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Living on a Prayer, 1/1, PG-13, Dean, Castiel, John, Sam, Bobby

Title: Living on a Prayer
Show: Supernatural
Author: [info]gaelicspirit
Genre: GEN
Characters:Dean, Sam, Castiel, Bobby, and John
Rating:PG-13 for language
Spoilers:Season 5, after 5.14, My Bloody Valentine.
Summary:Dean gets an answer to his prayer for help, just not in any form he ever would have anticipated. Caution for angst abundance. And by abundance I mean put on your waders. But in my defense, that end scene? Begged for angst. Also, a possible warning for a dark-themed state of mind. Dean's mind, that is. Not mine.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity. Title comes from Bon Jovi song of the same name (because Bon Jovi rocks...on occasion)
Author's Notes:This story is for metallidean_grl. About six(ish) months ago (or so), she asked me to write a tag to this episode with one, specific moment included.

metallidean_grl, I'm sorry it took me so long to get to this. Filling your request for that moment was a good storytelling challenge; I hope I fit the bill and you like what you see. It's one of the shorter one-shots I've written, but I wanted to give you that hug.



"It's not the load that breaks you down; it's the way you carry it." -Lena Horne

He felt the quiet.

That night it wrapped around the world like wax paper, muting Sam's cries from the panic room, quieting the riotous guilt threading through him at the human weakness he'd succumbed to in the face of the Horseman, ending the cut of pain from one voice. The earth was damp, dark. The air wet as the body Castiel occupied worked instinctively to pull it into lungs that no longer needed it.

Eyes that saw everything scanned the leaves clinging to the asphalt, the beads of left over rain peppering the skin of their car, the high, thin cloud lingering beneath the security light fixed to the side of the garage. He moved silently from the house out into the junkyard, matching with almost passionate reverence the complete lack of noise that infused everything around him.

Until he heard the sound – a sob, silent except for the clutter of stuttered air across the stillness, pressed out of a broken heart.

Standing in the shadows, he watched as his…his friend… lifted his face, lips moving in a quiet plea for help, words meant for a much higher power but brushing across the angel's ears all the same. Just as they had every other time Dean had sought help in the lonely pockets of his life.

He watched as Dean bent, pressing a hand against the slick black metal, shoulders bowed under a weight no human should have to bear. The sob was cut short; even now not allowed the freedom required to turn the valve and release the unrelenting pressure of this life. He watched as shoulders squared, chin was raised, and the hand was removed from the comforting brace the vehicle offered.

Castiel watched as a step was taken, weight carried. And when the next step faltered, knees buckling, he knew that even if he was the only one listening, this prayer needed answering.

www

Earlier

I can see inside you, Dean….

He could still hear the wasted rasp of the old man's voice, feel the unreal strength in the hand pressed against him. His heart had kicked, falling inside him at that touch. Even now, standing in the relative safety of Bobby's basement, listening to the pleas from behind the heavy metal door, he knew his heart hadn't recovered from that fall.

The liquor bit the back of his throat as Dean pulled a mouthful straight from the bottle, wanting it to numb him from the inside out. His body hurt. He couldn't really pinpoint a place to ignore. There were throbbing points on his face – his lip, eyebrow, cheek bone – from where Famine's minions had worked him over. And there was the burn from Famine's touch. But it was more than that.

It was a soul-deep ache that he'd been working to forget for months, trying to see past, trying to push down, trying to lock away. It didn't do any good to take it out and examine it; talking about it wouldn't make it go away. But it was so big; there was so much of it…and he was so fucking tired….

"Dean! Please! Don't leave me in here! Let me out! Just…just let me out!"

He couldn't breathe, listening. His chest was pressed flat.

"I'll be okay. I promise…I promise I'll be okay! Please!"

The desperate plea in his kid brother's voice stabbed into him. He wanted to. Jesus Christ he wanted so badly to listen to Sam, to free him from the small, iron-bound room he was trapped inside. He wanted to open the door, wrap his arms around him, hug him tight and tell him it was all going to be okay. He wasn't going to let anything bad happen to him.

But he couldn't.

And it wasn't.

And he did.

"That's not him in there." A voice cut into his thoughts. A voice he'd sought so many times for reason, for solace. "Not really. Sam just…has to get it out of his system."

Dean cut his eyes over to where Castiel leaned against the wall, looking hollowed-out. Done in. He wondered idly for a moment if all the meat the angel had ingested in the last twenty-four hours was now wreaking havoc on his system or if, now that the Horseman was gone, he could simply shut down the biological reactions of his human host. Looking away, Dean lifted the bottle to his lips once more, drinking deeply.

The air around him felt…heavy. Weighted with need and guilt. Sam's need. Cas' guilt. Dean was buried under his inability to alleviate either. The whiskey burned; he imagined it tracing a path down his throat into the hollow…nothing inside of him. Burning a brand that claimed him as one of the Devil's own.

Already dead.

I can see how broken you are….

His head spun, the room around him shifting as his pulse throbbed at his temple, pressing against the base of his throat, choking him. His heart worked to fill in the emptiness inside of him; he tasted copper in his throat, his body working against him. Flooding him; suffocating him.

"I need some air," he told Cas, not really recognizing his own voice.

Without waiting for the angel to respond, and trusting that he'd stay until Sam was through this…until his brother was dried out from the pain of withdrawal, until he no longer needed demon blood to keep going…Dean turned and made his way awkwardly up the stairs from the basement to Bobby's hallway.

His chest ached – a burning in the center, his skin singed by Famine's touch. His legs felt heavy, stiff, as if he'd swallowed a lot more than three mouthfuls of the whiskey he still held tightly in his grasp. He found himself having to think through motions that normally came naturally to him.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Move feet. Close door. Move. Just…move.

The house felt too quiet, even with the soft echo of Sam's cries from below him. Bobby was around, bound to his wheelchair and making himself scarce as they used the safety of his house to regroup. It felt wrong to be there without Bobby being involved in their actions. As if they were intruding on a life secreted away from them with purpose. But he'd had no choice.

After he saw Sam use the goddamn Force to kill those demonic hit men…and then end a fucking Horseman…there was nothing else he could do. And Sam had agreed. He'd known the minute Dean staggered through the bodies in the diner to reach him where they'd have to go. Hell, Sam had driven them there when Dean hadn't been able to draw a full breath and Cas looked as if he would hurl any moment.

But the look in Sam's eyes when Dean had closed the door of the panic room, turning the lock with a resonating clang of metal on metal, would haunt him. The knowledge that this seclusion and the oncoming pain from withdrawal was both inevitable and feared – and that he was doing it to Sam – twisted an invisible knife in his chest. He was the cause of those pain-wracked, terrified screams….

Dean stumbled slightly as he reached for the front door, needing exactly what he'd said: air. He couldn't breathe right; each breath he drew skipped over his lips, caught on his teeth, clung to his throat. His lungs ached and his eyes burned and he was empty…oh, God, he was just empty.

And he was so ready for it all to be over. Just…over. Right now, there was a piece of his splintered soul stabbing a hole into his broken heart and for a moment he wished fervently that Famine had just killed him. Killed him and ended all of this. All this fighting, this resistance, this destiny.

He didn't even care if death now meant being sent to Hell. Maybe he'd find the part of his soul he'd left behind. Maybe then he wouldn't feel so broken.

The cool night air slapped him as he wrenched open the door, breath sawing in and out through his nose as he fought for control of himself, his emotions. Head spinning he moved across the quiet of the junkyard, honing in on home, on safety, on something that provided clarity: the Impala. His boots crunched on the gravel, the noise level changing as he stepped onto broken asphalt, approaching his car.

You're just going through the motions…inside…you're already dead.

His throat tight, he lifted the bottle of whiskey once more, instinct – or habit – guiding him to lubricate before he suffocated on pain, but he couldn't even swallow. His arms had no strength; his will was gone. Famine was right. There was nothing inside to fire up need. Nothing he was starving for, nothing he desired.

Nothing except an end to all of this.

Feeling his chest hitch in an unfamiliar catch, he lifted his eyes. The ink-black sky gave up miniscule secrets as the stars stared down on him. Hundreds of unrelenting pinpoints of light, judging him, measuring him.

Dead light finding a home in his eyes.

"Please…." He heard the word before he realized he was going to speak. Felt his lips work around them, felt the sound burn tears into his eyes. Like a back-beat of music, the desire to be finished was chased by the need to keep fighting, keep going. But he felt so alone.

"Please, I can't…I need some help…."

The pressure built, gripping until he was almost weak from lack of air.

"Please."

Dean worked to swallow, the final plea burning the inside of his mouth. It was so quiet. The world around him seemed to be holding its breath. For a moment, if he held himself still enough he imagined he could still hear Sam screaming.

Reaching out a trembling hand, he leaned against the wet skin of the Impala, needing something—something—to hold him up. Just for a moment.

The sob ripped from him as unexpectedly as his prayer. The echoing silence as his answer was too much. Dropping his head forward, Dean bit his bottom lip hard – until he tasted blood. He would not cry. Would not cry. God didn't want to hear; there was no one to help him.

They had a destiny to fight – one way or another, they were going against two archangels and there was no one to save them from it. None of it mattered – not what they'd stopped, not what they'd killed, not what they saved. They were alone and he was empty and none of it mattered.

Dean drew in a sharp breath, pressing the hand that still gripped the whiskey bottle against his aching chest. He had to get his act together. If no one was going to help him, then it was up to him to get this done.

If not for a world that didn't want him, then for Sam. For his brother who had succumbed to his hunger only to save Dean from…being consumed by emptiness. Dean still had a job to do. He still had a brother to save.

Stepping away from the Impala, his brief burst of purpose carried him all of one step before the world tilted and he felt his legs give way. He landed hard, rocks digging into his knees, the wet pavement cold against the denim of his jeans. Dropping the half-full bottle of whiskey, he fell forward, catching himself against the leaf-strewn pavement, the cold of the lingering rainwater soaking quickly into his palms.

Dean hung his head, on hands and knees, and felt the tears fall. No sound, no breath, only the hot trail of tears down his cold face, dripping from his cheeks and blending with the rainwater on the ground.

"Waste of good whiskey."

At first Dean didn't register the sound as an actual voice. His misery was consuming him as surely as the hunger Famine lit inside Sam and Cas had worked to annihilate them. But then a sense honed into him from two decades of hunting roused, sending the hairs on his neck to attention and stilling the hitching breaths that were turning his vision grey. He held completely still, his mind automatically mapping the lay of the junkyard around him, the location of the weapons in his belt and boot, the proximity of the voice to the house and Sam.

"You gonna pick it up, or just water the ground with it?"

Dean lifted his head, pushing back with the tips of his fingers until he was balanced on the balls of his feet, his eyes tracking to where he thought the voice had come from. Straining his ears, he picked up a slight crunch of gravel as someone shifted their weight, the sound of sighing metal as it was brushed against. His eyes shot to his right, looking through the line of automobile cadavers, seeking the form that fit the voice.

"Dean."

He stood, one hand obediently reaching for the neck of the whiskey bottle, the other instinctively reaching for the weapon at the small of his back. His jaw was tight, lips pressed closely together, keeping in the cry of denial he felt building at the back of his throat.

He knew that voice. He knew that voice.

The soft, yellowed security light clicked on with the motion of the figure emerging from the rows of cars. Without thinking, body moving on muscle memory, Dean brought the gun up, thumbing off the safety, barrel pointed confidently at the figure as it emerged from the shadows.

"Careful where you point that thing."

He nearly dropped the bottle once more.

"Dad?"

John Winchester's familiar, craggy face relaxed into a half-grin, the light from overhead throwing odd shadows across his cheeks and dusting his shoulders with gold. Dean didn't lower his weapon, staring with confusion and not a little doubt, because no way…no way was he going to just buy that this was his father.

"Yeah, it's me," John said softly. "Hiya, Dean."

"What. The actual. Hell?" Dean asked, cocking the gun and keeping it pointed at John's forehead as the man – a man who moved like John with an easy, shoulder-rolling walk that spoke of purpose and confidence – stepped closer, out of the circle of yellowed light and into the cool of the starlight that surrounded Dean.

"You gonna offer your old man a drink?" John asked.

Dean's brows met over the bridge of his nose. His eyes burned. "Stay right there."

John stopped, raising his hands slowly, offering no resistance. Dean remembered everything about the last time he saw his father – what he wore, how he'd smelled, the scruff along his jaw line, the small cut at his brow that Dean didn't remember him getting. He remembered the soft smile of pride and love after they'd finished his mission, after they'd killed Azazel. He remembered the confused tangle of gratitude, love, and loss that cut into him as his father's spirit dissipated into a light that held secrets Dean would never know.

"You can't hurt me, son."

"Who are you?"

John's eyebrows slipped up, folding his forehead into a trinity of creases. "This isn't a trick, Dean." He took another step forward.

"Don't you fucking move," Dean ordered, hearing the hard edges of his voice crack with doubt.

John stopped, dropping his head in a nod, his lips thinning across his teeth. He lowered his arms and sighed a bit. Rolling his shoulders back he lifted his head once more and pinned dark eyes to Dean's. The look in those eyes was so familiar Dean found himself working to catch his breath.

"It's me," John said simply.

"Prove it," Dean demanded. He'd seen too much, survived too much. He'd seen angels and devils, psychics and Horsemen. He'd seen his brother kill what they'd not been able to defeat without a special weapon before. He'd seen Hell. "You prove it," he repeated, hating the break in his voice, the tremble in his body.

John's face stilled, emotion leaking away, his voice flat as he answered. "When you were four years old, I put your brother in your arms and shoved you outside while I turned around and tried to save your mother from burning to death, pinned to the ceiling."

"Ancient history," Dean growled. "That's required reading in demon school."

"You think I'm a demon?" John asked, eyebrows bouncing once more, this time with surprise.

"I don't know what the fuck you are. But you're not my Dad."

"I am, Dean." John took another step forward. Dean didn't lower his weapon. "I taught you to shoot. Taught you to drive. Taught you how to salt and burn a spirit. Taught you how to change Sammy's diaper and how to stay hidden and quiet."

He took another step closer and Dean had to fight swallow.

"I taught you to tie your shoes and cook Mac 'n Cheese. I taught you how to stitch up a wound and fix the Impala."

Another step closer and Dean's arm began to shake.

"I taught you to appreciate the difference between Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I taught you military hand signs so we could talk to each other without saying a word."

Another step closer and the weapon was nearly touching John's chest. Dean could smell him – warmth and flesh and sweat and leather.

"I taught you how to dance so you could ask out Becca Williams."

Dean felt the strength leave his arm and lowered his weapon. "How'd you know about Becca Williams?"

"Because," John said, wrapping a warm – and very real – hand around the barrel of Dean's gun, his fingers brushing Dean's. "Some things even a dad pays attention to."

Dean's throat worked, his eyes burning. He let John take his weapon, knowing full well that if he were wrong – if this was a trick – he could be dead. John laid the gun on the hood of the Impala, then reached for the bottle of whiskey. Dean let him take that, too, and watched as he swallowed a mouthful.

"Dad?" The word was a whisper trapped in a tornado as possibilities chased each other inside Dean's head.

John smiled, dragging the back of his hand across his mouth. "Yeah," he half chuckled. "That's what I've been trying to tell you…y'know, when we first started this conversation a year ago."

As the security light shut off, Dean watched as John set the bottle on the hood of the car next to his gun. He thought of a hundred reasons why this person in front of him wasn't his father. A thousand reasons why he should grab up his gun, shoot this imposter and head back to Sam.

And only one reason he should believe that this was really John: he'd asked for help.

"Did you…hear me?" Dean asked, tongue darting out to wet his suddenly dry lips.

John sighed, resting a hip on the grill of the Impala. "Not exactly. Don't really work like that."

Dean tilted his head. "You don't? Or…the system doesn't?"

"Damn, kid," John shook his head, boosting himself up on the hood of the Impala, mindless of the wet surface. "Here I always thought Sam was the relentless one."

Dean lifted his chin. "If you really are John Winchester," he said, his voice strangled, "you'd know you raised us both to be."

"Nah," John said, narrowing his eyes, a grin playing around his mouth. "This is more…personality than what I taught you. You were always one to shoot first, ask questions later. Think it's bad? Kill it." He looked down at his hands and Dean watched as he reached for his wedding ring. "Sam was always the one who needed to know why."

"Yeah, well," Dean shifted to an at-ease stance. "Lot's changed in the past few years."

"So I've heard," John replied.

He looked at Dean and suddenly, Dean realized he couldn't see his reflection in his father's eyes. Instead he saw depths of fire and rivers of heat and then a cool, clean blanket of mist covering it all and turning John's eyes a milky blue.

Dean staggered back, the heels of his boots slipping off the edge of the broken pavement that cut down the center of Bobby's junkyard. Effortlessly, John reached out, grabbing Dean's forearm, and balancing him.

"I know where you've been, Dean," John said quietly. "I know what you've seen."

The tears built, pressing hot and eager at the backs of his eyes, threatening to spill. Dean tightened his jaw against the onslaught of emotion. There were suddenly so many things he wanted to say, so much he wanted to ask. How did you stand it? How did you not break? How did you get out? Why did you go?

"You did good, son," John told him.

Dean's breath came out in a half-sob chased by a bitter laugh. "Hell I did," he growled. "I started all of this."

John frowned.

"I started the fucking Apocalypse, Dad."

"Dean—"

"I couldn't hack it. And they…," he looked away, around, anywhere but at his father. "They broke me."

John pushed away from the Impala, standing squarely in front of Dean. "You don't understand. This all started—"

"It doesn't matter." Dean cut him off, shaking his head once, feeling the tears threaten once more, ashamed of them. Ashamed, period. "Doesn't matter what was supposed to happen, or what some prophecy said, or any of that shit. I started it. And I gotta end it. I just—"

The words choked off, stalling in his throat. He looked at his father and felt a tear slip free, sliding down his cheek and finding a home in the corner of his mouth.

"What, Dean?" John was frowning again, but not in anger. He looked…confused. Almost, Dean thought, as if he thought he was here for something different – as if someone had changed the rules on him.

"Famine was right."

"Famine?" John drew his head back, his gaze skating around behind Dean as if watching for the Horseman to show up.

"Inside," Dean whispered, curling one hand toward his chest, "I'm already dead."

"No." John's denial was a bark of sound.

Dean looked away, through his father, through the Impala, into the darkness that surrounded them diffused only by muted starlight. In his mind's eye he saw Sam, his face stained with blood, his eyes bright with power. He saw Castiel, his angelic might siphoned out, kneeling before a pile of raw meat. He saw a wasted, ravaged hand pressing against his chest, feeling what no one else had felt, seeing what no one else had seen – that Dean had left a piece of himself back on that rack.

"I've tried, Dad," Dean said, his voice hollow. "I've done everything we're supposed to. Everything you taught us. But…it doesn't matter. The bad guys still win. 'Cause they're supposed to win."

John was in front of him before Dean registered him moving. Hands gripped the folds of his shirt and he felt himself pulled slightly off balance as John shook him, once.

"No, Dean." John's face was fisted with anger. But not at him, Dean saw with surprise. He'd watched his father all of his life and he knew when to fear John's wrath. But this anger…it wasn't at him. "They aren't supposed to win. That's why you're here. You and your brother. You're here because someone has to fight. You boys…you balance out this fucked up universe."

Dean blinked. "What?"

John released his hold on Dean's shirt and took a slow, steadying breath. "When I was in the war – 'Nam, not this…not this war you and your brother have been fighting – I saw some things. Some things that…that changed me."

Dean listened quietly, watching this figure that was his father, or his father's ghost, or a bizarrely-real hallucination of his father, as he moved to lean against their car once more, his rear pressed against the front quarter panel, his fingers in the front pockets of his jeans. John's eyes were down, his gaze years away, his whole body relaxed as he spoke. He looked, Dean realized, at peace. For one moment, he was seeing…peace.

"When I came home to your mom, I tried to do everything the same. I worked at the farm, I took her out on dates, I went into all the same places in Lawrence and greeted all the people on Massachusetts Street just like I had before I left. But…it felt like—"

"A show," Dean interrupted. John nodded without looking up.

"Yeah, it felt like I was putting on a show. Going through the motions. I felt like part of me never left the jungle. And for a long time, I was afraid that it was the part that counted. That I was…half of me."

Dean couldn't swallow. The taste of blood filled his mouth and he found himself all-but gasping to breathe through a sudden, swift pain in his middle. John lifted his eyes and the world righted itself.

"And in a way, I was right."

"What do you mean?" Dean asked, barely audible.

"I left who I'd been in that jungle. The kid who kissed Mary goodbye and hugged his Dad and got on a bus in Lawrence, Kansas, was gone. I was still me…but not. I'd watched friends die. I'd…lived on bug-infested rice and slept in rain-soaked tents. I'd killed people. I'd looked in their eyes, pulled the trigger, and ended their life. I did it because I was ordered to, and to save my life and the lives of my men. And in some ways…it broke me. " He leveled his eyes at Dean. "Hell did that to you."

Dean flinched.

"Hell tore you up," John said, his tone matter of fact, his eyes a sea of pain. "It broke you down and stripped you bare and forced you to lows you would never have come to otherwise."

Dean felt his lips tremble and pressed them together, working to keep the valve twisted tight, keep the box of emotions closed.

"But you came home," John reminded him. "You survived it. You grabbed onto that angel and surfed him out of the Pit and you found your brother and you are back in it. You are here, Dean."

"Dad…," Dean tried, his voice a broken sound.

"You aren't empty, dammit," John said. "You're so full you could overflow. You aren't dead inside. You're a hunter. You're a soldier. You're my son."

Dean couldn't breathe. The edges of his vision started to gray out as he fought to keep his suffering from John. But John saw. He stood up, closed the gap of space between them, reached up and gripped the back of Dean's neck, pulling his forehead close.

"You listen to me." John's voice was a low rumble, his forehead pressing hard into Dean's, his fingers gripping corded muscles running from Dean's neck down his spine. "Going through the motions keeps you moving until you can find your compass again. Going through the motions keeps you in the game. Keeps you near your brother. Keeps you doing this job. And you are damn good at this job, Dean."

"I wanna believe…," Dean tried.

"What?" John pulled his head up, still holding on to Dean's neck. He met his eyes, searching for something Dean didn't know if he'd be able to find. "What do you want to believe?"

Dean swallowed. "I want to…believe you. I want to know that…that I'm good at what I do. That it's enough."

"You have demons searching for ways to end you, kid. Demons. You have angels fearing you. You're just some…some mud monkey to them and they can't take you down. And they can't keep you down." John grinned. "Believe me, Dean. You're good at what you do. You and Sammy…like I said, you two are the balance this universe needs."

"I don't know, Dad."

John frowned again, lines drawing his face down, aging it before Dean's eyes. "You have to know, kid. You have to believe it. No one can believe it for you. You have to know you're worth all of this."

Dean tried to breathe again, the burn in his chest amplifying. "We're all alone, Dad," he whispered. "And I…I feel these pieces inside…inside me. Breaking loose. And cutting me up. And I just…I can't—"

He couldn't finish his thought, but found suddenly that he didn't have to. John's grip shifted from his neck to his back and before he could draw his next painful breath, he was clutched against his father's chest, John's arms wrapping around him, holding him up. Holding him.

Dean lifted trembling arms, resting his hands carefully against the flat of John's back, feeling the solidness of his father's body, the weight of his embrace. He held himself still, stiff, unyielding to this foreign moment, this impossible sensation of safety and acceptance and warmth. But then John's grip tightened. And he heard his voice against the side of his head.

"When you can't run, you crawl," he whispered. Dean closed his eyes at the familiar words, their message ringing true as he remembered his father saying them before, in life, with earnestness, with humor, with sincerity. He found his mouth moving against John's shoulder as he echoed the rest of the sentiment. "And when you can't crawl, you find someone to carry you."

"You're not alone, Dean," John told him quietly, his voice against Dean's hair as his held him close. "No matter how lonely you might feel, no matter how impossible this task, no matter what Hell took from you or Heaven denies you," John moved his hand up to grip the back of his neck once more, pressing Dean's face close to his shoulder in a hold that staked a claim, showing whoever or whatever was watching through the pinpricks of stars or shadows of night that they were family – that Dean was his son, "you are never alone."

Dean wanted to draw back, say something, apologize for his tears, plead for John to stay or at least ask for ideas on how to fight their future. But the breaths he couldn't take were stacking up and he found himself leaning more of his weight onto John, practically clinging to him just to be able to stay upright.

"I gotcha, Dean," John whispered against his hair, going to his knees when Dean's legs refused to hold him up. Dean closed his eyes as the world shifted again, tilting sideways and sending him into darkness, his only assurance of safety being his father's arms.

www

"What in God's name…?"

"Not God," Castiel replied to Bobby's muted question, the surly hunter's voice carrying across the opened yard from a side door level with the ground. "This had nothing to do with God."

"What is he—"

Castiel heard Bobby choke off the rest of his sentence as Dean seemed to melt into the wet ground, soundlessly, gracefully, almost as if someone had laid him down. Bobby began to wheel himself out through the side door, reaching Cas sooner than the angel anticipated. Their movement triggered the motion-sensor security light.

"I'll help him," Cas said.

"You're damn right," Bobby grumbled as they approached Dean's prone figure. He was still muttering as Cas moved past him. "Got Sam down in the panic room screaming himself hoarse, Dean passed out drunk in the junkyard—"

"He's not drunk," Castiel said, reaching Dean. He gripped Dean's shoulder, turning the unconscious man over carefully as Bobby reached them. "He's exhausted."

Bobby frowned. "He's more than exhausted," he said. "He's as pale as death. Figures he'd get hurt in a fight that landed Sam in the hole. Where's the worst of it?"

It was Castiel's turn to frown. "I'm afraid I wasn't in a position to see." He moved behind Dean, shifting the hunter until he got an arm around behind Dean's back. "Famine's influence had a powerful affect on this body."

"Oh, really?" Bobby's voice was flat. Castiel looked up, watching the shifting expression on the older man's face as the yellowed light tossed odd shadows across his features.

"Famine increases one's hunger, not destroys it. For Sam—"

"It was demon blood," Bobby nodded. "I'm with you. And I'm guessing Jimmy had a hankering for something?"

Castiel slipped a hand under Dean's knees, then pushed himself to his feet, Dean's head lolling against his shoulder. He felt the body in his arms trembling against him. "Meat."

"Fabulous," Bobby muttered, turning his wheel chair around. "What about Dean?"

Castiel shook his head as he followed Bobby inside, Dean silent in his arms. "I was…not paying close attention. But I could hear the Horseman. Dean did not hunger. He was…too broken to desire anything."

They moved through the door and Castiel walked past Bobby, heading to the couch in Bobby's study. The weight of the hunter he carried was insignificant in comparison to the weight of guilt on his heart. He'd been there when the Horseman looked inside his friend, saw there what he had not, what Dean had been working so hard all this time to mask.

"What do you mean, too broken?" Bobby asked as he shut the door and made his way inside.

Castiel laid Dean on the couch, adjusting his head so that it wasn't at an odd angle. He watched, waiting for the hunter to push him away, to open his eyes and growl about the personal space he is so protective of. But Dean simply lay still, pale, his chest barely moving as he pulled in shallow, rattling breaths.

"Empty," Castiel said, tilting his head quizzically, thinking about the words he'd heard John Winchester say to his son, the heartbreaking sound of Dean's tears as his father held him. He could see Dean's trembling increase visibly as he lay there. "Famine told Dean he was empty. He touched him…and felt a hole inside."

The wheels of Bobby's chair sent the wooden floor squeaking as the older hunter moved closer. "Wait, you said Famine touched him?"

Castiel straightened, looking down at Bobby. "Yes."

Bobby shot him a look Castiel could only label as fierce. He reached for Dean, parting the folds of his outer shirt and pulling his T-shirt up as he mumbled angrily under his breath – but Castiel still picked up on the words.

"…a Horseman, you son of a bitch…amps up desire and touches Dean…no one thinks that's gonna do some damage…?"

Castiel leaned in when Bobby hissed in reaction to what he saw under Dean's shirt. A darkening purple bruise radiated out from a red, hand-shaped burn just over his sternum. Bobby looked over his shoulder at Castiel.

"Get his shirt off. I'll be back."

As Bobby wheeled himself away, Cas looked down at Dean's tense face, blood from the cut above his eye crusting in his brow. Words and images rolled over in his mind. The guilt that had been gnawing on him since he'd come back to himself in that diner spiked hot and sharp inside; it was an unfamiliar, unwelcome feeling and left him with the sensation of wearing clothes one size too small. As if the body he'd grown comfortable in had shrank around him, trapping him and limiting him.

He crouched down so that he was more or less level with Dean's body. As gently as he could, he rolled Dean to his side, sliding the younger man's arm from his sleeve, then pulled Dean close so that he could do the same on the other side. Removing the T-shirt was another matter; one Castiel decided wasn't worth jostling Dean for. He grabbed the base and ripped it in half, pulling each side off of Dean's arms.

Once Dean's torso was bare, the bruise looked worse and Cas berated himself for not thinking to check on Dean's well being back in the diner. His focus had been on evading capture, getting Sam to the panic room, and not thinking on his own failure.

As Bobby wheeled back into the room, a pile of items balanced on his lap, Castiel found himself wondering how often Dean had expertly deflected the attention from himself over the years; he'd done it so well this time, even Castiel hadn't noticed until damage had already been done. Keeping his hand on Dean's chest – avoiding the bruised area – Cas frowned at the struggle he felt going on inside Dean's body. It was as if he was at once fighting to breathe and simultaneously rejecting the air.

"Here," Bobby handed Cas a mug of something foul smelling and warm. "See if you can get him to drink that."

"What is it?" Cas asked, moving around to Dean's head.

"It'll help with the pain," Bobby told him. "He's having a helluva time breathing. We should get him checked out by a doctor, but—"

"He won't want to leave Sam," Castiel interrupted.

"I know," Bobby grumbled, carefully spreading some salve on the burn on Dean's chest. "And I got no goddamn clue how we'd explain this."

Dean flinched, twisting away from Bobby's touch with a low groan, sweat beading across his forehead. Castiel rested a comforting hand on his shoulder, feeling the tremble there.

"Kid's beat," Bobby said quietly. "Figured this would bring him around."

Castiel knelt next to Bobby's chair, shifting his arm beneath Dean's head and lifting him carefully. The small bleat of pain Dean uttered at the movement had Bobby pulling his hand away. Dean twisted his head to the side as Cas placed the cup at his lips, the blood on his forehead smearing on Castiel's trench coat.

Cas paused, waiting for Dean to relax, then tried once more as he held the trembling man close, keeping him braced with one strong arm. Wordlessly, he encouraged Dean to swallow, bit by bitter bit, until the cup was empty. When he was finished, Cas looked up at Bobby.

"You're pretty good at that." Bobby said with a small twitch of his mouth that was apparently indicative of approval. "Takes a gentle hand."

Castiel tipped his head in a nod of acceptance. "Angels are seen as comforting beings for a reason."

Bobby didn't answer; he motioned Cas to sit Dean forward so that he could wrap gauze around his chest, covering the salve that coated the bruises and burn. The motion once more caused Dean to make a sound, but this time it was more of a growl, a curse. If he'd not held on so tightly, Cas knew that even unconscious, Dean would be pushing them away just to ease his pain.

As they laid Dean back down, Castiel noticed his eyes flutter, then open, staring at them, but not seeing them.

"Dean?" Bobby said, leaning close. "Hey, kid."

"Where's Dad?" Dean rasped, his lids sliding shut while his eyes rolled beneath, still searching.

Bobby drew back, then looked up at Cas, worried. When Cas offered nothing, Bobby lay his hand on Dean's arm once more. "Hey…you with me, Dean?"

Instead of answering, Dean sank into the couch, his body giving in, his spirit weary. Bobby checked his pulse, pressed the palm of his hand against Dean's cheek, then sat back.

"Grab that blanket over behind my desk, will ya?" he asked Cas. Once Castiel handed it to him, he covered Dean gently. "We'll let him sleep it off." He sagged a bit in his chair. "What the hell was he doing out there anyway?"

Castiel looked down at Dean's face, features appearing so young in sleep, even with the lines of pain pulling his mouth into a frown. "He was praying."

"Praying?" Bobby looked up at him in surprise.

Castiel nodded. "Sometimes," he looked down at Bobby, unaware of the story in his eyes, noticing only the way Bobby seemed to shrink from him, "we're all in need of help."

Bobby ran his fingers over his mouth, the coarse hairs of his beard rubbing against the quiet broken only by Dean's rough breathing. "You think he got his answer?"

Castiel felt the body around him sigh, and closed his eyes for a moment. "He got an answer. I just hope it was the right one."

They stayed side by side for a moment, watching Dean sleep.

www

Later

He felt the quiet.

It filled the house like a presence, disguising any cries from the panic room, eliminating the creak of a wheelchair, denying movement of anyone else around him. Dean opened his eyes to a dim room, taking a moment to orient himself to his surroundings. Turning his head slowly, he took a cautious breath, at once relieved and curious that it didn't feel as if the flow of oxygen was about to light his lungs on fire.

He was inside Bobby's house, lying on the couch near the window in Bobby's study, covered with a blanket. He was stiff, sore, and possibly a tad hung over. At least that's what the pounding in his head and the small animal that had slept in his mouth would attest to. However the ache across his chest and the bandages wrapped around it told a slightly different story.

"Dean."

He went still, a cold sweat breaking out across his bare skin. For several heartbeats he didn't pull in a breath. Then a figure leaned forward; someone who had been sitting in a chair at the foot of the couch. Someone who sounded so much like his father, Dean was almost convinced it hadn't all been a dream.

Either that, or that he was still dreaming.

"Sam?" His voice was raspy from sleep, the sound rough against his ears.

"Hey." The smile was in Sam's voice, even if Dean couldn't yet see his brother's face. He felt a hand rest on his leg. "How are you feeling?"

"About to ask you the same question," Dean replied, not quite up to testing his resistance to gravity. He laid still, eyes searching the shadow to find Sam's.

As if sensing to reassure him, Sam leaned closer. He looked pale, drawn, and weary, but his eyes were Sam again. The hand on his leg was steady.

"I'm a little…wrung out," Sam answered honestly, handing Dean a glass of water. "But better. Cas let me out of the hole this morning."

Dean frowned, tipping his head forward just enough to take a few sips of water without the liquid spilling down his front. "How long…?"

"You've been asleep for two days."

"Shit," Dean groaned, dropping his head back and reaching up to rub his face. He could feel butterfly bandages on his forehead, sealing a cut there left behind, he remembered, from a demon's fist.

"Turns out Famine did a number on you," Sam told him, taking the glass from his loose grip and setting on the floor within reach.

"You can say that again," Dean muttered. He gingerly rested his hand on his bandaged chest. "Why does my mouth taste like ass?"

"Bobby said he and Cas have been giving you something to drink," Sam told him. "Some herb…thing. They said you were…well, that you were hurting."

Dean closed his eyes, dropping his arm across them. "Where's Cas?"

"Not sure," Sam answered, sitting back. "He let me out…then left."

"He's probably trying to figure out how to deal with what happened," Dean said, surprised by his own words.

"What do you mean?"

Dean dropped his arm, looking for his brother and finding him easier in the dim light now that his eyes had adjusted. "He's an angel, Sam. He's not used to…y'know…having desires, or whatever."

Sam nodded, looking down. "I heard him, Dean. Famine. Heard what he said to you. About you."

Dean winced, looking away. "Forget about it, Sam."

"I can't," Sam said. "C'mon, Dean, don't shut me out…."

"Sammy," Dean looked at him, feeling the tightness in his chest return. "Don't. Just…I can't give you anything more than this right now."

They sat in the quiet, regarding each other silently, each waiting for the other to break first.

"I just need you to promise me something," Sam asked finally, his voice breathy from suppressed emotion. "Just one thing."

Dean closed his eyes, feeling tired. "What?"

"Promise me you won't quit this fight," Sam said, tears in his voice. "Promise me you'll stay in this with me."

As if spoken in a dream, words floated up to him. His father's voice, close and real. You two are the balance this universe needs.

Opening his eyes, Dean looked at his brother, saw the fear and uncertainty on Sam's face. He pushed up to his elbow so that Sam could see his eyes. "I promise."

Sam's chin trembled as he nodded. "Okay," he said, relieved. "Okay."

Sinking back against the couch, Dean let his gaze wander toward the window and looked out at the darkening sky of evening. When you can't run, you crawl.

"I'll let you get some rest," Sam said, staring to rise from the chair.

And when you can't crawl, you find someone to carry you.

"Sam," Dean said, stopping Sam's movement. "You can stay. If you want."

Sam smiled. "Okay, yeah."

"I had the weirdest dream," Dean began. "Dad was in it."

Sam settled back, propping his feet up on the couch next to Dean's side to listen. Dean dropped his arm down, his hand resting on Sam's legs as he talked. He didn't notice the quiet eyes watching them from the shadows of the room, waiting to see if a prayer had been answered.

END


a/n: I did warn you about the angst.

"When you can't run, you crawl. And when you can't crawl, you find someone to carry you." – I pulled this quote from an episode of Firefly called "The Message."

Next up is "Night of the Hunter." Set between the end of 5.02, Good God, Ya'll through 5.03, FTBYAM, leading to the first part of 5.04, The End: This story chronicles what Dean did and went through during the time he and Sam were apart. Let's just say there are vampires, werewolves, a case of mistaken identity, some sleepless nights, a lonely man, and a lot of Dean.

If you come back for the read, I hope you enjoy.


Tags: author: gaelicspirit, supernatural
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