, brother.”

“Goodbye, brother,” Balthazar echoed. The thunder of his wings crashed above and around them, and then he was gone, leaving a tense silence.

Dean broke it first. “So, what was that all about?”

Cass avoided his eyes, never a good sign. “What do you mean?”

“That.” Dean gestured. “I’ve heard more than my fair share of ominous final farewells, I know what they sound like.” Imparted quite a few of them himself, in fact, but Cass was already well aware of that. He narrowed his eyes. “Just what did he tell you?”

Cass turned away, his shoulders very straight and still. He said, very softly, “Nothing that I didn’t expect.”

“What did you expect?” Dean continued to push - against Cass’ reluctance, his own sinking feeling that he wouldn’t like whatever Cass had to tell him, that it wouldn’t even be as easy as scaling the peaks of Mount Impossible to retrieve the Golden McGuffin that would fix everything.

“The others deserve to know as well.” When Cass finally looked up, his expression was completely blank - the mask Dean remembered from the future, the only visible signs of agitation the flutter of his lashes and the harsh shadows under his eyes. “Wake them, and we’ll discuss where to go from here.” The grim tone of his words indicated that he had already decided, and was just letting them in on it as a basic courtesy.

Dean backed up. “It could wait until the morning, if you like...” he offered, weakly - even as he realized that it was more for his own sake than Cass’.

“I’m tired, Dean.” It was less a complaint than a statement of fact. “I’m really fucking tired, I can’t sleep, and all that’s going to happen is that I’ll spend a few more hours feeling like shit. Wake them up. I know you hate talking, Dean, but...” He shrugged. “Believe me, you’ll prefer it to the alternative.”

“What alternative?” Dean really, really hated himself at this moment, as he snapped his mouth shut too late.

Cass headed for the door, his voice floating back over his shoulder. “The one where you woke up and everything was already over. But you just had to mess that plan up, huh?” He laughed, mirthlessly, one hand on the frame, his whole weight on it. His other hand shook as it folded itself, slowly, into a tight fist. “You mess me up...so much...”

“I...” Dean’s lips felt numb, cold as ice. “Cass, I...”

“Oh come on, Dean. I didn’t necessarily mean that in a bad way.” Cass glanced back, but Dean couldn’t bring himself to trust the airy, indifferent smile on his face. “Don’t mope all alone there by yourself, it’s not very becoming of you.”

Dean went. There wasn’t much else he could do at this point, but trust Cass and hope that he knew the hell what exactly he was doing.

Chapter Text

Dean sensed immediately that something had changed when he got back.

Castiel was still sitting at the table, head bowed over his clasped hands - but among the debris from the day's research marathon littered everywhere was now the dull gleam of gunmetal. Dean didn't have to look closer to know that the Glock had been filched from the bottom of his bag. Cass sneaking off, stealing his stuff, keeping secrets - Dean tried to feel more than tired anger, but the surge subsided as quickly as it swelled. "You could have just asked," he muttered as he settled himself across from Cass, noticing with some concern that the safety's off. Something cold slithered through his stomach as he dwelled on that - factoring in the slumped looseness of Cass' pose, the veiled meaning of his words, the nightmares, sofucking many of them

until sleeping's impossible, but resting's still possible

if he can only be man enough cowardly enough and instinctively he reached out to take

escape

the gun away, only to freeze in his tracks as Cass laid his hand firmly over his. "You would have asked why," he said, and Dean jerked away as though stung.

"What's going on, Cass?" Sam stopped wringing sleep from the corners of his eyes, leaned forward sharply as though struck with the same unthinkable notion. "It's way too late - early," he corrected himself with a groan, "to pull the mystery act. Dean said you've got some inside intel?"

"Yes," Cass said and sighed, not at all helpfully. "It's not so often that I hate being right."

Bobby, thank God, cut right to the point they're all slowly tip-toeing around, estimated time of arrival likely twenty minutes after the end of the world. "Spit it out," he ordered, scowling at Cass. "I didn't let Dean drag me up at this ungodly hour just to hear you bullshit away my shut-eye time."

"Our good host has spoken." Cass spread his hands and smirked. "Very well, it's really quite simple. You can't summon my present self because he's in the future. There's been an exchange."

He said this as though it's obviously self-explanatory, and in a way it was - Dean's head spun as gears churned, pieces snapped into place, forming an awful picture - "What?" he blurted out, noticing out the corner of his eye the marked lack of surprise on Sam's face, and it hurt, a little, being the last to find out, even if he did get why. It's not like he'd been very reasonable about anything to do with Cass the last hectic days, fine, and the way Sam's actively avoiding his eyes now told him that he wasn't going to like what came next.

"Fortunately," Cass went on, "Balthazar's dropped in for a quick visit and confirmed that future's still alive and kicking, for now." His gaze dropped. Dean followed it to the whiteness of his knuckles as his fingers clutched, for one spasmodic, blink-and-miss-it moment, at the fabric of his jeans. "Less fortunately, if you recall...when the switch took effect, it wasn't exactly under the most fortuitous of circumstances."

"You were still with Lucifer," Dean said, flatly - numbly. Beside him, Sam made a small, choked sound - apparently putting two and two together but at this instant Dean couldn't care about anyone other than Cass, who kept his eyes firmly down and simply said, "Yes."

They sat in loaded silence for about a minute. Sam slid his chair an inch away from Cass, looking stricken. "What happens," he said at last, and Dean felt his muscles tense up even more, "when that future's gone?"

"Well," Cass said. "As far as the universe is concerned, there's only ever been one of me, isn't it? As they say - two's a crowd." He sat up straight with a cheerful smile that never wavered even when his eyes slid over to the gun sitting so innocuously on the table. "You know what to do."

"What," Dean said, after more silence. (Cass was getting a real knack for them.) Then, "No, no, no. What the fuck are you thinking - how could we possibly - "

Sam cleared his throat, and Dean abruptly realized his voice was raised without remembering how it had gotten there or when he had stood up, chair shoved back and fists curled tight at his sides. Cass looked very small from his full height, and he made an effort to calm himself down. "When exactly were you going to tell us all this, Cass?"

"Never." Cass shrugged. "You can see the merits of that course of action. While we're arguing pointlessly, I'm being subjected to the loving ministrations of my dear brother in the old timeline. Or what did you think I'm dreaming about all the fucking time?"

"So we break him out," Dean said impatiently, "but I don't see how shooting your brains out is gonna accomplish that - "

"He's part of the spell, Dean," Sam broke in, voice even and authoritative, trampling down the rest of Dean's objections. "He's the reason why angel'd up Cass can't just flap back here."

"One bright shiny gold star for Sam," Cass said, raising his hands in mock applause. "Come on, Dean, you're being extra dense even by your usual standards."

Dean looked back and forth between the two of them; helpless, angry. "You're saying there's nothing we can do but play right into the angels' hands and just flat out murder him."

"It's not murder if it's consensual," Cass corrected, as casual as discussing the weather. He didn't mindDean thought in horror. He really didn't mind dying, leaving all he had behind. Hell, guy would finally get to have a decent snooze at last.

It's this last thought that struck particularly hard. "So that's it," he snarled. "You're just gonna give up and let Heaven push us around, you hypocrite, after all you've told me never to give in to Michael - "

Cass hit him in the face. It wasn't a very painful or effective punch, but it still knocked all the words out of Dean. He stared in shock as Cass, very calmly, rubbed his knuckles. "That," he said clearly and concisely. "was for being a goddamned asshole."

Bobby dug iron fingers into Dean's wrist. "Time-out, boys," he declared in a tone that brooked no argument. "You and me," he said to Dean, "are gonna go over there and have ourselves a grown-up talk."

Traitor, Dean couldn't help thinking, but let himself be shepherded away to the naughty boys' corner anyway - where Bobby proceeded to poke him hard in the chest, eyes narrowed with displeasure.

"He's just tellin' it like it is," he said. "Maybe he's more blunt about it, but he's not too much different from the angel and you're used to dealin' with thatstick in the mudWho are you really steamin' about, him or you for not being able to swoop down and rescue every single sufferin' soul on this planet?"

"You can't expect me - you can't expect us to choose, Bobby," Dean argued, keeping his voice low. "You weren't there. You didn't see, what I did to him, what I let happen - "

"The idjit that did all that," Bobby cut in pointedly, "is dead."

Dean winced, but Bobby was just getting started. "And him?" He nodded to Cass, who was talking quietly with Sam - no prizes for guessing what about. "He's a dead man walkin' and he knows it. You didn't pull the trigger, but he's as dead as that future of his." And because reading Dean's mind apparently was the superpower of the day, Bobby added, "This ain't some second chance gift-wrapped for your benefit, Dean. The angels did this to yank your chain, and, fool that you are, you're lettin' them get away with it." More gently: "You've been down this road more times than I can count, son. We all have. You know this well enough, but I'll say it again: there's nothin' good waiting for you down there."

He wheeled himself away. Dean glared at the floor, nails digging into his palms. Bobby was right, he admitted, but he was also wrong. It felt wrong. Didn't matter if Cass was some bastard child of a paradox and an anomaly, a loose thread in the fabric of the universe that had to be snipped off, choose your own bad metaphor- he was still a living, breathing person. He'd bleed and convulse when the bullet shredded his brain apart, and then he'd collapse and then he'd die.

And then...Cass, Cass the angel, would be able to come home again.

He's buried so deep in his thoughts that when he almost jumped when Cass suddenly spoke up, right next to his elbow. "They're dead too, Dean."

Dean pulled away. He couldn't look at Cass like this - not when the image of his bloody corpse was too fresh in his mind's eye. "Who?"

"They're dead," Cass repeated, "but I don't see you crying and throwing temper tantrums over them." He cast a vacant eye at the still-dark sky through the window, still smiling but also with bitterness. "It's so strange to think they're out there somewhere. For three years we hunted together, shat together, fucked together. We were more than rebels; we were warriors." There's an odd pride in his voice. "And now, they wouldn't know me if we crossed in the street. I suppose you could say that, to me... they're as good as dead."

"You're talking about..." Dean realized.

"Still..." Cass shrugged. "Objectively speaking, their fates have changed for the better. I can't get too upset about that." He walked around to face Dean, folding his arms. "I'm not a selfish bastard. Unlike someone I could name."

Incredulous, Dean finally met Cass' eyes. Selfish? He felt a pang of hurt. "You're not making any sense, Cass. I'm sorry about your friends, but..."

Cass smirked. "You've been dealing with ghosts your whole life, Dean." He looked down at himself, one hand moving to finger with the hem of his worn shirt. "How stubbornly they hold on, how stubbornly they're held on to...sad pathetic creatures all, long after they should have made themselves let go."

"But you're not dead," Dean insisted. "You're alive." He grabbed Cass' wrist, holding back a wince at how easily his fingers encircled it, how thin and light he felt - as though the bones would break if he just clenched his hand into a fist. "You have a pulse. You're warm. Ghosts don't have that. There's got to be another way."

"You're not listening." Cass tried to pull free, eyes slitting in anger. "I've had enough of this."

"Well, so have I," Dean snapped, tightening his grip. "What you're suggesting - it's just stupid, it's such an obvious trap. Imagine - if you killed yourself and nothing happened, just think - " How I would feel, he meant to finish, only he couldn't because Sam had just come up behind and struck him sharply on the side of his neck. Dean lurched forward, crying out in pain; his hand sprang open. Cass shoved him away and rubbed his wrist, watching him narrowly.

"This way you feel - " He paused, considering his words. "Do you really feel so much guilt over me, Dean?" He sighed. "You shouldn't, to be honest. Five years is a very long time."

"It didn't take me five years," Sam said quietly. "Cass - whatever I've done to you - "

"Please, one penitent is more than enough," Cass interrupted, holding up a hand and backing away. "Just don't do it again, that's all I ask."

Sam's mouth set in a grim line. "I promise."

Dean's eyes widened in sudden fear. "Cass, where do you think you're going?" He straightened, took a step. Sam blocked his path.

"Sorry, Dean." He looked regretful. "Time's running out."

Dean snarled, raising his fists. "I'll knock you down if you don't get out of the way - "

"And then you'll what, tip an old man out of his wheelchair?" Bobby said dryly, not making a move to intervene. "Give it up, Dean. Five years just made that boy's mind more stubborn. You ain't goin' to stop him."

Cass smiled at him, eyes softening. "That's right, Bobby. Maybe things might have been different, if..." He cut himself off as he opened the door, gun in hand. A cool wind licked into the house, lifting papers, ruffling his hair. "I'll be right back."

"Lookin' forward to it," Bobby muttered gruffly.

Dean dived. Sam threw himself on top of him, struggling to keep him pinned down. He was larger and stronger, but Dean had desperation on his side. "Cass!" he pleaded, horrified to hear his voice breaking. "Don't do this!"

Cass paused, halfway out the door, to stare at him - an odd, indecipherable expression on his face. "You aren't the Dean I know," he said at last, voice rough. "I'm not obligated to take orders from you."

He went out.

Seconds later, there was a muffled bang. The night shone bright as day. Dean jerked violently enough to dislodge Sam, jumped to his feet. He was already running when the light exploded upward and outward, turning the world into stark whites, blacks. Dean screamed, flinging up an arm to shield his dazed eyes. A moment later he had to drop down and curl into a ball as the windows shattered inward, glass shards riding the waves of terrible, piercing sound.

The angel's cry ceased, the intensity of its light dimmed. Dean lay where he had fallen, aching. Something wet was dripping down his face. Someone said his name from somewhere far away. His body shook. That, too, felt an unimaginable distance away, as though he was floating somewhere in the middle of a vast black sea; its many voices roaring in his ears as the waters closed over his head.

Dean closed his eyes and let himself sink.

Chapter Text

Dean woke, and immediately regretted it.

His head ached, as badly as though it had been cracked open and glued back shut around something sharp and metal. Opening his eyes would probably hurt like a bitch, so he just lay back and focused on breathing shallowly past what felt like the world's biggest bruise constricting his ribs in an iron band.

"Hello, Dean."

Dean's head whipped around before he could communicate to himself what a bad, bad idea that was. A brand new helping of pain whiplashed through his skull, splashing his vision with white but that silhouette was unmistakable, the voice - that voice-

"Cass?" he rasped. But you're dead. But of course he wasn't. Cass' reckless, terrible plan...had worked. For a moment clear as a bell he heard the other Cass in his head, his voice cool with contempt: told you so - twitching his mouth into a sudden wince. Heedless of the pain he pushed himself up onto his elbows to stare at the angel sitting next to him, goldfishing as he tried not to say something completely obvious and dumbass like so you're alive or, even worse, are you all right?

Thankfully, Castiel broke the silence first. "I must apologize," he said softly, pressing Dean firmly back onto the bed, "for hurting you..."

"Never mind that," Dean said. The memory of that night flooded back all at once, filling the back of his throat with a bitter taste - it didn't take a genius to realize that Cass had been screaming, and why. "You're okay," he said, the declaration lead in his mouth, remembering the price that had been paid - "That's the important thing."

The lids of Cass' eyes dipped down, broadcasting his discomfort. He shifted; his fingers splayed out where they still rested on Dean's chest. "Sam told me what happened," he said, and Dean flinched as though Cass had wrapped the words around his fist like spikes and struck him in the face.

"He was you," he said, unintelligibly. "I couldn't just - "

"I understand," Cass assured him and then to hammer it home, added, "I'm not angry."

Dean stared at Cass, good old present Cass, sitting in the same chair his future self had occupied not too long ago. He looked - fine, pale and dark-eyed but whole and in possession of all his marbles but and that meant nothing. Alastair had been a master of his craft, and if anyone had been his teacher...

"Lucifer hurt you," Dean said. Blunt, but the message was conveyed. He watched for a reaction and was not disappointed; Cass' mouth tightened at once, the fabric of Dean's shirt bunching as his hand curled into a half-fist. "If you have a point to make..." he said, his voice impressively calm.

"I'm saying..." Dean licked his lips. This couldn't be happening; Cass couldn't be human to sit so still like that, and not shout or lash out. He wasn't human. Maybe that was why he seemed to be dealing with it much better than Dean had. He wondered, fleetingly, if the loss of grace was what had caused his future self to unravel so completely, like a man that had lost something as intrinsic as his skeleton. A pang struck him. Where is he now? he wanted but didn't quite dare to ask. Heaven? Or had he been completely wiped out from existence? That didn't seem fair. But then - he knew very well that life just wasn't fair. "I'm saying you could have come back sooner, if I hadn't..." He swallowed. "If I hadn't tried to stop him." Cass' voice echoed in his ears: Selfish.

Cass didn't waver from his intent expression, the one that said he was hearing all the things Dean didn't want him to. "You're saying I should be angry." He studied Dean with somber gravity, hand relaxing to smooth distractedly over the creases he had made. "Is that what you want?"

Dean opened his mouth. The word yes couldn't seem to come out.

"I know who to blame here," Cass said. "And it isn't you."


 

Later on, Dean's head stopped ringing enough for him to sit on the steps, in the shade, and watch Sam work on fitting in new panes of glass while Bobby alternated between shouting orders and handing over tools, both of them having developed convenient deafness when he volunteered to help. Cass refused to budge from his side, and thus the rest of today's forecast looked firmly set on 'deeply awkward silence.'

"I recall," Cass said, "that you once asked me never to change."

Scratch that; cue heavy showers of equally awkward dialogue. Dean hunched until his chin was almost level with his drawn-up knees. He still felt like he'd badly wronged the man-angel sitting next to him, and that was never gonna change no matter how Cass tried to convince him that wasn't the case. He said gruffly, "Yeah, I remember."

"But it was too late," Cass said, softly. "I had already changed, and for the better." He slid closer, bumping one shoulder against Dean in gentle camaraderie. "But my brothers have not. They are under the delusion that the same old lessons they have always taught time and time again will work." He took a breath; he still hadn't spoken much of what happened, and Dean wasn't about to be a hypocrite and insist. "You showed me the path, Dean," he acknowledged. "But I took it of my own free will. So, please...do not give yourself too much credit."

"You know me, Cass," Dean said. "I'm not exactly known for my modesty. But I'll keep that in mind."

Sam and Bobby had done their best to clean up, but Dean had dragged scraps of the story out of Sam, seen the evidence for himself; the hole in the ground where Cass had fallen back into time, and puked and bled his guts out; the bloody bandages set out in the back to burn. He could see the rigid way Cass held himself, as though his head would fall right off his neck if he moved too fast, too suddenly. He could feel the old scars in his soul aching like a bad limb on a rainy day, a low static buzz crawling under his skin like intrusive fingers searching, prodding, seizing. But Cass' hand curved around his in response, the heat he always gave off settling into the cold spaces in his bones. They leaned on each other. Dean liked to think he had something to offer Cass as well.

"I attempted to contact Balthazar while you slept," Cass said quietly, after a while. "He did not answer."

"Oh," Dean said. Pathetically: "I'm sorry." He put an arm around Cass' narrow shoulders, and succeeded in not ruining the moment with embarrassment; thus he felt every inch of the great shudder that ripped through Cass and wrenched a choked sound from his throat even as he stared straight ahead, his face blank and empty and wrung dry of even tears.

"We'll pay them back, Cass," he promised, he babbled - anything to distract him. "For every bit of the shit they've shoveled on our heads. A hundred times over. Just think of their faces when we kick down their thousand-year castle. Think of Zachariah," and he did, with angry relish. "He'll still be climbing up that rank ladder when we're all dead and gone."

Cass heaved a weary sigh, but it came from a mouth quirked up wryly at the corner. Dean felt a surge of relief, surprising in its intensity; and was surprised, again, by the affection he felt when Cass relaxed and rested his head on his shoulder, closing his eyes.

"I'll hold you to that," Cass said, and finally smiled, truly.