When Castiel had been trained in time manipulation millennia ago, his instructors had stressed the dangers of traveling without an anchor or destination. Letting oneself go, as Castiel had, was almost certain suicide. The forces of time would smash you to pieces and then grind those fragments into dust until there was no evidence that you had ever existed.
That was not quite how the angel would describe it. He had never been inside a running washing machine, but he imagined that it felt something like this. Except the washing machine was the universe and Castiel was that one sock that always went missing. He was buffeted about relentlessly, until he lost all sense of where, when, and even who he was. He was being pulled apart, battered into oblivion. And then something yanked at him violently, sending him tumbling unceremoniously back into reality. But the darkness that had been encroaching on him finally won, and he was unconscious before he landed.
Awareness trickled back to him slowly, with sound returning first. He could hear a soft tapping noise, voices in the distance, a breeze rustling through the room. Then he could feel, the pain flaring up in his wings and his abdomen again, though it was duller than before, and an ache that encompassed his entire body. He could smell too, detecting the scent of dust and smoke and disinfectant and a hint of old blood. It took the angel a moment to appreciate what all of this meant. Then he blinked his eyes open, rather surprised to find that he still existed.
"Hey," said an achingly familiar voice from beside him. Castiel wondered if perhaps he had died, if angels had their own versions of heaven.
"Dean," he greeted, willing to accept the illusion for a moment.
He looked up with a smile, then squinted in confusion. If this was heaven, it was a strange one. Castiel had never seen Dean like this, older and harsher and…emptier. His presence felt wrong, and it took the angel a moment to realize that it was because he could not feel the piece of his grace in Dean's soul. In fact…
He looked closer. Dean's soul was…devastated. It looked the way it had in hell, when Castiel had first seen it. It was darkened and twisted and tortured.
"Dean," he said again, though it was not a greeting this time, it was a lamentation. "What happened to you?"
The hunter laughed, and the sound was so bleak and broken that it hurt Castiel just to listen to it.
"The apocalypse happened to me, Cas," he said. "How are you feeling?"
As if it could possibly matter how Castiel was feeling at that moment. He had no idea what was happening, but he knew that something had gone terribly wrong, and he had to fix it. He sat up from the cot on which he had been laying, his eyes never leaving Dean. The hunter was dressed for battle, a gun strapped to his thigh and another at his waist, but he wore the weaponry with ease, as if it were his standard attire. There was exhaustion in his eyes, but his face was an emotionless mask. It felt so utterly wrong that Castiel did not know what to make of it.
"I don't understand," he said, his mind still hazy from his ordeal.
"I don't either, really," said Dean. He sat down in an old folding chair next to Castiel's cot, surveying the angel with an unreadable expression. "You just appeared out of nowhere, looking like you'd tried to take on Terminator. Scared the crap out of a couple of my people and ruined our op, but it was probably gonna be a bust anyway. That was two weeks ago."
"I've been unconscious for two weeks?" Castiel exclaimed, trying to stand, and promptly sitting back down again as his muscles screamed at him.
"Yep. Cas said you're from the past, which frankly I could have guessed on my own."
"Well, the trench coat is kind of a dead giveaway. You haven't worn that in years. Shame, really. It does look good on you."
Castiel stared at this disconcerting version of Dean, trying to make things make some sort of sense. He looked down at himself, realizing that he was not still wearing the trench coat in question, but was instead dressed in a thin t-shirt and loose fitting pants. He glanced around at his surroundings, noticing that they were in what appeared to be a cabin, which contained a few other cots like his own, all empty. There were supplies on the walls, both medical and military, and everything looked old and battered, including Dean. He had clearly aged beyond even the version of him that Castiel knew from 2010. A memory tugged at the corner of Castiel's mind, and a theory began to form.
"This is the future," he whispered, horrified. The future that Zachariah had shown to Dean just a few weeks after Lucifer's release.
"Yeah, for you I guess it is," said Dean. He leaned forward brushing his fingers lightly over the healing gashes that Azazel had left on Castiel's face. "But you never answered my question. How are you feeling?"
"Why does it matter?"
Dean gave him a sad almost-smile.
"Because my version of you is already broken beyond repair," he said grimly. "With you I still have a chance of making things better."
Well, that was ominous. Castiel wondered what could possibly have happened to him that would give Dean that tragic expression. He decided not to ask.
"I'm fine, Dean," he said instead. "Well, I'm exhausted and in pain and confused and I think I might even be thirsty, but I'm not dead. My wings are, surprisingly, still attached, which means that they'll heal, and so will my face and abdominal wounds."
"Right," said Dean, reaching into a pocket in his jacket and extracting a flask and handing it to Castiel. "Well, this should take care of the thirsty part. I think we're all confused, so I can't really help you there, but you can deal with the exhaustion by sleeping on the cot that you conveniently happen to already be sitting on. And I know just where to get you some pain meds."
"I'll be fine without them," Castiel told him quickly. "But are you sure I should go back to sleep?"
Dean raised an eyebrow at him.
"I realize you haven't seen yourself lately, but you look like shit. I don't know what else you think you can do besides sleep. We'll talk when you can keep your eyes open."
Castiel grimaced at him, affronted, but as he swayed involuntarily he was forced to admit that the hunter had a point. He had barely been conscious for five minutes and already he was being dragged irresistibly towards sleep. Apparently almost getting utterly obliterated by the very universe itself was fairly exhausting. But he knew how dangerous this world was. He glanced around uncertainly. Dean caught the motion.
"I won't let anything happen to you, Cas," he stated as if it should have been obvious. "I guess it's my turn to do the watching over, huh?"
Castiel wanted to tell Dean that they were far from even in that regard, but his body was already shutting down again. He still had so many questions, and Dean probably did too, but apparently they would have to wait. He found that he did not really mind. Being conscious in a reality as twisted and confusing as this one was not exactly pleasant.
Then again, neither were his dreams. His mind had been blissfully blank before, but this time he had no such luck. His subconscious forced him to watch, over and over, as Azazel tore into Dean, forced to relive the young man's agonized screams. When he was not lost in that memory, he was plagued by possibilities for this strange future that he had found himself in. his brain presented him with myriad horrors that could have gotten Dean to this point, this level of pain that he had seen.
But finally the dreams began to loosen their hold on Castiel, and he was able to float back towards awareness. When he woke up again, Dean was still there, sitting in the same chair with his feet resting casually on the end of Castiel's cot. The hunter was engrossed in a map of some kind, so it took him a moment to realize that the angel was awake. Then he shifted sideways, letting his feet fall to the floor.
"And Sleeping Beauty awakes again!" the hunter exclaimed.
"I don't understand that reference," Castiel informed him. Dean frowned.
"Yeah, I probably shouldn't either," he said ruefully. "Whatever. I'll just blame it on S-"
He broke off abruptly, glancing at the ground, but Castiel knew what word had been about to fall from his lips. That was another aspect of this reality on which the angel was unclear. Dean had refused to talk about it, which told Castiel just how bad Sam's fate had been here.
"Where is your brother, Dean?" he asked gently. He saw Dean's jaw clench.
"My brother is gone," he said firmly.
But there was a strange uncertainty in his eyes, as if he were trying to convince himself as well as the angel, and Castiel knew that gone did not necessarily mean dead. He remembered the haunted look in Dean's eyes after Castiel had rescued him from Zachariah, remembered how the hunter had immediately pulled out his phone to make peace with Sam. He had a feeling he knew what might have caused that.
"Sam said yes," the angel surmised, and Dean gave him a jerky nod.
Castiel closed his eyes briefly against the surge of pain. He had managed to fail the Winchesters again. He had promised himself that he would never let the archangels get to either of them, would never let them be taken over, have their humanity stolen. But somewhere along the line, in whatever twisted reality this was, he had let Sam down.
"Yeah," said Dean roughly, and Castiel opened his eyes again to see his grief reflected in the man's face. "Anyway, now we're working on ways to kill the devil."
"But Lucifer is possessing your-"
"My brother is gone," Dean repeated brokenly. "And now I've gotta do what I have to."
"Oh, Dean," Castiel whispered, and he wondered if angels could cry after all. The burning sensation in the back of his throat would certainly seem to support that.
Dean stood up abruptly and began to pace, clenching and unclenching his hands. Castiel watched him tiredly, amazed that he had held up even this well in the face of losing everything. Then again, the angel suspected that Dean was not as composed as he wanted him to believe.
Desperate to break the tense, sorrowful silence, Castiel floundered for something to say.
"So when is this, exactly?" he asked eventually.
"May 3rd, 2014," Dean told him, stopping his pacing, though he did not return to the chair. "And it's Apocalypse Now."
"I remember watching that movie with you," Castiel said. "It was not about the actual apocalypse."
Dean's face wrinkled in confusion.
"What are you talking about?" he asked. "We never watched it together."
"It was during that afternoon we spent at the lake, when we were waiting for Sam to come home from summer camp," the angel reminded him. Dean just stared at him.
"Cas, what the hell are-"
He was interrupted by the thin cabin door banging open and a dark haired fighter striding in. The man was impossibly familiar, and horrifyingly alien. Castiel stared at what could only be the future version of himself, not sure how many more surprises he could take in one day.
Castiel's Dean had not said much about his foray into the future back in 2009, but the angel could tell that it had unsettled him. But it had been enough to make him repair his relationship with Sam, so Castiel had been partially grateful. Now he was realizing that he should have pressed his friend for more details.
"Don't ever change," Dean had told Castiel. The angel had not been sure what that meant, but he thought he understood now.
If Dean's future self was broken, Castiel's was…decimated. Though his face was still youthful, the man actually looked his considerable age. He had let his facial hair grow out and had not bothered to wash what looked like at least a week's worth of dirt from his skin. Castiel studied his counterpart closely, but he could detect only the barest glow of his grace.
Fallen. He was human now, for all intents and purposes. And he did not appear to be handling it well. His eyes were glassy and his entire countenance conveyed a sense of utter hopelessness.
When the other Castiel saw that his counterpart from the past was awake, his face broke into the parody of a grin.
"Look who's up!" he said. "Did you miss your stop, Mr. Marty McFly?"
"I don't understand-" Castiel began, but then it came to him. One of the films from that marathon with the Winchesters, in a peaceful motel room a thousand years ago. "Back to the Future," he muttered. "Of course."
His double gave him a slightly maniacal smile. Then he turned to Dean, who was watching them both with an eyebrow raised.
"You mind giving us a minute?" he asked. "Need to have a little angel powwow."
"So I guess you're not invited either," he said, and Castiel was surprised by the unnecessary cruelty. Apparently his future self was used to it though, and he did not even flinch.
"Just because my wings are gone doesn't mean I never had them," he said. "Now go. Check on the supply of toilet paper or something."
Dean glowered at him but did not argue, sending one last glance at the younger Castiel as he left. When he was gone, the two versions of Castiel eyed each other curiously. Then the fallen angel shook his head in bemusement and pulled an orange bottle out of his pocket, unscrewing the cap and letting several white tablets fall into his mouth with practiced ease.
Castiel's face wrinkled in distaste at his counterpart's behavior, and the implications of it.
"You're a drug addict," he surmised.
"Yep. It sucks, but it's better than being sober."
"No. I remember the last time I took medication that was supposed to dull the pain. It is not better."
"It made you live your nightmares, right?"
"Exactly. Cas, my nightmares are better than my reality. I'll take them."
Castiel let his head drop into his hands.
"How did things get this bad?" he whispered.
"You see, those are the questions that I don't ask myself when stoned."
Castiel glowered at him, a confusing tangle of emotions swirling within him. There was shame and disappointment and fear and anger and sadness, and they were all burning in his chest. He did not know what to say, how he was supposed to respond to a situation like this.
"You know, now I see what Dean meant about getting laid from that look," the other Castiel said with a humorless laugh.
"I don't know what you mean," said Castiel, feeling as though this confusion had become his primary state of being.
His future self peered at him.
"No, you don't, do you?" he said. "Weird."
"Really, out of this whole situation, that is the first thing that strikes you as odd?" Castiel asked incredulously.
"That's not what I meant," the fallen angel said impatiently. He rubbed his head. "I'm not stoned enough for this."
"I think you've consumed enough drugs as it is," said Castiel, mildly disgusted.
"Easy for you to say."
"It really isn't."
"Whatever. Either way, I'm getting a headache. You really messed around with things, didn't you?"
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the two different timelines converging in my head, yours and mine."
"But we're the same person."
"Yeah, but evidently we don't have the same histories. You…"
The older Castiel trailed off, falling into the rusty chair that Dean had vacated a few minutes earlier.
"Zachariah sent Dean here, your Dean," he said eventually. "Or he will, I guess, a few months from now. And that…that sets off a different timeline, where Dean is less of a stubborn ass and he actually reaches out to Sam instead of pushing him towards the devil. And then you…what, you just hopped around their childhood until Azazel kicked you out of the playground?"
Castiel sighed. This whole encounter was lending credence to the multiple timelines and realities theory about time travel. It was also making him lose whatever faith in himself he had left. And making his head hurt.
"I suppose that's one way of putting it," he told his future self. "Apparently you and I are the same person, whose paths split in 2009. Yours continued on into the apocalypse, and mine…well, I suppose mine is also headed for the apocalypse, but on a different route."
"Yeah, a very different route," the other Castiel scoffed. "And a much more fun one, from the pieces I can see." His face fell into lines of deep sadness. "You got to see them before. Before…everything."
"Yes," Castiel replied, knowing instantly whom he was talking about. And he missed them already.
"And Dean fell in love with you the normal way."
"I'm not sure that establishing a relationship by appearing out of order through someone's past counts as the normal way," he argued.
"Sure beats how we did it."
"What?" the fallen angel gave him a sly grin. "You didn't think you had a monopoly on all versions of Dean, did you?"
"The two of you are together?" Castiel clarified.
"Yep. Just sort of happened. I mean, it's weird and messed up and probably unhealthy, but so are we. And when the world is falling to shit and zombies are trying to kill you all hours of the day, you kind of start to care less about labels and more about the people who matter."
"I doubt that."
"Fair enough." After a moment, Castiel realized the implications of what they had worked through. "Dean doesn't remember me then, does he?"
"No. As far as he knows, he first met us in September of 2008."
"Do you think I should tell him?"
"Tell him what? That somewhere out there exists a reality in which he got to grow up with you around? I think that would be unnecessarily painful for him."
"Right." Castiel knew that his other self had a point, but that did not make him any more enthusiastic about keeping his past from Dean.
They both lapsed into silence. Castiel was starting to get over his initial distaste, trying instead to understand. If he knew what had gotten him to this point, there was a better chance that he could avoid taking the same path. His other self seemed to be thinking along similar lines.
"You know you've got to fix this, right?" he asked.
"You need to be more specific. There's a lot that needs to be fixed around here."
"That is very true. But also irrelevant. This world can't be saved, Cas, I know that. Dean knows it too. But lying to ourselves and to each other is pretty much all we have left, so we go with it. But that's not all you have left."
"What are you talking about?"
"This isn't your world, and even if it is, it's not your time. You don't belong here, and you can't use it as a hiding place."
"You think I want to be here?"
"I think you want an excuse not to go back. Because you're scared of what'll happen, of what you'll manage to mess up. But news flash, Cas: you can't screw things up any more than they already are. So as soon as your wings are healed, you use them. Get out of here, and go salvage your reality. Because you're lucky enough to have one."
"Even if I can get back, I still can't go near Dean," Castiel said helplessly. "Azazel will kill him."
"And who do we know that's more powerful than Azazel, and has a vested interest in Dean's wellbeing?"
"I'm not more powerful than Azazel. Not in this condition."
"Then I guess it's a good thing I wasn't talking about you."
Castiel tilted his head in confusion, staring at himself. And then he understood.
"Michael?" he asked. "You're suggesting that I drag Michael into this? Do you actually think that will improve the situation?"
His future self rolled his eyes, which Castiel found strangely irritating.
"You don't have to bring the genuine article," the fallen angel said scornfully. "But Azazel knows about Sam, knows that he's prepping him to be Lucifer's vessel. Stands to reason that he knows about Michael and Dean too. You call his bluff, tell him exactly what'll happen to him if he messes with Dean Winchester."
"And you honestly think that will work?"
The fallen angel gestured at their bleak surroundings.
"It's better than letting this happen to another version of Dean, isn't it?"
"I suppose you have a point."
"Yeah, imagine that. Even without my angel mojo, I'm not totally useless."
Castiel gazed sadly at this other version of him, the one he suddenly vowed he would never turn into.
"I believe you," he said.
"Just go to sleep. The sooner you heal, the sooner you can go make things right."
Castiel did not know whether or not he would be able to go back to sleep so quickly, but he could tell that his future counterpart would accept nothing else. The angel lay back down on his cot, but he did not close his eyes.
"What happened to you?" he asked instead. "How did you become…whatever it is you are?"
"I don't know," he heard his other self say softly. "I guess I just kept choosing humanity. Eventually that started to have repercussions. I denied heaven, so heaven denied me. My grace just…started leaking away, and when the rest of the angels left, all I had was the barest shadow of it."
"That's not really what I was asking," Castiel said.
"Yeah, I figured. But I don't know what else to tell you, Cas. I couldn't deal, okay? It's not just this world that's broken, it's Dean too. Do you have any idea how painful it was to watch all that happen to him? And I couldn't help, I couldn't do anything but learn how to use a gun and just fight like hell in a war that we all know is already lost. And then when Sam said yes…Well, I dare you to do better when it's your turn."
He would do better. He had to do better.
"Why did you leave Sam?" Castiel asked, choosing to focus on that.
"Dean left Sam. And I think you know why I couldn't leave Dean."
Yes. He supposed he did.
"And everyone else?" he asked. "Bobby?"
The other Castiel sighed, and the angel's heart sank.
"Bobby held out longer than you would expect, for a guy in a wheelchair. But we lost him to a swarm of croats last year, 'bout the time Sam gave the big yes. And I was here, laid up in bed with a broken foot. That was…that was a rough time, even compared to everything else. As for Ellen and Jo; Ellen was killed by demons three years ago. Jo's still out there, as far as we know. She wanted to do her own thing."
"Oh." Castiel found it rather ironic that this reality held a longer lifespan for the Harvelles than his own had, but he did not mention that.
"Yeah." They were both silent for a moment, then the older Castiel cleared his throat uncertainly. "Hey, Cas?"
"Your memories of Dean and Sam as kids…"
"What about them?"
"I can sort of see them, but just barely, you know? I can see what happened in the big picture, but…"
"What are you asking for?"
"Can you tell me about them?"
Castiel turned his head towards his future counterpart, surprised.
"I want to know what they were like, before all this. I want to hear about Dean being less miserable than he is now, I want to hear about what Sam was like before he knew about psychics and demon blood."
Castiel understood the request. He thought back to some of the lightest moments with the younger Winchesters, choosing which one to share with his former self.
"Are you familiar with the game of hide and seek?" he asked eventually. His other self raised an eyebrow.
"Of course," he said.
"Well, I wasn't, until Sam and Dean begged me to play it with them. It seemed like a fairly simple game, when they explained it to me. I mean, I did not understand the purpose of it, but I was willing to go along with them. They appointed me as the seeker."
"Let me guess," said the older Castiel, with his most genuine smile yet. "You found them in about a second and a half."
"I never lost them," said Castiel, returning the smile as he remembered the boys' indignation. "They made me hide, after that. Of course, that didn't work out very well either."
"You went invisible, didn't you?"
"They claimed it was cheating."
"That's because it totally was, scumbag. Who cheats at hide and seek?"
Castiel could not help but chuckle at the fallen angel's mock reproach.
"We stopped playing after that," he said.
He continued to regale his other self with his favorite memories of the boys until his eyes began to prickle and his mind began to fog with exhaustion. He fell asleep with a nostalgic smile on his face.
For the first time since landing in this timeline, the angel awoke to an empty cabin. On one hand, it was more peaceful than having to deal with a future self that still somewhat repelled him and a future Dean that broke his heart, but it was also lonely. Castiel was not sure at what point in this whole journey that that had started to bother him.
He took the opportunity to try to stand again without anyone watching him. It went about as well as his first attempt. He could sit up, albeit with severe discomfort in his abdomen, but his legs still would not support him. He sighed in frustration, but looked up sharply when he heard the door to the medical cabin opening slowly. He did a double take when he recognized the man who walked through the door.
"Chuck?" he asked incredulously.
The prophet grinned at him.
"Hey, Cas," he greeted. He held up a couple of granola bars and a bottle of water. "I brought these for you. Dean said you might be hungry."
Castiel paused, considering. Had he ever felt hunger before? Not really, but perhaps he simply did not recognize the signs.
"Thank you," he said, taking the food.
Chuck did not leave as he began to eat, and he stared questioningly up at the scruffy man.
"Sorry," the prophet said, seeming to realize that he was hovering. "I don't mean to be weird. I'm just supposed to keep an eye on you, make sure you're okay."
"You don't have to do that," Castiel told him. "I'm not in any medical danger. Just frustratingly low on energy."
"I'm sure that'll pass," said Chuck encouragingly. "And I'm still staying. Dean gets a little scary when his orders aren't followed. Besides, I'm sure you could use some company. I'll just work on inventory in here."
"Dean is the leader around here?" Castiel guessed.
"Yeah. I mean, he was kind of the obvious choice. He's the only one that even sort of knew what he was doing in the beginning, and he got everyone organized and trained and we just went from there."
"And what is your role?"
"Oh, we figured out pretty quickly that I'm no good with a gun. So I mostly manage the logistics of the camp, keep things running smoothly."
"Is that what this place is? A camp?" Castiel asked. He had not even seen anything outside what he assumed was the medical cabin. He wondered how big the place was.
"Of sorts, yeah. It's called Camp Chitaqua. It used to be for retreats and stuff, but now it's our home base. People come here when they want to help with the resistance, or if they have no other place to go."
They lapsed into a comfortable silence that lasted until Dean entered about an hour later. The hunter gave Castiel a small smile when he saw that the angel was awake.
"Hey, Cas," he said. He turned to the prophet. "Thanks, Chuck. I can take it from here."
The other man nodded, grinning at Castiel before exiting the cabin. Dean walked to the chair that he had been sitting in on his previous visit.
"How are you feeling today?" he asked.
"About the same, but a little less tired," the angel told him.
"Well, that's a start."
"Yes. Where is Castiel?"
"Well, he's got the afternoon off, so he's probably hosting an orgy in his cabin."
Castiel nearly choked, and Dean chuckled as he watched the angel sputter.
"He's doing what?"
"You heard me."
"I thought the two of you were in a relationship?"
"We are, it's just not monogamous. I mean, the world is ending. Who am I to deny Cas the perks of humanity while he can still enjoy them?"
Castiel was speechless. He was not sure what shocked him more; the idea that he would one day turn into a person that would enjoy drugs and orgies, or the fact that it did not seem to bother Dean in the slightest. He decided to stop thinking about it. Or try to, at least.
"So, uh, how are things going?" he asked instead. Dean shrugged.
"About the same as they always do. None of my people died today, so that was a plus. We also happen to be running out of food, which is less of a plus."
"Is there any way to replenish the supplies?" asked Castiel in concern, suddenly feeling guilty for the granola bars that he had eaten.
"Oh yeah, we'll make it happen," said Dean. "It'll just involve copious amounts of danger."
"I suppose you'll be in your element then," said Castiel. Dean chuckled.
"Yeah, I guess so."
Castiel spent the next two weeks at Camp Chitaqua, recovering agonizingly slowly. He slept at odd hours, sometimes ravenous, sometimes eating nothing for days. It was ten times worse than when he had gotten hit by that car. At least he was able to walk around by the third day, so he did not lose his mind entirely. Dean had not kept his presence secret from the camp, but from what the angel could tell, he had not offered much of an explanation either. So Castiel received several questioning looks, but no one seemed to want to ask him anything outright. He supposed that they had gotten used to strange things, what with the lives the apocalypse had forced them to lead.
He spent the most of his time with Dean, when the hunter was not busy holding the camp together. The experiences were usually painful, because the longer he observed his friend, the more disturbed he became by how broken he had become, but it was better than no Dean at all. He did his best to avoid his future self, as those encounters were still just too unsettling. He tried to learn as much as he could to learn about the events that had led up to this point, so that he could work to avoid them when he got back to his own reality. It also gave him something to hope for in what was otherwise a crushingly desolate environment.
Fifteen days after Castiel crash landed in the future, Dean came to find him in the medical cabin, where he was still staying. The hunter told him about their latest mission, the first one that Dean would be going on since Castiel had arrived. They would be tracking down a lead on the Colt, which they were hoping to use to kill the devil.
"Would you like me to come with you?" asked Castiel.
"No, Cas. Just stay here and rest. I just stopped by to let you know what was going on."
"I may not be able to use my wings yet, Dean, but I have mostly recovered otherwise. I could be helpful to your mission."
"I'm sure you could, but I won't risk you getting hurt. I can't."
Castiel sighed. He knew better than to argue with Dean when he was being this stubborn, especially when it was out of concern for the angel.
"What time do you leave?" he asked, and Dean relaxed.
"Five minutes. I didn't want you to worry longer than was necessary," he said, spotting Castiel's annoyed look. "You gonna be okay on your own for a few hours?"
Castiel rolled his eyes at Dean.
"I'm not a child," he said.
"I know you're not, Cas. I just…I just want you to be all right."
Castiel sighed. He supposed that he understood Dean's overprotectiveness. The angel represented his chance to correct what he saw as one of his mistakes.
"I'll be fine," he promised softly.
"Okay. Well, sit tight, get some more rest, and we'll be back soon."
"I don't believe in luck."
"I suppose I don't either," Castiel said. "I do believe in you though."
Dean let out a self-deprecating chuckle.
"And here I was thinking you were smart," he said.
Castiel sighed, and Dean clapped him on the shoulder. He left without another word, and Castiel lay back on the cot, suddenly desperate for the respite of sleep. Because he could comfort himself with the fact that at least the nightmares were not real. But he had come to discover that sleep was elusive when it was most desired. So he simply stared at the splintered supports of the ceiling and tried not to think.
The angel managed to relax into a sort of numb trance, which was interrupted a few hours later by the sound of engines approaching and cutting out. Tense voices were audible in the sudden silence, and Castiel sat up immediately, sensing that something was wrong.
His intuition was proved accurate a few moments later, when the door to the medical cabin was kicked open. Castiel's breath caught in his chest as he watched his other self stride in, accompanied by Jane and Chuck, and carrying…
"Dean!" the angel called urgently, surging to his feet.
The hunter's face was pale and empty, his clothes stained a devastatingly familiar crimson. The older Castiel placed him on one of the cots, and then whipped around to grab the younger angel by the shoulders.
"Fix him!" he demanded wildly.
"What happened?" Castiel asked, tugging free and crouching beside the cot. He could sense Dean's life force, but just barely. He pulled aside Dean's jacket, which had once been green but was now decidedly not. A mess of torn flesh and gleaming bone was exposed, and the angel sucked in a sharp breath.
"I couldn't stop them," he heard his older counterpart whisper wretchedly.
"Demons," Jane added, when it became clear that the fallen angel could not continue. "We were attacked by six of them on our way back. They really did a number on Dean before we managed to take them down. And they killed Mark."
While Mark's fate was unfortunate, Castiel did not care about that at the moment. Because the longer he assessed Dean's condition, the more painfully clear it became that the man's injuries were fatal. He looked helplessly up at his future self.
Chuck coughed pointedly, and Jane followed him out of the cabin, leaving the two Castiels alone with Dean.
"What are you waiting for?" the fallen angel asked urgently. "I can't help him; you have to!"
"I barely have anything left," Castiel protested weakly. "I don't even know if it would do anything."
"Then you fucking try!" his rougher version shouted at him. "Or do you not think he's worth it anymore? Because guess what, Cas; he is! And maybe you get to fly on home to your undamaged version of him, but this is all I've got, and I cannot lose him. Do you understand me?"
Of course he understood. While there were a few years that the two of them did not share, they were still both the angel that had given everything for Dean Winchester, time and again. The angel that had forgotten how to live without him.
But this time he was just not sure what he could do. He knew that he did not have enough power to do this properly. But if he tapped the power of his core grace again…he did not even know if he could do that, how many pieces he could tear his grace into before he had nothing left.
It could cost him his wings. He would have to give up on his version of Dean in order to save this one. Could he do that?
"He needs more than I can give him," he said helplessly. The other Castiel grabbed his shoulder roughly.
"Then take what you need from me," he ordered. "I'm not an angel anymore, but I must have something left. Take it."
Castiel did not bother to ask him if he was sure. He knew the answer. He closed his eyes, feeling the extra reserves of energy at his disposal. They were still alarmingly meager. But that would not stop him from trying.
He let their combined power seep into Dean's body, healing as it went. But the progress was slow, dangerously slow. He could feel Dean's pulse growing weaker, his breathing more labored as his life force slipped away.
"Hurry up," the fallen angel hissed, clearly sensing Dean's peril as well.
"I can't," Castiel snapped. "We're not strong enough."
He felt a surge of energy, and the hand slipped from his shoulder. As he heard the sound of a body hitting the ground, Castiel understood what his other self had done. He had forced the angel to take more of his power than he had intended to, giving up the last of his grace. Castiel wanted to check on him, but he would not let his sacrifice go to waste.
He let the extra power flow into Dean, and felt a surge of relief as it had an effect. Dean's heartbeat steadied, his wounds closing further. When Castiel heard the hunter pull in a deep breath, he let his hand slip away from his chest, stopping the flow of energy draining from him so that he would not pass out like his older counterpart.
He sat back, breathing heavily as he watched Dean. The hunter appeared to be stable, though some of his deeper wounds would still need to be bandaged.
After a moment, Castiel was able to crawl forward to check on his fallen self. The older man was slumped on the floor, unconscious but breathing. Castiel shook him by the shoulder, but got no response.
"It worked," the angel told him anyway. "Dean's alive. He's going to make it. You saved him."
Still no response.
Castiel sighed, leaning back against Dean's cot, utterly exhausted and drained. He wondered how much more this place could take from him.
He looked up when he heard a tapping on the door.
"Cas?" Chuck's voice called through the thin wood.
"You can come in," Castiel replied.
The door opened, and Chuck walked in, eyes widening when he saw the older Castiel's body.
"What happened?" he asked, crouching down beside him.
"He provided me with the energy I needed to heal Dean," Castiel explained. "He'll be all right. Well, physically at least."
"Stable. He'll need someone to bandage the rest of his wounds though. There was only so much I could do."
If Chuck heard the shame in his voice, he did not comment on it. He just scooped up the fallen angel, laying him on the cot next to Dean's and then walked over to one of the shelves on the wall and pulled down some supplies.
"I can do that," he said, returning to Dean's side and removing the hunter's jacket and shirt. He glanced at the conscious Castiel, who was still sitting on the floor. "Uh, do you need any help?"
"Just take care of Dean."
Castiel watched as the prophet dressed Dean's wounds with practiced efficiency. Out of all the transformations that he had seen, the angel supposed that this was the least devastating, but it was still surprising.
"I'm impressed that you've survived this long," he told the other man. Chuck glanced up at him with an amused grin.
"Gee, thanks," he said
"This world hasn't broken you as it has the others," Castiel observed curiously.
Chuck said nothing for a moment, his face contemplative as he smoothed another bandage over Dean's chest.
"I guess…" he began eventually. "I guess because my life was so crappy before, the apocalypse didn't really affect me the way it did everyone else. Actually, it…it gave me a purpose. It gave me the opportunity to do some good instead of just sitting around and drinking all day. So that helps. But you've got to understand; Dean and Cas – the other Cas – they feel responsible for all this. They shouldn't, but they do. I don't. I guess that's the biggest difference."
Chuck secured the last bandage in place, and then rose to his feet, glancing between the two Castiels.
"Uh, is there anything I can do for him?" he asked, nodding his head towards the unconscious fallen angel.
"I think he is beyond your help," Castiel replied softly. "But he should be back to the way he was fairly soon."
"Okay…well, call me on the radio if you need anything."
"I will. Thank you, Chuck."
The former prophet smiled at him and then walked out, leaving the two broken angels and their righteous man.
Castiel heaved a deep sigh, the exhaustion of the day pressing down on him. But he could not sleep. He gazed at Dean, realizing that he had not seen the man asleep in this reality. As with everything else, it was a convoluted parody of what Castiel had known. Dean's face was pinched with pain or fear or grief or some combination thereof, his eyes darting beneath their lids. He looked more like he had right after Castiel had pulled him out of hell than when he was eighteen and sleeping off a drinking binge in a park beneath the stars. It was another reminder of how bad things were here, how much Castiel had to fix if – when – he got back.
But he could not look away. He had always been mesmerized by watching Dean sleep, and seeing the man on the brink of death had exacerbated the need to keep an eye on him. So despite the tugging exhaustion, Castiel watched Dean through the night, until his eyes flickered open at the light of the dawn.
The hunter's lips stretched into a smile when he saw Castiel, but then they were clouded over by memory and awareness, and he tried to sit up. Castiel sat forward to stop him, but Dean had already fallen back onto his cot with a huff of pain.
"We did our best," Castiel said apologetically. "But I'm afraid you still have some recovering to do on your own."
"There were demons," Dean muttered. "I remember…"
His hands went to his chest, finding the bandages there.
"Those wounds should have been fatal. You…" his brow wrinkled in confusion. "Wait, what do you mean, 'we did our best'?"
He glanced around the rest of the room, his eyes finding the unconscious Castiel. He reached out a hand, the cots just close enough to each other that his fingers could reach the fallen angel's neck to check for a pulse.
"What happened?" Dean asked quietly.
"He'll be fine," Castiel assured him.
"That's not what I asked."
Castiel sighed. He had not wanted Dean to know how much they had given for him, but he knew how stubborn and tenacious the hunter could be, and realized that there was no point in trying to hide it.
"You were correct about the fatality of your injuries," the angel began. "You were barely alive when the others brought you here. It took the combined energies of me and the other Castiel just to stabilize you."
"And he won't wake up because…?"
"He will eventually. But Dean, he…he used the power of the last of his grace to save you. It might take him a while to recover from that."
"I thought he didn't have any grace left," said Dean, and Castiel could not identify the rough undercurrent in his voice.
"He didn't have much. It would not have been enough to do anything on its own, but I was able to channel it effectively enough to save your life."
Dean barked out a single laugh that sounded more like a sob.
"Just when I thought that stubborn bastard couldn't sacrifice anything else for me," he said, and his self-loathing was palpable.
Castiel sighed again.
"It was his choice, Dean," he said. "He cares about you. We both do."
"Yeah, and look where it's gotten you."
"This isn't your fault."
"I'm not sure how many times you're gonna have to say that before you realize it's not true."
Castiel held back yet another sigh, letting his gaze drift back to the ceiling. He knew objectively that this Dean was too broken for him to fix, but that did not stop it from hurting when he failed.
They were both silent for a while, lost in their own thoughts. Now that Castiel had been reassured by Dean's consciousness, his body was beginning to slip irresistibly towards sleep.
"I prayed for you, you know."
Castiel looked over at Dean, surprised by the sudden statement.
Dean did not look back at him, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. But his lips twitched into a grim smile.
"The day you showed up here, I had prayed for you," he said. "The old you, the way you were before all this happened. I never thought anything would come of it; it was really just a reflex after…a tough moment. But then there you were, trench coat and all, out of the clear blue sky."
"Unconscious and half dead."
"Yeah, that too. I couldn't believe it. I had Cas check you out, make sure that you were, you know, you. And he said you were, and it was like a miracle."
"Some miracle," Castiel said scornfully.
"I'm trying to apologize here, Cas," said Dean impatiently.
Dean laughed, and this time it was more genuine than the angel had heard it in a while. It was achingly close to the sound that Castiel knew and loved.
"Yeah, I guess I kind of suck at saying sorry, huh?" the hunter said.
"I just don't know what you're trying to apologize for."
"For bringing you here. You didn't deserve to get dragged into all of this. You wouldn't be here if I hadn't prayed for you, so…sorry."
Castiel thought about that for a moment, thought back to the time that he had spent untethered in the raging flow of time that had nearly swallowed him whole. He remembered the feeling of an anchor catching hold of him, keeping him together and dragging him back to some semblance of reality. Perhaps that had been Dean's prayer, the power of their connection enough to stop Castiel from being erased by the universe.
"Dean, I don't think I would be anywhere if it weren't for you," he said at last. "I was…lost. Your prayer gave me something to hold onto. I believe you saved me."
"Are you serious?" Dean asked. "You're not just saying that to make me feel better?"
"I do my best not to lie to you, Dean."
"Oh. Then I guess I'm glad I could help."
"As am I."
There was a pause. Castiel wondered if that would be the end of it, but then:
"Why were you lost, Cas?"
"It doesn't matter. I think I know how to find my way back now."
And then silence fell in earnest. Castiel was the first to slip back into unconsciousness, though it brought him little peace.
All three of them slept through different parts of the day and night, waking up together the following morning. Though Dean and Castiel both tried to talk to him, the fallen angel would say nothing about the events of the previous day, refused to talk about giving up his grace. Eventually they stopped pressing him.
The three of them recovered at different paces, the older Castiel the fastest, Dean the slowest. Though healing Dean had been a setback in his convalescence, Castiel was pleased with the progress his wings had made. He believed that they would be able to carry him home within a few days.
As time continued to tick by, and first the fallen Castiel, and then Dean were able to move out of the medical cabin, his prediction proved correct. The angel had not felt the need to sleep for the past two days, he could move his entire body without pain, and his wings were only mildly sore, instead of feeling like they were on fire. He stretched them out carefully, then tested them out with a quick flight through space.
He appeared at Castiel's side, only to see the fallen angel drop several pills down his gullet. He sighed, but said nothing. He could see the pain that his arrival had caused, and that was in addition to what the man had been feeling before.
"I guess those wings are working again," the other Castiel said.
"They appear to be functional, yes."
"I guess there's no reason to hang around us mortals anymore then."
"You know why I have to go, and it's not because I consider myself above you," he said. His older counterpart sighed.
"I know. But damn does it hurt to see you zipping around again, and knowing that I'll never-"
He broke off, glancing at the ground. Castiel saw his hand twitch toward the pocket that held his medication, but he did not complete the motion.
"You don't know that," said Castiel bracingly. "It's possible that-"
"Spare me," the fallen angel interrupted, and Castiel fell silent with a grimace. "So are you leaving now?"
"It seems like the thing to do. As you told me a few weeks ago, I don't belong here. It would be unwise to linger more than I already have."
"Well, I guess you are the wiser one," said the future Castiel ruefully. "I've kind of let that fall by the wayside."
"No you haven't. You are still wise, Castiel. But the wisest people are often the most unhappy."
"Look at you, waxing philosophical. I miss that."
Castiel gave him a sad smile.
"Goodbye, Castiel," he said gravely. "Thank you."
"Bye, Cas. I hope you never have to see me in the mirror."
Castiel had nothing to say to that, so he turned to leave, but turned back when his future self called out to him.
"Wait! Here, take this. I seem to remember you losing yours."
Castiel stared down at the gleaming silver angel blade that his counterpart had just handed to him.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Won't you need it?"
"Nah. The only thing that makes that pigsticker special is the fact that it works on angels and demons. All the angels but me have given up, and all the demons Lucifer allowed to live are too busy enjoying the spoils of the apocalypse to bother with the likes of me. And guns work better against Croats than sharp pieces of metal do. Trust me; it'll be more useful to you than me. Which I guess is more useful to me too, when you think about it. Besides, it's an angel's weapon. We both know it belongs with you."
Castiel grimaced, but he held onto the sword.
"Thank you," he said again.
His older self gave him a single nod. Castiel strode towards the door again. This time he made it out.
"As you were, Cas. As you were."
Castiel ignored the whisper from behind him as he walked out of the cabin in search of Dean. It did not take him long to find the hunter. Warped or not, Castiel would still recognize that soul anywhere.
"Still can't get used to the sight of you walking around here," Dean remarked when he spotted the angel.
"Well, you don't have to worry about that anymore," Castiel told him. "My wings are sufficiently healed. I'm going back to my own reality."
"Oh." Dean's entire demeanor changed, a cold mask falling into place. Castiel sighed. He had known better than to expect the hunter to be happy about his departure, but it was still painful to watch himself being shut out like this.
"I'm going to fix this, Dean," he promised fervently.
The mask slipped away as quickly as it had appeared, and Dean gave him an impossibly sad smile, the most genuine one Castiel had seen yet, and he cupped the angel's cheek gently with one calloused hand.
"I miss you," he said softly. "I'd forgotten what you were like, before all this."
"I'm so sorry, Dean," said Castiel. And he was. Because even though he was going back to fix his timeline, there was no guarantee that it would have any effect on this one.
"It's not your fault," Dean told him.
"It's not yours either."
Dean just laughed, and the sound twisted in Castiel's gut.
"Goodbye, Cas," he said. "And would you do me a favor?"
Dean pulled the angel toward him, pressing their lips together firmly. This kiss was different from the few others that Castiel had experienced. It was resigned, but full of a desperate longing. It was more tender than Castiel had thought this version of Dean capable of, but had the harsher edge that Castiel had come to associate with him. And it was over too soon.
"When you get back home, give your Dean a kiss for me," said the hunter once he had pulled away. "Don't let him wait like I did."
Castiel wondered if it was possible to feel sadness more profound than this. He did not think he wanted to find out. So he just took Dean by the shoulders and held him for a moment.
"I will," he promised. "Goodbye Dean."
He used his tender wings to propel him back into the timestream, holding tightly to his fragment of Dean's soul and desperately hoping that he would be able to find his way back to the reality that mattered so much to him.
A/N: Sorry this chapter is so long, but I did not want to break it up. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it. Reviews are greatly appreciated!