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[personal profile] unadrift
Okay. This is all [livejournal.com profile] berlinghoff79's fault. Sort of. A little. If we hadn't discussed that thing about that other show and the trope it represents and how that pops up regularly, this fic probably wouldn't have been born:

Alternate ending for "Swan Song", with spoilers up to then.
Gen, rated PG-13, 2400 words. Beta'd by [livejournal.com profile] trystings.

ETA 08/2011: Renamed due to unforeseen emergence of sequels. So this is now the "Moebius Series". The individual titles were taken from Tina Dico's "Open Ending".

Warnings: Character death (canon, kind of). Serious sadness.

Dean kneels and breathes. That's about all he can manage to do right now, and he kind of wishes he could just stop with the damn breathing as well. It would make everything that much more bearable. Because the ground under his fingers is colder than it should be, Lucifer is back in his cage, and Sam went down with him.

Sam is gone, and Bobby is gone, and Cas and Jo and Ellen and Ash and Pamela and Adam and Dad and Mom-- There is no one left. The world is saved, but there is fucking no one of his family and his friends left.

Time ticks by. Maybe he'll just die nice and easy if he keeps kneeling here long enough with his eyes closed and the cold seeping into his bones. Lucifer roughed him up pretty bad, so it shouldn't take too long.

On breath twenty-seven – Dean's counting; he needs something to focus on that isn't SamSamSam – he smells moisture and a musty staleness on the air that definitely wasn't there before. The light touch on his forehead only registers when it's not there anymore.

Dean looks up to see a man step away from him, hand still raised. The guy doesn't look familiar. He's probably around forty, with a buzz cut, dressed in jeans and a green parka that is hanging open to reveal the red t-shirt underneath. No weapons, thankfully.

Dean blinks. He's surprised to find that he can. Of all the parts of his body that ached like a motherfucker just a minute before, only his head is still pounding.

"Who the hell are you?" he demands.

The guy lets his hand fall to his side, all the while holding himself stiffly. "Castiel," he says.

Dean needs a moment to process the ridiculous claim, then he says, "Get the hell out of here. Cas is dead. You're not even close."

"This." The guy looks down at himself and tugs demonstratively on his parka in a gesture that sparks a sharp sense of déjà vu in Dean. "This is just another vessel."

The guy's eyes are hazel, not blue, but there's something in them-- Determination. Concentration. Power. Dean doesn't even know what exactly it is.

"Cas?" he asks, with relief and confusion and wonder and hope all wrapped up in one nauseating surge of emotion. "How are you alive?"

Castiel regards him seriously for a moment. "I was never dead," he says. His eyes flick to a spot behind Dean, then back to Dean's face. "This requires some explanation."

It's only then that Dean notices the sudden absence of bone yard around him. He's kneeling on hard floor boards, with wooden walls and semi-darkness surrounding him. It all feels painfully familiar. With a growing feeling of dread pooling in his stomach he turns his head to look over his shoulder. The next thing he knows he's stumbling over his own feet and crashing into a wall while trying to get up and away at the same time. His breath gets knocked out of him, either by the physical impact or the shock.

Because there, on the cot in the corner, lies his brother. His dead, knifed-in-the-spine brother from three years ago. Every single detail is just as Dean remembers it, just like it's been etched into his brain.

"The hell, Cas?" he yells. "This your idea of a joke?"

"No," Castiel answers simply, and, wow, that means that Dean is at a complete loss.

"Then-- What?" he manages after a moment.

"My apologies," Castiel says. He looks completely unmoved and his voice is all wrong. "It wasn't within my abilities to lessen the impact of the experience."

"The-- What? I swear, if you don't start making sense right the fuck now--"

"You had to be made aware of the consequences of the action you are about to take. I had to warn you."

"The action I'm about to--" Dean's voice trails off. He looks, very briefly, at Sam's body, younger Sam's body, then looks down at himself. His clothes aren't the same from before, and he's wearing his necklace. The necklace that he left in a motel room in Whereeversville a few months ago. His right hand instinctively lifts to tighten around the pendant. There are scars on his knuckles, and the once broken then badly healed pinky finger is a little crooked. He doesn't need to check his left shoulder to know that the hand print isn't there. "Oh hell," he says. "Don't tell me--"

"None of it was real," Castiel tells him anyway.

Dean stares. "You're kidding me. You've got to be kidding me."

"I'm not."

Right. Jokes had never been Castiel's forte. "What do you mean, it wasn't real?"

"What I said." Castiel looks mildly irritated. "That it wasn't real. It was a-- glimpse into the future, you might say. A possible future."

Dean opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again. "Are you freaking crazy?" he shouts. "That was a little more than a glimpse. I lived it. I lived through three pretty damn shitty years on Earth and forty years of literal Hell. I was there! It happened! Don't tell me what was and wasn't real!"

"As I said," Castiel says, unfazed by the outburst, "I apologize. If I had had the power to dampen the experience, I would have done it."

"Oh, yeah, fat lot of good that's doing me now," Dean shouts, then runs out of steam. He just stops and breathes for a moment. Breathes and thinks. "How do I know this isn't the hallucination, or vision, or whatever?"

Castiel considers the point. "You don't."

"Oh, that's freaking great," Dean mutters. "I'd forgotten how much of a dick you can be."

Castiel just keeps watching him silently until Dean's had enough.

"Will you just fucking tell me what you did?" he yells. He's in Castiel's face, practically bumping noses with a guy who was probably a line backer in his college days and is still built like a brick wall. Oh, and not to forget about the angel powers lurking somewhere under the Joe-the-plumber suit.

Castiel doesn't give an inch. "I overheard something I was not supposed to know," he explains calmly. "The information was-- It was too important to ignore. The angel Zachariah is manipulating you and others so that the apocalypse may begin. Dean, it's not just Hell that wants the apocalypse to happen. Heaven wants it as well. And it all starts here, today, with you."

"Yeah, I got that much from your prophetic freak show," Dean says, and takes a couple of steps back. No use trying to intimidate an angel. He ignores the way his stomach is clenching and realizes that he's suppressing guilt for things that he, in reality, never committed. If he didn't already know that his life is completely fucked up, that would be his last big clue right there.

"I allowed you to see the consequences of your actions, so you might choose to take a different path," Castiel continues to explain.

Dean hears the unspoken, "You are the righteous man, after all," at the end of that sentence. Cas had always had kind of an unreasonable amount of faith in him.

His eyes move back to Sam's still body, and he steadfastly ignores the scream that ricochets in his head, looking for a way to break free. What Castiel still doesn't understand is that there is no limit to the unreasonable and stupid things Dean will do for his brother.

What he says is, "Yeah, thanks a bunch for that, Cas."

Castiel gets a totally unwarranted curious look on his face, combined with a head-tilt that is downright disturbing on the vessel he's wearing. "Cas," the angel repeats. "I like this shortened form of my name."

Dean narrows his eyes at him. "Way to distract from the topic here. And why shouldn't you? You never complained about it before."

"That wasn't me," Castiel says. "The Castiel you got to know was part of the possible future. I merely observed without interfering."

It's a punch to the stomach, mostly because it makes sense. Dean wonders how he hasn't seen it before. This is the Castiel from three years ago. Three of Dean's imaginary years ago, anyway. It takes him a moment to figure out why this is like watching Cas' head explode all over again.

It's losing another friend to the fucking apocalypse. No. It's worse. It's never having had that friend in the first place.

He's watched so many people close to him die, is blaming himself, blaming the angels, the demons, Lucifer, hates God so much he wouldn't hesitate to end him if he could, and none of it really happened. None of it happened.

He wants to hit something, and hard. Add some new scars to the ones that were never actually erased from his body. He wants to scream himself hoarse. He doesn't want to be here. He doesn't want to be anywhere.

"If you knew about all this," Dean starts, then takes a deep breath. He's this close to losing it. "You couldn't have just told me? It had to be the full-on real-life 3D rendition?"

"I didn't know," Castiel says, radiating sincerity. "I didn't know anything about the possible future until I saw it unravel just now. I knew that you would be important, Dean, that your actions at this point in time would shape it. I didn't expect to find myself playing such a crucial part." He shifts his eyes away, directs them to the ground. "I never wanted free will."

"Tough luck, pal," Dean tells him. "You got it now. You're a little ahead of schedule, but what the hell. Put that free will of yours to use. Help me."

"There is nothing else I can do," Castiel says, eyes still focused on the floor.

"Like hell there isn't," Dean says, trying really, really hard to sound reasonable. "You're all angeled up, right? Heal Sam. Bring him back, and none of that shit will go down. It stops here and now."

Castiel shakes his head once. "I can't. When I broke free from Heaven I lost almost all of my powers. And even if I could heal, I cannot bring back the dead. I'm truly sorry, Dean."

Dean feels his hands clench into fists, distantly registers his nails digging into his palm. "No," he grates out. "No. Not Sammy. No. I won't let him die."

"Dean," Castiel says intently. He focuses his eyes back on Dean and takes a step closer. "Consider this: During the crucial points of Sam's downward slide you will be in Hell. You will not be able to stop him."

"Bullshit," Dean says vehemently and refuses to back away. "I can ask Bobby to do it. Or-- You know what, I won't go to Hell. I got extra intel now. I know who's going to hold my contract, and where the bitch is going to be. I can do it differently. We can change things. You're on our side, right? From the beginning this time. If that's not a huge plus right there, then I don't know what is."

"I'm sorry, Dean," Castiel says, and he really looks it, too. "I won't be able to help you. By warning you now, I have removed myself from any future battle field. An archangel will come for me soon."

This is the point where Dean goes cold. Completely, mind-numbingly cold. He doesn't even want to try to imagine his last two years without Cas in the picture. "What?" he asks. "Why--"

"No angel has walked the Earth in two thousand years, Dean. My departure from Heaven and my destination haven't gone unnoticed. I will be taken back and severely punished for my disobedience. I won't be returning here."

"But-- You--" Dean stutters. His mind is racing through the possibilities. There aren't a whole lot of them. "There has to be a way--"

Castiel shakes his head. "Dean. I haven't got much time left. Think about what you're risking by making this deal. When Sam died here, his soul was still untainted. He's in Heaven now, not trapped with Lucifer in Hell. Many of your friends are still alive and won't die fighting the apocalypse. Innocent people will live because the apocalypse will not be started. Isn't this preferable to the alternative?"

"The future isn't set in stone," Dean reminds him grimly.

"No, it's not," Castiel agrees. "But with Heaven and Hell working against you, there are many ways in which this can end even more badly than before." He holds up a hand to stop Dean's objection before he can voice it. "Yes, there is also a small possibility that you might change the outcome for the better. But things might just as likely progress in the way that you've already seen."

Dean closes his eyes and swallows hard. "Cas," he says.

He doesn't say, "I can't do it all again. I just can't."

Because he knows what the answer would be: Then don't.

"Goodbye, Dean," Castiel says.

Dean's eyes snap open. "Cas--"

Castiel looks-- wistful. Regretful. "I wish I could have known you," he says.

Dean doesn't say, "You did," because that would be just another lie.

He answers, "You too," because it's close to the truth.

In the blink of an eye, Castiel is gone.

It's a long while before Dean can bring himself to think, much less do, anything except stand there and stare at Sam's body. In the end, he pulls out his cell phone, scrolls down his contact list and dials. "Dean Winchester," Ellen answers warily after the fifth ring. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Dean doesn't say anything. He thumbs the phone off. He struggles to take deep, even breaths, but it's no use. The phone slips from his hand and clatters to the floor. His vision is starting to blur as he sinks down next to the cot and reaches out to Sam, clenches his fingers in Sam's jacket.

He knows what he has to do.

"The Moebius strip [...] is a surface with only one side. [It] has several curious properties. A line drawn starting from the seam down the middle [...] will meet the starting point and will be double the length of the original strip."

Source: Wikipedia

ETA: And this is the trope.

Sequel: No Beginning (Like An Open Ending)

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