Dean sat still, his back against the clammy dirt wall, and just tried to breathe. The air down here was stuffy, too warm, despite the coolness of the earth all around him. Harsh light filtered down from the cracked and broken boards twenty feet above his head, but when he looked up all he saw was a patch of sky so bright that it made his eyes water.

The space was too small. Just a shaft sunk into the earth for no purpose Dean could understand, but then, what did he know? He was only eight. Grown-ups did crazy things, sometimes. Like digging holes in empty lots and then covering them up with rotted boards.

He'd been playing with Sammy, that was all. This was going to be the perfect spot to hide, behind a dumpster, around a pile of rusted metal barrels. Sammy had still been calling "Thwee...fo'...five..." when Dean crouched down here, then heard creaking wood just as the ground dropped out from beneath his feet, taking his stomach with it, and then the rest of him.

His leg hurt. He had tried to claw his way out, but the dirt slipped and slid under his fingers, and he just kept falling to the bottom again and again, and his left calf throbbed and burned and hurt. Tears stung Dean's eyes, and he rubbed them away with a grubby fist, sniffing, angry with himself for getting all slobby. He wasn't a baby. He wouldn't cry, he wouldn't.

"Dean? Dean?"

Sam's voice was high and clear, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away. Dean kept trying to yell to him, tell him to go get Dad, but his throat was hot and tight and all that came out was a hoarse rasp like rusty nails scraping on metal. The air was just too hot and bright and stale, and he couldn't get enough of it, and he was scared, even though he shouldn't be, because he wasn't a baby, he wasn't, but he was scared anyway and his leg hurt and it was so hard to breathe....

"Dean? Dean! Where aw you? I gib up! Come out now, Dean!"

"Sammy." Dean gasped again, but even he could barely hear himself. "Sammy."

The four-year-old's voice abruptly turned petulant. His temper was shorter and shorter, lately, but this was the first time Dean had been glad about it. Because now Sam yelled, "Okay den, you big meanie-head! I'm getting Daddy! He'll find you!"

Dean was glad, he was. But as soon as Sam's voice disappeared into the distance, still whining forcefully about how mean Dean was, the air started getting even harder to breathe. It was thick, choking him, and he was so hot, and the space was too small, and the fear was too enormous, suffocating him, drowning him, and he hated being alone, he hated it.

"Dean."

It was an adult's voice, way too close, too strange. Dean gave a strangled gasp and started back, banging his head into the dirt, his leg throbbing with the jolt. He had to blink to clear away the white-red spots in his eyes, and then he gasped again, heart lurching in terror.

A strange man knelt in the narrow space with him, big and strong, wearing a long tan coat despite the cloying heat. He had dark hair and a smooth face, and he stared at Dean with round eyes, pinning him to the wall, intense and focused and strange.

"Dean," he said again, and his voice was calm and soothing, a rope to grab onto with both hands and cling to for dear life.

Dean did.

A stranger. Strangers were dangerous. Dad said to watch out for strangers. It gave Dean something to think about besides how hot and scared and hurt he was, having this threat to focus on. He glared at the man, flicking his eyes derisively over his long coat and business clothes, so unsuitable for crouching in a hole in the height of summer.

"Go away," Dean said, his voice choked, barely audible. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."

The guy blinked at him, once, long and slow. "You don't know me now," he said calmly, "but you will someday. I am here to help you, Dean Winchester."

"Don't need your help." Dean shifted against the wall and tried to draw his aching leg closer to his body, away from the stranger. It hurt too much, though, and he gasped and went still, leaning his head back, eyes closing involuntarily.

For what seemed like a very long time, he just sat there, trying to breathe. Then he felt a large, cool palm on his forehead, and forced his eyes open, eyelashes fluttering. The man was kneeling next to him, now, concerned eyes so close and large that Dean tried to flinch back again, but couldn't do more than rock his head slightly to the side. The hand on his forehead followed the movement easily, dry and soft, the hand of a man who had never held a gun or a knife, never slit a throat or burned a monstrous corpse.

"You need to relax," the gentle voice said, still so calm, so soothing. "There is sufficient air here. You can breathe. Slow down and take the air in calmly. Your fear is causing a physical reaction, and you must control it."

It sounded true. It sounded like something Dad would say. Dean tried to obey, tried to slow his breathing, tried to believe that there was plenty of air and he was going to be okay. His breath still rasped in his tight throat, though, no matter how he tried, and still all he felt was the brightness and the heat and the tight space around him.

"Listen to my breath, Dean," the man said. His voice didn't change at all, still the same even tone, the same cool intonation. "Listen to how it moves in and out of my lungs. Follow me in this, if you will follow me in nothing else. Just this."

Dean closed his eyes and listened to the stranger's steady breaths, in and out, in and out. He filled his world with that sound, only that sound, felt the slight shifts of the hand on his forehead moving with the rise and fall of the man's chest. After a time the guy moved his hand down to Dean's chest, pressing gently, the weight of his hand a comfort and not a burden, pulsing steadily up and down in easy rhythm. Before Dean quite knew what was going on, his breath had matched that of his companion.

His throat had opened, too, and the air still felt hot and stuffy and stale, but he could breathe, he could breathe, the dizziness and nausea receding to the back of his mind. He opened his eyes and found the man still kneeling far too close, looking into Dean's face. His eyes were like an ocean.

"Who are you?" Dean murmured, suddenly exhausted, but burning with the need to know.

"A friend," the man said. "You don't know me yet."

"But I will someday?"

"Yes." He sat back, removing his hand from Dean's chest slowly, almost reluctantly. "Twenty-two years from now you will dream about this day, and I will know, and I will not be able to prevent myself from doing something about it. Time is fluid, and sometimes it can be bent. This thing was small enough to allow it, though I am pushing my boundaries by being here."

"Will you stay?"

He tilted his head slightly to the side, eyeing Dean with a gentle regard. "Do you want me to?"

"Yeah." Dean sighed and let his eyes fall shut again, tired and hurting, but no longer afraid. This man didn't feel like a stranger, not anymore. "Please? Until my dad comes."

"Very well. Until then."

Fabric rustled, and Dean opened one eye long enough to see the man fold himself into a cross-legged position next to Dean, leaning against the cold dirt and staring peacefully into nothing. He radiated such calm, such certainty, that there was no room left for fear of any kind.

Later they would tell Dean that he had hallucinated the whole thing, and that was why the kind man vanished the moment he heard voices above, his father's desperate, angry growl and the urgent calls of rescuers. He would forget it completely, never think of it again, and twenty-two years later, he would never have that instigating nightmare. And so no one in the cosmos would ever know.

No one except one quiet, powerful supernatural creature who would never breathe a word of it to anyone, that was. Because yes, time was fluid, but he had overstepped his boundaries, and there was no need to advertise the fact if he could avoid it. Better to leave this one as it was.

A/N: This story was written for a prompt by canarycream at the hurt/comfort meme at the spn_hurtcomfort community on livejournal. Prompt: Dean, Castiel (gen) - Little!Dean gets hurt somehow and his "guardian angel" Castiel comforts him. Pretty much written just for me, huh? 3 Hope it helps take away some of the gloomies from the last story I posted here.