A/N - Yesterday was my last day at my old job. What a run of overtime it's been — 12-14 hour work days every day, no weekends off, for months now! Since jibcon in fact. (And all unpaid overtime, of course, sigh) As you've all noticed the fic writing has had to take a back seat. I've still got some science papers I need to work on this coming month but the immediate daily work pressure is off now, so I'm really hopeful I'll get some solid fic-writing time in for Aug & Sept.

The very first thing I did today (my very first day after my job ended) was work up two new chapters for my two current fics, and I'm hoping to keep updating them both weekly after this.

So thank you all for your patience in the last couple months!

We now return to a certain clearing in the redwoods. Just to refresh your memories: Sam and Dean are chained to a pair of trees with Calcariel holding an ember over a pile of tinder at Sam's feet. Cas is standing in the clearing with his feet magically stuck in place and unable to move; Sarah & Mac are at the edge of the clearing, but both injured (Mac with a broken arm and Sarah limping)... and Calcariel is now calling the fire elemental to devour Sam.

The fire elemental floated gently toward Sam, dancing in the air.

"No!" Dean yelled, "Calcariel, call it off! Stop it!" But Calcariel just raised her hand a little, holding the fire elemental's ember right above Sam's feet now. The elemental drifted closer, till it was just ten feet from Sam, a tall, flickering ribbon of yellow silk that seemed almost playful, dancing and shimmering in the air. The heat radiating off of it was scorching. Sam cringed against the tree, his teeth gritted.

Maybe it's like Mr. Magma, thought Dean. Maybe we can negotiate with it? He cleared his throat and said, a little nervously, "Um, Mr. Fire Elemental, sir? Or, um... ma'am? Look, maybe we can come to an agreement here. Do you like M&M's by any chance?"

But the fire elemental didn't pause.

"It's not listening," Sam whispered back.

"You're all just toys to it," said Calcariel, who seemed unaffected by the scorching heat. "Just more potential fuel."

Behind Calcariel, Cas made a slight movement, a little shake of the arm. The movement was familiar; Cas must've just slid one his back-up blades into his hand. Dean felt a brief flicker of hope, but Calcariel said, "Oh, please," her voice was laced with bored annoyance. She waved her free hand over her shoulder at Cas, and instantly he was shoved hard to the ground on his back, his wings spreading helplessly as if a giant hand were pressing down on them. His blade slithered away as if it had been pulled by a string. Dean winced; he could only hope that Cas's wing hadn't just been re-broken. Calcariel returned her attention to the air elemental, while Cas lay there, pinned in place, apparently unable to move.

Then: BOOM.

The ember went flying out of Calcariel's hand in a blazing shower of sparks. One particularly bright spark soared over to a different redwood across the clearing, and the entire redwood burst instantly into fire, from the roots all the way up to the crown high overhead.

Somebody had shot the ember right out of Calcariel's hand. Calcariel whipped around and there stood Sarah, of all people, Sarah, still standing by Mac's side but now holding Dean's dropped pistol in a firm two-handed grip— the pistol Calcariel had whisked away when the Winchesters had first arrived at the clearing.

Sarah shot again, bracing herself, one eye squinted shut as she aimed carefully. BOOM. BOOM. She was aiming for the blue pendant now. Mac was looking up at her, astonished.

She's a Wyoming girl, Dean remembered. Grew up on a ranch. And ranch girls always know how to shoot.

BOOM. Another shot. Sarah was still trying for the blue pendant, but now Calcariel was onto her. Calcariel easily deflected the three bullets, and with one easy wave of a hand, Calcariel smashed Sarah flat on her back to the ground. She lost her grip on the gun and it slithered away, just as Cas's blade had.

Calcariel howled in rage, screaming, "You little UNGRATEFUL BEAST! I TREATED YOU FAIRLY!" She gripped the unbroken blue pendant in her hand, the air-elemental pendant, and started chanting something. In a split second the funnel-cloud came roaring close by overhead. The fire elemental was darting away now — it seemed it'd been freed the moment that Calcariel had dropped the ember, for it was dancing up to the treetops now, setting tree after tree on fire with evident joy. But Calcariel still had the air elemental.

Calcariel said something to the air-elemental, pointing at Sarah. The funnel-cloud hesitated visibly, and Calcariel bit the pendant, hard, just as she had before. The funnel-cloud twitched, cringing, and shrank slightly.

But the elemental still didn't move toward Sarah. Instead it made a tiny move toward Dean.

Calcariel screamed at it, biting the blue pendant again and again. The funnel cloud seemed to compress under the unending assault, shrinking down to the ground and folding down into a little dust-devil on the ground, just as the Bahamas one had. It veered from side to side as it tried to make its unsteady way toward Dean, growing steadily smaller. But despite Calcariel's raging, despite all the bites on the pendant, the dust-devil managed to reach Dean's side, till it was buffeting right against the tree.

Dean felt a gust of weirdly strong air near his hand, almost like a hammer had swept very close to him. The silver shackles on Dean's wrists and neck shifted; was the elemental trying to pull the attached silver spikes free, to get Dean's hand loose of the tree? Calcariel screamed and bit the pendant again and the elemental shrank a little. A moment later it had dropped the tiniest tree imaginable right into Dean's hand, and then the little dust-devil cringed away, fading back to the edge of the clearing.

There seemed to be a bit of slack now in the wrist-shackle chain, enough for Dean to be able to catch the elemental's little gift, and turn it around and look at it. The "tree" was ridiculously small, just a tiny seedling really. It must have been the only tree the elemental had been able to carry against Calcariel's direct orders. It was barely two feet tall, just a single spindly stalk with a pathetically small spray of pine needles at the top.

At that point Cas started to crawl away, oddly enough. He'd managed to roll onto his stomach and was now flapping his right wing dramatically, though the left one was only flailing in pitiful small shudders, the left wing-tip trailing on the dust in the ground. Dammit, no, no! thought Dean, thinking that Cas's wing had been broken again. But then Cas looked back over his shoulder and cast a sharp look at Dean — and at Dean's little tree.

Cas was feigning a broken wing. Dean felt certain. Castiel was trying to lead Calcariel away, by feigning a broken wing just like a mother shorebird trying to lead a predator away from a nest.

And indeed it caught Calcariel's eye. Calcariel spun toward Cas and roared at him, "You SEE what it's like when a wing is damaged? You SEE how it hurts! Well, it'll HURT MORE SOON, Castiel!"

While Calcariel ranted at Cas, and while Cas flailed his "broken" wing ever more pathetically, slowing his crawling to an even more pitiful pace, Dean took the opportunity to try to wrestle his wrist-shackle spike out of the tree. The air elemental had definitely managed to loosen the spike, and with a couple quick yanks, at last Dean pulled his hand free of the tree.

One hand free now. This was completely pointless. What could you do with a two-foot-tall pine tree?

What the hell, thought Dean, Maybe I can hit Calcariel in the eyes with some pine needles and just distract him— her— for a moment?

He threw the tiny tree at Calcariel.

It was a useless move, an act of desperation.

But the tree did hit Calcariel. Just on the arm, not a hard blow at all, but Calcariel jerked, stiffened, and toppled over backwards, white light suddenly gleaming at her eyes and mouth. The pine needles seemed to have plastered themselves against her arm, and they were glowing bright blue— the same blue as the pendant at Calcariel's neck.

Calcariel sprawled there on her back, trying to close her mouth, the white light almost, but not quite, spilling out of the vessel.

Cas hollered, "THE LEAF! QUICK!" Dean stared at him, and Castiel roared, "THE LEAF! FROM THE BAHAMAS! THE LEAF IN YOUR POCKET! THROW THE LEAF ON HER!"


The leaf. The last gift from a desperate, captive air elemental — the air elemental back in the Bahamas. A millennia-old elemental, an unthinkably old creature of eons past, a creature that undoubtedly had great magic at its disposal. A creature that had known they would be confronting an angel.

Dean open his shirt-pocket, fishing out the Bahamas leaf with one shaking hand, and he flung it toward Calcariel.

The leaf zoomed straight to Calcariel, carried by a sudden helpful puff of air from the wavering dust-devil nearby, and the leaf plastered itself right against Calcariel's neck, glowing with the elemental's blue light. The white light at Calcariel's mouth and eyes grew brighter, almost seeping out. Calcariel spasmed, her back arching, and she slapped one hand over her eyes and one over her mouth, as if trying to keep herself housed in the vessel.

Sam called, "MY LEAF! DEAN! I've still got my leaf too! GET IT! I CAN'T REACH IT!"

With a few more ferocious yanks, Dean managed to pull completely free of the tree — he was a little starteld to realize that the air elemental had actually broken the shackle-clasps, and in a moment he was completely free. He wobbled over to Sam, dragged Sam's leaf out of Sam's shirtpocket and tossed that one at Calcariel too.

This leaf plastered itself to Calcariel's forehead. Calcariel jerked, spasming, under the triple blow of the pine needles and the Bahamas leaves— the combined magic of two air elementals. Her hands fell away from her eyes and mouth; the white light bulged out; and they all heard Calcariel say, in a very different voice, a thready, high-pitched girl's voice, "Get out! Get OUT! GET OUT! I take back my consent! GET OUT OF ME, YOU SON OF A BITCH!"

A bright stream of white light shot out of Calcariel's mouth and up into the air.

Cas sprang to his feet, both his wings suddenly fine and folding up neatly at his back. Calcariel's magical hold on Cas — and on Sarah and Mac as well — seemed to have broken. Sarah started helping Mac to his feet, helping him cradle his broken arm, and the two of them came limping closer. Sam was still shackled to his tree, staring up at Calcariel, who was now darting around overhead in the form of a streamer of light overhead (Calcariel seemed to be chasing after the fire elemental, which kept dodging him). Dean began hauling as hard as he could on Sam's silver spikes, trying to free him from the tree. The tiny dust-devil was still wobbling at the edge of the clearing. And the blonde teenage girl, Calcariel no longer, was getting shakily to her feet, tears streaming down her face. She yanked at the blue pendant around her neck, pulled it over her head with one clenched fist, and screamed at the top of her lungs at the white streamer of light that was zooming back and forth through the burning trees overhead, "YOU'RE A TERRIBLE ANGEL! YOU LIED TO ME! YOU TOTALLY LIED! AND YOUR STUPID PLAN SUCKS!"

Castiel ran straight to the girl, who shrank back from him uncertainly, eyeing his wings and saying, "Get— get away— you're an angel too— aren't you— aren't you an angel?"

"Yes," said Castiel, grabbed the blue pendant from her hand. "But a better kind of angel. I hope." He flung the pendant to the ground, and ground his heel onto it.

A huge burst of wind roared through the clearing and the dust-devil leapt upward in joy. In a flash it swelled to full-bore tornado size and sprang into the air high overhead, and then it twisted sideways, horizontal, chasing after the slender streamer of white light that was still circling over the clearing. The white light tried to dart away, but faster than thought the tornado chased after it.

Everyone below was staring up in shock — Sam, still tied to the tree; Cas, staring up at the sky, one foot still on the remnants of the pendant; Sarah and Mac, pausing together, looking upwards; Dean, who was still yanking on one of Sam's wrist-shackles; and the blonde girl, still shaking, tears streaming down her face. All of them just stared up for a moment, trying to take in the incredible scene overhead. Vast redwoods loomed up all around them, stretching hundreds of feet upwards. The redwoods were bursting into flame one by one as the flame-orange fire elemental bounced from treetop to treetop in joy, far overhead, and quite a few trees were now in long lines of flames that stretched from their crowns all the way down to the ground. Meanwhile the sideways tornado— the air elemental— was veering crazily across the sky chasing a desperately dodging streamer of white light— Calcariel, of course. The tornado seemed determined to not let the streamer-of-white-light escape, and was whipping rapidly all over the sky, trying to hem the white light in... with the unfortunate side-effect that bursts of wind kept whipping through the clearing.

And every burst of wind made the fires all around flame brighter.

A shower of sparks drifted down. A moment later a huge flaming redwood-branch plunged to the ground. Everybody jumped.

"Sarah, GO!" Sam yelled, snapping everybody out of their trance. "Mac, you too! Get out of here!"

Dean yanked his attention back to down to the clearing. He glanced around and realized things were looking pretty alarming. Several cabins nearby had caught on fire too, several more trees were in flames, and ashes and sparks were drifting everywhere.

"We can't leave you," Mac said to Sam — though it didn't actually look like Mac was going to be much help, though he was picking up a rock with his good arm and trying to hammer Sam's other wrist-spike loose. Soon Sarah and Mac were both chipping wood away from one wrist-shackle while Cas and Dean both started wrestling with the other two shackles.

"GO!" Sam yelled at all four of them. "You have to go! All of you, get out of here!"

"You took our place," said Sarah, and Mac just nodded. Mac's rock shattered against the angel-metal of the wrist-shackle, and Sarah limped over to one of the fallen angel-blades, grabbed it off the ground, limped back to Sam and began hacking at the tree-bark where the shackle's chain was attached to a silver spike driven deep into the tree. Dean was now trying to pick the latch of the neck-shackle, but whatever the air-elemental had managed to do to Dean's own neck-shackle didn't seem to be very easy to do; Sam's neck-shackle stubbornly refused to open. Cas, meanwhile, had fetched one of his other angel-blades (which were scattered around the clearing now) and had started copying Sarah's tree-chipping technique. Dean spared a glance around the clearing. The fires had all grown. The air was getting hot. At least ten trees around them were burning now, and most of the cabins had caught fire.

"Dean," Sam said.

Dean glanced at him.

Sam hissed, "Get them out of here."

Dean gave Sam one short nod. He groped in his pocket for the VW key and turned to Sarah and Mac. Dean almost had to shove himself in their path to make them stop chipping away at the tree. Dean said, "Guys. Guys. You've got to get out of here. The most helpful thing you can do is, take our van and go get the fire department in the nearest town. Take the girl too. Go to the van— it's the VW, it's parked at the parking lot right over the little bridge— and go to the nearest town and find their fire department. Tell them the music camp is on fire and to send everything they've got."

Sarah and Mac paused, glancing at each other. Dean could see the uncertainty in their eyes.

"You've already done more than enough," Cas told them. "Your role is done. Please, save yourselves — and save the girl too. None of this was her fault."

"I promise we'll be okay," added Dean. "We'll get Sam free. But you've got to go."

Sarah and Mac looked at each other for a moment. Mac gave a short nod, and Sarah grabbed the VW key from Dean's hand. Mac took her arm (there still seemed to be something wrong with Sarah's ankle — it was hard to tell which of them was supporting the other more, actually), and the two of them made sort of a limping dash over to the blonde girl (who was still staring vacantly up at the darting streamer of light overhead, muttering, "You lied to me... You lied to me..."). Mac grabbed the girl by one hand, barked, "Come with us!" and jerked her roughly toward the trail to the river.

A moment later Sarah and Mac were hustling down the trail, dragging the stumbling blonde girl along with them.

"TURN LEFT AT THE ROAD!" Dean hollered after her. "THE OTHER WAY'S BLOCKED WITH TREES!" They didn't even look back at him, but Dean saw Mac nod and wave. Thankfully the blonde girl seemed to be recovering; soon the girl sped up, started to help support Sarah from her other side. Soon they had vanished into the smoke, down the path between the burning cabins.

Dean turned back toward Sam. Cas was wrestling with the wrist-shackle, trying now to press the points of two angel-blades against it.

"You work on the neck-spike," said Cas briefly to Dean. "Do what Sarah and Mac were trying— try to dig out the spike from the tree-trunk." He tossed Dean one blade, saying, "I think I can get the wrist-shackle off. It's got a mechanism I think I can trip." Dean set to work, hacking at the tree for all he was worth with one of Cas's slender angel blades. Chip after chip of wood flew away, Sam cringing to the side with his eyes squeezed shut as chips of wood hit him in the face.

But it was slow going. "Dammit," Dean muttered. The air was getting smokier, the fires all around them were getting worse, and he'd only gotten an inch down into the wood. Cas was still fiddling with the wrist-shackle. At long last Cas said, "Got it," and one wrist shackle sprang open. Sam whipped his hand free and, annoyingly, instantly started using that hand to try to push Dean off of him.

"Leave," Sam said, his voice gruff. "Both of you. Get out now."

"Shut up," said Dean, shoving Sam's hand away, still hammering at the tree bark.

"LOOK AROUND!" said Sam. "You're both almost trapped. The fire's about to block the trail." Another huge branch plummeted to the ground near them in a blaze of sparks, as if to punctuate Sam's words. "LEAVE!" yelled Sam, still trying to shove Dean back.

"I'm not leaving you, you idiot," growled Dean, knocking Sam's hand away again, so Sam tried to stop Cas next, reaching his free arm under Dean to try to block Cas from working at the other wrist-shackle.

Cas slammed one wing out without even looking, pinning Sam's free hand to the tree with his wing, and said, "I'm not leaving you either. Neither of us is leaving you. Shut up and hold still." Cas was focusing intently on the wrist-shackle, frowning in concentration, pressing the blade tip at some tiny mechanism on one part of the shackle. A moment later he said in triumph, "There!" and the second wrist shackle sprang open.

Both Dean and Cas focused all their energy on the neck-shackle's tree spike then, alternating blows with the angel-blades while Sam (finally showing a glimmer of a desire to live) grabbed the end of the spike with both hands and yanked hard on it, trying to work it free. It seemed to take ages; Dean was covered with sweat, panting and coughing, wood chips flying everywhere. At last the spike came free, so suddenly that Sam fell over backwards into the sea of sparks that was now lying all over the ground. He scrambled to his feet, brushing flaming cinders off his arms, and the three of them turned to run down the path.

And then all three of them came to a screeching halt.

The path was completely gone. All the cabins and trees ahead of them were just a wall of flame.

"This way!" said Dean, pointing toward the other side of the clearing, where the little path continued toward some other cabins. It was the wrong direction, away from the river, but it was the only part of the clearing around them that was not yet on fire.

Soon they were dashing along through unburned forest, past intact cabins. The roar of the fire began to fade away behind them, but soon the path came to a complete end, petering out into a scruffy underbrush of shrubs after the last cabin. A long hillside stretched upwards ahead of them, peppered with boulders, shrubs and occasional redwoods, the great bases of the trees glowing in soft shafts of sunlight.

"We gotta go up the hill," said Dean.

"Dean, this is bad," Sam said, turning in a little circle and glancing all around. "This whole hill is all dry bushes. This'll all go up like tinder. We've got to find the river. Let's head downhill—"

Sam had started to point back down the path, over Dean's shoulder, when he stopped in mid-sentence, his eyes widening. Dean felt a sudden forceful rush of hot air at his back, as if an oven door had opened. He spun around, Cas turning to look too.

The entire line of trees around the last cabin was all bursting into flame at once.

The fire was moving toward them, fast, very fast. In the next moment the cabin exploded into fire too, so suddenly it seemed it must have been made of paper. A wave of hot air hit them, so scorching hot it felt like they were staring right into an open oven.

"Run!" Cas shouted, pushing them both, and Dean thought We're not going to be able to outrun this, but he ran. They all ran, all three of them, racing up the hill as fast as they could. Dean felt the heat searing him from behind, actually starting to sting his skin on the back of his neck. It was hard going clambering up the hill, though, scrambling through bushes and over rocks, and every time Dean glanced over his shoulder the fire was closer still, jumping from tree to tree and crawling rapidly through the grasses just below them. Still they stumbled upwards, choking on the waves of smoke, panting for air. Sam was slightly in front, Dean right behind him, then Cas. Dean risked a glance over his shoulder and saw, over Cas's wing, another tree, closer to them, suddenly burst into flame all at once.

"FASTER!" Dean hollered at the others.

But there was simply no way they could go faster. Dean's feet seemed to be filling with lead. His lungs were aching; he was heaving desperately for breath, and despite the panic, despite the desperation, he knew he was slowing down.

Dean glanced to the left and right, wondering if they could slant sideways. There was a tongue of flame racing through the shrubs on their right side. "LEFT! LEFT!" Dean hollered, and Sam swung left immediately but then stopped dead, so suddenly Dean ran right into his back. Dean looked up, gasping; the line of trees to their left was aflame.

Then Cas pointed to the top of the hill.

The trees ahead of them, at the top of the hill, were burning. Looking overhead, Dean realized the air high overhead was laced with sparks. The fire had jumped directly to the top of the ridge, from the tall trees behind them to the tall trees in front, and it was crawling down the trunks in front now, crawling down to pen them in on all sides.

Dean grabbed Sam's arm with one hand, and then Cas's with the other, instinctively wanting to drag them both to safety somehow. But how? Where? Where could they go?

Dean looked all around one more time, searching for a gap, for a place to run to. Searching for a strategy... trying to think of a plan... a deal he could make... some magic he could use... something... anything.

But fire was on all sides.

There was nowhere to go.

A tree pretty close, just thirty feet away, was aflame now. Another one, closer still, started burning, fire crawling down its trunk from above. Yet overhead Dean could still see blue sky; the trees closest to them were still unburned. But that blue sky overhead might have been a million miles away.

"No, no, not like this, not like this," Dean muttered, gazing all around. Sam had found a boulder to crouch down next to, and he pulled Dean and Cas a few feet over to the boulder, yelling something about hunkering down — now Sam was trying to push Dean down and lie on top of him, so of course Dean fought him, because it had to be Dean that laid on top of Sam, obviously, and meanwhile Cas was doing something totally weird. He seemed to be trying to rip his jacket apart.

"Help me get it OFF!" Cas yelled, scrabbling at the jacket, "GET IT OFF, GET IT OFF MY WING!" Dean suddenly saw what was going on. The air was so hot, and so many sparks had hit Cas's jacket, that the velcro that held the jacket to the base of his wings had sort of glued together from the heat. Cas was ripping at it frantically, trying to get it off.

He was trying to free the tertials of the right wing.

The tertials of the right wing.

Was there a chance? A slight chance? Dean remembered Cas saying, "Tertialled angels have never landed where they planned. Never. It's usually one of three outcomes."

Usually, Cas had said. Usually.

Could that mean there was a slight chance of a fourth outcome? A non-disastrous outcome?

A slight chance of success?

Sam understood at the same moment, and Dean and Sam both nearly jumped on Cas, yanking at the jacket. Then the fire was suddenly ON them, trees just fifteen feet away aflame now, a huge horrifying wall of fire ripping through the forest all around, the heat unbelievable, the air searing.

Dean couldn't breathe. They were in an oven. They were going to die. They were all going to burn to death. But Cas still had one angel-blade in his hand and he shoved the haft into Dean's hand and Dean ripped it through the half-melted velcro. The jacket came off.

Cas whipped the right wing out and this time it spread fully, the tertials sliding smoothly over each other, shining strangely. Cas grabbed Dean around the waist with one arm, and Sam with the other, hugging them very close, and Dean and Sam both grabbed on tight, Dean hanging on around Cas's shoulders, Sam around Cas's waist. There wasn't a moment to spare; there was no time to discuss, no time to talk it over; for they all knew they had mere seconds left. It was do or die. Now or never. So Sam and Dean grabbed on.

Cas's right wing did one great, weird, strange flap, and they were pulled... sideways.

Dean felt a bizarre twisting sensation in his gut, and abruptly everything went gray.

Everything was gray and misty. The trees and the forest and the grass, the hill, the sky, the sparks flying through the air; all of it went gray. And lacy, and fuzzy at the edges, as if the world had suddenly changed into a black-and-white movie that was slightly out-of-focus. The bright yellow flames were suddenly a cool, eerie white, flickering a little strangely, as if they were viewing the fire from underwater. The scalding, terrifying heat abruptly disappeared, and they seemed to be in floating in a bubble of blessed coolness. The roar of the fire disappeared too; all Dean could hear was his own heartbeat, and the strangely distant sound of Cas's wings beating the air. Or, beating the "ether," apparently?

On the very first beat of Cas's right wing, the very moment they transitioned, the eerie white flames sank down below them, and they shot up above the flaming forest canopy, up above the strangely gray redwoods to the strangely gray sky above.

For one moment Dean thought, He CAN fly! He CAN! This is going to work!

But then they were tilting; and then the forest below them began to spin. Dean could actually feel how uneven Cas's wingbeats were. The injured left wing simply couldn't open enough, and it was missing those critical tertials, and already they were going into a pretty bad spiral. They were slanting, tilting, the grey forest and white sea of fire spinning faster and faster beneath them, the ghostly flaming forest tilting strangely, whirling around.

And they were sinking back down.

The whirling forest was getting closer. They were being pulled down. No matter how desperately Cas beat his wings, no matter how tightly he clung to Dean and Sam, he couldn't seem to steer away, and he was being pulled back down.

We're going down, Dean realized. We're too heavy for him. We're being pulled down.

To the planetary core.

Then he heard Cas yell, "NO — DON'T—" Cas's voice was strangely muffled in the gray fog of the ether, but Dean heard him nonetheless, heard him yelling, "NO, SAM, NO!" and Dean looked over and realized that Sam had let go from around Cas's waist and was trying to pry Cas's arm free from around him. Cas struggled to keep his grip, and Dean flailed down at Sam, trying to grab Sam's shoulder, but Sam got Cas's hand loose.

Cas lost his grip, Dean felt his own fingers brush the edge of Sam's shirt, and Sam fell away.

The moment Sam lost contact with Castiel, Sam himself went gray and fuzzy, just like the gray, fuzzy trees below them. Sam had fallen back to the Earthly dimension. Five hundred feet in the air. Above a burning forest.

Cas was still yelling something. Dean saw Sam's face one last time, gazing up toward them. Dean could have sworn Sam had something like a smile on his face. A small, sad, twisted smile, as if to say, It had to happen someday.

Then Sam dropped away, out of sight, and he was gone.

Dean screamed "SAM!" He distantly heard Castiel screaming something too, and felt him do a convulsive, desperate wing movement, trying to dive toward Sam. But instead they went into a viciously bewildering spin. The earth and sky spun horrifyingly fast around them. Dean nearly lost hold of Cas and flailed for a handhold, just managing to lock his arms around Cas's head and neck and one wing. Cas screamed something again, and Dean realized that his arms had gotten wrapped ON the right wing, right over it. There was a terrible lurch; the right wing was struggling under Dean's grip, the left wing fluttering jerkily at the ether. Dean had totally blocked what little control Cas had left.

Quite suddenly the sky above Dean darkened to black. Complete black. Absolute black. Then there was a white round thing zooming past a few feet away. Dean followed it with his eyes, still desperate about Sam, too confused to understand what was happening. A white round thing zooming past... and a little blue ball near it that seemed to be shrinking to a very small size. Shrinking down in the darkness, like a deflating blue-and-white balloon.

Dean tried to adjust his grip, to free the right wing, and lost hold of Castiel entirely.

The grey mist disappeared instantly. The world was completely black. All the air went exploding out of Dean's lungs— there was no air, there was NO AIR, Dean was suffocating, and he was falling, he was falling— no— he wasn't falling, he was weightless! For the little white thing that had zoomed past "a few feet away" was the Moon, and it wasn't "a few feet away"; it was thousands of miles away and moving unbelievably fast. And the blue sphere that was shrinking near it was the Earth, further away still. And now that the gray mist was gone, Dean could see that there were stars all around. Dean was back in the Earthly dimension, all alone, floating all alone in the vacuum of space.

Air was still pouring out of Dean's lungs, his chest was burning with pain, his mouth was full of blood, his hands and feet freezing, his eyes going blurry—

It lasted no more than a second, and then Cas barreled into him, hitting him so fast Dean was sure he felt some ribs crack. The stars whirled sickeningly, but Cas held on, his right wing flaring out, and a moment later they were in the gray ether again. The ether seemed breathable (or maybe people just didn't need to breathe when they were in the etheric plane?) and the searing pain in Dean's lungs eased slightly. His vision was still terrifically blurry but he caught one glimpse of the Earth whirling in front of them, the stars spinning around them sickeningly. Cas couldn't seem to stop the spinning but he threw Dean roughly from one side of his body to the other, as if using Dean's weight to compensate somehow for his uneven wings, and then he seemed almost able to partially steer, chasing the Earth in wild, veering zigzags. Cas was chasing the Earth. Everything was still spinning; but the Earth was getting steadily larger. Larger, larger still, till it loomed in front of them and Dean thought We're going to crash right into it. More drunken, veering turns, and then a sickening spiral that made Dean close his eyes.

He buried his face in Cas's chest for a moment, hanging onto Cas with the last of his strength, arms shaking, still retching up blood. Dean managed to open his eyes and glanced to the side.

Everything was an even, glowing orange. Are we in the center of the Earth? thought Dean.

He closed his eyes. Opened them again. Lacy streamers of light were flickering in front of him; green, blue, red. The northern lights? wondered Dean.

Every time he opened his eyes he saw another impossible sight, for Cas was veering all over the planet now, in wild, uncontrolled zig-zags, trying over and over to get back to the surface of the Earth. Dean kept blinking his eyes open to see one bewildering sight after another. One moment whales were floating all around them. Whales. Which meant they were under the surface of the ocean. The whales went whirling away; Dean closed his eyes, opened them again—

Now there were tiny grey dots in front of him. Tiny grey dots on a vast parched brown field. Elephants, Dean realized. Elephants, far, far below, miles below, on a parched savannah. Dean closed his eyes, opened them again—

An unbroken view of white ahead of them. Nothing but white. Jagged black lines running through the white, like black lightning against a white sky, in one of those black jagged lines a white dot was swimming: no, it was a bear, a white bear, a polar bear. Swimming in a jagged stretch of open dark water. In the middle of the polar ice cap. They must be above the North Pole.

Hell of a ride, Dean thought, as the unbelievable images flickered past. Hell of a way to go. He hung on to Cas, and closed his eyes, felt Cas's increasingly jerky wingbeats, and waited for the end.

But the end didn't come.

The next time Dean dared to open his eyes they were veering in a huge, uneven circle around a clump of gray mountains that seemed to sprout up out of a vast grey sea. The sky was grey, the mountain was grey, the water was grey, everything was grey, and it was all turning around them slowly, one mountain in particular coming close and then brushing past and then circling away from them, then coming close again. Again and again the pattern repeated, Cas adjusting his hold on Dean a few times as the mountain veered past again and again, and Dean finally realized that Cas trying to reach the mountain. Cas's strategy of using Dean as a counterweight seemed to have given him a small bit of control; but he seemed only able to turn in one direction, like an airplane that had one set of wing flaps disabled.

And Cas was weakening. Dean could feel it. Whatever strange "air" there was in this etheric plane, it wasn't giving Cas enough power; he was having trouble breathing, his chest heaving in huge exhausted gasps. His wingbeats were getting slow and stuttery. The left wing faltered entirely, sometimes dragging loosely behind him for a few seconds, and the right wing was only half-open. And his arms, though they were still tight around Dean, were trembling with fatigue.

But still Cas kept flying

Dean felt Cas take a great breath of ether, all his muscles tensing; and both wings flared out. Braking — or trying to brake? Of course it was an uneven braking— It flung Cas into a sharp right turn— but it seemed he'd planned for this, for the sharp right turn spiraled them toward the mountain. They dropped, they slowed...

Cas ripped Dean's arms free from him, tearing him loose. Dean looked up at him and he saw Cas's face, grim and exhausted, smeared with blood and ash. The right wing was fully spread, the left wing half-open. Cas looked right at him, meeting Dean's eyes one last time. Then Cas put one hand on Dean's chest and shoved hard. Dean tried to grab for him, but it was too late, and they fell apart. Dean got one last glimpse of Cas shooting past him, tumbling into a spin again, and Cas was gone.

Abruptly the world was in sharp focus again, and the colors were back; the mist was gone, and Dean was tumbling forward onto a long low hill of green and brown and white. Dean had long experience at falling, and instinctively he tucked his head and tried to roll, but the impact was terrific just the same, a huge blow that knocked all the air out of him and sent him rolling helter-skelter along the ground. He came to rest in a lumpy stretch of soft moss.

Dean was still. He was lying still. He'd actually stopped moving.

He was lying on some soft, squishy, wet moss, face up, staring at a flat gray sky. It was raining.

For a moment Dean felt nothing at all except the soft, cold raindrops pattering on his face.

Then the pain hit.

For about five seconds it was sheer, blinding agony, gripping him all around his midsection, so bad that all Dean could do was lie there and gasp, his hands clawing at the damp moss around him. He couldn't move at all, and couldn't breathe either, and he was certain that he'd broken something critical. His pelvis, maybe; or both his legs, or his back, or something terrible. A wave of near-panic overtook him then.

But then the pain began to loosen its grip. Dean managed to draw one shallow, shaking breath, and then another. The pain eased a bit further.

The pain lessened further, and further still. Another shaky breath; then a fit of coughs, and Dean curled up on his side, choking up blood, slowly realizing that he was still able to move.

Gradually the pain just faded away into a dull ache.

Dean just lay there stunned for a moment longer, till the ground stopped whirling around him and the coughs began to slow. He was still retching up blood now and then, but slowly he realized that he'd only had the wind knocked out of him. Which, granted, always hurt like hell, but it was a pain that faded quickly. Experimentally he wiggled his toes, and then his legs, and his hands, and felt his ribs; he did have a lot of weird little pains here and there, it was still strangely hard to breathe, and there was definitely something wrong with one leg... but he was alive.

Dean sat up gingerly, stunned to find that he could even sit. He patted his legs and chest and back, still expecting to find shattered bones sticking out.

No bones were sticking out. Dean was still breathing. He was alive.

Dean looked around. He was on a huge, sloping, hillside, sitting on a soft clump of damp green moss that was shaped almost like an enormous pillow. It had broken his fall. All around him were big lumpy piles of the same soft green moss. There were no trees at all; just moss. A soft drizzle was drifting down, and Dean was rapidly getting very wet. It was cold; it was very cold, actually. Below him was a sea of gray fog, above him was more gray sky, and all around was just lumpy weird green moss.

Where was he?

Was this even Earth? Was it Jupiter or Mars or something? Or some crazy alternate "plane of existence" like Purgatory, or Oz, maybe?

Slowly Dean staggered to his feet. His left ankle instantly flared with such a blinding pain that Dean buckled over, almost throwing up all over again. But after feeling his leg carefully he concluded it was a sprained ankle. Still not good, but he could at least sort of walk on a sprained ankle. Sort of.

He looked down, taking stock. His boots were burned almost black, and parts of his jeans were burned too; he could see red, burned skin in places, and he could feel, now, the sting of quite a few other burns here and there. His feet, his legs, the back of his neck, one of his arms. But it seemed to be only first-degree burns, maybe a few second-degree blisters, nothing really critical. It was a little hard to breathe - his lungs still seemed to be hurting, maybe from the hot air of the fire. Or... from the absolute zero of outer space? Gee, let's see, thought Dean, almost laughing, did I inhale fire from a fire elemental or did I collapse a lung while I was in outer space? It's so hard to tell the difference sometimes. His eyes hurt too, and there was still something wrong with his vision, he was still coughing up blood sporadically, and there were weird waves of prickles and tingles running over his skin— frostbite? Nerve damage? Cosmic rays? And his ankle was definitely not in good shape. But it was all survivable.

But what about Sam and Cas?

Sam... He'd fallen back to the Earthly dimension five hundred feet above a burning forest...

No, no, Sam couldn't be dead. He just couldn't. Sam had... he had fallen, but he'd survive, somehow. Dean just had to find him.

Sam had just... fallen. He might be a little hurt, sure, but just a little.

Cas... What had happened to Cas? Where had Cas landed? He must have landed somewhere nearby, right?

"Cas?" Dean whispered. He looked all around, but all he saw was more lumps of moss, and distant drifts of gray fog blowing by. There were no trees at all in view; just moss.

Dean turned in a painful, slow circle, trying to yell, "Cas? ... Cas?" It came out in a dry croak.

Nobody answered. Dean limped slowly to the highest mossy green lump that he could see. It seemed to take forever to get there, for he could only take steps that were about six inches long, placing his damaged foot as carefully as he could with each step and trying not to wince or throw up at the vicious stabs of pain. He reached the top and turned in a slow circle, croaking, "Cas? Cas?" as loudly as he could.

Dean could see quite a long way in all directions. The mossy mountain slope stretched far, far down before him, into the fog. There was nobody in sight for miles.

Castiel wasn't here. He wasn't anywhere in sight.

A terrible thought rose in Dean's mind of Cas out in the blackness of space, all alone, desperately trying to steer, desperately trying to brake, watching the Sun getting bigger and bigger...

Or, possibly, headed out alone and helpless into the infinite black void.

No, no, no, no. That simply couldn't be what had happened. It just couldn't. Cas must have landed nearby. Just out of view. Just on the other side of the mountain. Dean only had to find him.

Dean staggered on, one painful step at a time, shivering now in the damp drizzle, coughing up blood, every square inch of skin burned or scalded or frozen. His thoughts began to circle around slowly, repeating themselves like a toy train running around and around a little circular track: Sam fell and might be hurt. Cas crashed and I gotta find him. Sam fell and might be hurt. Cas crashed and I gotta find him.

He didn't know which way to go, so he picked a direction at random and began to limp slowly down the hill, inching over each big mossy patch slowly. One slow, painful step at a time. One step at a time.

Sam fell and might be hurt. Cas crashed and I gotta find him. Sam fell and might be hurt. Cas crashed and I gotta find him...

The next morning, fisherman Billy Iverson heard a loud thump outside his cabin door. Shotgun ready, just on the chance it might be a big bear, Billy peered out the window cautiously. But he saw only a man sprawled on his front porch, staggering unevenly to his feet.

Drunk, Billy thought, sighing. Drunk fisherman. Nobody got nothin' to do in winter and everybody just drinks. Doesn't help that it rains all damn winter here.

But when he opened the door, he realized that the man staggering slowly to his feet, coughing up blood, wasn't any local fisherman he knew. It was somebody he'd never met before. A man looked to be a little over six feet tall, with short hair. He might've been a decent-looking guy if he hadn't been such a complete wreck. He was seriously beat up, actually. At first Billy assumed the guy'd either been in a bar fight, or in a car crash, but on closer inspection he realized the guy looked like he'd been simultaneously burned and frozen, somehow. All his clothes were singed and all his exposed skin looked burned, yet his fingertips were white with frostbite. And he was staggering, and wheezing and coughing up blood, blood dripping steadily from his nose and one ear, and his eyes weirdly bloodshot.

Billy said, "Jeez, mister, what happened to you?" He touched the man's hand gingerly and flinched to feel how cold it was. Definitely frostbite. It had been a cold night; had the guy maybe been out all night? Limping through the freezing rain?

"Is... this... Earth?" the man gasped.

Billy had to laugh. The guy either was drunk, or delirious from hypothermia. Billy informed him, "You're on Kodiak Island, bro. Gulf of Alaska. You know, middle of the North Pacific? Hold on a sec, I'll call the EMT guys down at the harbor. You better come on inside and warm up."

The man just looked at him for a moment. Then he muttered, "My brother fell... my friend crashed. I gotta find them," and he keeled over forwards, passing out facefirst into a pile of firewood.

A/N -

Those of you who have been sensing another plot twist approaching, here you go.

This entire fic was based on two linked questions that popped into my mind one day: "What if Cas broke a wing?" and "What if Cas got lost in flight, while right in the middle of 'zapping' Dean somewhere?" You all saw the first question very early on in the fic, and now at last we've reached the second one.

More next week!