Armor of Righteousness

Author: Cheryl W.

Disclaimer: I do not own Dean, Sam or any rights to Supernatural, nor am I making any profit from this story.

Author's Note: Well, I finished it! This chapter is longer than the previous chapters and I tweaked it a little so it wouldn't really go AU after the last episode. I hope I didn't take Dean and Sam too OOC in my efforts to solve some of their issues this season. Oh and the sap meter is pretty high on this one.

Summary:Multi-chapter tag for OTHOAP. No one man wins or loses a war. Now Sam just has to prove that to Dean. No Slash.

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Chapter 4

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Running into the room, Sam found his brother alone, seemingly not hurt further…if one overlooked the tear tracking down his cheek. Which Sam didn't. Couldn't. Coming to Dean's side, he hurriedly asked, "Dean, are you in pain?! Should I get the doctor?" even as he knew something as benign as physical pain couldn't account for his brother's misery.

Shaking his head, Dean rolled his head away from Sam. Didn't bother to try and wipe away the tears, to pretend there was any strength left in him. Wasn't like Sam didn't know he was weak, like Castiel didn't know it already. Like Alistair hadn't gleefully discovered just how weak this particular Winchester was.

Hating to see Dean's anguish, pain shafting through him when Dean turned away from him, Sam stood stock still beside his brother's hospital bed. Steeling himself for whatever fallout came next, he quietly questioned, already knowing the answer, "Castiel…he was here, wasn't he?"

When Dean gave no reaction to the question, seemed intent on blocking out even his presence, Sam felt sick that all he had to cling to was the only two things that indicated there was still life in Dean: Dean's labored breathing and the tear that tracked down his brother's cheek. Dean was seemingly vanishing before his eyes and, as twisted as it was, Dean's pain, it was the only hand hold he had on his brother. 'You're not going anywhere Dean,' he vowed internally, ready to take a two handed grip on whatever part of Dean he could, willing to even wake Dean's anger, invoke his disgust if it rallied Dean enough to just look at him.

"Cas told you what I did, didn't he? I'm not sorry, Dean," he declared, steel in his tone, bracing for Dean's searing look of near hatred, ready to defend his actions until Dean realized he wasn't going to do any less than Dean himself had done. Wasn't going to stand by and let someone take his brother away from him. Not ever again.

Dean might count himself weak, but he knew he wasn't stupid. Had seen enough of Cas's battle with Alistair to know where the betting man would have laid down his coin. But him still being alive, still out of Hell?! His gut told him Cas had had reinforcements to defeat Alistair. And he had desperately hoped it had been Uriel….and not Sam. That Sam hadn't tracked them down, hadn't drawn on more of his dark powers to fight a battle that wasn't his to fight. 'Was mine…and I lost.'

Inching closer to the bed, Sam studied Dean's stoic profile, could read neither disappointment nor anger in his brother's stony mask. No, Dean was closing down, locking all the hatches, was shutting him out with cold determination. "You would be dead, Dean, if I hadn't shown up!" he defended, his tone teetering between anger and a fierce need for Dean to see that, to understand he couldn't let that happen. But even those words didn't evoke a response from Dean. Suddenly he wanted Dean to flinch, or curse or give some signs that he was still there, still heard him. Pulling in a sharp, unsteady breath, he clenched his jaw, abandoned the idea of sugarcoating what he had done, hiding it behind more lies, of concealing what Dean should know: That he would protect him as valiantly as Dean had always protected him. Would avenge wrongs against him as doggedly as their Dad had sought their mom's murderer. "And Alistair…"he hissed, menace, burning hatred in his utterance of the name, "he deserved to die."

At Sam's revelation, Dean closed his eyes, his emotions too scoured clean to feel much shock, too guilty himself to level accusations or condemnations at anyone but himself. What he was, what he had done…it was so much worse than Sam's darkside powers. And whatever path Sam was on….he had put him there as surely as his Mother had when she made that deal. He had brought Sam to this point, had made Sam further taint his own soul to save him…and he wasn't worth it. Wasn't worth any of the sacrifices made by his father, or by Sam. Let alone the terrible misconception Cas and his keepers were under. He wasn't their guy. He just wasn't.

For Sam, Dean's lack of reaction, it was worse than Dean's punches, than his brother's disappointment, than his declaration of 'I would want to hunt you.' So much worse that it stole his breath from him, made him lightheaded. Sinking into the chair by Dean's side, he tried to not unravel. Told himself that, Dean's silence, it could mean a thousand things. But only the most hideous came to his mind: Dean never forgiving him, that there would be no chance of a reconciliation between them, that he had brought about the very end of them. "Dean, say something. Please," he quietly implored, his tone cracking like his world was.

Without bitterness, void of any spark of life, Dean did what Sam asked of him. "Not everything is about you, Sam." It was all he could offer, was the only words of absolution for Sam he could muster in the face of the annihilation of his world. In the falsehood that he had once believed in so staunchly, was even proud of: for protecting Sam all his life…for lasting thirty years of torture. Both claims now proven, not just pathetically egotistically, but so wrong, wrong, wrong.

Somewhere down deep, Sam knew he should be relieved. This wasn't about him, about his abilities, about Dean disowning him. But he was too vested in his brother to be selfish, to not sense that, it being about him…that would have been better. Would not have caused Dean to look so…defeated……..so devastated.

Dean's earlier words about what he had done with Alistair, how it was all that mattered come back to Sam, sharply. Somewhere in that was the answer, was maybe the key to get Dean to be Dean again, to fight…even with him if he wanted to. Just…fight and not give up. Sitting up straighter in his chair, determined to figure this out, to help Dean, Sam focused on Alistair, remembered how bloody Alistair had been when he got there. He had seen the instruments on the table. Instruments of torture. Surely Dean couldn't be feeling guilty for torturing Alistair?! He had killed him, not Dean. And his actions, they didn't even stir a twinge of guilt within him. Instead he felt satisfaction, regret that he hadn't gotten there sooner, killed Alistair the first time they had met. Venomously cursed himself that lost opportunity after he knew what Alistair had done to Dean!

"Dean, Cas asked you to torture Alistair. Uriel didn't give you a choice of deciding if you went with them," Sam heatedly pointed out, his anger at the Angels flaring hotly again. "You can't blame yourself! Besides, you didn't kill him, Dean. I did. I did."

Dean swallowed hard at Sam's words. His brother was wrong. He was the only one to blame. 'And Sam should know that, know what I am, that he shouldn't take any more steps upon his dark path for me, to save me. Not ever again. If Sam doesn't choose his battles more carefully, choose his allies with more discretion, he is going to get booked on the fast train to Hell, right beside me.' And that was something Dean wouldn't let happen, not to keep his dark secret, not even to keep Sam from hating him.

Rolling his head toward Sam, Dean met Sam's compassionate, worried look, and felt physically sick …just like he had when Alistair told him how bad it had really was, what he had done. "I broke the first seal, Sam," he confessed without a hitch in his words or a bat to his eyelashes. He would not plea for understanding, or forgiveness, for mercies he didn't deserve.

Whatever Sam thought Dean would say, it wasn't those words. And for as much as he had wanted Dean to look at him, he never wanted to see that level of despair in his brother's eyes, that utter hopelessness, that merciless self hatred. "What?! No!" He protested, praying that he was misreading Dean this one time, that Dean wasn't saying what he thought he was saying. But Dean's eyes, they were nearly void of life, told him that the inconceivably worst had happened. And he blamed himself for it. "How?!" he demanded, his tone angry, incredulous. Neither emotion directed at Dean, was directed at Cas, at Alistair, at whoever dared to level blame on his brother for this defeat.

It took whatever fledging strength Dean had to not drop his eyes, to look at anything else but Sam. 'I deserve to see the disappointment, the disgust in his eyes. I deserve it.' Swallowing, he met Sam's blazing eyes, knew that Sam thought he deserved to be defended, would soon know he deserved to be condemned…to Hell and then some. "When I begged Alistair to take me off the rack, when I shed blood in Hell. I started all this." And he meant to say 'apocalypse' but the word caught in his throat, made him clench his jaw to stop himself from breaking….again.

"No," Sam firmly refuted, shaking his head. "Who told you this?! Alistair?! Because he…"

"Cas confirmed it," Dean cut in bluntly, couldn't live with Sam's illusions anymore than he could keep a hold of his own. He watched Sam jerk to a stand still, saw his brother tilt his head, watched as tears welled in his eyes but the worst was his brother's broken denial.

"No," Sam breathed, his voice thick, choked. It was a fervent wish, a gut wrenching plea that things could be undone, would be proven wrong, that someone, anyone would tell him this wasn't happening.

Not strong enough to watch Sam stagger under the depths of shame that he had brought upon their family, Dean looked away, closed his eyes, waited for Sam to leave, to walk out that door and never come back to him. Braced himself for Sam's anger, sardonically corrected, 'Righteous anger. I'm the Winchester that should have been targeted by other hunters. Sam should have used Ruby's knife on me instead of trying to save me from Hell, instead of plotting to kill Lilith. If he had killed me…he would have ended it.'

Cursing viciously, Sam nearly knocked the chair over as he surged to his feet, more energy flowing through him than Ruby could ever lend him. In three quick strides, he reached the door, wrapped his hand tightly around the wood. But it took him a moment or two before he could wrestle his emotions under control enough to close the door without slamming it, to draw the extra chair over to the door and slid it under the knob with concise not angry motion. This was a private conversation between him and Dean. No one else was going to hear what they said, no one else was going to watch Dean break apart. It was bad enough he was witness to that. Tore him apart in more cruel ways than even a master torturer like Alistair could ever devise.

Turning around, Sam saw that Dean wasn't facing him. Drawing closer, he could see that his brother's eyes were closed but his body was full of so much tension that he didn't dare touch him. Didn't want to undo whatever control Dean had over himself. Knew just as certainly that he couldn't stand there and watch his brother self destruction, couldn't stay silent. Couldn't let Dean think he was alone in this. He had to make Dean see that, though he had been in Hell alone, he wasn't going to get any real alone time so easily from here on out. Nor could he let Dean shut him out, knew he could bare a lot of things but had come to know that wasn't one of them.

Crossing to the other side of the bed, Sam claimed a seat on the mattress by Dean's left side, careful to not unduly jostle his brother's hurting body. Dean flinched at the closeness, might have turned his head away again but Sam spoke first.

"You didn't do this, Dean," Sam resolutely declared, eyes latched onto his brother's face, his loyalty to his brother as strongly engaged as it had ever been.

Unable to face Sam, Dean focused on the wall, felt another tear slip free of his control. "Yeah, I did," he said, voice gravely from so much more than Alistair's manacle grip on his throat…from the torturer's sadistic grip around his heart.. on his soul. "I broke and started all this…"

Wincing, not from Dean's confession but from his brother's desolation, Sam refuted, "Crap Dean, this game has been rigged from the start! Look at me," the last more entreaty than command. "Dean, come on, please look at me." Slowly Dean complied and Sam, for all his fortifications, was shredded apart at the defeat, the all consuming guilt in his brother's eyes. "All this didn't start with you. It started with Mom's deal…it started with Mom's parents hunting!"

"I'm the one that wasn't strong enough, Sam. Me," Dean growled, not wanting more excuses, his or Sam's, for his actions.

Sam wanted to reach out and shake Dean, wanted his brother to see himself, to see the situation the way he saw it. "Dean you were in Hell! Were being tortured with no real hope of ever getting out. Ever," the declaration highlighting his own unforgivable failure to save Dean, to rescue his brother from Hell, from Alistair's manipulations, from this new crushing guilt. "No one…no one could expect you to not break."

For a moment, Dean couldn't breathe, had to almost desperately draw in the air from the breathing tube he was still attached to. "Dad didn't," he wheezed out, eyes again dropping to the mattress before lifting again to clash with Sam's wide gaze. "A century and he never broke, Sam."

At the news, Sam tilted his head, narrowed his eyes, said his next words with deceptive calmness. "And who told you that? Your good buddy Alistair?"

Dean shifted uncomfortable under Sam's piercing stare, winced at the flare of pain it caused him. "He would know, Sam," he lowly shot back, remembered only too vividly Alistair's smile when he had finally pleaded to be taken off the rack, when he had wrapped his trembling hands around Alistair's razor. Yes, out of everyone, Alistair would know.

Sensing Dean's memories were tangled with the present, Sam softened his reply, didn't want to level accusations at Dean, just wanted Dean to see things more clearly. "Dean, I know you've always had Dad on a pedestal, thought that he was some kind of ….saint," and he couldn't help the twist of bitterness that tainted the word, that showcased his own emotions.

"Dad didn't break the seal, Sam. I did," Dean declared, steel coming into his tone, frustrated that Sam could doubt their Dad's strength. Knowing that Sam was tearing down their father out of some foolish loyalty to him, to defend him, to defend his actions, it only made it worse.

Not really surprised that Dean would defend their Dad instead of himself, Sam fought back a troubled sigh. Sidestepping the issue in order to gather more evidence for his case, he asked, "How did you break the seal?" Knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth that they were too gruff, too offhanded, would not convey what he meant to.

"What? You want details? Want my torture techniques? Want the final tally of the number of souls I destroyed. You need to hear that? Now!" Dean exclaimed, starting to sit up, to try and put more strength, more distance between Sam, between what Sam was demanding of him. But Sam's hand gently came to rest on his chest, held him in place and he couldn't avoid Sam's eye contact.

Hand pressed on Dean's sternum, Sam leaned closer to his brother, needed Dean to see that he wasn't blaming him, wanted only to help him, to stand at his side like he was meant to. Knew suddenly that he had to say the words, that too much had gone unsaid between them for too long. "Dean, I'm on your side," he declared, his conviction and his anguish coiled in the words. "The only side I'm on is yours. But you have to let me in, man. You have to let me help you this time, no going solo, no shutting me out. Please, Dean. Please," he begged, knew that he might not get another chance to prove his loyalty to Dean, to have Dean's faith in him restored, for them to not just be hunting partners, but brothers again. Brothers who stood at each others side, even when the apocalypse was bearing down on them at 100 mph.

Dean felt part of himself break further at Sam's plea, felt whatever last stronghold crumble when a tear slipped free of Sam's eye. Like it or not, they were in this together. His failings, they affected Sam. More than he wanted them to. "It was a prophesy," he licked his dry lips, felt Sam's hand shift on his chest, was surprised that Sam gripped his shirt into a fist instead of pulling away.

"Ok. So how does this prophesy go?" Sam prodded quietly, unable to back off and give Dean his space, not when Dean seemed still so willing to shut down, to leave him alone.

Dropping his gaze, Dean clenched his jaw. The prophesy, Alistair's version and Cas's were so wrong on so many accounts it was almost ridiculous to repeat it, especially verbatim.

"Dean, I don't blame you for this. Any of it. I blame Mom and Dad and me and …and Lilith but I don't blame you," Sam vowed, needing Dean to not stop now. The idea of being so close to reclaiming Dean to lose him again so terrifying that he could barely remember how to take a breath. "Just tell me, Dean," he quietly entreated.

Dean shook his head, not in denial but disbelief that he was about to speak the words aloud, was going to drag Sam into his mess. "When a righteous man sheds blood in Hell…it breaks the first seal." He forced himself to met Sam's eyes, didn't see condemnation there but sympathy, fooled himself to think there was even a douse of affection in the look Sam gave to him. "Cas said…when they figured out Lilith's plans for me…they tried to get to me before…" Breaking off, he looked away. They had been too late, had underestimated his weakness, his frailty, had overrated his "righteousness", misgauged his meager willpower.

Sam's own jaw clenched at the anguish on Dean's face, knowing that Dean was piling all this weight on his own soul when it didn't belong there. Was too blinded by self hatred to see what Sam could. "But God can use you to help stop this, right?" Found himself almost smirking when Dean's head snapped up in surprise, when something beside despair filtered through his brother's eyes. "I mean, that's why Cas got you out of Hell, why he asked for your help to stop the breaking of the seals."

"You been reading books on apocalyptic prophecy while I wasn't watching?" Dean shot back, unaware that his tone was sparking again with life, offered a taunt to his little brother.

Sam couldn't help but smile at Dean's tone, at his verbal jab at him. "Dean, it doesn't take research to see you're part of the solution to all this. I mean, you got a trip out of Hell, you got your own personal Angel..though clearly he's a piss poor Guardian Angel," he growled, his anger resurfacing at Cas's culpability in Dean almost getting killed, in being hurt, in laying in the hospital bed right now.

"Yeah," Dean snorted in agreement, settled back more firmly in the bed and felt some of the horrible ache in his soul loosen. "I told him he should learn how to do a devil's trap. Think that would be taught in 'Angel 101', right?"

Sam gave a small laugh and found the strength to uncoil his hand in Dean's shirt. Sitting upright, he gave Dean more space, knew his brother wasn't going anywhere anymore, that they had pulled back from the edge. That they both were on more stable ground, would remain that way if they stood shoulder to shoulder. "So Cas tell you how to earn your general star?"

He should tell Sam what Cas had said, that it was on him, seemingly solely, to fix this …stop this, Dean knew that but he didn't want to see the look in Sam's eyes, to hear Sam utter the words he had uttered to Cas once he realized the fate of the world rested on his shoulders. 'We're screwed.' Instead of revealing the final piece of the prophesy, he quietly answered Sam's question with a , "Ah, no. No," and fell silent, eyes dropping to his bed sheet. Having Sam on his side, to him that was worth a thousand guardian angels…except it was probably only going to get Sam killed. And that was the best case scenario. "This is my mess, Sam. I'll…"

"Handle it alone?!?" Sam sputtered, angry that Dean would suggest it, was circling back to a choice that he had vetoed a thousand times before. "No, Dean. You're not handling it alone. We fight together, as a family. Beside, I'm in this as deep as you. Have you forgotten that Yellow Eyes had plans for me, that Lilith still thinks I'll challenge her to head up her army?!"

"More reason for you to lay low, Sam. Not go chasing after Lilith, no matter what super powers you've mastered in the last couple of days," Dean said, needing to convince Sam to back down, to not go all super soldier…especially when he himself wasn't going to be putting on any General stars, wasn't going to be heading up any heavenly army, wasn't even fit for duty. Had never truly been fit for the duty Cas said was his destiny.

"Yellow Eyes chose to use me and Lilith chose to use you, it doesn't mean we stay in the roles they gave us!" Sam countered, falsely thinking that Dean was worried he would live up to Yellow Eyes expectations. Determined to dissuade Dean from that that his own, unknowing part in Lilith's plans marked him as one of her minions for the rest of his life.

"I upped their game, Sammy," Dean sadly pointed out, knew he didn't need to do one thing more for Lilith, had already freely given her what she needed most from him.

"Like Dad giving Yellow Eyes the Colt didn't?! Like us letting the gate open didn't? Like my letting Ruby train me in the fine arts of her kind isn't playing into their hands?!" Sam recounted the choices that marked the path that had led them to where they were right then and there.

And amid his own guilt, Dean could see his brother's, knew how heavily Sam carried it now. Guilt at harnessing the blood in his veins, at tapping into the powers Ruby was eagerly showing him that he had. 'Guilt at failing me. Isn't that the biggest joke of all?!' "Sam…I don't want you to go down the paths I've traveled. I know what it's like to do evil…to be evil. Trust me, you don't want to know what that feels like Sam. Not ever.

"You're not evil, Dean!" Sam heatedly denied, voice rising with his conviction.

"What I did, what it led to…I wish I had been as strong as Dad."

"You know what, Dean!? That's a load of crap!" Sam snarled as he surged from the bed, took a few paces away before he faced Dean again. "You're stronger than Dad! And if we're looking for a righteous man…"

"We're going to argue about Dad?! About this?!" Dean incredulously asked, taking in his brother's angry stance.

"Yeah, yeah we are because I'm not going to let you think you're a lesser man than he was!" Sam countered, prepped to fight the battle until he won.

"I am!" Dean angrily proclaimed but his throat protested that abuse, sent a harsh cough erupting from him, bowing him forward.

Feeling like a total jerk for arguing with Dean when he was hurt, was still fighting off a beating that had nearly killed him, Sam quickly crossed to the nightstand and grabbed the cup of water. Reclaiming his seat on the bed, he held the cup up to Dean's lips even as his other hand slipped behind Dean's neck to offer support. Dean swallowed some of the water, didn't even raise his hands from the bed to make a prideful move to hold the cup himself. His brother's submissiveness, it scared Sam almost as badly as it had finding Dean unconscious on the warehouse floor, barely able to draw in breath.

When Dean pulled back slightly, Sam sat the cup down and settled Dean's head back against the raised pillows. He kept his hand resting around the side of Dean's neck, was reassured by his brother's pulse beating against his wrist. "We can talk about all this later, Dean. When you're up to it."

"Up to talking about how I started the end of the world?" Dean darkly challenged, a bitter smirk on his pale, bruised features. "Sam, no matter what your issues are with Dad, he didn't take Alistair up on his offer, didn't break……"

"Maybe Alistair never made the offer, Dean! Cas said Lilith had plans for you. Not for Dad. For you."

"Guess everyone can tell a weak link when they see it," Dean scathingly said.

"Stop it! Just stop it Dean!" Sam demanded, lifting his hand from Dean's already abused neck, not wanting to hurt his brother further with any rough gestures that his anger would resonate. "They were Lilith's plans for you. Her plans. Not yours! And you really think God would use you if he didn't see the goodness in you, know your strength! Know that you could win!

"Like I told Cas, they have the wrong man!" Dean angrily proclaimed, wasn't prepared for Sam's instantaneous denial.

"No, no they don't. They chose the most honorable, most righteous man I know. You went to Hell to save me, Dean! You risked your life a thousand times to save strangers!"

"Nothing Dad didn't already do!"

"How did he walk out of Hell, Dean?" Sam quietly cut in, held his breath after the words were free, watched Dean's expression intently for what his brother wouldn't voice.

"What?" Dean asked with a whoosh of breath.

"When we opened the gate..he just..walked out," Sam tried to make his words light, not accusatory, no matter what they implied. "Hey, I know I don't know Hell but you get hall passes down there? Get them for bad behavior instead of good?!"

Dean felt like someone was sitting on his chest, like Alistair was again choking him. "What…what are you saying?" his tone coming out hurt, lost.

"I'm just saying…" Sam began but he didn't want to hurt Dean more, to crush his brother's faith in their father. But was equally unwilling to let Dean think he was not a better man than their father, was a better man than their father could have ever been …in this life or the next. "Just that..things don't add up. Not what Alistair claimed about Dad."

"No, say what you mean, Sam. What about Dad getting out of Hell? He saved me, Sam…us back there."

Sam relented under Dean's insistence. "I know he did, Dean. I'm not saying…"

"Just say it," Dean demanded, tired of things being withheld from him, truths sugarcoated for him, because he was too weak to hear them.

"Alright," Sam said on an exhale, telling himself that it needed to be said, that Dean needed to face the evidence…no matter that it put doubt where there had always been steadfast faith. "If I had gotten the gate open during the first three months you were in Hell, could you have strolled right out the door?"

The question was like a machete to Dean's defenses, brought his first thirty years in Hell vividly back to him: chained up, on the rack, tortured mercilessly, helpless to move…let alone break free of his chains, fight his way past his torturers and find his way to the door…even if he had had days to do it. How many times had he wondered, amid the torture … how his father had endured this for a year… Had tried to figure out how to do what his father had, to find a way to the gate, to crawl or scratch or beg his way out.

It was painful, watching Dean's eyes go dark with the memories of Hell. And yet Sam quietly pressed, "You couldn't have made it out, right? You weren't …free," his voice cracking on the word, the mockery it was in comparison to what Dean had endured. "I'm not trying to place blame or belittle Dad's sacrifice or his pain or…anything. But you have to ask how he was able to walk out of the gates, why he wasn't….on the rack."

It was the question Dean could never sort out, had stopped wanting to answer.

Sam looked at his hands because it hurt too badly looking at Dean. "Alistair's specialty was finding out what hurt people the worst, Dean. He would have lied to you about anything to hurt you, to break you, right? Well you have to consider he lied about Dad. About Dad not breaking."

"But Dad didn't break the seal," Dean pointed out again.

Sam bit his lip but there was no real decision to be made, not when it came down to protecting his father's image or patching up Dean's soul. "Maybe Alistair never made Dad the offer that he made you…maybe.."

"What?"

Sam knew that, no matter how he said it, Dean wouldn't believe him, wouldn't see that he was righteous, that he helped people out of a goodness of his heart, not out of vengeance, to fill some hole in his soul like their father had. That righteousness like his, it wasn't commonplace, not on earth and certainly not in Hell. "I don't know just…don't blindly believe what Alistair said about Dad. Stop comparing yourself to what might be a lie, Ok?" he said, a hint of little brother beseeching in his words, in his eyes as he raised them to Dean's. But part of him wished he had the guts to say the rest, that he hadn't stopped himself from crossing the line, saying what Dean clearly didn't want to hear…but so badly needed to face. 'Stop judging yourself based on our Dad's image that you created. An image that has always been more about what you wanted to believe about Dad than what was true about Dad.'

When his words were met with silence and he couldn't interpret the expression his brother was giving him, Sam tensed, waited for denials, for Dean's loyalty for their father to continue to blind him, for Dean to rain guilt down on his own head no matter what evidence he laid before him.

"You've given this some thought…before today," Dean surmised, tone curious not accusatory, as he watched Sam's face for what he didn't say, wouldn't confess.

Sam pulled his shoulders back as if he expected a battle to ensue. "Like I told you, I tried to get the gate open to get you out. Had to plan what I would do if I succeeded."

"And what was that?" Dean quietly asked, never quite taking Sam's claim seriously before. That Sam would risk letting more evil out, would willingly put the world into more peril …just to save him?! Come on. He knew his brother better than that.

"Come in and get you," Sam stated with resolve, strove to not flinch at the memories of standing in that graveyard in Wyoming screaming at the doors to Hell, fingers bloody from his efforts to pry the door open. Memories that had the ability to still slip past his barriers when his guard was down, when Dean wasn't standing next to him, when there wasn't blatant proof that his brother was there with him, was no longer dead.

Whatever doubt Dean had, it vanished with his brother's determined declaration, when he saw the burning despair that flashed on his brother's features. Sam had been willing to open the gate, would have walked into Hell to rescue him. Would have condemned the world….just to save him. Instead of disapproval, a fierce love for Sam washed over Dean, made him fall back onto his usual tactics when Sam said something or did something that made him tread close to breaking down. "You didn't think I could make it out on my own?" he teasingly asked with a raised eyebrow, wanting to ease the grim set to Sam's features, to make light of something…even his time down under.

Reciprocating Dean's need for humor, Sam drawled, "Dean, you practically got detention everyday you went to school. You think I would believe that you would keep your smart mouth shut in Hell?!"

Dean smirked, nodded, a shade of affection and sadness mixed in the gesture. "Took a while but I learned."

Sam couldn't help scoff, "Yeah, so why was Alistair so amped to go after you the first chance he got. Seems to me he wanted some payback for your bad attitude."

"You know me, I've always been a bad student," Dean returned, couldn't believe he was smirking about the small, insignificant defiance he had managed to raise against Alistair, even in Hell.

"Tell me about it! Bobby still gets pissed when you do the opposite he tells you to do. He should expect it by now." Watching Dean give a cocky, if weak smile, Sam slipped from Dean's bed and sank into the chair Cas had occupied. "So, this higher calling you got going on, what are the perks? You get a battalion of Angels at your disposal."

At Sam's words, Dean's features slipped into a darker hue. "I don't think that's how a guilty man is punished."

"What about rewarding a righteous man, Dean?" Sam shot back, not willing to concede this particular battle. Ever.

"A 'righteous" man that fell," Dean darkly clarified. "I probably get as much love as Anna did."

"Last time I checked, Cas was going to kill Anna….wasn't sitting vigil by her hospital bed waiting for her to wake up. And God didn't track her down to fill any prophesy," Sam stubbornly pointed out, trying to keep his stance relaxed in the chair, to not let his tension pour over Dean. "Time to face the fact that you are important, Dean. And not just to me, not just to our personal war we've been waging."

"Well I don't want to be important," Dean petulantly grumbled, wanted to shout it to the Heavens until someone took him off the "Save the world" roster. Until someone realized what a mistake they were making thinking he was some kind of ….hero.

"Tough," Sam countered back with a short laugh but when Dean rolled his head to face him, he could easily read the exhaustion in Dean's every line. Was an exhaustion that went a thousand leagues beyond the physical, was about a crushing weariness in his soul. 'No one deserves a break more than you do, Dean. But with our lives, things are never that easy….' Needing to connect to Dean, overcome with a need to protect him, even if it was from something as benign as a chill, he leaned forward in his seat and pulled Dean's sheets higher and settled them under Dean's chin, let his hand rest on his brother's chest. "Why don't you get some sleep, Dean."

"You look more worn out than me," Dean parried with a smirk that was so weak it barely stayed around long enough for Sam to see it.

"Really, look into a mirror lately?!" Sam lightly scoffed even as he was glad for Dean's efforts, that Dean was trying hard to be Dean…for him.

Instead of offering up a denial or continuing with their usual banter, Dean watched Sam, could see the bruises under his brother's eyes, the tension still thrumming through his motions. Sam had been worried about him, had seemingly not left his side since he had taken out Alistair..come to his rescue. It seemed wrong, almost sacrilegious to thank his brother for further tainting his own soul to save his life. A life that should have been forfeited years ago..but a life Sam foolishly valued, had saved so many times he couldn't number. "Sam…thank you for saving my life."

"I'm sorry I didn't get there sooner," Sam quietly said, eyes on his brother, asking for forgiveness. "That I didn't stop Alistair…stop all of this," and he waved his hand to encompass Dean, the visible wounds Dean still bore, the hospital. But he was apologizing for so much more, for the whole horrible thing: Dean dying, Dean going to Hell, Dean being a pawn in Lilith's power struggle.

"It's not your fault, Sam," Dean instantly stated, his abused voice as firm as he could make it, had to let his eyes tell Sam that he didn't blame him for a second, not for any of it.

Sam gave a small, bitter smile. "I'll accept that as soon as you accept it's not your fault." Dean's eyes shied away and Sam knew they were at an impasse. Both too stubborn, felt too culpable to dislodge the guilt they felt.

Leaning back again, Sam slid his tall frame lower and rested his head back against the chair, eyes never leaving his brother. "So you going to get some rest or do I need to get one of the nice nurses to give you a sedative?" he lightly teased, but his eyes didn't even make an effort to hide his real concern.

"Sam, you don't have to stay with me," Dean offered, part of him needing Sam to stay and another part of him wishing Sam would get as far away from him as he could. Wanted to protect Sam, to spare Sam from being caught in the crapstorm that he had brought down on their heads.

Realizing what Dean was really suggesting, not just leaving him tonight but abandoning his place at his side, Sam's jaw clenched. And it took a moment until he could give his answer without anger. Shaking his head, he declared with conviction, with love, "You're not getting rid of me, Dean. We're in this together. And trust me," he drawled, pulling on a smile, "if I wanted to leave you, I wouldn't have sat in this crappy chair for two days straight."

Dean gave a small snort of laughter and his eyes slid shut without his permission. But before sleep fully claimed him, he heard his brother's voice.

"I'm where I want to be, Dean," Sam confessed quietly, overwhelmingly thankful that he hadn't lost his brother, that he knew Dean truly wanted him with him. And though he wasn't a fair replacement for having an Angel sitting vigil beside his brother, he did know a thing or two about keeping his brother safe. Knew too just how far and to what lengths he would go to fulfill that honorable duty. Heaven had its priorities…and he had his.

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When Jason stepped into the room that night, he smiled at the sight of both brothers fast asleep. Quietly he slipped past Sam, who was bowed forward, his head pillowed on the side of his brother's bed, face turned toward his brother's, hand coiled around his brother's forearm. As he dumped the trash, he saw sandwich wrappers from the cafeteria and a soda can was among the refuge. Settling the trash basket soundlessly back onto the floor, he stood there a moment, watching the brothers, noted, for the first time, just how young Sam was, now that the creases of worry were slowly fading from his features.

Since the wounded man was clearly on the mend, Jason doubted he would see either man again after tonight. Of course, in his place of work, that was the good news. Smiling, he headed for the door, was in the doorway when he heard a low moan. Turning, he saw the man in the bed twitch, recoil as if something sought to harm him in his nightmares. He was contemplating breaking his cardinal rule and heading to the younger man's side when Sam jolted awake. He silently watched as Sam quickly reached out and laid his hand on his brother' chest. Then, from his stance at the door, he heard Sam's gentle words. "It's over, Dean. You're safe. And I'm not going anywhere…and neither are you, Dean." With his brother's reassurances and promise, the wounded man stilled, sank, almost instantly, into blissfully peaceful sleep.

Backing out of the room, Jason headed down the hallway, a lightness in his heart. These two men, they didn't need his help, had each other and that was proving to be more than enough for whatever fate had in store for them.

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THE END

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Thanks for everyone who was generous enough to give me encouragement with this tag and for those who honored me by reading it!

When I was searching for the word 'righteousness' in the Bible, I did have to laugh when I stumbled upon the following verse and looked up to the "title" of the chapter: "The ministry: (8) Supernatural". It was too cool a sign for me to ignore so hence came the title of this fic and the verse below.

"But in all things commending ourselves as the ministers of God …by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left." – 2 Corinthians: 6:4, 6

Have a great day!

Cheryl W.

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