Last chapter guys: sorry for the delay but it's a double-length one for you so I hope that makes up for it. Thanks so much to my faithful core group of reviewers for taking time out of your busy lives to comment on this story – I really appreciate that you've checked in and let me know what you think for every chapter, because it's that ongoing chapter-to-chapter feedback that makes such a difference, and makes the hard work seem worth it. You are all great, and more than anything I'm really proud of the long, thoughtful reviews so many of you take the time to leave. I will miss reading them. Big thanks to Cerridwen7777 and Ster1 for all your support and advice: you both rock. :-D

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Warnings Foul language, blasphemy up the wazoo and back again, S5 spoilers

Under an Atomic Sky

Dean doesn't say anything as he trickles the oil around Sam and Castiel, and once he's done he stomps away moodily and spends a few moments staring at the heavens, stony faced.

"Are you sure this can work?" Sam asks urgently, once his brother is out of earshot.

"Well no, I'm not sure," Castiel says offhandedly, as if success hadn't even occurred to him. "I'm hopeful," he muses, scratching at his head. "Hopeful this has been adequately thought through by someone smarter than we are. But I wouldn't say I'm confident."

Sam can't help himself, he pulls out a bitchface. "Well, can you try being confident?" he hisses. "You know, for me?"

Castiel inspects him for a second, his expression perplexed, before his eyes brighten. "Oh," he announces knowingly. "I see. Well then." He smiles reassuringly. "There's absolutely no doubt in my mind this will work, Sam," he continues smoothly, without missing a beat. "We're safe inside the circle of fire. Lucifer can't cross it, he can't break it from outside if Michael created it, and we're not leaving it until it's time. I have the Colt to open the gate, and you have the rings." He breaks off briefly, glances over at Dean. "Michael will wear Lucifer down and overcome him, I'll leave the circle and open the gate, and you'll say the magic words and use the rings to bind Lucifer to the cage. And back to Hell Lucifer will go. Forever and ever, amen." He nods. "How can it possibly fail? Especially with Bobby in the truck for back up if we need it."

Sam scowls again, looks over and tracks his brother's line of sight, and it looks grimy up there above the treetops, swirling clouds bruised purplish-black. It's as if the sky is bleeding internally, and it makes him shiver with dread because it reminds him of all the bodies he's seen, makes him think of Dean's body, lividity setting in as gravity dragged his blood cells down. He wonders if it might be a bad omen but he tells himself it's just the eclipse.

Dean is over by the truck now, conferring with Bobby, their heads close together. The old man rubs hard at the back of his neck and passes a hand across his eyes as Dean turns, and Sam sees him reach out abruptly, swing Dean around into a brief, fierce embrace before pulling back and planting his hands on Dean's cheeks, leaning close and talking steadily to him.

Sam switches his gaze away from the private moment, glances across at the gravesite, and he shivers as he remembers the last time they were here. "I guess we'll be letting a lot of demons out when we open the gate," he muses.

"It'll be significantly fewer than the legions Lucifer will call forth if he has dominion over the earth, Sam," Castiel replies grandly. He pauses then, casts his eyes over at Sam, elbows him in the ribs gently. "You and your brother will have much work to do after this is over," he says quietly. "It doesn't end here, Sam. Do you hear me? It goes on."

Sam smiles weakly. "Yeah. But first we're taking some personal time, doing the Grand Canyon. The demons can wait a few days."

He pushes back onto his feet as Dean approaches, reaches a hand down to help heave Castiel up after him. He can feel the wind getting up, and the sky suddenly deepens a shade. The darkness seems to settle around them, melancholy and claustrophobic, and when Sam chances a split-second squint up at the sun it's a rapidly narrowing crescent, still oddly bright despite the moon closing in.

Dean stands in front of them, looks from one of them to the other. His fingertips are dancing feverishly around the seams of his jeans, and he seems about to jump out of his skin. His eyes are shimmering bright and brilliant. He's ready, Sam realizes, and it's almost with a jolt of surprise at the thought that it's finally here, that the time is now, that the hushed sense of expectancy that took hold of them all after he stepped out of the truck is ending.

"Okay," Dean says, with a calm that belies his obvious tension. "We're go on this." He flicks his gaze to the Colt in Castiel's hand. "You shove that right in there, Cas, when the time comes. And then you get out of the way. There will be no heroics…" He trails off, raises a hand and puts it firm on Castiel's shoulder. "Look at me, Cas," he says quietly. "Do I make myself clear?"

"As crystal," Castiel replies obediently. "There will be no heroics." He swallows. "Dean…"

"I know." Dean nods as his eyes go masked and faraway. "I know, Cas. Just – be careful."

He looks right at Sam then. "You too, Sam," he says, and he smiles. "Sammy…" He exhales softly. "I meant what I said. No heroics. I have to get him down here, so we can use the rings, but he has to think he can win this too. He's fighting to the death and that's his advantage. I'm not… I'm pulling my punches in this, and that makes it harder for me. But you stay in the circle, no matter what happens, no matter what he does or says… no matter what I do or say too." His attention is unwavering on Sam's face. "And afterwards…" He curls his lips up in his familiar crooked, shit-eating grin. "There's one point three million dollars in small bills all boxed up at Bobby's. You might need it if this goes ass over tip. There won't be any credit post-apocalypse. But spend it wisely, huh? None of that emo-crap music of yours."

Sam flaps his lips for a second, taken aback despite his own mounting anxiety. "Wait a minute, where did—"

"Zachariah's vessel had a couple of shady offshore accounts and no surviving relatives," Dean smirks. "Remember, for a while there I knew everything." His expression falls somber again. "You have the rings. Now, are you ready to do this?"

Sam keeps his voice steady. "I am."

Dean nods slowly. "Brace yourself."

He reaches out, presses his palm to Sam's chest, and Sam feels a throb of discomfort that has him sucking in. And almost instantaneously he smells ozone, senses a snap in the air that wasn't there before, and the atmosphere is suddenly sharply aware, alert and listening. He feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, but he doesn't look beyond his brother's eyes, not yet.

"See you on the flipside, Sammy." Dean winks, backs away a few steps, waves a hand vaguely, in the direction of Sam's boots, and the oil lights up. And then Sam flits his eyes over to where Lucifer is leaning his half-brother's gangling frame against a gravestone ten feet away, studying him with Adam's eyes.

"Hey Sam," he acknowledges affably. "Sure I can't persuade you? Believe me, you'll enjoy Armageddon much more with me wearing you. I'll even let you keep your brother. Not the abomination, though."

Sam senses Castiel bristling hostility beside him as he looks back to Dean, and his mouth goes dry as the Sahara as Dean's face sets, his eyes suddenly glowing with an otherness that sends a delicious chill tingling up Sam's spine. The thrill is wonderful and fearsome all at once, and Sam can't bear to stare at Dean but he can't help it either, can't help being dazzled by his brother even while he wants to run screaming from him in sheer terror because now he can see what he thought was tension for what it really is: pent-up power, because Dean is eager for this, thirsty for it, craving it.

Dean isn't even really looking at Sam anymore, he's looking through him, and he turns slowly, hands on his hips. As he does, Sam can feel Castiel lurch against him, can feel the other man's wiry frame shaking like a leaf as he whispers, Michael, and Sam glances down to see him entranced, eyes shining avidly and face beatific as he watches, before Sam drags his own gaze back to Dean, no, Michael, he corrects himself, poised there, ready to pounce.

"Lucifer," Michael drawls. "Come to snuff the rooster? It isn't happening."

Lucifer raises an eyebrow. "You've seen what happens, Michael," he says reasonably. "It's predetermined. Inevitable. I win. In fact…" He smirks at Sam. "We win, Sam. You and me together, because I'll be wearing my best suit at the victory dance." He pushes up off the granite monument, takes a few steps forward, shakes his head sympathetically. "The here and now is meaningless, Michael. It won't change the future. But you can be part of it. My offer is still there… all you have to do is choose me."

There's a long moment where Michael seems to ponder Lucifer's words. "You're wrong, Lucifer," he murmurs then, and his cadence is dreamy, almost hypnotic. "Only the present moment really matters. Because the past can't be changed, and the future is unknown." And then his voice comes out sharp and decisive. "I choose them. They have more potential."

The wind gusts suddenly, there's a flurry of raindrops, and Sam becomes aware of thunder rumbling ominously overhead, sees the flash of lightning in his peripheral vision. And as he watches, Dean flickers, becomes less substantial in front of his eyes, and it's as if his brother isn't solid any more, as if he isn't flesh any more, it's as if he's the promise, the threat, the spirit of the storm that approaches.

Dean snaps out of existence in the same second Lucifer does, and then time stops crawling along in slow motion and starts to race along at breakneck pace, out of control. All Sam hears is noise, the wind howling dismally, thunder clapping dangerously. Rain and hail pelt his cheeks as it goes dark, and the ground undulates and quivers underneath him. He can't help glancing up again, winces as he sees a fraction of a second's glimpse of the forbidding black disk of the moon concealing the sun, outlined now by the brilliant glow of the sun's corona, and its flash scalds his eyes before Castiel drags his head down.

"It's happening," Castiel hollers redundantly, over the racket, right up into Sam's face, and his eyes are huge and terrified. "Don't look at it. We have to be ready. Get down low, or you'll fall across the flames."

And Sam nods, spits out a stinging squall of ice pellets, throws his hands out for balance as Castiel crashes into him, and fists the other man's clothes as they drop to the dirt. The ground rocks and judders so violently it bounces them up and down like peas on a drum, and all around them gravestones pogo up and down in a macabre dance.

Michael has been keeping an eye on the sun since he woke, watching as the tiny nick in its circle became a sizeable chunk, the sky grew more and more dull, and the light diminished, retreating to leave a gunmetal gray cast to the day. It's less than fifteen minutes till totality when he erases the sigils from Sam's ribs, and the sky is indigo by then.

He doesn't feel the storm that blows up around them, doesn't feel the force of the hail or hear the rumble of thunder. He rises up into dark, amorphous cloud, and he looks down to see sickly yellowish twilight beneath. He zooms higher, to where the sun is now a blazing crescent in the far reaches of space, and vanishing fast. He can see Venus and Mercury as gleaming pinpricks against the brightness, tens of millions of miles away, and on his other side is the moon, ghostly and opalescent as a giant pearl in the sky.

He rips through the air in pursuit, eating up the miles, maneuvering deftly, twisting and turning, circling and soaring, moves in between the moon and the sun, marvels at solar flares that burst out from the pulsing blood-red orb as it releases the magnetic energy stored in its corona, and at its fiery filaments and prominences.

And then Lucifer is there, sword flashing silver, and Michael doesn't hesitate, he dives in, delivers a barrage of blows that have his brother spiraling, streaked with blood and damp with sweat, before Lucifer bullets back into the zone and turns on him with blazing, furious eyes.

"That was rude, Michael," he snaps. "And I punish discourtesy wherever I find it."

"Killing our brother was rude," Michael hisses. "It really pissed me off."

He streaks in again, collision force, hews, chops, and carves like the butcher Alastair taught him to be. And sparks fly and injured grace flashes its trauma as they dance the same dance as before, each charging in to assail the other, ducking and weaving, swooping and climbing, and Lucifer feints and dodges Michael's endless volley of cuts, jabs and swats, before Michael strikes home and Lucifer falls to earth.

The endgame blares violently around them, a loop of crashing, rending noises and howling wind, and the ground is still vibrating and turbulent. Sam squints out past the flames, vaguely sees the truck leaping up and down on its wheels and Bobby falling out of it, and the earth splits, a yawning fissure opening up between them and the old man.

Castiel is gesturing frantically at Bobby, shouting to be heard over the din. He grabs Sam then, shakes him, raises his other hand and points. "Look! Sam, look!"

And there his brother is, Lucifer too, at the center of a whirling vortex of torrential rain, illuminated by the electricity lighting up the sky, and they're circling each other slowly, before rushing in for a cascade of strokes too fast for Sam's eyes to follow. He peers at them through darkness lit up by strobing, jagged lightning, and three bolts explode simultaneously in three separate spots twenty feet away. Trees creak, quiver and leap free of their moorings, slamming to earth, their roots throwing up a shower of soil, clods of earth and stones that bombard them.

They crouch, heads covered, in the face of the hurricane-force rage detonating around them, and after the rain of debris stops, Castiel shoots bolt upright. "Get back in the truck," he yells over in Bobby's direction, waving wildly.

Sam is wiping dirt from his eyes, sees Bobby gesticulate frantically in return and then start to move closer to the fight as he tries to navigate around the chasm. "What the fuck are you doing?" Sam bellows himself, and he can feel his throat go raw as he does, thinks his voice might have shredded his larynx with its force. Both he and Castiel are waving now, and Sam sees Michael glance over his shoulder, in the direction they're pointing. He raises a hand and brings it down, almost casually, and an earsplitting screech sounds as a tree uproots and crashes to earth, concealing the old man from sight. Sam hollers out uselessly, and his cries toss and tumble faintly on the wind, carried away into the ether.

Castiel turns back, his face drawn, and he shoves soaking wet hair out of his eyes. "I don't think it hit him," he shouts. "I think Michael was just keeping him away. He needs to keep clear, or Lucifer will use him to bait Michael."

Sam nods, swallows down his horror, swivels back to the spectacle, and his focus is glued to his brother. Adrenaline is skipping through his system, his heart is pounding a tattoo in his chest, and he can't believe the force, the speed, the viciousness of the fight.

Dean, Michael, Sam reminds himself, is moving with disciplined, practiced ease, and smooth, feral grace as he swings the sword precisely and economically, ducks, jumps, whirls nimbly, twists out of reach as Lucifer strikes with intent to vivisect him. Michael's face is spattered with blood spray, and he's smiling, and when Sam catches sight of his eyes they're gleaming eerily. Lucifer is creasing Adam's features up in shock and anger at the onslaught, and he puts his blade up parallel to the ground to block a vertical cut from Michael, immediately moves into a horizontal slash of his own. Michael moves his weapon to the left, parries the blow confidently, swings back to swipe down aggressively on the diagonal. The edge describes a neat, sparking cut across Lucifer's thigh, and the devil howls out his ire.

Castiel is tugging on Sam's sleeve, leans in. "He's herding him. Soon it will be time."

It's almost as if the combatants heard him, because it moves up a league, and Sam feels his jaw drop as it becomes frenzied, and it's fucking awesome but at the same time his insides drop down through the ground, and he grabs Castiel, pulls him close and hollers in his ear. "This looks too serious, Cas, it looks like Dean's really going for it."

Metal clashes and sparks against metal in the light cast by the circle of flames, as Michael smashes down, throws his hand out for balance, sweeps across and up to exert a barely controlled swipe towards Lucifer's neck. Lucifer ducks under the blade as it arcs, springs to the left and brings his own strike bulleting down, and it's Michael's turn to run under the blade. They both charge in simultaneously then, and Lucifer flails his blade up. Sam hears his brother yell out in pain, has to blink and smack a hand up to cover his eyes as Michael's whole body glows incandescent.

"Grace," Castiel shouts. "The swords – they cut deep, they weaken us. That's the only reason we can see them at all." He chances a glance up, sheltering his vision with his hand held in mock salute over his brow, and Sam remembers that Castiel said he still had freakishly acute senses. He leans close to Sam again, and his eyes are even more anxious. "Totality," he says. "It's almost time…"

Michael is focused, intent, ignoring everything but this fight. He finds himself on the receiving end of an offensive volley that has him falling back, and he overbalances, feels his legs trip out from beneath him. Lucifer's blade strikes down, slicing a chunk out of his side as he narrowly avoids disembowelment. He cries out at its burn, and feels himself weaken in response, rolling desperately as Lucifer recovers and takes aim again. This time the sword misses him completely, scything through a moss covered stone cross and cleaving it in two as Michael surges up halfway and counts coup himself, seeing a red line blossom on his brother's shirt.

He leaps to his feet, stabs again and is held off, and his brother vanishes then, reappears right behind him, hooks his arm up under Michael's chin in a choke hold. Michael slams his head backwards into Lucifer's face, bends swiftly, brings Lucifer over and slams him down. Lucifer thrashes wildly as he topples, grabs Michael's wrist and brings him crashing down on top of him, and they roll over and over on the ground, each gripping tight to the other's sword arm until they break apart and roll to their feet.

Their blades are still flashing, and Michael yelps as Lucifer slashes at him once, twice, and he catches sight of blood welling from his shoulder in a scarlet bubble before it starts to ooze sluggishly. He lunges in response, thrusts in, finds his blade met and held again, and Lucifer curses in the ancient language.

"You'll pay for that."

Michael grits his teeth. "Less talking," he taunts. "More fighting."

He attacks again, drops below Lucifer's guard, gets in under his blade, knows the satisfaction of contact and sees blood spurt as he gouges a jagged cut across his brother's hip. He snatches an instant to look up then, sees the last rays of sunlight breaking apart into individual points of intense white light, until only one luminous bead remains, the diamond ring effect that heralds totality.

Urgency thrums inside him like his own heartbeat. It's almost time, he thinks.

The duel is taking its toll, both Michael and Lucifer slowing down perceptibly, and there's no finesse now, only attrition and brute force. They break apart and circle each other again, stiff-legged and wary, both of them dripping gouts of blood, and Sam can hear them panting out harsh, uneven breaths. He grips Castiel by the upper arm, pulls him close. "We need to end this," he yells over the shrieking wind.

The other man shakes his head, his eyes bleak. "We have to wait for his word."

Michael feints and runs around behind Lucifer, kicks at the back of his knees, and Lucifer crashes down, shoots his leg out, tumbling Michael down onto his back beside him. Michael heaves himself wearily onto all fours, and Lucifer kicks up into his belly, lifting him several feet off the ground and sending him twisting onto his back again.

Lucifer surges up, lunges while he's still on his knees, brings the blade down hard and fast. Sam cries out in horror, chokes it off as Michael scoots up onto his ass and delivers a crunching backhand to Lucifer's face. They grapple lethargically, grunting with the effort, straining out blows, fists landing home with bone-cracking impact until Lucifer crabs out of the way.

Michael struggles to his feet, swaying, his sword hanging limply as Lucifer pushes up too. Sam can see they're pausing to take each other's measure, and as they do the wind drops down to a sinister, far-off moan. Michael touches his hand across his lips to wipe away blood. He looks at Lucifer, but his words are for Sam and Castiel.

"It's time," he announces icily.

Lucifer snorts derisively. "You're not the boss of me, Michael."

And they stumble in to meet each other again.

Castiel doesn't hesitate, doesn't say anything, he springs to his feet and darts agilely through the flames, sprinting to the mausoleum and ramming the colt home. He steps back, glancing over his shoulder at Sam and nodding before he ducks down and moves swiftly to the left, out of sight.

Sam can already hear the low rumbling, grinding and clanking as the gate opens. He stares down at the rings in his hand, and then he looks up at the exhausted fighters and says the words, guttural Enochian phrases inscribed into the surface of each metal circle. As the last syllable passes his lips, the weather stops abruptly, the din dying away into silence.

Sam looks down at the rings and they start to glow and quiver on his palm. And then they snap together as if magnetized, and he can feel their heat searing his skin.

The weight of the sword is unbearable in Michael's hand now, and he feels exhausted, feels sharp, sickening pain spasm through screaming muscles. He meets his brother's gaze through a red curtain swimming hazily over his eyes, and he vaguely realizes it's his own blood. He can see past Lucifer, see the gaping maw of the Hellgate, smell sulfur, and he advances on Lucifer wearily, raises his blade, and the movement is labored.

"Don't waste your breath begging for mercy," Lucifer pants out weakly as he readies himself.

"You're going down," Michael grates out, and he sees his brother crease his brow, confused. He forces a smile. "Literally."

And he can see it dawn in Lucifer's eyes then, see his brother's nostrils twitch as he scents the fetid air they both know so well, see him start to brace himself against the unseen force sucking him back to where he came from.

"You can't send me back there," he challenges fearfully. "Michael, don't do this. I love you, don't send me back there alone to—"

"It's too late," Michael cuts in, grimly exultant. He lets his sword fall to the ground, takes a step closer, holds his hands out palm up and softens his voice. "But you won't be alone."

And unbidden, his eyes drift across and down to where Castiel is crouched, gazing up at him, appalled.

Sam is flitting through the flames himself now, the rings so hot he can barely grasp them, and he strides closer, pulls back his hand and casts them at the devil.

He hears his brother's words, doesn't really pay attention to them though, because his eyes are widening in horror as the sword drops harmlessly onto the dirt, leaving Dean defenseless.

It all eases back into the slow motion of before, as Lucifer cocks his head, the fear on his face transforming into comprehension and then a smile of twisted pleasure. He pulls his sword back, close to his side, bends at the knees, thrusts up, and Sam screams his brother's name. And there's a blur of movement from the side of the tomb, a shape streaking out. Castiel, and he slides to a halt midstride in front of Dean before any of them can react, and takes the blade square in the gut.

Sam knows abstractly that that's it, that the weapon was rammed home with such force that even if Castiel isn't making a sound the metal is piercing through skin, muscle, bone and vitals, tearing the other man apart inside as it skewers him, impaling Dean on its tip as it emerges. And they all freeze for a moment of utter silence that feels like an eternity to Sam, before he hears his brother cry out, sees him jolt and fold his frame in around Castiel with the impact.

"Looks like I got a two-fer," Lucifer snarls in triumph. He reaches out a hand to Castiel's shoulder, braces, hauls the sword back, and Sam can hear its slick, gruesome progress as it exits the wound.

Castiel's legs buckle as Dean clings onto his body, and Dean wheezes out a strangled gasp of distress before he staggers back a couple of cautious, unsteady steps and sinks to his knees, the other man slipping from his arms, slack and lifeless.

Lucifer hooks his foot under Castiel, rolls him aside, gloats down at Dean. "Still want to keep me company, brother?" he sneers maliciously, and he's reeling now, feet shuffling unwillingly backwards as black smoke starts wreathing out of the gate, demons breaking to freedom around their creator as his prison stakes its claim. He leans down, grips Dean's upper arm to drag him along.

Sam laughs harshly and Lucifer's eyes snap up to meet his. "No he doesn't," Sam grates out through his boiling hot fury. "But I do."

He launches himself, a full body tackle that slams him into Lucifer and sends them both tumbling over the edge. And Sam hangs in the air over the abyss for a split second until his fall is broken by a hand snatching at his, and he crashes into the brick sides of the tomb's interior wall, legs hanging limply, Lucifer dangling precariously from his belt.

Sam's weight hangs there in space, and he cranes his neck, looks past Lucifer and down into the fiery glow he remembers from before. The shaft extends as far as he can see, and he can smell the sickening stench of death and burning meat emanating from its depths, feel the heat on his cheeks.

He looks up to where his brother's hand is gripping fast to him, and his own fingers are digging into Dean's wrist so fiercely he can't feel his fingertips. It's puny leverage and he knows it's temporary too, because he remembers what Castiel said, knows the swords cut deep, knows the damage they do, knows he outweighs his brother by a good twenty pounds even without the devil in the equation. He can already feel the tendons and muscles in his shoulder stretching, hear the bone cracking, and he imagines it popping out of the socket. He scrabbles desperately at the wall with his toes, trying to find an indentation, a foothold. He blinks sweat-stinging eyes, stares up through hair plastered to his brow, to Dean's stunned face gazing down at him.

Sam licks his lips to moisten them so he can speak past his terror. "I know you're hurt, Dean," he rasps out painfully. "I know you can't hold on to me."

Dean is trembling with the exertion, heaving frantically at Sam, making frenzied sounds of anguish and pain, his eyes wide, bruised with shock and fright. He's slipping further over the lip of the drop himself, and Sam can't have that. "Look at me," Sam says. "Dean. Look at me. You have to let go, or you'll fall too."

"No," Dean objects hoarsely. "I can pull you up. I'm not letting go."

Sam shakes his head. "Listen to me. Dean… I know you didn't want Adam going down there." He can see his brother is crying, and he's squinting through the blur in his own eyes. "I don't want you going back there either," he says. "And you don't have to worry about Adam… Adam isn't going. I'm saying yes to him now, and you have to let go of me." He smiles. "You promised."

And Dean is shaking his head vehemently. "No. No. Sammy, no…" He closes his eyes and flops his face down into the dirt. "Don't make me," he chokes out. "Please don't. Sam." He makes a muffled, incomprehensible sound of combined effort and misery, and Sam can feel him digging his fingernails into his skin, because he's slipping.

"Dean, look at me," Sam says again. "It's important."

His brother lifts his head wearily, stoically, and his expression is dazed and disbelieving, his eyes red with regret, and tears track through the blood and mud on his face, leaving pale streaks in their wake.

"I'm not innocent, Dean, but Adam is," Sam whispers. "We can set him free. This is right… and this is my own free will, this isn't any of that destiny crap." He drags his gaze away then, looks down, stares into the rabid fury glowing out of his half-brother's sunken eyes. "You still want me, you can have me," he says, and he smiles mirthlessly. "What better revenge for us kicking your ass? The answer is yes."

Almost instantaneously, Sam can feel it start to flash and burn into him, something ancient, and black, and skeletal, curling its talons into him, reaching for his soul and embracing it, caressing it lovingly, turning him to cold, hard ice inside. He struggles against it, groans out as it clutches victoriously at him, fights it for one more moment.

He looks up again. "I love you, Dean," he says. "You're my brother, in all the ways that matter. And all of it was real. Now let's end this together. Let go of me. Please."

"But you'll burn," Dean gasps out.

And Sam smiles through his tears. "Idiot," he soothes gently. "The fall will probably kill me."

He feels his skin start to slide, feels his brother's grip loosen by increments, hears Dean sob out his name again. His vision clears, and he can see the sun starting to break out from behind the moon. It blazes golden red, and lights up the sky with its promise.

Dean lets go.

He weeps out his agony inarticulately as he rolls over and away, pounds his fist on the ground as he wills the gate closed. The pain in his gut is scorching, and the pain in his heart is stabbing and cruel. He's shivering, his skin hot, tight, tingling and abrasive, and his mind feels scraped raw. He can smell his own sweat and blood, and ozone, sulfur, the Pit, on the air, knows abstractly that they are the last things he will ever smell. He can feel his heart beating erratically in his chest, counting down his life's passing. He's weary, and he wants to escape.

The light comes back slowly and the sun hangs free in the blue sky, warming him. His head lolls, and Castiel is lying a few feet away, motionless, his front stained crimson, his hand reaching out and his eyes staring at Michael, dreamy, glassy, unseeing eyes, deceptively peaceful because Michael knows where Castiel is.

Michael rolls onto his front, biting back a cry, and he crawls as far as it takes to reach out his hand and tug at the blood-soaked hoodie. "Castiel," he croaks. "Cas. No. No…"

He can feel power smoldering inside him, a slow, low-temperature controlled burn, embers that glow and sizzle along to a dull, distant roar, stifled energy and force that waits to explode and radiate outwards, vaporizing everything in its path. He smiles, pulls himself close enough to curl his body around Castiel, and rests his arm across his brother's chest. He lays his hand on Castiel's shoulder, presses his palm to the approximate location of the handprint he left there, and the contact hums and fizzes between them.

Something inside Michael breaks, and floods out of him, and he gasps at the beauty of the light as it shines, a beacon for where he ends and his brother begins. It's hypnotic, has him spellbound, and it calms him.

"Please," he whispers.

Michael lets go.

Dean thrashes and moans himself awake from flaming dreams, and wheezes out his hurt feebly. And someone is holding him close, rocking him, smoothing gentle fingers on his cheek, chanting a stream of comfort, DeanDeanDean, and it's so damn familiar.

He cracks his eyes, stares hazily up into blue, furrows his brow. "Cas?" he breathes out. And then he freezes, panicked, because he feels empty inside, feels a familiar space in there, remembers how the power shone as it left him. He shrinks back. "Who are you?" he chokes out. "Are you him?"

The other man tilts his head. "Dean," he murmurs, and his eyes are sad, but he smiles at Dean like he's the only thing that matters. "I am Castiel," he says. "And I'm an angel of the Lord."

Bobby's leg is wedged under a heavy branch and he braces his other foot against it, pushes, feels sweat bead his brow and trickle down his face as he shoves with all his might, until he feels some give. He slides the limb out, falls back limply, laughs and wipes his eyes because he can still feel his legs, can still move them. And he whoops up at the blue sky, the sun, punches the air because it doesn't look like Armageddon is raining down, and he knows in his heart that mean's it's over.

It takes him a while to crawl out from under the splintered branches and foliage, and he's spitting out soil, moss and dead leaves as he does, and he has to take five, sit and regain his breath. His clothes are soaked and his cap is lost somewhere under the oak. He rolls over onto his butt, pushes up, glances across to his truck, and it's split apart, a pile of torn and twisted metal. It looks like a crumpled tin can under the tree trunk, lying flat on its belly, tires flat to the ground.

Bobby spits. "Balls," he grates out feelingly. "Still. Small price to pay." The truck splits into two hazy images. Double vision, he thinks, and he suddenly realizes his head is splitting, and he feels nauseous. He holds up a finger, moves it slowly right, left, has to close his eyes and lean into his hand as his brain shimmies inside his skull. "Fuck it."

The wind is whispering in the trees, and he can hear birds singing. The world is still here, and peaceful. They did it, he thinks. "They did it," he croaks out loud, in awe and wonder. "Sonofabitch. They did it." He sits and soaks it in, revels in it, despite his concussion and the fact he wants to hurl.

"Are you alright, Bobby?"

Bobby smiles, swivels his head around, wincing in discomfort as he does. "We did it. Goddammit, we—" He pulls up abruptly, swallows thickly. "Tell me… that he's alive."

Castiel stares at Bobby, and his hair is chaotic, his face pale, his eyes steely gray and shadowed. He has Dean cradled in his arms as easily as if he were carrying a child, Dean's head flopped on his shoulder, arm swinging. "He's alive," he replies, in a dull, shellshocked monotone. "I fixed him. He didn't want to be fixed, Bobby. He asked me to let him go. He doesn't want to be alive. But I couldn't let him go. So I fixed him."

Bobby exhales sharply. "Okay." He nods, purses his lips, focuses his mind, and ignores the growing sense of dread churning his belly. "Well. It's good that you fixed him. It was the right thing to do. Boy never did know what was good for him." He pushes up onto his knees, crawls back into the wreckage of the tree, looking back over his shoulder as he does. "My cap is under this mess somewhere," he complains. "I ain't breaking in another one, God knows it's hard enough to find a good cap these days. I'm damned if I'm—"


"And as for the truck, sweet cheese on a cracker, that's pretzeled. I'll be lucky to get any parts from that pile of scrap. Wheels maybe. Even luckier to get our stuff out of the back, and if—"


He shoots upright, ignoring the pain that twinges up his leg, strums the air in his anger. "How the fuck are we even going to get out of here without wheels and carrying those two? It's a three-mile hike to the main road, and they can't walk."

"Bobby. Sam didn't make—"

"You shut your damn mouth," Bobby cuts in bitterly. "I don't want to hear that crap from you. It's your usual bunch of fuckin' lies." He feels himself start to shake, feels his face go hot. "You obviously got your mojo back," he barks out. "How the hell that happened, well I have no idea. Some jiggery fuckin' pokery, no doubt. But how about you use it to think up a fuckin' solution to this shambles? How about you use it to fix my truck? How about that? How about you use it to fix this?" He feels his legs go weak then, and they fold him gracelessly back down onto his ass in the dirt. "Fix this," he mutters. "Fix this. For God's sake. Fix this."

Castiel's voice is quiet, infinitely patient, steeped in regret. "I can't fix this, Bobby," he murmurs. "And Dean needs you now."

Dean wakes up in one piece and healthy, and he doesn't remember how he got here, or what the date is or even what day of the week it is. He feels empty because part of him is gone. He feels trapped in his skin, feels earthbound.

He doesn't really talk. He hears though, muffled sounds from far away. He can hear the low rumble of quiet conversation as Bobby sits in a huddle with Castiel, pouring his heart out and asking what the hell happened? over and over and over again, hear Castiel tell him he doesn't really know, that he was distracted, over and over and over again, until he gives in and tells Bobby what he did.

And Dean sees Bobby lift up his hand and put it on the angel's shoulder for a minute, before he reaches up and pats him on the cheek. "You did good, son," the old man rasps out.

Castiel nods hesitantly, and Dean wonders if Bobby will say the same thing to him when he finds out what he did.

He screams himself to a dazed halfway state between awake and asleep in the small hours of every morning and Castiel is always there, gripping his hand. And he leans across from the chair and says, "Go back to sleep, Dean," and touches his fingertips to Dean's brow.

The first day Dean wakes up properly he shuffles mechanically around the room in his bare feet and shorts, setting Sam's gear out on the other bed, parking his gigantic sneakers over in the corner, stowing his duffel in the closet. He keeps Sam's stuff all neat for his brother, the way Sam likes it.

He doesn't eat unless Bobby makes him, doesn't wash, sleeps in his clothes. He's vaguely aware he stinks, but now he's up and at it he can't afford the distraction of meals, showers, laundry, can't let himself be sidetracked from his job of standing watch.

Inertia makes his limbs heavy as he stumbles out to the porch swing at about nine thirty every morning, to watch the trail that leads up to Bobby's house from the highway. He stares at the gate, doesn't blink very often, and his eyes feel gritty and crusty, and they burn with the dryness. He feels empty, exhausted, weak, tight in his throat with the sense of expectation, anticipation, any minute now. He doesn't even look at the sky, even though there are times when he still yearns to fall into it.

Sometimes he hears footsteps and feels a nudge on his shoulder, and sometimes he catches a glimpse, a shadow, and he rolls his eyes because Sammy must have snuck in that one time he dipped his head in his hand and shuddered out some feeling he doesn't understand, grief, but why, because everything's fine. And he knows, just knows, that if he turns his head it'll be okay again. But when he turns, there's no one there. One time the silence is broken by Sam speaking right in his ear, Dean, Jesus. Get a grip. And he feels light, feels a flood of relief and joy, and then he realizes it's Bobby, gruff tones telling him he isn't going crazy, that what he's feeling is normal.

"I know you don't want to accept this, Dean," the old man says gently. "And God knows, we both know that feeling, from before. But you have to accept it. You have to face it, so you can let go. Move on. It isn't going to go away if you ignore it, son."

Bobby is tenacious, sits next to him for hours, and every now and then he puts his hands up to wipe at his eyes, and he breathes faster, and Dean can feel the old man's shoulders shaking next to him. And Dean sits rigid and tense, his head throbbing dully and his heart racing, his whole body aching with something he can't name, and he can feel his fingers dig into his thighs, fingers digging in but slowly slipping. But Dean isn't letting go because Sam isn't gone, he's right there, and if Dean can just turn his head fast enough before his brother hides, he'll catch him out, and the game will be up.

What the fuck do you know old man, he thinks. He's coming back. He's on his way.

Castiel sits with him when Bobby doesn't, oddly boyish in his new uniform of tee shirt and jeans, and Dean hasn't a clue why he sticks around, thinks he should have better things to do now he has his mojo back. But whatever, those are the times when Dean feels his body go soft and pliant and there's a strange peace and tranquility to it, the waiting, because the angel has this Zen-like calm about him, always has had, and it's like it bleeds into Dean from where their shoulders and legs brush together. He wonders listlessly if Cas is Obi-Waning him.

"I'm not going to tell you it'll all be alright, Dean," Cas says gently, just one time and one time only. "But you can talk to me. You can tell me what happened. You can tell me how it makes you feel. You can blame me. I'll wait until you're ready, and I'll be here when you are."

And Castiel is as good as his word, and he waits, and sometimes Dean knows he leans closer and soaks up that warmth, and sometimes he thinks he might even be a little bit in love with Cas as he drifts off into a sort of trance on the angel's shoulder, his eyes still glued to the road.

But he doesn't tell Castiel anything because some rational part of his mind knows how it works, that if he tells Castiel how it went down, how what went down?, it means accepting that it happened, but nothing happened, and that means he'll get used to it, get on with his life, care less and less as time passes. And it's all grade A bullshit, because it never happened. Sam just got held up along the road somewhere, and any minute now, any fucking minute now, the Impala will turn in off the highway, but the Impala is parked up behind Bobby's, and Sam will clunk the door open and show Dean his blackest and most sullen bitchface, because he ran out of gas on the drive.

So he watches the gate, off there in the near distance, and on day whatever, with Castiel sitting there next to him as the long, lazy afternoon closes into dusk, he puts two and two together and it finally hits him why the Impala isn't turning in off the road with Sam at the wheel.

He pushes slowly upright. "I know what to do, Cas," he says hoarsely, because he hasn't used his voice in he doesn't know how long, and the last time he did he screamed so hard it cracked and broke. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before."

He shuffles down the steps off the porch, unsteady because he's weary, out of condition, starved and lightheaded with hunger. He's aware of Castiel trailing along in his wake, saying nothing but sharply observant as he always is.

Bobby is out back, tinkering on an old Ford pickup, and he straightens up, regards Dean with an alarmed expression, flicks his eyes away and behind to Castiel and widens them in a question before he looks back. "Dean," he says uncertainly. "What are you doing, son?"

Dean doesn't pause, stumbles past the old man, hefts a crowbar from a strewn collection of tools. "Problem-solving," he husks out, and he twists awkwardly, trots clumsily towards her. He sighs out as he studies her, trails a fingertip along her side. And then he lets rip, laying the metal into her, smashing, slamming it down, and glass sprays up into his face.

He can hear shouting as he beats her to death, and there's something familiar about doing this but at least this time he has a purpose. He doesn't stop, and it's cold, calculated homicide, and she doesn't fight back. It's like she knows, knows what this is, and she sits there and takes it until she breathes her last and she's unrecognizable, dented, broken, bruised and cut. He stops, and he steps back, and he's soaked with sweat, drained and gasping with the effort, but it's done.

He laughs, reels around and stares into Bobby's horrified face, and the old man is ashen, crying fat, wet tears and wringing his hands. "What?" Dean says, unrepentant. "It's fine, Bobby, don't panic…" He gets his voice under control, brings it back to a lower pitch, holds out a placating hand. "It's fine," he reassures. "Don't you get it? She was stopping him from coming back."

The old man whispers, "But he isn't coming back, son."

And Dean snorts. "You're wrong," he says decisively. "I've been sitting out there on the porch, watching the gate for days, watching out for her. But she's been here all along, stopping him from coming back."

Bobby is still staring at him with shocked, desolate eyes, and he's shaking his head.

"Jesus, Bobby, tell me you get it," Dean snaps impatiently. "Come on. Sam needs wheels. How will he get here without her? He won't, see? Her being here is what's stopping him driving her through the gate, like I've been waiting on. Now, she's gone. So. Problem solved." He feels his face split in a smile. "It's going to be alright." He shifts his eyes to Castiel. "You get it Cas, don't you?" he says hopefully.

And Castiel stares back at him too, holds his gaze unblinkingly. He's waiting.

Dean tells himself that he's calm, rolls his eyes at their sheer fuckin' intransigence. That's what he does on the inside, but on the outside he achieves critical mass and shatters into jagged, glittering, brittle shards. "Where is the fuckin' evidence?" he hears himself holler. "Where is the body? Show me the fuckin' body, and then I'll believe it. You lying fuckin' bastards. And you…" He stabs a finger at Castiel. "You've been there," he scathes out. "You could get him out for me. Why the fuck haven't you?"

Castiel frowns, confused for a second, before he sets his jaw and squares his shoulders. "Dean, it's beyond my powers," he says earnestly. "Lucifer's cage is at the very deepest—"

Dean scythes a hand through the air, cuts in savagely. "Then we use the fuckin' rings. Plan C. Break it open, get him back up top where he should be, instead of—"

"No," Castiel says firmly.

Dean pulls up, can't comprehend the reply at all for a long, drawn-out moment, can't comprehend his own response to it either, and he decides it's disappointment because he doesn't have a word to explain what he's really feeling. It's growing inside him though, restless and frantic, slithering around just under his skin, trying to find a way out. He puts a hand up to his brow, and his hand is shaking as he gropes for words. "No?" he echoes finally, through a throat gone thick and dry.

The angel glances over at Bobby, a meaningful look, like maybe the two of them have planned for exactly this moment, for plan C, before he looks back uneasily. Dean can see he's flexing and straightening his fingers as if he's nervous, or as if he's about to roundhouse his fist into Dean's jaw as hard as he did in the alleyway in Cicero.

"The rings aren't here, Dean," Castiel continues. "They're far away, and separate from each other. And if you used them to free Sam, you'd free Lucifer again too." He shakes his head, and he gentles his voice, but there's still a note of steely resolve underlying his words. "Dean… it's likely Sam has given in to Lucifer by now. Would you want your brother's body being used to destroy this world? While he's trapped inside it, and aware? Would Sam want it?"

And Castiel doesn't know what happened, doesn't know Sam was already lost, and neither does Bobby, and Dean lurches forward on a surge of boiling guilt, swipes wild and uncoordinated. Castiel ducks adroitly, rises and snatches out viper-fast on the backswing, sealing his fingers around Dean's wrist.

"Dean," he says solemnly. He reaches up and takes the bar out of Dean's hand, and his face is impassive, his stare measured, and he's waiting again. "Dean…"

"I don't want to be here," Dean hisses viciously. "Why didn't you let me die?"

Castiel flinches, barely, and then he tilts his head and his eyes soften. "Because your life has meaning, purpose, and value, Dean," he answers, saying the words slowly, with due weight and consideration. "To me."

The admission doesn't dampen Dean's anger, just ratchets it up even more, makes him want to explode in even more violent fury even if he knows he's outmatched. "Fuck that," he yells, right up in Castiel's face. "Why the fuck couldn't you just let me go? I asked you to let me go." And now his throat is ravaged and smarting, and that suffocating feeling inside him is swelling in his chest so that it aches fiercely. He snarls it out again, bitter. "I asked you to let me go."

The angel doesn't even twitch this time, meets the hostility head on. "Yes, you asked me to let you go, Dean," he concedes flatly. And he stops, shrugs his shoulders almost helplessly, and his eyes give him away like they always have. "But… that also is beyond my powers."

There's a sudden and horrifying déjà vu about Castiel's words, and they pierce through the shield Dean has constructed around himself like a high-explosive antitank warhead, blindsiding him with their impact. He feels himself start to fray and unravel, feels the second his strings snap, and punches his hand to his chest as his heart skids to a halt. He chokes back a scream and hears it come out as a low, broken moan, as his bones turn to mush and his knees give way. And Castiel steps in closer, catches him, heaves him up and pulls his head into his shoulder, wraps his arms around him and supports him, as they sink down together onto the dirt.

"I let my brother go," Dean gasps out, into the worn-out cast-off tee his face is pressed up against, and he laughs out a breathless chuckle of appalled disbelief. "You couldn't let me go, but I let Sam go. Jesus."

And Castiel is hushing him, rocking him, and Dean suddenly finds that he isn't laughing at all, that it isn't amusing or ironic, that it hurts him so deeply and so unbearably that he wants to lie down and die from it all over again. He hoiks back snot, swallows it, and his face feels hot and his eyes are stinging and blurred with tears. "It all went to shit and I dropped my brother into Hell," he mutters, and he sucks air in desperately.

Bobby is lowering his own butt down to the ground next to him, putting a steadying hand up to his back. "Dean, what are you talking about?" the old man asks, and he sounds dazed by it all. "I don't follow you, boy."

Dean sniffs, bites his lip. "I wasn't going to let Adam go by himself," he whispers. "Sam figured it out. He didn't want me going back there. He jumped instead, and I caught him as he fell. I tried to pull him up but he said yes while he was hanging there, so Adam wouldn't have to go." He fists handfuls of the angel's tee convulsively, feels Castiel's embrace tighten, and he tries to hold himself together. "And I let go of him. I looked right into his eyes, and then I dropped my brother into Hell."

His voice falters, trips over itself. "I can't remember what day of the fuckin' week Sammy died on, or the date," he chokes out. "And I feel so lonely for him. I want him back. Every time I sleep I see him, and when I wake up I think it's today, today is the day he'll come back. And I keep watching out for the car. But the car is here, and he isn't coming back is he?"

He feels Castiel exhale out a long sigh. "No, Dean," the angel murmurs into his hair. "He isn't coming back."

Dean clears his throat. "I guess it's time for me to stop watching out for him then."

Bobby's hand kneads his shoulder muscles, and Dean feels them start to relax, feels himself start to let go.

"It's time you stop watching out for him, boy," Bobby says faintly. "It's time you let him go. We've got you now. We've got you."

The lack of Sam, the knowledge of where he is, what might be happening, is like being back in Hell, but worse than any torture Alastair could devise. And sometimes Dean just stops, wherever he is, whatever he's doing, grinds to a halt mid-stride, and he stares into space and gulps and shakes. And then when he comes back to himself, Bobby or Castiel is steering him over to sit down like he's some old guy of ninety in the local twilight home for the terminally bewildered, and they're parking him in a chair where he'll spend the rest of his days wasting away and forgetting all his memories as his gray matter disintegrates.

"What is the cage like?" he slurs to Castiel one night, midway through a fifth of Jack, because they're letting him drink it out of his system when it gets really bad and sometimes when he's had enough liquor the pins and needles of his loss turn into numbness, and it's bearable. He lists over to lean on the angel's shoulder, and it's solid under his cheek, comfortable. "What is the cage like?" he asks again.

"Dean," Castiel says quietly, regretfully. "Don't do this, Dean."

And Dean smiles, snickers drunkenly, because he has this image in his head of the cage, an impression he's holding onto, the belief that maybe it isn't as bad as he thinks. "Tell me it's like that Frost-Nixon movie," he snorts out. "Talking heads. Tell me Sammy's down there just talking to Lu. Or it's like the Tonight Show. Interviews. Larry King Live. But you know… they're just – talking. Getting to know each other. Sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, and having a beer and swapping stories. Cas. Cas." He swallows thickly. "Please. Cas. I let him go. Please tell me he isn't. That it isn't – like Alastair."

But Castiel won't lie to him, and he shifts, eases himself out from under Dean and pushes up. "I should get you into bed."

And Dean looks at him through slitty eyes. "You should be so lucky," he leers pissily. "I'm not giving that up for you too."

Castiel vanishes off the face of the earth after that and it makes Dean restless, and he walks endlessly around the house and then the lot, staring up as if he might see the angel peering down at him from a cloud.

And one morning, maybe week four, Dean wakes and finds that he wants to live, because that's what Sam wanted him to do, and that the lack of Sam isn't like being shredded in Hell, or like a nail in his testicles, or like root canal. The pain isn't shrill and deafening anymore, it's finding its level, settling into a dull, nagging ache. It's like he has arthritis in his heart, and it slows him down and makes him less agile, and the discomfort makes him suck in a breath and wince from time to time, but it doesn't make him want to scream in agony. It isn't acute and terminal anymore, it's chronic, something he can endure and survive, something he can get used to and coexist with.

He begins to see colors again, feel the breeze and the sun on his face when he's outdoors. He eats food and tastes it again, and sometimes he forgets for whole minutes at a time. He packs up Sam's stuff, puts it all in a cardboard box and stows it on the top shelf of one of Bobby's closets, because the clothes won't fit him or Bobby. Or Castiel, if the angel ever shows up again.

There are omens, Bobby tells him darkly, demonic activity everywhere. And the news from the East isn't good, the cities laid low by an epidemic of sickness that takes the old and the young, and sometimes takes the in-between too, driving them crazy in the head and violent. Dean thinks of four years from the now, of the future Zachariah showed him, and he wonders if they really changed anything at all, but he can't bring himself to care very much. "It's far away from here," he tells Bobby absently.

He strolls out to the Impala one day, thinks to maybe get her fixed up, but he looks at her remains and it isn't the same. He takes a turn around the lot instead, finds an old Jeep that runs, gets the engine cleaned up and tuned, tells himself it'll be more practical, get better mileage. Maybe it isn't the same but it isn't bad either, and he welds lockboxes underneath it and packs them with stacks of Zachariah's ill-gotten gains.

On the day he leaves, he gives the old man a hug, watches him in the rearview mirror as he gets smaller and smaller. And then he feels it, the familiar electric charge and the waft of air on his right cheek as it shifts and displaces, and it's like a weight off his shoulders.

They tool along in easy, companionable silence for a few minutes before Castiel speaks. "Are you alright, Dean?" he says, on his customary sigh.

I'm-glad-you're-here-don't-ever-disappear-like-that-again is on the tip of Dean's tongue, but he grunts noncommittally, purses his lips into an annoyed line, and hopes Castiel isn't doing his mind-reading trick. "Where the fuck have you been?" he grouches out petulantly.

"Upstairs," Castiel replies.

He's sufficiently gloomy to have Dean eyeing him speculatively, and he relents, offers a sympathetic ear. "Shitstorm, huh?"

The angel slumps, dejected, and when he slants his eyes at Dean his expression is bleak. "Heaven is in disarray," he offers pensively. "With Michael – gone – Raphael goes unchecked." He shudders. "Raphael… has it in for me. Since Maine." He makes a low, frustrated sound, throws up his hands. "So yes. It's a shitstorm of the highest magnitude. Category ten, in fact, and it isn't safe there for me. I'm – Heaven's most wanted."

Dean ponders that. "So you're still cut off, is what you're saying." He shakes his head, incredulous. "Jesus. Did we change a damn thing? Because I'm starting to wonder." He gives the angel a calculated look. "Will you lose the mojo? Like before?"

Castiel exhales long and slow. "I don't know for sure. It might be different this time. After all, this is grade A mojo." He lapses into silence then, but he's drumming his fingertips on his thigh, so Dean waits. "Why did you do it?" he asks eventually.

Dean fakes ignorance. "Do what?" he says blankly.

"You know what." Castiel shoots him an exasperated look. "You ripped out your grace and gave it to me," he continues haltingly. "And I remember what it was like to be without grace, how it felt… torn and jagged inside, like an open wound that wouldn't heal." His look softens then, into the old mix of fondness and fascination. "I don't understand why you did that."

Dean huffs out, and there's a long moment where he runs through it in his mind, the joy, the feeling of peace, of being whole again for the first time, of being who he was meant to be. And hot on its heels comes the memory of being alone in the moments after the gate closed, and the horror of isolation. He shrugs carelessly. "It was never really mine to have," he concludes awkwardly. It's the abridged version, he knows, and he keeps his eyes fixed on the road, clears his throat. "It was yours. It's what you were meant to be."

Castiel raises decidedly skeptical eyebrows. "But it's what you were meant to be too." His tone goes pointed. "Michael."

Dean considers, drums his fingers on the steering wheel. "Maybe it's because I had thirty years without it, or maybe it's because…" He trails off, doesn't really want to say it even now, weeks on, doesn't want to give voice to how the other loss will always be so much worse than the smooth, unfilled space at his core. "I'll live," he says instead. "And I couldn't leave you down there." He grimaces then, because he was never really good with words. "You, uh… matter," he fumbles out. "It's like I said before… I don't really know what this is with us. But you matter. To me. You know… that meaning, purpose, value crap. It was the right thing to do, for both of us." He pauses a beat, grins sort of. "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest. Someone famous said that."

Castiel appraises him some more. "I'm glad to be here too, Dean," he observes dryly, but his eyes are liquid and his gaze is transparently affectionate. "And you are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." He curls his lips up in his usual half-smile. "Someone famous said that too."

Dean snorts. "Well, I've never been called that before."

"You fell for me," Castiel accuses mildly.

Dean thinks the angel might even sound a tad awestruck, and he grimaces, feels his cheeks heat up, focuses firmly on the road ahead. "I wouldn't put it quite like that."

Castiel ignores the frost, and his reply is thoughtful. "It's symmetry."

"Well, that's all it is," Dean clips back testily. They're coming to a stop sign, and he brakes gently to a halt, glances right, then left, down the long, deserted ribbon of highway.

Castiel shifts, makes himself comfortable, looks at Dean expectantly. "Where are we going?"

Dean smiles. "South west," he says reflectively. "Arizona. There's something I'd like to see there." He makes the turn, floors it, and the Jeep roars satisfyingly. "And then we've got work to do," he murmurs.

Rock Springs, Wyoming…

He smells antiseptic, hears the beep and whirr of monitors, and opens his eyes to clinical gray and white and a woman smiling down at him, hello Keith. Blinking is an effort, so he closes his eyes and drifts back to sleep.

He doesn't recognize his name, and it sounds strange when they call him that. When he's alert enough, he asks how he got there, and one of the nurses tells him a tree blew down on his truck three weeks ago, braining him so badly they thought he'd never wake. He's one of the lucky ones, made it out the other side of a storm that wrecked a third of the state and killed more than three hundred people. He's in one piece, except for his memory being like a blank slate. All he had on him when he was brought in was his wallet, the nurse trills, and isn't it lucky he had his insurance card in there? No emergency contact information, and no next of kin details listed on his insurance policy.

They give him the wallet and his clothes when he discharges himself against medical advice two days later. He walks the two miles to Bob's Towing and Auto Repair, and as he squints up at the sign he thinks maybe it should be familiar to him. They show him his truck, but the crumpled metal and the South Dakota license plate don't spark his memory at all.

He trudges away from it and stands out in the road looking back in the direction he came for a few minutes, wondering what to do. He feels out of place here, and he has a feeling like there's somewhere he's supposed to be. So he starts walking, out of town, taking route one-ninety-one south. He's out of condition and doesn't make good time, but he has a spring in his step because he has a feeling in his gut that he's headed in the right direction.

A couple of miles out of town a car pulls over, and the driver hails him. He scrunches up his face, feels confused, tells the guy that isn't his name, his name is Keith. The guy asks where he's going and Keith tells him, Arizona, because he has this feeling there's something important there. And the man gets out, and he's gazing at Keith like he knows him, and his eyes are this odd mix of cautious and overjoyed.

"Do you – know me?" Keith asks dubiously. "You're looking at me like you know me. Only I had an accident and I don't really remember much before that."

And the man takes a few steps closer, and he's smiling. "I do know you," he says, "and Keith isn't your name." His eyes are watering. "I'm Samuel," he says. "I'll take you to Arizona if you really want to go there. But I'm hoping you might come with me, because you're my grandson."

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