Dean was troubled. Even more so than usual. In general, he was heavily burdened. Previously, he had been able to look past his burdens, or at least disregard them long enough to do what he had to. But not this time. He'd told Castiel that Zachariah had sent him into the future, but he'd refused to offer any details. Whatever he'd seen had been... catastrophic.
It had made him find another motel, as far away from Zachariah as Castiel could fly them. Immediately after they landed he called Sam, who agreed to meet them as soon as possible. Then they waited. Dean spent his time lost in thought, showing no interest in any of the things he normally enjoyed. He didn't even drink, which would otherwise have been his first choice for dealing with emotional upheaval. Instead, he simply sat on a chair or his bed and stared blankly into thin air. Any question Castiel asked was given a single syllable answer at best, or ignored at worst.
Castiel feared for Dean's mind. Something was clearly eating away at his soul and it pained Castiel to see it. Dean was his friend, and their bond was strong. So strong in fact that Castiel occasionally had to wonder why, and what it might mean. But he was still so unsure of everything Earthly. All the human emotions he was learning to recognize in others, and even feel in himself now that he was cut off from Heaven, were... overwhelming. And he never knew quite what to make of them all.
For now all he knew was that Dean was falling apart inside, and Castiel ached from it. It was as if any pain Dean suffered was felt tenfold by him. As the hours of the night dragged by, his concern only increased, and by dawn he was desperate. Dean hadn't moved at all for many hours, not sleeping, just staring at nothing.
Sam would be arriving in a few short hours, and Castiel dearly wished he could somehow reassure Dean before then. If Sam said the wrong thing in Dean's current state of mind it could break him, Castiel was sure of it.
Distressed, Castiel went outside, looked up at the reddening sky and prayed for guidance. As if his father was listening, the answer suddenly came to Castiel. He could go and find Dean some reassurance. He could go to the future himself and maybe find an outcome that would bring Dean hope. It would be difficult and sap a lot of his strength, but it could be done.
Navigating possible futures was very difficult, and not something usually done by foot soldiers like Castiel. But his bond with Dean should make it easier. If he could just focus on Dean and the happiness he so desperately needed to see, Castiel was sure he could find a time line that would show Dean that not all was lost. That what Zachariah had shown him was only one possibility out of endless variations, depending on the choices Dean and Sam made in the coming years. No matter what Zachariah had claimed, there were always alternatives.
Castiel let his senses expand, across the reaches of time, and began searching for a future where Dean was happy. It was disheartening just how difficult it was to find one at all, and those he did sense were either brief or too far away for Castiel's limited power to get to. He stretched himself to the limit, becoming frantic as the sun crawled higher in the sky. Was there really no possible happiness for Dean at all? Castiel refused to believe this so when he finally brushed the tiniest thread of steady happiness, he latched onto it desperately and flung himself at it with all he had.
As soon as he arrived, he knew something was terribly wrong. Not only was he completely drained of power, he was also in extreme pain. A nearby sign advertizing a traveling circus arriving in town at a date set mid-2016 told him that he hadn't gone too far. There was no reason why he should be in such agony. He let himself fall to his knees and gasped for breath until it stopped feeling like shards of glass were being pushed through his veins at every pump of his borrowed heart. It was a minor miracle that he didn't pass out. He sat for a long time just letting his vessel slowly repair itself, blood rattling in his lungs with every breath. It was comforting that he was still able to heal, even though he could barely feel his grace at all. He would need to rest for quite some time before attempting the return journey. Thankfully time travel meant that he was in no rush to get back. He could take all the time he needed.
While he was healing, he looked around. He'd landed on a short-cropped, dry lawn in what seemed to be quite a small town. There were only four houses in his immediate vicinity and in the distance he could see a slightly bigger cluster of buildings, including a church, a few stores and a school. He wasn't entirely sure where he was, but it was definitely still within the US judging from the signs around him. It was early evening, and the summer air was still warm. The ground was even warmer under Castiel's knees, telling him it had been a hot day.
Finally his strength returned enough for him to get to his feet again. The names on the mailboxes informed him that the three houses closest to him belonged to strangers, so Castiel carefully walked to the fourth that he could see, farther away from the town. The two-story building was small, but well kept. The front lawn was dry like the rest of the town's, but it seemed decently cared for with a few lush bushes and a small tree growing at the edges. In the open garage, Castiel was almost breathless with relief when he spotted the Impala parked there, gleaming as if recently waxed. If nothing else, that sight alone would have convinced Castiel that Dean was alive and well. No one else would take care of that car like he did.
But nothing could have prepared Castiel for what he saw next. On the mail box at the end of the driveway was a name tag, written in a neat hand very much like Castiel's own. It read:
22 Woodland Lane.
Dean, Castiel and Marianne Winchester.
* * *
“Those teeth brushed yet, Mary?” Dean yelled, smirking when stomping footsteps started sounding from the hallway immediately. A little whirlwind came bouncing into the kitchen, wearing Wonder Woman pajamas, hot pink fuzzy socks, and flashed Dean a grin that was undeniably shiny, despite the gap of a missing front tooth. “Yup. All brushed!” She declared, her tightly braided black pigtails swaying as she bounced on her heels.
Castiel turned to face her, putting down the plate he was drying. “Marianne Winchester, you are a liar.”
“Am not!” she sputtered indignantly. “I did brush!”
“But did you do it properly? Just brushing those in front don't stop those in the back from falling out,” Dean pointed out, putting on a stern face.
“But, Dad,” she started, her voice taking on a definite note of whining, which Dean brutally cut off.
“No buts! Get back in there and do it right! Go on!”
Sighing like parents were the bane of her existence, Mary turned on her heel and trundled back to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
“We need to have a talk with her about the importance of honesty,” Castiel said gravely as he went back to the dishes. Dean finished putting away the leftovers from dinner and joined Castiel at the sink. “Come on, Cas, she's only seven. It's a phase.”
“Still, we should make it clear that such behavior is undesirable.”
“Yeah all right,” Dean agreed a moment later. “Want me to do it?”
“No. I'll see to it tomorrow after school,” Cas said, before suddenly stiffening and looking through the kitchen window. Instantly on alert, Dean reached for a gun in one of the cabinets above his head. “What, Cas?”
Castiel tilted his head, like he hadn't done in years, and held a hand out to Dean, telling him to wait. “There's someone outside.”
“Friendly?” Dean asked, not really expecting an affirmative.
To his surprise, Castiel only stared for a long moment, and then beckoned Dean to his side. “See for yourself.”
Intrigued, Dean looked through the window and promptly dropped his jaw. “How the hell... shifter?”
“No, he's real. His grace is weak, but I can feel it. He means us no harm.”
Dean blinked before tucking the gun into the back of his pants. “You'd better put Mary to bed. I'll go check it out. Don't let her see.”
“Of course,” Castiel said, letting his eyes linger on the visitor on their front lawn before going down the hall to make sure Mary went straight to bed. Dean let out a heavy breath and bolstered himself before going to the door, opening it and meeting the blue eyes of the trench coated figure outside.
* * *
Castiel tore his eyes off the mail box when he heard the front door open. The Dean who slowly approached him didn't look all that different from the Dean he knew, but there was a completely different air about him. He radiated contentment, even while he was obviously wary of Castiel. Stopping a few steps away, Dean nodded cautiously at him.
“So. Your counterpart inside tells me you're really... you. So where... or when... are you from?”
Castiel frowned. “I'm... not sure where this is. I departed from 2010, and I meant to travel ahead into a possible future, but judging from my current level of discomfort, I fear I may have accidentally landed somewhere... unexpected.”
“So you'll be sticking around for a while, then?”
Nodding, Castiel shifted. “My apologies. I didn't mean to intrude.”
“Then what did you mean to do?” Dean asked sternly, but unlike the Dean Castiel was used to, this one didn't seem to turn to hostility as a default.
“I... I meant to find happiness,” Castiel said, unsure of how to explain his intention.
“You lost me,” Dean said.
“When I left, Zachariah had just sent you to the future, and when you came back...” Castiel shrugged, lost for words.
Dean blinked. “Came back...? The way I remember it, you came and got me. Zach was fucking rabid when you popped us out in the middle of his monologue.”
“Yes, from the motel room–”
“No,” Dean cut in. “No, you came and got me from the future... or illusion or whatever the hell it was. You fell asleep on the couch that night. Apparently breaking into Zach's little bubble and grabbing me took a lot out of you.”
Castiel pondered this. “I remember it differently. If that was indeed how it happened, then perhaps I traveled further than I planned. A lot further...” he trailed off.
Dean just looked at Castiel for a few moments, assessing him and apparently finding him harmless enough, because Dean took his eyes off him and cast a glance back at the house with a grimace. “Look, we can't talk here. I'll take you to Sam's.”
Castiel was expecting to be told to get in the Impala, so he was surprised when Dean simply stepped onto the sidewalk and trudged along, moving further away from the town in the distance. Castiel followed, watching as Dean dug his phone out of his jeans pocket. “Just gonna text Cas–” he paused and looked at Castiel. “Uh... this is weird.”
“I understand,” Castiel said, even though he wasn't entirely sure he did. But Dean smiled and finished tapping out a short message before putting his phone away again and striding on at a brisk pace.
“I'll explain in a minute, but I think we'd better get you inside somewhere first. Better not freak out the neighbors.”
Castiel nodded. This at least made perfect sense to him. Time travel was always tricky, and he found himself relieved that he hadn't actually met his other self.
They turned down a side road a couple of blocks away from Dean's home and followed the winding sidewalk to the end of the road where a large house lay. It looked like it had been a villa or mansion once, but the wall of mailboxes outside revealed that it now housed at least ten different occupants. Dean didn't ring the bell or use the door buzzer. He just let himself in with a key, and showed Castiel up a flight of stairs to a long hallway with doors with numbers from one to five. At number four he knocked once and didn't wait for a reply before entering.
There was a groan from inside before Sam's voice drifted into the hall. “Seriously, Dean, we've been over this. I could have been having sex or something, jerk.”
“In your dreams, bitch,” Dean threw back cheerfully. “But right now we have kind of a situation.” He beckoned Castiel inside from where he was still hovering on the doorstep, and Sam came into view from behind the door.
“Wow, Cas, I thought you lost the trench coat in that fire–” he started, before frowning. “Wait... he's not... is he?”
Castiel looked at Dean, unsure of how to explain. “Looks like we've got a bit of a Back to the Future thing happening. Again.”
“Aw great,” Sam huffed. “What is it this time?”
“Well that's why we're here. I thought we'd better have this conversation somewhere away from random bystanders.” Dean closed the door behind them, and gestured Castiel towards a battered couch in the middle of what appeared to be a one-room apartment. There was a kitchenette in one corner and a extra long bed in another, and Castiel was pleased to see it. It might not be a luxurious place of residence, but Sam had clearly settled down and made it his own.
Sam got three beers from his fridge and passed one to each of them before dropping down into a squishy armchair across from the couch. Dean took a seat next to Castiel and rolled his eyes when he made no move to open his beer. “Jeez, you really are old Cas,” he grumbled before opening it for him and ordering: “drink it!”
Responding to the familiarity of Dean urging him to do seemingly random human things, Castiel took a quick sip of the beer, not really tasting it. Sam just watched, the corner of his mouth quirking up slightly at the exchange.
“So, first things first. You said you were from 2010, right?” Dean asked.
Castiel gave a half-nod and frowned. “Yes, but I'm not at all convinced that my 2010 is the same as yours.”
“I don't follow,” Sam said.
Dean made a gesture at Castiel, urging him to explain. “I suppose I had better start from the beginning.”
“Zachariah, right,” Dean cast a glance at Sam. “In my version Cas came and bailed me out. In his version he didn't pop up until... later?” He turned his eyes back to Castiel who nodded.
“In my version of events, Zachariah let his scenario play out and then met you back at your hotel room afterward, where I arrived and took you away from him.”
“You... were reluctant to share with me what had happened. You only informed me that Zachariah had shown you the future four years ahead, and that there was no way to keep it from happening. I would have explained to you that the future is never unchangeable, but you needed to call Sam and attempt to reconcile. And...” Castiel sighed. “After that... you would not speak to me. So I decided to try and find a future with a better... happier outlook for you. I meant to only travel ahead in our own time line, but I assume something went wrong since I went astray.”
He kept his eyes on his hands, still holding the forgotten beer. He could feel Sam's eyes on him, while Dean shifted and cleared his throat awkwardly.
“Uh, well things happened differently here. First of all, you saw for yourself what Zach showed me. You heard what he said. I didn't have to explain anything to you. But I have to say that I'm not so sure I like your version of me. I know I was kind of a shitty boyfriend, but I wouldn't have kept you out of the loop, even if you hadn't pulled my ass out of the fire. I mean, with me and Sam not talking, you were kinda all I had.”
Castiel felt dizzy suddenly. Something was truly off here. At first he'd assumed that there might just have been a minor time paradox at play, but this...
“I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand. Are you telling me that in your version of events, at the time Zachariah showed you the future, and you and Sam were apart... that you and I were...” He trailed off, not sure how to phrase the rest.
“What, together? Yeah. Had been for a while, actually. Why? You mean... you and your Dean... aren't?” Dean asked, his eyebrows slowly edging upwards.
Castiel just shook his head mutely, feeling lost all of a sudden, the names on the mailbox flashing briefly past in his mind before he clamped down on it, deciding to ponder the significance of it later.
“What is he, a moron?” Dean huffed, but turned to Sam with a threatening grimace when he choked on his beer, and thumped his chest until he could breathe again.
“Sorry, sorry, I'm just.... oh God, seriously, Dean?”
“You just called yourself a moron!” Sam shook with laughter, as Dean's mouth slowly fell open.
“That's not... I didn't... he's not me, Sammy!”
“First of all, yes he is, in a lot of ways. And secondly... have you seriously forgotten just how blind you were at first!?”
“I was not! Cas just hadn't gotten the hang of all his human signals yet, that's all!”
“Oh, I see, so it had nothing at all to do with you insisting that – and I quote – 'if it doesn't have boobs, I don't want it'?”
Dean coughed, looking uncomfortable, and Castiel sympathized. He was feeling well and truly out of his depth. He already knew without a doubt that his connection to Dean was very strong. His newly awakened emotions were still a messy jumble, impossible to decipher, but there was no doubt that when it came to Dean, Castiel had overwhelming emotional responses more often than not. He had avoided looking at it too closely so far, still unused to this new input, and wary of what it might mean for him should he investigate further.
But here in front of him sat real, hard evidence of what might happen if he made the effort of pulling apart all the little feelings currently knotted into a tight, messy ball, pushed as far back into his mind as he could. He knew that if he started to unravel it, there would be no turning back.
Castiel forced himself to get back on track, and decided to ignore the latest bit of information for now.
“I think it's now abundantly clear that I have somehow traveled to an entirely different time line than my own. I'm not at all sure how it happened, since I should normally only be able to travel directly along the diverging paths and not jump to completely different universes like this. But that is of no importance now. The most vital question now is how I find my way back.”
The room was quiet for a while, and Castiel could feel himself slipping back into speculations about his emotions regarding Dean when Sam broke the silence. “What if... this is just a thought... but what if you traveled back in time in this time line, just far enough to find the place where our two worlds merge, and then traveled forward again to your own time?”
Castiel blinked. “That... is actually a very good idea, Sam. Our universes are similar enough. It cannot be more than perhaps a few decades since the time lines diverged. If I take the time to let my grace fully recharge, then it should be fairly simple.”
“Look, I hate to interrupt you two Einsteins here, but could you please explain that to the guy with no high-school diploma?” Dean interjected, sounding vaguely sour.
“Okay, it's like this,” Sam said carefully, as if Dean was more than just a little slow. “In theory, there's an infinite number of universes and time lines. The assumption is that every time any action is taken, a new time line is created. Like right now. When you picked up our beer, theoretically there was another time line created just then, where you decided not to pick up your beer. Of course some people claim that it has to be more significant events than that, but the theory holds.”
“I don't get it,” Dean grumbled.
Castiel leaned forward and touched his forefinger to the coffee table. “Observe, Dean.” He drew his finger across the table in a straight line. “This is my time line. Moving from past to present.” Dean nodded, although he still looked unsure. “Now, somewhere in the past,” he moved his finger back along the same line, “something happened, a choice was made, or an event came to pass with another possible outcome,” he let his finger travel forward again, but this time at an angle to the original line, “And in that moment, your time line separated from mine. Understand?”
“I think so.” Dean frowned hard, but looked like he was at least starting to catch on. “So... all you have to do now is go back in time to before that separation, and then... follow the yellow brick road?”
“I don't understand that reference, but yes. Essentially.”
Dean huffed out a surprised laugh. “Wow, you really are a different Cas. It's been ages since my Cas said that.”
“Brings back memories, huh, Dean?” Sam mused. “As if the trench coat wasn't already a blast from the past...”
Castiel looked from one brother to the other, marveling at how far they had come. While their time line had split from his a lot earlier, he couldn't help but wonder if the potential for this future wasn't still there. Whatever had happened to change things this drastically, there had to be a way to reach a similar result, no matter how slim the odds.
“So how long do you need to get enough juice back to make the jump?” Dean's words cut into his musings and Castiel stored his thoughts away for later.
“I'm not sure, but I would estimate three days at least. The jump here was very painful, but once I'm fully healed I will only need to travel directly along time lines, and not go too far back, so it shouldn't take long to regain enough strength.”
“Wait... you hurt yourself coming here?” Dean asked, his eyes darting over Castiel's body, looking for injuries.
“Yes, I'm afraid I ruptured some vital organs, but they're healing quickly, there's no need to worry.”
“Jesus, Cas. I forgot for a moment that you're still all angel. My Cas... isn't.”
Castiel had to force down a flash of grief. So he had fallen after all. At least in this universe. And as much as he knew it would probably be pointless, he couldn't help but ask: “Am I... that is, my counterpart... has he... made his peace with it?”
Dean gave him a long look, but didn't answer. Sam eventually cleared his throat and got up. “Uhm. I'm gonna go buy some more beer or something. You guys just... you know.” Castiel did in fact not know, but he didn't stop Sam from leaving, in the hopes that Dean explain once they were alone.
The door closed behind Sam, and Dean took a deep breath before speaking. “Okay, here's the deal. My Cas? He chose this. He wasn't kicked out of Heaven and he wasn't punished. In fact, they wanted him to be the new big wig upstairs after the apocalypse was called off, but when they asked him, you know what he said? He said: 'I'm needed elsewhere'. And you know what? It was the truth.”
Castiel nodded, even though he wasn't entirely sure what Dean was saying. But knowing that they did find a way to stop the apocalypse was good to know. Hopefully that meant there were options they hadn't considered yet.
“They even offered to let him stay juiced up while living out a lifetime here on Earth, but he didn't want that. I tried to make him keep his grace, but...” Dean trailed off and shook his head vaguely.
“Don't get me wrong, he's still not human, and I don't think he ever really will be. But at some point he'll grow old. He'll get gray hair, wrinkles and probably some serious back problems, because he's still got shitty posture,” Dean huffed. “But you wanna know why he did all that?”
Castiel blinked. For a moment he wasn't at all convinced he really wanted to know, but eventually he did nod.
“Because he loved me. And for some strange reason he still does. That's why Sam left just now. Because he knows I'm still a complete asshole about this, and I can't explain this to you in front of him. But I think you need to know this.”
“I understand,” Castiel said.
“No, I'm not sure you do. See, our worlds might be kinda different, but trust me on this one. No matter how much your Dean tells you that he's better off alone? He's not. He's really not.”
Castiel sighed. “I'm aware of this. But I'm his friend, and I have to respect his wishes.”
“Bullshit. If you're really his friend, which I think this dumbass trip to the future kinda proves, then you won't let him get away with anymore of his 'woe is me' crap. Because that's what it is,” Dean snarled. “I had to come this close–” he held up thumb and forefinger with only barely a sliver of air between them, “to losing everything before I wised up.” He smiled suddenly. “And then of course there was the little surprise that practically fell into my lap.”
“You saw the third name on the mailbox, right?”
“Yes, I did. Your daughter?”
Dean gave him a significant look. “Our daughter, Cas. Or at least, mine and my Cas'. This is giving me a headache.”
“Indeed.” Castiel had of course had the passing thought that Marianne could be Dean's daughter, but the way Dean seemed so vehement about her also being Castiel's... it was hard to comprehend. “But I have to confess that this is one area in which our worlds differ. I was never made to be a parent, and I think it would be a great disservice to any child having to be raised by someone who was created to only ever be a child himself.”
“Look... this is the future, dude. Things change. Had anyone asked me six years ago if I wanted kids, I would have screamed no, because I thought that no kid would want a fucked up individual like me for a dad.” Dean sat up straighter in his chair and moved forward, bringing himself a little closer to Castiel. “But once you're there, you deal with it. Even you.” He leaned back again with a grin. “And hey, who knows, maybe two wrongs do make a right? Maybe two freaks can combine their forces and make something good.”
Castiel highly doubted that, but he nodded slightly, because Dean seemed to be joking, and his own Dean at least did not appreciate being contradicted when he was being funny.
“Anyway, I gotta get back. Cas is probably worried. Or not. That's the awesome thing about him. He knows I can take care of myself.”
“Perhaps. But if he's anything at all like me, he does worry. He simply doesn't want you to know.”
Dean froze in the middle of getting out of the chair. “Seriously?”
“Yes. Knowing that you're capable of handling yourself is all well and good, but trusting fate with your most precious thing is never easy.”
From the look on Dean's face, Castiel might as well have slapped him. After a long, tense moment Dean exhaled slowly and slumped back into the chair. “Shit. He really does worry himself sick, doesn't he?”
Dean rubbed a hand over his face and stared into the air for a while. Castiel didn't interrupt, knowing that Dean usually didn't react well to continued prodding on a tender subject. Castiel already expected him to react unpleasantly to the realization that he'd been wrong.
“Well, that settles it,” Dean said finally.
“I'm putting a ring on his goddamn finger. I should have done it years ago, but I guess I just thought it wouldn't matter to him, 'cause I'm a moron.”
Whatever Castiel had expected Dean to say, that most certainly wasn't it. “How would marriage prevent him from worrying about you?”
“It probably wouldn't, but he likes grand gestures, you know? And even though I can't possibly promise that nothing's ever gonna happen to me, then at least I want him to know that given the choice I'd wanna stay with him and Mary.”
Castiel could see how that made sense, and he nodded, even as it felt like his world was tilting, because this Dean who so readily charged into commitment was a completely unknown entity. Castiel was slowly getting the impression that this reckless mission of his might not be such a help to anyone after all.
While Castiel was having doubts, Dean pushed himself out of the chair and went to the window. He cranked it wide open and stuck his head outside, looking down. “Sam, go to the store.”
“You do know that the getting beer thing was just a line right?” Sam's voice drifted back, proving that he hadn't gone far.
“'Course I do, but now you're gonna go get something fancy, because I'm getting married,” Dean said, smirk evident in his voice.
“Wow, congratulations, Dean! When's the big day?”
“How the hell should I know, I haven't even asked him yet!”
There was silence and then Dean huffed. “Don't gimme that look, Sammy. Do you honestly think he'd say no?”
“Hm. Good point. But I'm still not buying good booze until I see the ring on his finger.”
Dean slammed the window shut and turned back to face Castiel with a smile. Just seeing Dean smile like that, open and hopeful did all kinds of painful things to Castiel's heart, even though he was very aware that this Dean was nothing like his Dean. Suddenly he couldn't wait to be gone. To get back to the Dean he knew, even as damaged as he was.
But Castiel was still weak. Far too weak to attempt any sort of jump in time. And he still hadn't accomplished what he came for. He needed to know how they came to this point. What he could tell Dean would be a possible course to some measure of happiness. So putting aside the strangeness, Castiel forced himself to focus on the task at hand.
“May I ask you something?”
Dean gave him an odd look while still struggling to secure the broken latch on the window. “Yeah, of course.”
“What would you say played the largest part in getting you to where you are now?”
“You mean...here as in this small-ass hick town or... here as in almost gay married and dad to a five-year old girl?”
“I mean here as in... happy.”
Dean rocked back on his heels, eyebrows climbing. “Huh. You know what, I guess I am. Happy. Wow. Who'd have thunk.”
Dean was clearly having some sort of moment of clarity, so Castiel waited patiently until he shook himself out of contemplation. “Well uh... for one thing, Satan isn't wearing my baby brother.”
“Yes, I'm very pleased to see him free of his destiny as well. How did you manage it?”
“Uh, dunno if I'm breaking some kind of spoiler alert rule here, but... you said you took off right after Zach's little show, right?”
“Well, uh... some time after that, we got our first little surprise.”
A thought struck Castiel, which would explain everything, and hope blossomed alarmingly fast. “Did I find God?”
Dean's face fell, and Castiel had his answer. “Ah, no. No, as far as I know you never made contact with The Big Kahuna.”
“That is... disappointing,” Castiel said honestly, and Dean nodded.
“Yeah, I know. But Michael seems to have sacked up nicely these days.”
“Michael is still ruling Heaven?”
“Yeah. Him and a few other people. They wanted Cas to be the sheriff, since apparently getting brought back from the dead, presumably by The Lord himself, is some kind of stamp of approval up there. But he said no, and then they all just sort of let Michael keep the gig, on the condition that he didn't do it alone.”
“Who's with him?”
Dean shuffled uncomfortably, but also sent Castiel a half-grin. “This is where it gets really interesting. You remember me– or, well, your Dean– telling you about that trickster we ran into a couple of times? Turns out... not so much a trickster.”
Sitting down in the chair again, Dean licked his lips nervously, and Castiel felt a vague sense of dread about what was coming, even though the end result would apparently be this domestic bliss for Dean.
“You know Gabriel, the archangel?”
“Yes, he vanished thousands of years ago. His death was mourned throughout the heavens.”
“Yeah, well, you might wanna get a refund on those condolences, because he's alive and kicking,” Dean said wryly. “He's been hiding out here on Earth, getting cozy with the pagans and playing trickster.”
Castiel had never had much contact with the archangels, being so vastly below them in rank, but he was hardwired to love all his brothers and sisters, and his immediate reaction was joy. But then he remembered what Dean had told him about the trickster and what it had done to Sam, and his delight dwindled.
“Now, I know that my Cas wasn't exactly thrilled to see him, and considering everything neither was I. And Sam... come to think of it, I think Sam was the only one of us handling it with any kind of diplomacy, which kinda blows my mind,” Dean said, running a hand through his hair. “But Gabriel did step up to help, and thanks to him Lucifer is back in the cage, along with maybe 90% of all the shit he ever let out of Hell.”
“So hunting is at an all-time low, Sam is grumpy but okay, my little girl wants to be Wonder Woman when she grows up, and with a little luck there's a dude waiting for me at home who looks an awful lot like you,” Dean concluded with a smirk.
“So if you're looking for some kind of easy package deal as to how we all made it this far without dying or going batshit, then you're outta luck. It's a combination of a lot of things.” Dean leaned in closer again. “But I will say this... without Cas? I think I would have cashed in my chips. I was so close to just ending everything. Living with what I did in Hell... Cas was the only one I'd listen to sometimes. So just... your Dean... stay with him. I'm not even saying that you need to be an item or whatever, but just... don't fly off. Okay?”
“That was never my intention,” Castiel said. “But when he keeps pushing me away, what can I do?”
Dean reached out and poked Castiel in the chest. “You stick to him. Like a fucking tick if you have to. If he whines about it, tell him to shut his cakehole and accept the goddamn olive branch.”
Castiel wasn't entirely sure Dean was using the analogy correctly, but he understood the meaning. And the sentiment behind it was one Castiel himself had considered now and then. That his Dean might not be entirely aware of his needs, and that his shutting people out was more than anything a poorly thought out defense mechanism. So while he still felt slightly hypocritical for thinking he knew better than Dean himself what he might need, Castiel decided then and there that once he got back, he would never go further than a swift wing-beat away.
“I'll consider your advice,” he said, feeling strangely unsure whether he wanted to share with this Dean, so unlike his own, what his counterpart might be in for upon Castiel's return. “But before I can attempt return, perhaps we should compare memories in order to ascertain which point in time I need to jump back to, in order to rejoin my own time line.”
“Sure,” Dean said. “I might get Sam to take over at some point, though, because it's my turn to take Mary to school tomorrow, so I have to go home and get at least a few hours sleep.” Castiel blinked, momentarily taken aback, and Dean grinned crookedly at him.
“Yeah, I know, look at me, all responsible parent and shit. And getting married, holy crap. Which reminds me, I guess I'm going ring shopping tomorrow too. Hey, you could come along! That way I can totally cheat and get the right size!”
Castiel's mind immediately provided an image of himself at Dean's side, aiding him in finding the perfect symbol for his love for Castiel's alternate self. Trying on one ring after the other, seeing them next to Dean's, their hands held up together. Barely a breath later, he started to feel decidedly odd. A strange prickling sensation was rising in the back of his throat and for a moment the room seemed to tilt on its axis. He grabbed the armrest of the couch in a white-knuckled grip, and blinked hard to get the world aligned properly again. “I'm... unwell,” he rasped, but Dean was already at his side.
“Jesus, dude, you sure you didn't rupture something vital during your crash landing?”
“No, I'm... physically at least, I appear to be fine.”
And he was. As far as he could tell, his vessel was completely healed, merely tired from the depletion of his grace. And yet he was bombarded with physical input with no obvious cause, and he heard the frame of the couch splinter as his fist closed on the edge of the couch.
“Hey hey hey, easy,” Dean said, gently rubbing his back. “Ease off now buddy, come on, deep breaths or something, stay with me.”
Castiel did his best to follow the instructions and after several long breaths he was finally able to release the armrest and sit back, letting himself go boneless in sudden exhaustion.
“That... never happened to me before,” he volunteered when Dean gave him a searching look.
“No kidding.” Dean kept staring at him, and for once Castiel realized what his own Dean meant when he asked Castiel to respect his personal space, because that deep-probing gaze felt mildly invasive. After maybe a minute, which felt more like a year to Castiel, Dean finally looked away, only to clear his throat and steel his shoulders. Castiel might not know this Dean, but for the Dean he knew, this was not a good sign. This was a Dean preparing for emotional conflict. Castiel braced himself.
“You know... back when me and my Cas started... well... whatever it was back then, he wasn't... he was new to this whole humanity thing. Like emotions and stuff. Not that he didn't have any, but as far as I can guess, up in Heaven there's usually not much use for them, so they're sort of... muted. But spend too long on Earth and they start to... pop up.” He sighed, keeping his gaze on the wall.
“When I... the first time I kissed him just for the heck of it... he kinda freaked out. Like you just did.” One more heavy sigh, and then he turned to face Castiel. “You really are just as gone for your Dean as my Cas was for me. Aren't you?”
Castiel had to swallow hard. “If by gone you mean likely to go insane, which– incidentally– for an angel of the lord is truly disturbing, then... yes, I would imagine so. I hardly even know what any of this means, but... I do know love.”
“Yeah, I guess you do,” Dean agreed.
“I just don't know what all these other things are. Emotions used to be so simple before. Anger. Pain. Love. Fear. All so easily separated and cataloged. Now... now I sometimes feel just as likely to smile as to weep. Even as I admire Dean's best qualities I sometimes feel compelled to punish him for his worst flaws.”
Oddly, this made Dean grin. “Funny, that's what my Cas says was his first clue that what he was feeling was more than just protective instincts. The fact that he couldn't decide what he wanted to do most. Kiss me or punch me in the face. To tell you the truth, at first it could go either way. He sure kicked my ass often enough.”
Castiel shifted with unease, knowing the feeling far too well. “But that also seems like two easily recognizable emotions. Why does it feel so... confusing?”
“Dude, you had a panic attack. All this emotional crap isn't easy, but if it's any comfort it's normally not that bad either.”
“Really,” Dean assured him warmly. “And on that note, I think I'd better head home. If nothing else I think this was a huge hint that I shouldn't involve freaky-ass parallel people in my love life, so you're gonna stay with Sam until we get this worked out and I'll make an educated guess for my goddamn ring shopping like normal people.”
“That seems like a sound approach,” Castiel agreed weakly. “I'll remain here only until my grace is replenished enough to travel.”
Dean paused in the middle of getting up, fixing Castiel with an odd look. “Hey, uh... don't misunderstand me. You're more than welcome to stick around, no matter how weird it is. And... I think what you're trying to do for your Dean is awesome. Just so you know.”
Not knowing how to respond to that, Castiel simply nodded. Dean nodded back and after a brief moment of quiet companionship he got up and left the room. Castiel remained on the couch, contemplating the strangeness of it all while the sky slowly darkened outside, and waited for Sam to return.
* * *
Two days later Castiel decided he was strong enough to attempt the first leg of his journey and he decided that it would be best for him to simply leave, not waiting to say his goodbyes. He felt like he had already intruded enough in this world he didn't belong in. Dean would most likely be upset that he left so suddenly, but in a moment of clarity Castiel realized that any attempt at goodbyes would probably be more upsetting to himself. And that thought was scary enough on its own that Sam could obviously see it on his face, because he didn't even argue when Castiel declared abruptly at eight in the morning that he was leaving. He thanked Sam for his hospitality, although Castiel had not actually eaten or slept while he was there, and asked him to extend his best wishes and apologies to Dean and his counterpart.
Sam gave him an encouraging smile as Castiel prepared to leave, but he didn't hide the sad look in his eyes which was the last thing Castiel saw before spreading his wings.
He'd aimed for a point as far back in time as he felt he could go without draining himself completely, hopefully arriving somewhere he could stay and safely rest for the journey forward. Usually traveling in direct time lines wasn't too difficult, but barely had he taken off before there was a dizzying lurch and he landed long before he'd planned. It was night and he was mercifully both alone and in one piece when he crashed against the base of a a lamp post, using it to right himself on the empty street before getting his bearings.
He could feel Dean nearby, and when he spotted a motel across the street he headed towards it without hesitation. The Impala was outside, but there was no immediate indication of where or when he had arrived. He was wary of approaching anyone else, worried that he might somehow affect the only happy time he'd been able to find for Dean, even if it wasn't exactly his Dean. But he'd also spent many hours doing nothing but soul searching in Sam's one-room apartment and was finally self aware enough to realize that anytime he was lost he always looked towards Dean. Helplessly so. Even if it might complicate things.
So when he reached out with his grace and felt Dean in a room a few doors down, he only paused long enough for the impulsive caution of turning himself invisible before popping into the room. Which turned out to be a mistake of massive proportions.
Because Dean wasn't alone. Had Castiel only given himself another moment to test the waters he would have been prepared, but as it was he almost stumbled into visibility again when he landed at the foot of the bed Dean was lying on naked... with Castiel. Or rather, his so far un-met counterpart.
Dean was on his back, neck bared and spine arched as the Castiel of this timeline rode him at a near-frenzied pace, the sounds of flesh slapping together almost deafening in the otherwise quiet room.
“Fuck, Cas, fuck,” Dean grunted, and left white marks on his Castiel's hips where his fingers dug in.
“Dean!” was the only answer, gasped out in a voice Castiel couldn't recognize as his own. Or even Jimmy's, rest his soul.
Shocked and baffled, Castiel froze there at the foot of the bed, his jaw slowly dropping as he took in the sight before him. His other self was apparently so far gone from ecstasy that he didn't notice the new arrival at all. Not that he probably could anymore without some effort. His grace was all but gone, and had anyone asked Castiel what sort of picture he would present having lost his grace permanently, it most certainly wouldn't be this. Because this Castiel was a vibrant, wanton personification of life-joy as he raised himself up and crashed down again and again, his hands alternately scrabbling along Dean's sweaty skin or pulling at his own hair as if barely able to contain such bliss.
Castiel was not ignorant about sex, no matter how much Dean seemed to think so. He'd watched countless humans do exactly this in a dizzying number of combinations and circumstances and never cared much about any of it. But seeing himself... something pulled tight in Castiel's chest and he suddenly ached with the knowledge that he could have this. If only the dice fell right, this could be him. Perhaps not in this exact scenario, but the joy on his counterpart's face was etched into his mind, and for the first time Castiel realized that in looking for happiness for Dean, he'd unwittingly also found his own.
As his counterpart found his release and Dean followed close behind, Castiel silently removed himself from the room, instead seeking out the Impala, which at least also was a grounding point of some sort. Sitting in the shotgun seat felt like home in a way, and Castiel sat there for a long moment simply breathing. As much as he didn't need to, it did calm him. Enough so that he remembered that Dean usually kept his spare cell phones in the glove compartment, and by fishing one out Castiel got the date. January 2011. As he tried to sort through his knowledge of this time line, trying to figure out where he might be, he caught sight of something in the rear-view mirror and spun around to look, half thinking it wouldn't actually be there, and blinking in disbelief when it was.
On the back seat was a green and pink car seat. For a fairly small child, judging by the size. Clipped onto the side of it was a colorful knot of various small items, obviously meant to entertain a baby during long car journeys. And it suddenly crashed into him that this Castiel and Dean were already parents at this point. Building a life together. With Marianne. Who was presumably with Sam for the night. Castiel had seen it so often before, young parents desperate for a few moments alone, usually so busy with the little new life in their care, they would not waste a second once they were alone, their child briefly in the care of someone trusted.
Cautiously reaching out, he could feel them even now, tired but so amazingly comfortable and grateful for the time they had to just be themselves. There were still those dark corners in Dean's mind, and some careful searching revealed that Castiel's other self did indeed grieve the loss of his grace in his own way. But they both seemed to think that the sacrifices made were worth it. Sensing that he would risk discovery if he probed deeper, Castiel withdrew, and sighed wistfully as tendrils of renewed lust started pulling at them before he severed the connection.
He did not begrudge them a single moment of happiness, but the more he saw, the more he wanted it for himself, selfishly coveting what they had.
How far he had fallen already.
Considering the shortness of the jump, he only needed a short rest before he could move on. It was with considerable relief he arrived at the point he had originally aimed for, a remote forest where Dean had been staying with Sam in a small cabin, borrowed from a friend while John was out hunting. It was 1996, and a quick look through the window revealed a teenage Dean helping Sam with his homework in a frustrated and blustering way that made Castiel suspect that Dean didn't actually possess the knowledge needed to aid his little brother with his fractions.
Having confirmed that he was proceeding according to plan, Castiel retreated to the woods for an hour or two, making sure he was as strong as he could be before taking the last leg of his journey. Dean would need all of Castiel's strength when he arrived back at the time of the apocalypse, so he steeled himself before focusing steadily on the tickle of Dean's soul in the back of his mind, always present, even as he was flung into a different universe. After pulling him out of Hell, there was nowhere Dean could go that Castiel could not feel him, even if he didn't know the exact location. They would forever be tied together, and Castiel was glad of it.
Following the path to Dean was easy, like following a slow, trickling stream. But just before touching down, the lurch happened again, and Castiel opened his eyes, afraid of what he would see.
To his surprise, he was exactly where he was supposed to be. It was dawn, outside the motel where Dean was waiting for Sam inside. The digital clock on the dashboard of a nearby car told him it was a few minutes after his original departure, and as he looked around, nothing seemed amiss. But he was still extremely cautious as he went to Dean's room and looked through the window.
“Oh no,” he murmured to himself, because Dean was inside, but... so was Castiel. Asleep on the too-short sofa, half slumped into the corner, arms crossed loosely over his chest. As he watched, Dean got up from the bed, shook his head, and then went over to carefully ease Castiel out of his shoes and tuck a blanket from the bed around his legs.
“Night, angel,” he heard Dean rumble, before leaning in and laying a soft kiss on Castiel's temple. An expression of tenderness Castiel honestly believed his Dean incapable of, but still yearned for with a frightening intensity.
He kept watching while Dean went back to the bed, checking his phone yet again, like his own Dean had done all night, waiting for news about Sam's arrival. Unsure of what to do next, now that his plan had obviously failed, Castiel just kept watching, feeling lost but unwilling to leave even this strange not-his-Dean behind.
Then suddenly there was a presence. A terrifyingly powerful presence. Considering Castiel's current status, he had all the reason in the world to be on high alert in the company of higher beings, so he whirled around, sword at the ready, only to come face to face with... himself. Only not himself in any form he'd seen so far.
This Castiel was still shaped like Jimmy Novak, but almost everything else had changed. His hair was white, his face crowded with lines, detailing a long, mortal life. Crow's feet at his eyes telling of smiles, a permanent curl of a frown between the brows spoke of constant worry, and around his middle an unfamiliar softness had taken residence, years of comfort worn almost like a badge of honor on this strange, aged self he was suddenly faced with.
“Hello Castiel,” the man said with a smile, hands casually resting in the pockets of his non-descript trousers.
“You did this,” Castiel said, the pieces suddenly falling into place. Someone with the kind of power he could feel rolling off his other self in heavy pulses could easily have sent him across time lines.
The older Castiel simply nodded with a small smile, as if it was all slightly amusing to him.
“Why?” Castiel asked.
“Ask yourself. You should know. It was your idea.”
Mind whirling, Castiel finally let the sword drop. “Mine? But...”
“Think it over. Go on. We've got time.”
And they did. Because as Castiel watched, a morning bird slowed its path through the air until it stopped, time frozen around them, the sunrise painting everything a steady pink and gold.
Not sure if it was some sort of trick, Castiel was wary. But if the power he was sensing was real, then no matter what he did he would never be able to fight it. So he just went along with it, did as he was asked and considered the matter.
Could this really all be his idea? To send his past self into this other world, to show himself these things? For what possible purpose?
“Dean?” he asked, immediately worried about the one thing that would drive him to do anything.
“He's safe in your time line,” the older Castiel said calmly. “But you're getting warmer.”
Feeling lost, Castiel shook his head slightly, and his other self sighed. “I keep forgetting how difficult it was back then.”
“Self-awareness. Knowing what you want and going for it.”
Castiel frowned, making his other self chuckle. “You know it to be true, even now. Even as you struggle with the concept you realize its importance.”
Hesitantly, Castiel nodded, because he understood the value of working for one's own future, following your own path and making your own choices, even if those choices turned out to be wrong. But every fiber in his being still screamed out to work for the betterment of someone else, rather than himself. Dean especially. Because Dean deserved better. Castiel possibly did too, but he wasn't made for better. He was made for what he was and nothing more.
But perhaps the solution would be to become something else. After all, nothing was unchangeable, least of all the future, and if the version of himself currently smiling placidly at him was any indication, then neither was Castiel. But why he would choose to manipulate time like this was still beyond his grasp. It was risky, and at least at this moment he was nowhere near powerful enough to attempt such a thing. But his future self might be...
“So what you're saying is that I will make the choices that lead to me becoming you, so that I might travel back in time and ensure that things will indeed turn out the way I desire?”
“Exactly,” his older self said proudly. “A good old fashioned time paradox. And I know that from where you stand it seems like a disproportionately great risk to take, but I promise you that with what I know now it's simple. You'll see that too in a few hundred years.”
“Hundred... your Dean is gone then?” Castiel asked, his gut clenching painfully.
“Well,” his other self shrugged, although he was still smiling. “If it had any bearing on getting you to where I am, I might have told you. But for the moment, all you need to know is that what you're going to do will be worth it. So very worth it.”
“But why send me here? Why not just tell me?”
The older Castiel sighed again, in a way that seemed wistful rather than exasperated. “Because seeing is believing, Castiel. At least for us this holds true. Remember when Anael took you to see the little gray fish crawling out of the ocean? You needed to see it to understand its importance.”
“I still don't understand why I would choose this. Shaping time lines... for what purpose?”
His other self just sent him a secretive sort of smile, and slowly slid his left hand out of his pocket and held it up for Castiel to see. And there on his finger was a well-worn and slightly scuffed ring, simple, with no pattern or other design. Exactly the kind of thing Dean would choose. Practical, durable, but symbolic.
Before Castiel could ask, the world lurched again and his other self disappeared in the blink of an eye. Looking around, nothing had changed. Time was no longer frozen, birds were greeting the morning sun at the top of their lungs, and the Impala gleamed in the red-gold light. But as Castiel turned around and looked through the window again, there was only Dean. Burdened and haunted, alone and closed off. He was back where he'd started.
But instead of the despair he'd felt when he'd taken off in desperation, Castiel now felt hope. Hope for the world, for the future, for Dean and Sam... and himself. Castiel realized that up until that moment he'd not seriously considered himself in this. He had in fact expected to be dead by the time this was resolved, if it was even possible. But with the knowledge he had now, not only was it possible, it even seemed probable. And if his future self was to be believed, it could all turn out... wonderful.
He wasn't naïve enough to believe that the road ahead would be simple or easy. If that had been the case, he would not have needed to show himself a completely different time line. He would simply have shown himself the future. But obviously what he had needed to see was not guaranteed to happen in this universe. Not set in stone. Not yet.
But Castiel could make it happen.
Determined, he squared his shoulders and prepared to fight. For the first time for what he wanted for himself. If there was a chance things could turn out like he had seen they could... then Castiel was taking that chance.
As soon as Sam arrived, Castiel would reveal his new strategy. As soon as they were all reunited... they had an archangel to find.