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A Hazy Shade of Winter

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Won't You Stop and Remember Me? - Paul Simon

**//**

Then:

"We need somebody to get close to her. Somebody with a personal connection."

All eyes turned to Dean.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Dean demanded. "How do I smuggle this thing?"

"You won't carry the bomb," Rowena said. "You'll be the bomb. I'm going to take what's in there, and put it in here." She pressed the palm of her hand to Dean's chest, and Sam could see Dean trying not to flinch. "Once you get close to her, you press your fingers together like so....and boom."

Dean swallowed hard as Sam's eyes widened in horror.

"Okay," Dean said, obviously controlling the urge to be sick.

"No!" The word punched out of Sam before he could stop it.

"Sammy..."

"No, Dean! There has to be another way! I won't let you do it!"

Dean glanced around the room, at all the faces watching them with varying expressions of sympathy, despair, and, in the case Crowley and Rowena, smirking fascination.

"Can I speak with you for a minute?" Dean spoke quietly to Sam, gesturing toward the hallway outside the library, toward the bedrooms.

Sam was aware of all eyes watching them as they retreated to Dean's room, Sam's heart pounding so hard in his chest he couldn't understand why it didn't burst.

"There is no other way this time, Sam," Dean said, turning to his brother after the door was closed. "I have to do this. You know I have to do it. Alone."

"No. No way. I'm going with you!" Sam insisted, clenching his fists against the roaring in his ears.

"Sammy, you can't. You can't, okay? It won't work if you come with me. I have to go alone. She wants me, alone. That's always been the deal."

"I won't let you go! I won't let you go without me!" Sam grabbed Dean's shirts, needing to hold onto him, as if he could stop Dean doing what he had to by sheer force.

"Yes, you will," Dean said firmly, grasping Sam's wrists, steady and strong. "You will, Sam. We're out of options here, and you know it. This is the way it has to be."

"No!" The word roared out of Sam like a steam engine, shuddering with grief and Sam's increasing sense of powerlessness.

"Listen to me," Dean said, his voice getting softer in the face of Sam's passion. "It ain't gonna be easy, after I'm gone. And I know better than to try to get you to promise not to try to fix it, or come after me, or get me back. But I'm asking you, Sam. I'm begging you. Don't come after me, okay? Don't follow me into the Empty, man. Stay here. Find a hunter, somebody who understands you. Somebody who knows the life. Settle down as well as you can and live your life, okay? At least give me that, going into this."

Sam could feel hot tears slipping down his cheeks, blurring his vision. "I can't. I can't. No way, Dean."

"Hey, hey, look at me. Look at me, Sammy. I need you to back me up on this thing, you hear what I'm saying? This ain't gonna be easy, man. I'm fuckin' scared, okay? And I need you to be strong so I can do this, you got me? I need you to have my back on this."

"No, no, no," Sam chanted, shaking his head.

"I don't want to go into this thinking it won't work. I need you to believe in me here, you get me? I need your faith in me that I can do this."

"I'm coming with you." Sam grit his teeth, determined and fierce. "I need to come with you. I can't let you go alone. Can't let you die alone."

Sam dropped his head helplessly as the last words slipped out as a choked whisper.

"Hey, hey, come on, now," Dean soothed, pulling Sam in. Sam collapsed against his brother, burying his face in Dean's shoulder as Dean rose up onto his tip-toes to accommodate Sam's tall, slender frame. Sam cried angry tears as Dean held him, rocking him as he had done when Sam was a child, when he came to Dean with a skinned knee or a bruised ego after a particularly tough day on the playground. "It's the only way this time, Sammy. It's the way it's gotta be, okay? It's the way it is."

Sam couldn't help wishing this plan wouldn't work. Ending up after the end of the world in the Empty with Dean was so much preferable to survival in a saved world without Dean, forever knowing Dean had gone to his death alone. Forever knowing that Dean was already in the Empty, waiting for him, as Billie had promised.

Sam would give anything to go in his place, or barring that, to go with him. But Dean would be furious at Sam for joining him in the Empty too soon, for not at least making the effort to live without him. So Sam would try. He would make the effort. For Dean's sake, if not his own. He didn't have to like it, though. Probably wouldn't ever learn to accept it, and he would not, could not, root for this plan to work. He couldn't.

Just before Dean pulled back from their embrace, Sam felt him slip his hand into Sam's pocket, leaving the little amulet there, a silent promise between them.

"Keep it safe for me, Sammy," Dean murmured as Sam choked back his tears. "Keep it safe till I get back, y'hear?"

Sam nodded, swallowing down his helplessness and frustration as the brothers returned to the library so that Rowena could insert the bomb into Dean's chest. Then God took them to the cemetery in Lawrence where their mother was buried, so they could say goodbye.

In front of the others, Sam managed to display typical Winchester stoicism because it was expected, because Dean needed it, and because he'd already said his piece to his brother and Dean understood.

He couldn't help one last protest, though.

"You know you don't have to do this." You can stay with me. We can die together, go into the Empty together, after the world ends. If even the Empty still exists...

"'Course I do," Dean answered, and that was it.

While Sam said his goodbyes to their mother's grave, Dean turned to Castiel, who pulled Dean into a tight hug and offered to go with him, which of course Dean refused.

"I have to do this alone," he reminded Cas, who lowered his eyes in sorrow.

Then Dean glanced over Cas's shoulder at his brother, and exacted the promise he couldn't ask of Sam directly. "Sam's gonna be a mess after this, Cas. I need you to look after him for me, okay? Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."

Cas nodded, Dean's request embedding itself in his subconscious, almost as if he had one.

When Chuck teleported Dean off to only-God-knew-where, the rest of the group stood awkwardly together, mostly not looking at each other.

Then Crowley, Rowena, and God disappeared, leaving Sam and Castiel alone.

**//**

Six Months Later: Castiel

"He's dying."

Castiel stood watch over Sam as he slept, passed out after another evening with the bottle. Usually the angel had to half-drag, half-carry the drunken hunter from the library, where he most often drank as he carried on his futile search for a way to bring his brother back. Tonight the bottle had been empty, rolling around under the library table, and carrying Sam from the library to his bedroom had been easier than usual, since Sam was dead to the world and couldn't protest.

Carrying Sam wasn't as big a job as it was even a month ago. Sam had lost weight, got drunk even faster now. He rarely ate, no matter what Castiel fed him. It had been almost six months since Dean's sacrifice, and Sam's prognosis was not good.

"I promised Dean I'd keep him alive," Castiel said. "But even when I heal his physical injuries, his mind will not allow him to remain healthy. He is growing weaker. I cannot force him to stay alive when it is clearly against his will to do so."

"So let him go." Gabriel shrugged.

Castiel had conversed periodically with the archangel since Dean's "sacrifice." Even Castiel could not use the word "death" when he thought of Dean. He could not imagine Dean permanently ended. Castiel supposed he had developed the ability to grieve during his time with humanity, but more than that he had adopted the habit of disbelieving in the finality of death. Partly because as an angel he knew that souls went to Heaven, so he had always imagined being able to visit Dean regularly once he was there. It had never occurred to Castiel that Dean's soul might go into the Empty and be lost to him forever. It was too disturbing to contemplate, and Castiel preferred to imagine Dean still existing somewhere, somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary.

And the thought of losing Sam as well, of never seeing Sam's dimpled smile or sad-eyed gaze again... This idea was more troublesome than Castiel could admit, even to himself.

"I cannot," Castiel admitted now. "Dean would be very angry with me."

Gabriel shrugged noncommittally. "Something tells me Dean would understand," he commented dryly. "After all. He'd have his brother back. That's pretty much all Dean ever cared about, isn't it? Despite whatever he made you promise."

"Yes," Castiel sighed, overcome by grief for a moment when he thought of Dean. "But I cannot allow Sam to die."

"Doesn't seem like you've got much choice, brother," Gabriel said, almost gently. "Kid's gonna die. Obviously, it's what he wants."

Castiel said nothing, and for another moment the two angels stood shoulder to shoulder, gazing down at the sleeping form on the bed. Sam's breaths were labored, as if even in sleep he was willing his body to stop functioning, to give up.

"There might be another way," Castiel said finally. "I could do what I did when he came back from the Cage, after his Wall came down."

Gabriel gave him a sharp look. "What? You gonna shift his memories of his brother like you shifted his memories of the Cage?"

"If I do that, he could be happier," Castiel said. "He could live."

"You'd take his memories of Dean away from him." Gabriel shook his head. "His reason for living. Not sure that's such a good idea, brother."

"Not take them," Castiel argued. "Just push them aside. Dean won't be the center of his universe any more, so Sam can go on with his life."

"And you think Dean would be okay with that idea?" Gabriel raised an eyebrow, genuinely curious.

Castiel thought for a moment, then nodded. "I believe he would approve," he answered. "Dean has always wanted Sam to have a normal life. Perhaps, in this way, he can."

Gabriel shook his head again, a tiny smirk turning up the corners of his lips. "Sam's gonna notice there's something missing," he warned. "They're soulmates, remember? You remove one, the other one wastes away, pining for the other half of his soul. How are you gonna heal soul-sickness, Castiel?"

"I will be there," Castiel answered, suddenly more sure of this than he had been of anything he had ever done. "I will be there for Sam. I will always be there, and as far as he knows, I always have been there."

Gabriel whistled. "You're gonna replace Dean in his soul? Wow, Cas. I gotta say, I'm impressed. That's a level of commitment I never would have guessed you were capable of."

Castiel frowned, unsure whether to feel insulted. "I could never replace Dean," he said. "But if Sam believes I have always been in his life, he might at least trust me enough to allow me to treat his soul-sickness."

"If you don't fracture his mind in the process," Gabriel said.

"It is a risk I am willing to take," Castiel said, locking his jaw stubbornly. "I cannot allow Sam to waste away, as you say. If I do this, his grief and sense of loss will be lessened considerably, and he may even be able to live a long, healthy life."

Gabriel shook his head again. "Careful, brother," he said softly.

"What do you mean?" Castiel demanded.

Gabriel cocked his head, looking at him sidelong. "You sure you're doing this for Sam? 'Cause from where I'm standing, you sound more than a little like a man in love."

Castiel frowned. "As an angel, I am incapable of experiencing romantic love, as you well know," he protested. "Dean charged me with taking care of Sam in his absence, and it is a responsibility I take seriously. Dean assured me that I was the best friend he and Sam had, that I was like a brother to them. If I have learned anything from the Winchesters, it is that promises to family take precedence over all other commitments. I am all the family Sam has left, and I will do everything in my power to keep him alive and healthy. It is the least I can do."

"Uh huh," Gabriel nodded. "You keep telling yourself that."

"Gabriel, I am grateful for your consultation in these matters, but I fail to see how this particular line of questioning is helping to heal Sam. And right now, that is my primary concern."

"Of course it is," Gabriel smirked. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got other stuff to do. It's been real, brother."

And with that, Gabriel disappeared.

Castiel turned to the bed and bent down so he could lay the tips of his fingers against Sam's forehead. A pulse of light formed under Sam's skin, growing bright for a moment before fading.

Sam took a deep breath and almost immediately began to breathe normally.

"Sleep well, Sam," Castiel murmured as he left the room, dimming the light behind him.

**//**

Now: Sam

He's dreaming that dream again

Sam's running through a forest, searching for something. The air feels cool and crisp, but Sam's skin is clammy with fear and the adrenaline rush of pursuit. It's a fall day, and the woods are primeval, dense with underbrush and thick with tall evergreen trees that block out the sun. Sam has to jump over dead tree branches and dart around live trees to stay on the trail. He's hot and sweaty and out of breath, but he doesn't stop because he knows if he can just make it around the next corner, he'll find what he's looking for. He's desperate to find it, as if his life depends on it, and the anxiety of not knowing what it is he's looking for makes his head and his lungs ache with effort.

He wakes out of breath, heart pounding, almost passing out. Which is funny, considering he was just sleeping. His body thinks otherwise, though. He's soaked with sweat and the sheets are tangled around his legs, as if they were trying to hold him down or trip him up if he tried to leap away. He lies panting, staring up at the ceiling in the familiar gloom of his bedroom, pushing shaking hands through his damp hair.

Castiel is MIA, of course. Always is when Sam wakes up from a nightmare. Technically, this makes sense, since the angel doesn't sleep. But Sam misses the warm reassurance of his hand on Sam's shoulder, pretending everything's okay, giving his awkward brand of angel comfort that isn't exactly comforting.

But Castiel's companionship is all Sam allows himself these days. He's a hunter and a Man of Letters; as such he can't risk endangering people with his friendship, or even with his presence for very long. Too many people have already died that way: Jess, Sarah, Ellen and Jo, Bobby, Kevin, and Charlie. He includes his mother and father on that list when he's being painfully honest with himself, which is practically always. He won't do that to anyone else, ever again.

Through it all, Castiel has been there, off and on. He's pulled Sam's bacon out of the fire more times than he could count. He's healed and fixed Sam so he could fight another day, and that's what Sam does because it's what he was made to do, apparently. And Sam's grateful to the angel. Really, he is. Sam's probably a little insane, after all the years of fighting monsters and going to Hell and getting hit on the head and nearly choked to death so many times, but Castiel doesn't seem to mind. He doesn't even really seem to notice, which is comforting in its own way.

Castiel is probably a little insane himself, if angels suffer from mental health issues. Or maybe it's just part of his angel nature to be a little wrong in the head. At any rate, Sam accepts him the way he is, warts and all. Probably loves him, if it comes to that, not that Castiel could ever return those kinds of feelings. Or any feelings at all, really.

It's a weird relationship, all right, but better than none. Better than some, Sam adds in those moments when he considers the nature of his friendship with the angel.

He’s pulled my bacon out of the fire more times than I can count, Sam reflects again, but in his head it’s a deeper voice he hears. It’s not an expression Sam uses, but one that he’s heard so many times it’s second nature to him, or at least to his subconscious.

Must be Dad, he thinks, confusion wrinkling his brow. Dad must have said that. Which makes sense, since John Winchester had a deep, rich baritone voice that could make shivers of fear go up Sam’s spine when it was raised in anger or when John was threatening anything that dared to get in his way.

Sam doesn't remember much about his father. Hell, he doesn't remember much, period. Multiple concussions will do that to a man after a while. He's still got muscle-memories, and he remembers the things that matter, like how to kill a werewolf or a vampire, and most of the time he can recall at least one of the times he's done that in the past. But the details are hazy, or the peripheral memories are gone, sometimes both. His brain is just a big ol' hunk o' swiss cheese, all squishy and full o' holes.

It's that deep voice again, trying to distract him when he gets morbid, deflecting the seriousness of Sam's brain damage with a joke.

"There are things you don't want to remember, Sam," Castiel reminds him on days when the voice won't leave him alone , snarking and making lame jokes till Sam wants to scream, starts repeating the jokes out loud to Castiel just to get them out of his head. Castiel squints at him, then shakes his head as if he's heard it all before. "Terrible things. Your brain has submerged many of your memories just to allow you to keep functioning."

"It's like this other personality," Sam complains, although he isn't, really. If he's honest with himself, he's grateful to the voice. It keeps him company. "I must've been such a miserable, lonely kid."

"I believe your father did leave you alone quite often."

"But you were there," Sam says. "You were my imaginary friend. My guardian angel."

"Technically, I was neither," Castiel notes.

"But I didn't figure out that angels were real until after I left college," Sam muses. "Why did I leave college again?"

"You left college to find your father," Castiel says. "After your girlfriend died."

"Right," Sam nods, recalling a vague memory of soft blond curls and sparkling green eyes. "Jessica."

It was years ago now, and Sam doesn't remember much about the girl he used to love except the feelings of comfort and home and belonging that she gave him. He'd never had that before, he thinks, since his mom died when he was a baby, and his dad was on the road so much while Sam was growing up. After Jessica died, Sam took up his father's cause and never looked back, doing his part to fight the forces of darkness, one evil son-of-a-bitch at a time.

It's that voice again, all bravado and smirking charm, teasing away his gloomy thoughts with a crooked grin and flashing green eyes; it fills Sam's head and makes him think there was something he was supposed to remember... something about the darkness...

The Darkness. That was the thing that almost destroyed him. Almost destroyed the world. It's been over a year now, probably longer, since Amara threatened to take it all down. Cas for his part said yes to Lucifer in an attempt to stop her, something Sam still has difficulty processing. Lucifer's gone now, loose in the world, and Cas and Sam have been hunting him without much luck, since Lucifer can sense his former vessels, knows exactly what they're up to at any given time, and probably sends them hallucinations that they're not even aware of, just to mess with them. Just to keep them off guard.

If he cares enough to bother, which at this point Sam doubts. Lucifer's probably too busy messing with world politics. Sam's pretty sure he had a hand in the recent presidential election, at any rate.

As for Amara, Sam's not exactly sure what happened. It's all a little hazy, to be honest. Cas says there was a battle, and a lot of people and supernatural creatures died, including Crowley and Rowena, which is such a relief Sam can hardly believe his luck. God and some of the angels were involved. At one point God even healed Michael and reconstituted Gabriel so they could join the fight. Sam would like to remember that. He thinks he almost can, but the memory slips away like Gabriel’s cheerfully ironic smile. So he takes Cas’s word for it when the angel assures him they’re all gone, Amara and God included.

They won.

Now Sam’s life goes on as it always has, one day at a time, one case at a time. Nobody ever calls, the way he remembers happening when he was a child, but he takes that as an indication that his work is thorough but under the radar, the way it should be. Once in a while he recalls the details of a case as if it were yesterday, only to research it and discover the case happened years ago. It’s all jumbled in his head, but he’s mostly okay with that. He’s helped relieve the world of a lot of evil, and if he’s lost a few brain cells in the process, it seems a small price to pay.

He’s lonely, but he has Cas. It’s a good life. It’s better than he deserves, and he’s grateful just to be alive, just to be able to keep doing what he does for as long as he can.

**//**

"Cas, can I ask you something?"

They're in the library, researching their latest case. Well, Sam is, anyway. Castiel flits in and out, ostensibly checking sources, but Sam suspects he's really just bored.

"Of course," Castiel answers, standing stiff as a board on the other side of the table.

"Do you ever miss your family? The other angels, I mean. Don't you ever wish you could go home?"

"This is my home," Castiel says. "My home is with you."

"Yeah, but.. I mean, don't you ever miss being around other people who understand you? Angels, I mean. Other angels who understand what it's like to be you."

Castiel tilts his head quizzically. "I have you," he says simply.

"Yeah, but I'm human," Sam protests. "Your angel nature is so different. You're -- complex in ways I can't possibly understand. There's just no way I can ever know what it's like to be you. Not really. We're two different species. All I'm saying is, you must get lonely sometimes, with only me for company."

"I have existed for many millenia, Sam," Castiel reminds him. "Living out your life with you is only a small speck on the vast timeline of my existence. It is no hardship, I assure you."

Sam huffs out a breath and feels a flush creep up his chest, across his cheeks. "No, that's not exactly what I meant," he says softly. "But thank you. Good to know I'm not a burden on you."

"What about you, Sam?" Castiel says, and Sam is impressed by the angel's sensitivity. "Are you lonely with only me for company? Do you wish for someone more like yourself, another hunter, perhaps, who could share your life?"

Sam shakes his head. "Tried that," he mutters morosely. "She died."

"Jessica was not a hunter," Castiel reminds him. "Perhaps if you were to find someone who understood your life and the risks involved, you would not be so lonely."

"Who says I'm lonely?" Sam challenges, more disturbed by the thought than he cares to admit. "I have you, don't I?"

"Yes, you have me," Castiel agrees.

**//**

Next week they're on a hunt when something weird happens.

"Sam!" the petite, dark-haired woman in a sheriff's uniform greets him at the scene. Two victims, both with their hearts ripped out of their chests. Classic werewolf behavior. Classic case. Until this woman who seems to know him grabs him and pulls him down into a hug that would have been awkward even if she wasn't so short. "Jesus, Sam, I thought you were dead!"

When she releases him and takes a step back, Sam glances at her tag, wracking his memory.

"No," he huffs out. "No, uh -- Sheriff Mills. Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated." He tries to smile, but the woman is looking at him strangely.

"Jody," she corrects. "It's Jody, Sam. Jesus, are you okay? Where's Dean?"

"Where's -- who?" Sam stares at her, forcing down his feelings of inadequacy and the constant nagging guilt about his lack of memory. Obviously, he should know this woman.

"Dean." Jody's looking at him like she can't believe she has to spell it out. "Your brother. Where's your brother, Sam? Is he – Damn it, Sam. We heard both of you died. And when I couldn't get hold of you, I thought – Did you throw out all your old phones or something?"

Sam shakes his head, desperate to grasp her meaning. He had a brother? This woman knew him from before?

"Sam sustained fairly major injuries in the Final Battle," Castiel speaks up. Sam releases a sigh of relief as he feels the angel's shoulder brush his arm. He's a warm, steady presence at Sam's side, and Sam's more grateful than he will admit to have him barge in. "He spent six weeks in a coma, and when he woke up he had lost many of his memories."

Jody blinks, her hands going automatically to her hips, right hand hovering over her duty belt as she scrutinizes the angel.

"And you are...?"

"Agent Tielle, ma'am," Castiel answers smoothly, giving a little bow. "Cassandro Tielle, at your service." He flips out his badge, and Jody bends forward to study it, all the while keeping her hands safely on her belt.

Sam's proud of Castiel in that moment, proud of his poise and ease in a tense situation. He has vague memories of an earlier, more awkward Castiel, one who had difficulty convincing authorities that he was a real FBI agent. He's more confident now, and Sam's grateful for that.

"Agent Tielle, huh?" Jody glances between Cas and Sam, then pins a skeptical gaze on Sam. "You got yourself a new partner here, Sam?"

"Not so new," Sam answers. "Cas and I have been working together for a while now."

"Cas – Tielle," Jody frowns. "As in Castiel, the angel."

Sam jumps. He did not expect that. How did she know?

"Apparently, I knew you pretty well, before," Sam suggests cautiously.

"Oh, you think?" Jody crosses her arms over her chest and Sam relaxes. At least she's not quite so defensive now. "Wow. Brain injury, huh? Lost your memories. Oh Sam, I'm so sorry."

She invites them home for dinner, and they meet her "daughters," Claire and Alex.

"Where's Dean?" they ask, almost simultaneously, and Jody pulls them aside, says something low under her breath.

The girls turn back to Sam, staring.

"Oh God, Sam," Alex stammers. "I'm so sorry."

"Castiel!" Claire draws in a gasp as Sam's partner steps in the door behind him. Sam lifts an eyebrow as the girl pushes past him to fling her arms around the angel. He glances awkwardly at Jody, who gives him a quick smile that Sam feels he should understand, if he only knew her better.

"Damn it!" Claire pulls back suddenly and punches Castiel in the shoulder. "You never called! You never answered your phone!" She shoves him. "You promised, you asshole! You promised you'd always answer my calls!"

"Claire..." Jody's voice is low, a warning and a reprimand. But Claire'Fs having none of it.

"We thought you were dead, and you couldn't make a fucking phone call?"

"Claire..." This time Jody takes a step, lays a hand on the girl's arm.

Claire glares daggers at her, and Castiel recovers enough to muster a look of sincerity and compassion.

"I am sorry, Claire," he says gently. "I did not realize that it would be important to you to know that Sam and I were fine..."

"We thought the world was ending, and you didn't think to call us when you saved it," Claire snarks. "Since it happens all the time, right? The world ending, you saving it. Just another day at the office for you."

"Claire, why don't you show Sam the guest room so he can change his shirt, huh?" Jody interrupts. "Alex, I need you and Cas in the kitchen. Stat!"

Sam jumps at Jody's sharp tone, and Claire's jaw locks stubbornly; for a moment it looks like she might defy Jody's order. Then she rolls her eyes, huffs out a long sigh, and leads Sam down the hallway to the bedrooms.

Sam follows after her, shooting a questioning glance at Castiel. For his part, the angel looks so confused and chagrined by Claire's reprimand that he can only shrug at Sam before following his hostess into the kitchen. Sam is struck again by how human Cas seems sometimes, and it steadies him. Grounds him in the midst of his own confusion.

"Okay, so you really don't remember anything? About how you stopped the apocalypse, I mean," Claire asks as she opens a door at the end of the hall and steps inside. It's a small room, furnished simply with a single bed, small dresser, and a child-sized desk and chair. Apparently, Jody's guest expectations are a little limited.

Sam raises his eyebrows at Claire and tries to seem as unthreatening as possible, given their difference in height and her explosive temperament.

"No," he agrees with a little shake of his head. "I really don't. I mean, I get hazy flashes of things sometimes, but nothing specific."

"And Dean?" she presses. "You don't remember Dean at all?"

"Castiel says he was my partner," Sam answers, repeating what Castiel told him in the car on the drive over. "Everyone assumed he was my brother."

Claire's mouth drops open, and she squints up at him skeptically. "Seriously? Dude, you realize your entire life story is online. Don't tell me you've never googled your own name before."

Sam clears his throat. "I haven't, actually," he admits. "It never occurred to me. Cas tells me everything I need to know. I trust him."

Claire peers up at him for a moment, considering, and he tries not to flinch. "You're really messed up, aren't you?" she breathes, then shakes her head with a little laugh. "Not like I'm one to talk. Mother tortured and dead, father possessed by an angel and dead and all."

"Your dad was possessed by an angel?" Sam lifts his eyebrows again, and Claire raises her black-rimmed eyes to his.

"Yeah," she smirks. "By Castiel. You don't remember that either, do you?"

Sam shakes his head, frowning. "But that doesn't make any sense," he protests. "Claire, how old are you?"

"I'm twenty," she answers. "Fully emancipated. If I could make enough money, I'd be out of here, on my own by now. Hunting. Doing my part to keep the world safe from monsters like the ones that destroyed my family. Like you."

"Twenty," Sam repeats. "And your parents – they died when you were a baby?"

Claire shakes her head, smirk growing a little more lopsided. "No. Sometimes I wish. It might be easier if I couldn't remember them at all." She realizes what she's said immediately, flicks a glance up at Sam's face. "I mean, it is what it is, right? I was ten when my dad said yes to Castiel. We were a normal family before that. Dysfunctional, maybe, but only in the regular, normal ways. My dad was a religious nut. My mom was a little too trusting. Loved him a little too much."

"So – ten years ago." Sam shakes his head. "I don't understand. Castiel said – I thought he was with me since I was a child."

Claire frowns, considering. "According to the Supernatural books, he came straight from Heaven before he raised Dean from Hell. That's what it says online, anyway. You can check it out for yourself."

"I will," Sam nods as he puts his duffel on the bed.

Claire takes her cue to leave and turns away from him, putting her hand on the door.

"Sam?" she turns back and Sam looks up expectantly. "I hope you get your memories back. Dean was pretty cool, for an old guy. Kind of unforgettable, actually."

Sam sucks a breath in through his nose, lets it out as he shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot, loosening his shoulders to relieve the tension he's feeling.

"Apparently not," he says with a little shake of his head.

Claire nods and lowers her eyes as she leaves, closing the door behind her. But Sam could swear he saw tears in her eyes for a moment, before her tough, defiant mask fell into place.

**//**

Once he's changed out of his sweaty dress shirt and tie, Sam stuffs them into the duffel and pulls out a clean tee-shirt and jeans. He takes off his dress shoes and pants and lays the suit on the bed next to his duffel, then smoothes his hair down in the little mirror over the dresser.

Presentable. Less sweaty. Definitely more comfortable.

He opens the door to the hallway softly, then moves down the hall to the kitchen on stocking feet. He can hear Jody and Castiel talking, and when he hears his name he stops just outside the door. Something about all he's learned today, all he's just learned from Claire, makes him wait and listen. They obviously don't know he's there, and although he knows he shouldn't eavesdrop, he can't seem to stop himself.

"Sam deserves to know what happened to his brother, Castiel," Jody's saying, keeping her voice deliberately low.

"He knows," Castiel answers. "I explained it to him."

"But he doesn't remember Dean at all," Jody murmurs. Sam hears dishes scraping together. "That's just wrong. Can't you do something to fix that?"

Castiel says nothing for a moment, and it makes Sam's heart race.

"Castiel?" Jody prompts, and Sam hears a spoon clank, as if Jody's put it down and turned to face the angel.

"I am not entirely certain that I can," Castiel admits finally.

"You haven't even tried, have you?" Jody sucks in a breath. "Castiel, Sam needs those memories. They're part of who he is. A big part. He's not himself without them. It's like -- it's like he's walking around soulless again."

"No," Castiel protests sharply. "It is not. That is not an apt comparison, I assure you."

"But Dean was everything to him," Jody continues. "His whole life. Way more than just a partner, more than just his best friend. More than a brother, for God's sake. Sam can't just lose that and still be Sam, you know?"

Castiel says nothing for another moment, and Sam holds his breath, straining to hear every word, every inflection.

"The memories were killing him," Castiel says. "He was dying."

Jody is silent for so long that Sam almost interrupts. When she finally speaks, her tone is low and dark, incredulous.

"Okay, wait a minute. Are you telling me –– Are you saying you deliberately removed his memories of his brother?"

"He was dying," Castiel repeats. "I did what I had to do."

"Wow," Jody huffs, then sucks in another breath. "That's just...Wow."

Sam sinks back against the wall, his heart slowing as he feels a weight pushing against it. He can imagine Castiel's face right now, the stubborn set of his jaw, the narrowed blue eyes. Castiel isn't sure he's done the right thing, but he's sure he's done the thing that had to be done. Sam knows that look. He knows his angel. How could there be someone else? Someone else he trusted and cared for as much as Cas? How could Sam ever love anyone like he loves Castiel?

"You need to fix him, Cas," Jody says. "Give him back those memories. Let him grieve."

"I am not certain that I can," Castiel admits. "It's been over a year. His brain has formed new memories, filled in the blanks in his own past, and built new neural pathways..."

"Castiel, I lost my husband and my son to something supernatural," Jody reminds the angel. "It was violent and bloody, and Sam barely stopped me from joining them. I was grateful to him because he saved me from having to kill my own son. But I also felt guilty for surviving when my family were dead. All those feelings are normal, Castiel! They're part of the grieving process!"

"It's different for Sam," Castiel insists. "Dean was his soulmate. Sam could not go on living with the knowledge that Dean was gone. It was killing him. He was literally dying."

"You keep saying that," Jody lowered her voice, as if she could tell that Sam might be listening. "But that's how it is for humans. For all of us. When you lose someone you love, the grief is overwhelming for a while. But it gets better. Sam deserves to know that. He has the right to learn that he can survive even that greatest of losses. And you don't have the right to take that away from him. No one does."

"Sheriff Mills, I mean no disrespect to your own history of loss when I assure you that Sam already knows pretty much everything there is to know about grief," Castiel says quietly. "I doubt there is anything more he could learn from that kind of suffering. I have never known a human being who suffered and survived as much as Sam has done."

Jody's silence is answer enough, and Sam feels a swell of pride at Castiel's loyalty and defense, misguided as it may be.

Sam hears a shuffling noise, like Jody is turning away, unable to return the angel's intense look. The sound of a spoon stirring in a pot can be heard, and when Jody finally speaks again her voice is slightly muffled, subdued.

"Dean was such a special guy," Jody says quietly. "He deserves for his brother to remember him."

Sam clears his throat, taking that moment to announce his presence.

"Hey guys," he greets Jody and Castiel as he steps into the kitchen.

The angel and the sheriff are standing in front of the stove, side by side. Jody is stirring a pot of something with meat and spices that smells delicious, and Castiel has been chopping vegetables for a salad. His jacket is off, his sleeves rolled up, and the look he casts in Sam's direction is both contrite and concerned, which is how Sam knows he's aware that Sam was listening.

But Jody has no idea, of course.

"It's Jody," she corrects Castiel, as if their previous conversation had nothing to do with Sam. "Both of you need to call me Jody. Sam may not remember, but I'm just about the oldest friend he has, besides you, of course."

"Where are the girls?" Sam asks.

"I sent them out to buy pie and ice cream," she answers. "I may be able to cook, but I can't bake for shit, and this dinner calls for dessert. And wine, but I've already got that." She reaches for an open bottle of something so dark red it's almost black, and lifts it in Sam's direction. "Can I pour you a glass?"

"No, I'm good," Sam says. "I was actually hoping I could use your computer, since I left my laptop back at the motel. I think I need to google Dean Winchester."

Jody and Castiel exchange a look, and Sam waits for Castiel to protest, but the angel takes a deep breath instead.

"Sam, we need to talk," he says, laying his knife down on the counter.

"Later," Sam says. "I need a few minutes. If that's okay," he glances at Jody, who nods her permission. After what he's just heard, he can't quite make himself look at Castiel, and he's definitely not ready to talk.

"Of course it is," she says. "You can use the desktop in my room. Last door at the end of the hall. The password is 'True Grit.'"

Of course it is. Sam repeats Jody's words to himself as he smiles his thanks and leaves the room.

An hour later Jody comes in with a steaming bowl of chili, setting it down on the desk next to him. Sam looks up from the screen. He's been reading fan sites for the Carver Edlund novels, and he understands instinctively that it's all true, not just fiction. There's too much to absorb in one sitting, but he gets enough.

"Oh my God, I'm sorry," Sam starts as he registers the hour. "I totally lost track of time."

"It's okay," Jody smiles, setting a glass of ice water next to the chili. She puts her hand on his shoulder. "Take all the time you need."

Sam glances at her hand, then looks up at her face. "Your son and husband – I'm so sorry, Jody."

"It was a long time ago, Sam," Jody says softly. "Never stops hurting, but the pain's not quite so sharp now."

Sam nods and turns back to the screen. A shadowy photograph of a handsome stranger sits in the lower left-hand corner, next to a police sketch of the same man. Dean. Sam's found a couple of other photographs online, ostensibly taken by a fan who stalked the Winchesters at a crime scene a few years ago. Sam and the stranger are in both pictures, wearing fed suits and standing close as they talk to a uniformed officer.

"That's him, isn't it?" he asks Jody. She nods sympathetically.

"Ring any bells?" she asks. "Any memories?"

Sam shakes his head. "Nothing. He's not familiar to me at all. Not a bad-looking guy, though. I can see what the ladies saw in him."

"Oh honey, you have no idea," Jody sighs, and Sam glances at her sharply.

"You and Dean weren't – " Sam hesitates, awkward. "I mean, there wasn't anything – "

"Oh God, no," Jody startles, looking surprised. "He's a good ten years younger than I am. Not that I ever cared about that, but Dean was – well, he's a little too pretty for my taste, if you want to know the truth. I like a man who's a little more rugged. A little rougher around the edges."

"Huh," Sam looks back at the screen again. "I wish I could remember him. I mean, I feel like I should remember him. He was obviously important in my life."

"Well, that's putting it mildly," Jody notes wryly.

"Tell me about him," Sam asks, gesturing to the other chair. Jody hesitates a minute, then nods, pulling up the chair and sitting down so that Sam has to turn his chair a little to face her, so that the computer screen is between them.

Jody glances at the photographs on the screen and leans forward in her chair, clasping her hands between her knees.

"Okay," she says, "but only if you eat your chili."

Sam nods, reaches for the bowl and spoon, and obediently takes a bite.

"Wow," he exclaims. "This is good."

Jody smiles. "Dean could cook," she notes. "Not that I ever ate anything he fixed, but you used to tell me about the food he could rustle up in that kitchen of yours, back at the bunker. Dean loved it there. It was the first home he'd had since he was four years old, and he loved having a room of his own, hot showers, laundry. You guys used to use those coin-operated laundromats, back in the days when you were on the road all the time. Once you moved into the bunker, Dean was really excited about having his own washing machine and dryer. He loved to iron."

Sam stares. "How was I even related to this guy?"

Jody ducks her head as another grin splits her face. "You complemented each other," she notes. "I used to think you had the perfect relationship. Unconventional, maybe, and not without its challenges. But overall, you two were really good together, personally as well as professionally. I used to feel a little jealous."

"So he died in the Final Battle," Sam murmurs. "And I was dying of grief and – and guilt, probably."

"Survivor guilt," Jody nods firmly, like she knows. "It's a bitch."

"I should've saved him," Sam says, and although he knows intellectually that's right, he feels hollow inside where his feelings for Dean should be. He just doesn't remember. "I mean, clearly that's what we did for each other, more than a few times."

Jody nods, leans back in her chair, and licks her lips. "Yeah," she agrees. "And I don't know the details, but I'm guessing what Dean did, he did to save you. And the world, of course. Kinda beside the point as long as you're safe, but yeah. Big hero."

"And Castiel hasn't been with me all these years after all," Sam notes, running his hands through his hair. "Here I thought it was Cas. I mean, I knew I had somebody, I could feel it. Like another part of me but separate, you know? It felt so easy – I just assumed it was Cas."

Jody bites her lip and glances at the door. "You and Cas probably need to talk," she agrees. "And it's really none of my business, but I can say that, from what I know of the guy, he means well. For all the mistakes he's made, Dean trusted him. You trusted him. And I suspect that whatever he's done, he's done because he really cares about you."

"Yeah, I get that," Sam nods. He's a little disoriented and overwhelmed right now, but he doesn't want to burden Jody with that. It's not fair to her, for one thing. She's been through enough of her own shit. "Hey, thank you, Jody. I mean it. I can see what a good friend you were to me and Dean, and I appreciate that, even if I can't remember it."

"You saved my life, Sam," she reminds him. "More than once. I'll always owe you for that."

"Seems like you've more than repaid that debt," Sam answers. "And then some."

Jody shrugs, hauling herself to her feet with a hearty slap to her knee. "That's what friends do, especially in our line of work. Ain't nothin' special about it."

Except there is, and they both know it.

Jody offers to let them spend the night. The single bed in the guest room is more than adequate, since Cas doesn't sleep, and Sam is sorely tempted. There's something deeply reassuring about this woman and her "daughters," and Sam wants to hear more about them, wants to get their stories straight to fill in the blanks in his memory. He owes them that.

But he also wants to get back to the bunker, to research his condition and see if there's something he can do to reverse it. He wants to get a handle on what he's learned here so he can figure out what to do next.

He wants to get Cas alone so he can get some answers.

They compromise. They'll stay another day to help wrap up the case, then head home after another home-cooked meal.

In the car on the way back to the motel, Sam takes a deep breath. "I know why you did it," he says, keeping his eyes carefully on the road. He always drives. He's been driving this car since his Dad gave it to him all those years ago.

Except now he knows that's not true. Now he knows that's not what really happened. This car belonged to Dean. Dean was the usual driver.

"You do?" Cas says, clearly apprehensive.

"Dean and I were soulmates," Sam nods. "After he died, I was distraught with grief, out of my mind trying to get him back. Am I right?"

Cas nods, frowning. "It was not a good time," he agrees, voice low and soft.

"So you fixed me," Sam says. "Like you always do. You took care of me. I get that, Cas, I really do."

"You do?" Cas repeats.

Sam nods again. "Yeah, I do. I understand. I was no good that way. I couldn't do the work I needed to do. I wasn't able to function because I was lost to my obsession, killing myself over it, and you fixed that. You did what you had to do."

"I did?" Cas hesitates.

"Yeah, you did," Sam sighs. "It'll take me a while to adjust to the idea of myself as a brother, rather than a loner with an angel for a companion, but I'll get there."

"You aren't – angry with me?" Cas asks, and Sam shoots him a sharp glance.

"Oh, I'm angry," Sam admits. "You should have told me, right from the start. Not let me think you were always there, all the time I was growing up."

"Sam, if I could have been there, I would have," Cas says. "I wish I had been there. For both of you."

"I know," Sam nods sharply. "I believe you. I'm not happy about any of this, but I believe you did what you thought was for the best. I just wish I could remember any of it."

They're silent after this until they reach the motel, where Cas stands around awkwardly while Sam gets ready for bed. It's a routine Sam's always taken for granted, although he doesn't have specific memories of sharing a room with Cas. But he remembers someone holding him at night, comforting him when he woke up after a bad dream. He remembers shivering with fear because Dad's not there, he's gone again and Sam's alone and unprotected. But someone's there, whispering to him in the dark, petting his hair and pressing kisses against his forehead.

He always assumed it was Cas, but now he knows better.

"When did you stop hating me?" Sam asks as he pulls the covers back on the bed, then realizes he's too pumped on adrenaline to sleep yet. His mind is racing too fast.

"I never hated you, Sam." Cas is still wearing his trench coat. He never takes it off unless Sam tells him to. He wears it like a shield, or a suit of armor.

"You thought I was an 'abomination,'" Sam quotes from the Supernatural books. He sits down on the edge of the bed. He's barefoot and clad only in the tee-shirt and the sweatpants he usually wears to bed, although if Cas wasn't here he'd sleep naked. He's always overheated.

He gets a flash of someone's cold toes on his calves, a deep voice muttering "fuckin' furnace, Sammy," a shivering body pressed against him under the covers, cold fingers shoved up under his shirt, making him jump.

"That was a long time ago, Sam," Cas intones quietly. "I was mistaken about you. Misled by Michael and the others who were trying to use you and Dean to achieve their ends."

"The apocalypse," Sam nods.

"You stopped it," Cas reminds him. "You jumped into the Cage with Lucifer and Michael. You were very brave."

Sam feels a pressure in his chest, feels tears smart at the backs of his eyes. "I don't remember," he says. "Any of it."

Cas nods slowly. "It's probably better that way," he growls softly. "You were in the Cage for a very long time. Lucifer and Michael were not happy with you."

"But you got me out," Sam says, blinking tears away as he gazes up at Cas. His angel. "You saved me."

Cas winces and looks away, and Sam feels a twinge of doubt.

"Cas? You got me out, right? I mean, I'm here now, so that must be what happened."

"Yes, I got you out," Cas agrees, but he's still looking away, still not quite looking Sam in the eye.

"What else, Cas?" Sam asks. "What else happened? I mean, I know that was years ago. The Supernatural fan sites are full of conjecture and sightings since then. The fans seem to think Dean and I went on hunting after all that."

"Yes," Cas agrees.

Sam nods, fighting down the lump he feels rising in his throat. "Okay," he says. "Okay. I get that you don't want to tell me. I get that you think it's better if I just forget. I believe you when you say it was bad. I trust you, Cas. What else can I do?"

"I made mistakes, Sam," Cas says darkly. "I did things I regret deeply now. Terrible things."

Sam nods again, waving a hand dismissively. "You're not the only one, according to what I've read. I just need to know."

Castiel looks uncomfortable for a moment before he begins. "When I got you out of the Cage, your soul got left behind."

Sam listens as Cas tells him about Crowley and Grandpa Samuel, about Sam working with the Campbells and saving Dean from the djinn. Cas fills in the gaps where he can, since he wasn't there for much of that, but by the time they summoned him, Dean and Sam were working together again. Cas tells him how Dean got Sam's soul back, and Sam gasps. It doesn't sound real.

Cas is sketchy and winces a lot when he talks about Crowley, so Sam lets it go. Something happened, and Cas feels terrible about it, and that's enough. Apparently he atoned for whatever it was by saving Sam when he was dying after his psychic wall crashed down, but that part Sam believes without question.

Sam hears about the Leviathans and Purgatory and the year he and Dean spent apart. Cas doesn't know much about that, since he was in Purgatory with Dean, but he suspects Sam wasn't happy. Sam suspects he's right about that.

When Cas tells Sam about the Trials and Sam becoming ill beyond Cas's ability to heal him, Sam listens closely. He asks questions and gets Cas to admit that he was duped by Metatron and subsequently lost his grace so that Metatron could close Heaven. Without Cas to help, Dean turned to another angel to help Sam heal, and the consequences of that choice led to disaster and an estrangement between the brothers that led to more disaster.

"Winchesters apart is never a good thing," Castiel intones as if he's revealing a great truth, and Sam nods. He's getting the picture.

When Cas explains how the Mark of Cain turned Dean into a demon, Sam shivers. He doesn't have to ask whether Cas helped him fix Dean, although Cas is a little hesitant to explain how he got his grace back. By the time Cas explains how the Mark led the Winchesters to release the Darkness, over two hours have passed, and now they're back in familiar territory. Sam knows the rest of the story, although the parts about his brother being such a central figure are new.

"You know what I don't get?" Sam stops pacing the floor and turns to face Castiel, one hand raised to gesture at the angel, the other hand on his hip. "You didn't ask. Did you? When I was sick and dying before you did this to me. You didn't ask me if it was what I wanted, before you just did it."

Castiel's face shifts into a look of such anguish and sorrow, Sam almost forgives him.

"I couldn't lose you, Sam," he pleads, voice plaintive and wrecked with emotion like Sam's never seen him before. "I couldn't let you die. Billie promised she'd take you somewhere I could never go, where you'd stay permanently, with no way to get you back, and I – I couldn't let that happen. Please believe me, Sam. I did what I did because --

Castiel stops himself, a look of wonder and surprise replacing the pained expression, making him seem almost human.

"I love you too, Cas." Sam waves his hand dismissively. "That's not the point. The point is, you didn't ask first. You should have had my permission before you did what you did."

"Gabriel was right," Castiel murmurs, obviously lost in his own discovery. "I did it out of my own selfish need to keep you with me. That was wrong."

"No, Cas," Sam sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face tiredly. "People do stupid things for love."

"I am not people, Sam," Castiel growls, sounding like an angel again. "I am not motivated by human emotions."

"Apparently you are, in this case." Sam shakes his head. "Believe me, I get it. From what I've read in those novels, I've done a few stupid things myself. Demon deals. Killing people, not just monsters. I've killed people, Cas. I almost killed someone I loved. More than once. Believe me, I get it."

"You – You think I'm like you," Castiel says. "But I cannot be like you, Sam. I am an angel. Dean told me to make sure you didn't do anything stupid, yet I believe it is I who have made the terrible mistake he warned against."

Castiel seems so lost and shattered by his admission that Sam can't help feeling sorry for him. His anger dissipates, and he takes a step forward, pulling the angel in for a hug.

"It's okay, Cas," Sam soothes as the angel sags awkwardly into his embrace. "You were doing what you thought was best. You thought you were helping."

For a moment they stand holding each other, Sam stooping a little so that Cas can lay his chin on Sam's shoulder. Their height difference makes it impossible to press flush against each other, but it's comforting. Comfortable.

Sam has a sense memory of wrapping his arms around someone's waist, pressing his face against a leather-and-plaid-clad chest. That familiar deep voice, younger and lighter, murmuring, "It's okay, Sammy. You're okay."

"Hey – uh – Cas?" Sam pulls back. "Would you – do you mind lying down with me for a little while? Just till I fall asleep?"

Cas's piercing blue eyes narrow as a frown furrows his brow, and his lips part as he scrutinizes Sam's face, trying to read his expression.

"Of course not, Sam," he answers as Sam releases him. His arms fall back to his sides, and he waits. Sam thinks he'd probably stand there all night if Sam told him to.

"Okay, here," Sam reaches for Cas's coat. "You need to take that off, okay? And your shoes. Also, it'd probably be more comfortable for both of us if you took your belt off. Don't you have any sleepwear? No, probably not. Okay, so just strip down to your tee-shirt and boxers. How's that?"

It's like undressing a child, Sam thinks. Cas removes each article of clothing slowly and methodically and lays them on the other bed, as if it's something he's not accustomed to doing.

When Cas is wearing nothing but his tee-shirt, boxer shorts and socks, Sam nods. He climbs into the bed and shifts over, lifting the edge of the blanket in invitation. Cas climbs into the bed next to him, and Sam turns his back to the angel, reaching up to switch off the light.

"Goodnight, Cas," Sam murmurs, letting himself be comforted by the weight of the other man's presence in the bed.

It's not quite right. Cas doesn't slap his ass and press up against him, doesn't breathe into the back of his neck or reach around and tweak his nipple. Cas doesn't wiggle and squirm next to him until Sam's forced to turn over and pin the smaller man to the bed, grab his wrists and cross his chest with them, entwining his legs with Sam's. Cas doesn't struggle to free himself, sputtering indignantly for a minute before giving in, letting Sam spoon his body as he relaxes and settles. Most of all, Cas doesn't fall asleep in Sam's arms, warm and content and loved, with Sam's unavoidable hard-on pressed against his ass.

Sam takes a long, deep breath, lets it out slow.

"Are you all right, Sam?" Cas asks from his side of the bed.

Sam is silent for a moment, then he shifts onto his back and stares up at the dark ceiling, which is probably dirty and cracked and stained with God-knows-what. Sam's glad he doesn't.

"You took my memories, and I should be angry about that, and I am," Sam says finally. "But the thing is, I have all these feelings, all these sense memories. I always figured they were of you. I thought all those feelings were for you."

Sam turns his head, gazes at Castiel's dark profile. The angel's eyes glitter in the dim light of a streetlight through the curtains as he turns his head to face Sam.

"I'm sorry, Sam," Cas says, "It must be very confusing."

"You let me assume that you were the constant presence in my life, when all along it was my brother," Sam concedes. "That'll take a little getting used to."

"It must be disappointing," Cas suggests. "You loved him very much."

A lump rises in Sam's throat again, and he reaches for Cas's hand, tangles their fingers together. Cas's hand is soft and smooth, not rough and calloused as Sam expected. Not the hand of someone used to digging graves or handling a gun. Not the hand of a hunter.

"I thought it was you," Sam whispers. "I thought I loved you like that."

Castiel looks down at their clasped hands, squeezes tentatively. "Perhaps I have enough love for both of us," he murmurs. "Apparently, my feelings for you are profound. More than I had allowed myself to admit."

Sam pulls Cas's hand up and presses his lips to the back of it. Cas's skin is smooth and soft there, too. Doesn't smell like gun oil or gasoline or burger grease. He presses it against his cheek anyway.

"You're not who I thought you were," Sam murmurs, and he feels a tear leak out of the corner of his eye and roll down his cheek. "And I'm all hollowed out, all broken and empty inside. How can you love a ghost, Castiel?"

"You're still you, Sam," Cas untangles their fingers so he can brush the tear away. He props himself up on one elbow to look down into Sam's face, smoothing Sam's hair with gentle fingers. Sam blinks up at him, aware that Cas can see every feature of Sam's face in the dark, although Cas's face is in shadow. "You're tough and brave and strong and smart and loyal to a fault. You still love me, even knowing what I've done. You've demonstrated true courage in your choice to go on in the face of despair and hopelessness. You never give up, never surrender."

Sam smiles as his mind catches the Galaxy Quest reference he's heard too many times before, probably from his brother, he realizes now. Castiel slides his thumb along Sam's cheek, along the groove of his dimple, and Sam thinks he's smiling, too, although maybe for a different reason.

"I'm not sure who that guy was, Cas, but he wasn't me," Sam shakes his head a little. "I'm somebody else now. I'm made up of gaps and absences and holes. Even my feelings are weak and watered down. I feel like I'm just going through the motions, you know? Like there's nothing there where my soul should be."

"Sam, I can assure you, your soul is intact and still inside you," Castiel growls, maybe a tad more emphatic than he should be, since Sam was only speaking figuratively. Of course he's still got his soul.

"My heart, then," Sam tries again. "My heart's missing. And I don't mean literally. Hey, you know what? Never mind."

"Sam, may I – " Castiel hesitates, then blurts out, "may I kiss you?"

Castiel's warm fingers are still on Sam's cheek, thumb stroking along the groove of his dimple, and it's nice. Comforting.

"Okay," Sam agrees. I'll try anything once, the deep voice in his head says, and Sam tries not to think what that might mean as Castiel's face draws closer. Just before the angel's lips touch his, Sam closes his eyes, since there's nothing to see anyway.

Castiel's mouth is warm and dry. He kisses gently, carefully, then pulls back before Sam can respond.

Sam blinks up at the angel as he hovers expectantly.

"We don't do this, do we?" Sam asks, although he can almost feel calloused hands in his hair, holding him still as plush lips plunder his mouth. He can almost feel the desperate grinding of a hard body against his.

Castiel shakes his head. "No. But I understand that this is how humans show affection," he says. "I remember from my time as a human how pleasurable it can be to touch and kiss another human. I am aware that humans express their love for each other this way."

Sam clears his throat and shifts awkwardly. "Sometimes sex is just sex, Cas," he says. "It doesn't always have to mean something."

But the words feel like echoes of that other voice in Sam's head, spoken in that teasing tone meant to deflect the deeper meaning behind them. They're true, but not in this case. Not for Sam and his angel.

Nor for Sam and his brother.

"I believe that for you and me, sex would have meaning," Cas says, as if he's read Sam's mind. "I believe it would fundamentally alter our relationship."

"Maybe we should find out," Sam suggests, surprising himself. He can't recall ever considering Castiel as a sexual partner, and it occurs to him that if he pursues this he might be using the angel to trigger more sense memories of his brother.

Which feels wrong on so many levels it shocks him.

Thankfully, Castiel seems to understand. "I am fairly certain that would not be a good idea, Sam," he says quietly. "Any sexual attraction you are feeling for me is undoubtedly misplaced."

"My brother and I..." Sam can't finish the question, but Cas nods his understanding anyway.

"You and Dean were very close," Cas agrees. "In every way."

Sam closes his eyes and turns away, a deep sigh escaping his lips as he senses the truth of Cas's words, expecting shame and sorrow to follow. He's fucked up in more ways than he could have imagined, and adding incest to the list should fill him with despair.

When it doesn't, when it simply fills him with relief because now he understands those faint, awkward sense-memories that have been haunting his dreams, when now he gets why those memories don't jibe with the way he feels about Cas, all the tension in Sam's body seeps away. He feels tired, exhausted, but in a good way. It's like a piece of a puzzle in his psyche has snapped into place, and now Sam can relax.

"I think I can sleep now," he murmurs, reaching almost unconsciously for Cas's hand, tugging him close.

It should be pathetic, how much he needs Cas after what he's just learned, but there it is. Castiel may not be the life partner Sam thought, he may not be the constant companion from childhood that Sam assumed, but he's all Sam has now. He loves Sam, he's here now, and Sam needs him.

Sam turns onto his side, curling into a fetal position, pulling Castiel's hand with him so that the angel curls up behind him, spooning him. Sam clutches Castiel's arm against his chest, holding their clasped hands over his heart as sleep pulls him under.

** // **

He dreams he's in the bunker. It's dark outside, and there are only dim emergency-level lights on in the library. He's prowling the halls because he can't sleep. This is a memory, he realizes. A memory of my real life. It's the night before the Final Battle, and he's not alone.

Chuck sits in the armchair against the back wall, sipping whiskey from a tumbler. Neat, with no ice, which is why Sam didn't hear him at first. He nods as Sam pulls up a chair, accepts a second glass of the dark amber liquid.

"You know, I used to daydream about what I would say to you, if we ever met," Sam says. "I spent hours imagining our conversations."

"I know, Sam," Chuck smiles wearily. "I heard you."

"You did? I mean, of course you did," Sam grins broadly, feeling himself blush. "I had so many things to ask you about."

Chuck nods. "You know, most kids ask me for things," he observes. "A pony, or a new bicycle. Like I'm Santa Claus. Not Sam Winchester, though. Sam wanted to know if there was life on other planets. How did the ancient Romans really sound when they spoke Latin. Did Shakespeare have a sister."

"I was a curious kid," Sam shrugs.

"But now Sam has a request," Chuck notes. "Now you're asking for something."

Sam swallows, looks down at his drink. "Yeah," he breathes.

"But first, let me ask you something," Chuck peers at him keenly. "What if I told you the only way to stop Amara is for you to take on the Mark of Cain?"

Sam looks up, sucking in a sharp gasp. "Okay," he says with only a moment's hesitation. "I'll do it. But you have to promise you'll lock me up after I put Amara away. You have to promise you'll save Dean, put me somewhere I can't hurt him."

Chuck's gaze softens, and he nods. "I can do that," he assures Sam. "But I'm not telling you to take on the Mark. Only suggesting that it might come to that, and if it does, I need you to be ready."

Sam nods. "Okay," he agrees. "Just don't tell Dean. Not if it isn't absolutely necessary. He doesn't need to know ahead of time, if it comes to that. It'll only make him mad."

Chuck smiles and looks down at his glass. "You're not wrong," he agrees. "Of course, there's another possibility that you should probably prepare for."

"Dean," Sam says softly, and Chuck nods. "Amara wants Dean."

Chuck runs a finger along the edge of the glass thoughtfully. "Dean might be able to talk her out of destroying everything, if he agrees to go with her."

"But what does that mean, if he goes with her?" Sam pleads. "Where would they go? What would happen to him?"

Chuck takes a deep breath and sinks back in his armchair. His big, expressive eyes seem to grow larger. "He would cease to exist," Chuck sighs. "He would become part of her. Forever. There would essentially be no more Dean."

Sam feels his chest tighten. "If that happens, I want to be there," he says, voice choked and broken. "I want to be there with him. Please. Can you promise me that, Chuck? Can you promise I'll be there with him, at the end? So he doesn't have to do it alone? He hates to be alone."

Chuck's shoulders rise and fall as he sighs, shaking his head a little.

Panic rises in Sam's chest; it's suddenly extremely urgent for Chuck to agree to this, to allow Sam to be with his brother at the moment when his life ends. Just as Dean was there for Sam when Sam threw himself into the Cage with Lucifer and Michael, so Sam should be there for Dean if their positions are reversed.

"Chuck, please," Sam tries again. "Please promise you'll let me be there with him, if it comes to that."

"If it comes to that," Chuck agrees finally, a little snappishly and more than somewhat doubtful, it seems to Sam, as if it seems impossible to him that such a thing could come about.

But of course that's exactly what goes down, as it turns out.

In that strange way of dreams, Sam's suddenly standing in the cemetery on the day everything is ending, saying goodbye to Dean for the last time as he goes off to try to blow Amara to smithereens to save the world. When Dean disappears, Chuck and Crowley and Rowena disappear almost immediately afterwards, leaving Sam and Castiel alone.

"No," Sam gasps, staring around wildly. "No! Chuck, you promised! You promised, Chuck!" He shouts into the emptiness and stillness, panic rising in his chest as rage and desperation clouds his vision. He'll scream himself hoarse if he has to.

But suddenly the scene changes. He's in a garden, and there's Dean and Amara, standing close together facing each other, speaking in low voices, eyes locked. Amara lifts her hand as if to take Dean's hand, and then it happens. The light is blinding, the flash going on and on before any sound reaches Sam's ears, and he has only a momentary glimpse of Dean and Amara consumed by the explosion before the force of the blast hits Sam and he blacks out.

He wakes up alone in his motel bed, heart pounding, sweat making the sheet cling to his legs and torso. He lies still for some time, going over the details of the dream, grasping at the edges as it fades from his memory.

Now he knows. Now he knows what really happened.