Honoring the Dead

Author: Cheryl W.

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

Summary: Under judgment for Pamela, Jo and Ellen's deaths, Dean and Sam struggle with how to honor the dead when their blood is on their hands. Directly follows MBV. No Slash.

Author's Note: Just so you're warned, this last chapter turned super long!

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Chapter 7

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With Sam's opening statement of "I wanted to kill Devon, Dean. Would have but…" Dean had tried to cut Sam off. He knew what his brother was leading up to and he couldn't hear those words from Sam. He couldn't bear for Sam to call him weak again, weak for forcing him to show an enemy like Devon mercy. "I didn't kill Devon because I knew you didn't want me to. And I…I didn't feed on Famine's security team because you didn't want me to." With that declaration from Sam, the last of Dean's breath was ripped out of him and he was left waiting for the condemnation, for Sam to level that accusation at him again, that he was holding him back, that he was incapable…no, too scared to make the hard decisions anymore.

He was in no way prepared for Sam's next words, "What you wanted…from me…it …it mattered.." And he believed Sam, heard the earnestness in his brother's tone. 'You have every right in the world to want to walk away, to ditch me like I've ditched you but…don't Dean. Please don't do that.'

Dean wished he had his sight, that he could know this was Sam talking, not possessed Sam, not shapeshifter Sam, but Sam his brother. Because Sam asking him to stay? Sam had never asked that of him before, had instead always demonstrated that he didn't need him, had left him and threatened to leave him time and time again. Seemingly without a backward glance.

Yes, sure, Sam had protested their separation in a few ways. 'What? You're leaving? Are you leaving, Dean?' 'Please don't do anything until I get back, 'Just wait for me', 'I want back in'. But those requests, they couldn't counter the piercing pain of his brother's other words. 'It's best if we go our separate ways', 'This isn't going to work, us, you and me together', 'I went with Ruby to get away from you.' It was so true that hurtful words, they stayed with you, washed away the kind ones like a hurricane force.

And Dean knew that, what Sam was asking from him, it wasn't just a promise to stay together. It went deeper than that, was a plea for forgiveness, for him to trust him again. Dean hated that he didn't know if he could give that to Sam, not right then. It should have been natural, easy to trust his brother, a relief to find Sam wanted him to stay, wanted them to be together. But he couldn't bare another round of hurt, of betrayal. He hurt so much already that he was sure that, if he left Sam fully back in and he let him down, him being "dead inside" would take on a whole new level. That the 2014 version of him, that "monster", would be nothing compared to the shell of a human being he would be if the fragile bond he and Sam were fighting to keep together shredded apart.

It was cowardly he knew, but he was grateful right then not to have his sight, to not see Sam's expectant look, see the worry gathering in his brother's eyes at his hesitation to give him the promise he wanted. The sudden new sounds in the house he greeted with relief, glad for the distraction.

Cursing the squeak of the kitchen door opening, Sam saw Grant and Creedy making their reappearance, none the worse for the wear. The voices of the two hunters carried throughout the house, invaded the private cocoon he had erected with Dean a moment before.

"Sounds like the gang's all here," Dean quirked, though his voice showed his physical and emotional strain. "Help me up," he ordered, didn't want to be vulnerable under Grant or Creedy's inspection. Well more vulnerable than he was being blinded, sliced up and previously tied to a chair.

Finding the strength in himself to meet his brother's needs, Sam pulled them both to their feet. Pinning Dean to his side, he ensured that Dean didn't waste his waning strength on bravado. If Grant or Creedy thought Dean was weak for simply being worn out after being blinded, beaten and knifed, they would have to take that up with him, not Dean.

But as Grant came to a stop before the two brothers, he wore a shamed expression instead of one of judgment. "I know sorry doesn't cut it, that whatever hate you have for Devon, you should have for me," he directed at Sam, saw the clench of the younger Winchester's jaw. He prepared for a blow…that didn't come. Spared an attack from that quarter, he turned to Dean, knew that, though the man was without his sight, he was still dangerous. "I should have trusted you, Dean. Should have known that you couldn't have changed that much from the man that I hunted with, who saved my life while risking his own. I guess I let my grief get the best of me. I know it's a poor excuse for almost killing you…"

"Grant, I get it," Dean cut in, didn't need to hear more of the hunter's apology. He knew about grief, about the revenge it spawned. He was a Winchester after all. "Losing Pamela and Ellen and Jo, knowing we were involved…I know how it looks. You had…"

"I should have known better," Grant cut in, knew that Dean Winchester was a fair man, was going to give him a pass when he didn't deserve it. "I'm a hunter, for Pete sake. I should know better than anyone that you can't take things in this life at face value, that how things appear aren't always how they are. I should have remembered what Pamela said about you, should have listened to her."

Dean swallowed, gut churning at what Pamela might have said about them, the men who had gotten her blinded, who had ultimately gotten her killed. His brother asked the question he couldn't bring himself to voice.

"What did she say about us?" Sam prodded, a breathlessness to his tone, both wanting and dreading the answer.

Facing Sam, Grant said, "That it wasn't your fault that she was blinded, that it was her own stubbornness that had caused it. That you two 'boys' were in things so deep that you needed all the help you could get. And when I asked her why that help had to keep coming from her, you know what she said?"

Sam shook his head and Dean stilled.

A real smile emerged on Grant's lips. "At first she asked 'Have you seen those boys?'" he chuckled, had accepted a long time ago that Pamela had an appreciation for gorgeous men, that their own relationship had been a ship passing in the night. He smiled wider as Sam and Dean blushed at the compliment. He sobered after a moment, knew that what she had said next, it should have been enough for him, should have had him joining up with the Winchesters instead of trying to sentence them to an execution. Leveling a serious look at Sam, he repeated Pamela's sentiments. "She said she had never felt more important than when she was helping you two. That, for the first time, she wasn't just a helpless instrument that the supernatural used but was a weapon in the fight against those powers."

Sam nearly choked on the breath trapped in his lungs. Pamela, for all her bluster, had actually chosen to help them, had done it because it felt right, gave her a chance to fight. That it mattered to her if she went down fighting. That it had maybe always mattered. That, since meeting them, she had become a hunter in her own way.

Dean regained his voice first. "Helpless is the last description I would have used for Pamela, with or without her sight. And what she did for us, how she helped us, whatever crap is going down right now in the world, she made sure it wasn't worse. Helped us hold back the tide. Without her…" Dean broke off, voice catching.

"We would both be dead," Sam quietly finished his brother's sentence, knew what Dean wanted to convey, that it matched his own convictions. "And a whole lot of other people would be too."

Grant felt tears burn in his eyes, could only nod his head. It was what Pamela would have given her life for: these brave, honorable men, for the lives of other people, for the cause of good. "I want to follow her example, offer my help to you. You need backup, you need me to handle something you can't, you call me. I'll be there, do whatever you need. I owe you that much. But more than that, I trust you. Hard not to when you have such loyal followers," and he jerked his head to the kitchen, to Creedy and Bobby, tallied in Rufus along with Pamela, Ellen, Jo, and Ash. Then he reached his hand out to Sam, tensed for the man's reaction, knew that, what he was offering in place of his cruelty, it wasn't a fair exchange. But Sam reached out, shook his hand.

Grant thought about reaching out for Dean and guiding the blinded man's hand into his own but even before he made a minuscule move to touch Dean, Sam tensed and he knew that Dean's brother wouldn't allow him that familiarity with his brother. Not in Dean's vulnerable state. "So Dean, you going to let me be your backup or are you going to shoot me on sight next time we meet?" he tried for lightness, hoping that Dean's perchance for that type of bargaining style would get him somewhere.

"Me getting a chance to boss you around on a hunt? Like I would pass on that opportunity," Dean returned light banter for light banter, ready to forgive Grant, to turn a foe back into a friend. After all, he wasn't a man with many friends or allies. He couldn't afford to lose any more than he had already lost. 'Then how can you hesitate making that promise to Sam?' he suddenly chastised himself. 'Sam, your brother, is asking for your trust, for you to promise not to leave him, for you two to stay together. If you can find value in a turncoat friend like Grant enough to forgive him, how can you even think of not forgiving Sam, of withholding your full trust from Sam, who has earned it a thousand times over, in ways that no one else would have ever done for you.'

It was a sobering comparison for Dean.

"Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your fight, Dean," Grant replied to Dean's graciousness with humility, knew that it was a gift, Dean forgiving him, willing to trust him.

Dean somberly nodded, knew that he might be condemning Grant to death if he called upon him to back them up, to cover a base they couldn't. That it seemed probable that very few combatants would walk away from this fight. And, when he was honest with himself, he faced the truth that he most likely wouldn't be one of those lucky few, could only pray that Sam would survive.

"Here's my number," Grant said, pulling out a card with his cell phone number scrawled on it.

Accepting the card Grant held out, Sam watched Grant walk back to the kitchen, exchange a few brief words with Bobby, give a nod to Creedy and then disappear out Bobby's back door. Had to trust that the hunter would take Devon with him, that, whatever fate he had in store for his formal protégé, it would be unpleasant. Very unpleasant.

Approaching the brothers, Creedy came to a stop in front of Sam, knew that he owed the young man more than an apology. He realized that, his actions that day, they might not be reparations enough for nearly murdering him. But to his surprise, the tall young man held out his hand, offered him full absolution. Heartily he shook Sam's hand.

"Thank you for helping us," Sam earnestly said, didn't want to think about how things would have turned out without the other man's defense of them.

"I try to right my wrongs. In an occupation like mine…ours," he corrected with a smirk, "well, you don't always have a lot of time to make amends before you have to meet your Maker. Just didn't like the way it felt, the guilt of what I was part of, what I almost allowed to happen to you. So when Grant called me, wanted to know about Gordon, I knew it was my chance to do things better. A chance I couldn't pass up."

"Glad you didn't," Dean interjected, knew that the man had saved their bacon, that Grant might not have seen the light if not for this hunter's honor, Creedy's ability to see beyond the tales of their exploits.

Creedy nodded his head at Dean's gratitude before he realized the man couldn't see the gesture. "Your welcome," he verbalized, turned as Bobby wheeled into the room.

"So how about you doing more community service, like spreading the news that the Winchesters are trying to stop all this end of the world stuff," Bobby gruffly suggested, sharp eyes on the other hunter. The man had done a fine job of starting to make amends but not anywhere near enough, not when he had almost murdered Sam.

"I'll do that," Creedy readily agreed, turned to face the brothers before he continued. "Fact is, I'm part of a group of hunters, 'bout twenty of us. We hear of a troubled spot, we head there, take on whatever is waiting. Lately it's been suicidal, taking on a job with less than two men to back you up. Don't know how you have survived going solo for so long."

"We're not alone," Dean corrected, knew that Bobby had their backs, that Cas came whenever they called.

"We have each other," Sam shot back, his words overlapping Dean's, a little miffed that Creedy couldn't see that what he and Dean had together, it was better than having twenty men flanking him on a hunt, heck, better than fifty. That it wasn't about how many men had your back, it was about who had your back.

Creedy gave a short laugh. "Either way, it's a miracle you two aren't dead. Anyway, my group's at your disposal."

"What? Excuse me?" Dean asked, wondered if he had lost the thread of the conversation.

"Yeah, I contacted them on my way here, told 'em what was going down. They took a vote, were split on which side they would support until Tamara spoke up."

"Tamara?" Sam broke in, eyebrows rising.

But it was Bobby who made the connection. "We hunted with Isaac and Tamara in Nebraska." Seeing incomprehension still on Sam's features, he clarified, "Does the seven deadly sins ring a bell?"

Suddenly Dean's chest tightened. He remembered Tamara's grief, that he had been willing to help her avenge her husband's death. That he had only been too happy to die ahead of the crossroad dealmaker's schedule, had wanted to avoid the doomsday clock ticking away in his head for 365 more days. Now that type of ending? It would almost be a gift, would at least be a timetable he knew, would be an end to at least something. Even if it consigned him back to hell, he wouldn't have to worry about failing the whole entire world any longer.

Knowing that his audience was tracking his line of thought now, Creedy continued, "Yeah Tamara said how you guys had saved her, had tried to save Isaac. That when the odds were totally against you, when it seemed suicidal to take a stand, you stood your ground, did what needed doing. Well her words, they carried a lot of weight and the vote, it swung into your favor."

"Meaning what?" Bobby demanded, torn between wanting to feel optimistic and not wanting to risk such false hope.

Creedy met Bobby's blazing look head on. "They'll stand with them," he clarified, jerking his head toward the two Winchesters. "Like I said, there's about twenty in our group and it's growing each day. We're organized and experienced." Then he faced the Winchesters again. "I know it's not an army but we're all vested 100%. We're not going down without a fight, without taking as many of them with us as we can."

"Sounds like my kind of club," Dean smirked, impressed with the group motto.

"Oh, you'ld like it," Creedy agreed. "So I'll give Bobby the number, you call and it'll go into a general voice account and someone will call you back, get the coordinates and the details of the hunt."

"Just like that, your little group's going to take a lead from us? Do what we say?" Dean couldn't help ask incredulously.

Creedy didn't take offense to Dean's words, explained instead, "In our business, it's word of mouth that makes a hunter's reputation. I know there's been a lot of harsh speculation about you boys but other hunters' eye witness accounts of how you boys handle yourselves is worth more than any stories around a campfire told by a possessed person. We know what you're about..and we'll make our stand with you."

"I…thanks, Creedy. For everything," Sam stammered, overwhelmed by the trust that was being given to them, the small army that was now only a phone call away.

"Come on, let's have a drink," Bobby said, wanting to grill Creedy about his fellow hunters, their past exploits, their strengths and limitations, already planning on doing his own background check on each member. He was going to decide if this little 'army' of Creedy's was worthy to back up his boys.

"This day isn't ending like I thought it would," Dean murmured, awed at the idea that they had gained allies through the whole mess, that their execution trial had turned into a recruitment center.

Sam gave a laugh. "Yeah. Twenty hunters, Dean. Plus Grant…" he said in amazement. "It's crazy, right, the idea that we could have that kind of backup."

And it was crazy. That anyone, let alone twenty someones, would follow their lead, especially with their reputations, of the rumors about them that were true, with the death count that was already laid at their door. It was more than crazy …it was a miracle. Support like that. Support out of nowhere. Support coming out of a gathering of hunters that were supposed to judge then, kill them. It made Dean remember something that someone had said to him years ago…that Layla had said to him. 'God works in mysterious ways.' And the same reply that he had said to Layla came to him now, 'Maybe He does.' But this time he was starting to believe it. His brother's soft, concerned voice jarred him from his thoughts.

"Hey, you alright?" Sam asked, leaning closer to Dean, his brother's silence alarming him.

Dean cleared his throat of the emotions that were trying to take over. "Yeah." Then with more strength, he assured, "Yeah. I'm fine."

With a bang of the kitchen door, Rufus entered the house, gave a nod to Creedy as he left. Raising his voice so it would carry from the kitchen to the living room where the Winchesters stood, he reported, "Grant's gonna drop Devon and his two friends off with a police buddy of his. Seems Devon's wrap sheet could get him a fifteen …twenty year sentence. Ten with good behavior…which ain't very likely," and Rufus smiled at the impossibility of that. Then giving Bobby a look, he entered the living room, faced the two men who had caused so much trouble. "Well you two look like crap."

"Always with the compliments," Dean sallied back, scrounged up a smirk to go with it.

Rufus couldn't help himself, he snorted in laughter. He had to admire Dean's spirit, especially looking as bad as the kid did, blinded, bloodied, and pale. "I'ld give you a compliment, if you ever earned it. So don't hold your breath."

"Wasn't going to," Dean replied but he was smiling, was beginning to suspect that there might be some affection for him and Sam beneath Rufus' bluster.

"I heard about Jo and Ellen," Rufus bluntly announced, his sharp eyes sliding to the one Winchester who could meet his eyes. He saw regret and sorrow reflected sharply in Sam Winchester's eyes. Satisfied with his findings he settled his look back upon Dean. "Least they went down fighting by each others side. It's what Ellen would have wanted." Silence met his statement but the air was thick with grief. "Guess you think I should thank you for bringing them back together?" he coarsely asked, let indignation ring in his tone, hoped Dean rose to the challenge he was tossing down.

"No," Dean denied. "It wasn't just me. Ellen helped me figure out that War was turning us against each other." Knew that Ellen's presence had kept him sane when Sam went missing, had steadied him when he needed an ally to have his back. But more than that, Ellen had had faith in him when he needed it most. 'And she had trusted me…and look what it cost her. Her life and the life of her daughter.' "Ellen got Jo back, not me." 'I'm the one that stole Jo away from her, left her with the choice to either let her daughter die alone or to die with her.'

"No, genius. Before that," Rufus scoffed, wondered how Bobby wasn't all grey having to worry about how these two rocket scientists were faring against the greatest evil in the world. He saw Dean's head tilt, knew Winchester didn't have a clue what he was talking about. He exhaled, couldn't believe Bobby had gotten him tangled up with John Winchester's boys. "Ellen and Jo were barely returning phone calls a few months ago. Most of which ended in screaming matches and hangups."

"Family, ain't it grand," Dean mumbled, understood that type of tension and conflict with someone you loved. Was surprised that Sam, instead of releasing his hold on him at the slam, he did the opposite, readjusted his grip, coiled his hand tighter into the fabric of his shirt.

"Yeah, bed of roses," Rufus retorted back, having had his own disagreements with his family.

"So what changed? They seemed really close again. How did they mend things?" Sam asked, needed someone to tell him the secret to righting wrongs, to healing rifts, to keeping a family together.

"Your brother dying, that's what happened," Rufus stated with all the brusqueness he was gifted with, felt a small flare of guilt when Sam Winchester flinched at the reference. Cowardly looking away from Sam's too expressive features, he focused on Dean. "When you died in that crossroad deal of yours, the news hit Ellen hard. And when she told Jo…" he broke off, didn't want to recount how worried Ellen had been. That Jo's grief had been so strong, that she had wanted vengeance so badly that Ellen feared she would do something reckless. "Well, they started hunting together after that." Because both woman wanted some payback for Dean's death, had wanted to make his death not be in vain. They would have joined up with Sam if the younger Winchester hadn't dropped off the face of the earth after his brother's death.

Even without seeing Dean Winchester's eyes, Rufus knew the man was affected by his words, saw Dean draw in a shaky breath. "Bringing a family back together again, I don't know what that's worth to you compared to your time in hell…."

"It's worth a lot," Dean said huskily, a part of him eased that something good, beside Sam being alive, had come out of his sacrifice. That he had been able to reunite a family even as he had viciously ripped his own apart.

Sam knew that Dean was earnest in his reply, that, to his brother, families were the most important thing in the world…in his world. And it gave him hope, remembering that, having it cemented by Dean's words. Dean didn't carelessly abandon his family, the people that he loved. And he never did it to purposefully inflict pain, to deal out a punishment. He only left to protect the ones that he cared about, to save them, to be able to focus on saving the world. 'And he left when it was more painful for him to be with me than without me. I can't let that happen again, can't hurt him more than I already have. I can't let him think that leaving me behind would be the safer bet.' Deep in his thoughts, Sam startled when Bobby said his name again. "Yeah?"

"You doing OK? There for a second, you looked as pale as Dean?" Bobby worriedly asked, knew the kid had been through a storm of troubles, both boys had.

Sam gave Bobby a bug eyed glare for drawing attention to him, for most likely inciting Dean's overprotective big brother concern. And right on schedule, the next second his brother was worriedly firing questions at him.
"Sam, you alright? Were you hurt and didn't tell me? You need to sit down?" Dean demanded, cursed himself for not remembering that Sam had to still be weak from the detox. Blindly reaching out to his side, he clutched Sam's shirt in his grip, wished he could see his brother, could do an inspection, visual or physical, to ascertain the state his little brother was in, like he usually did after they were put through a wringer of pain and panic.

Dismissing Bobby and Rufus as if they had already left the room, Sam turned to his brother. "I'm not hurt, Dean. I'm not," he reassured, wrapping his hand around Dean's wrist. "But you are," he stated, his voice cracking. The bandage over Dean's eyes was stark evidence of that fact. "Come on, you need to take a shower, get that pepper spray out of your eyes," he beckoned as he resettled his grip on Dean's elbow. Slowly guiding Dean to turn to the right, he led him forward toward the stairs.

And Dean didn't hesitate to follow Sam's lead, trusted him even when he was at his most vulnerable, was the most lost. Sam's heart swelled at that unparalleled gift. It proved that, though Dean's faith in him was shaken, it wasn't gone. Not yet.

Bringing Dean to a halt at the bottom of the stairs, Sam grimaced at the books Bobby had littering the stairway. "Here's the railing," he explained as he raised Dean's arm, settled his brother's hand onto the wooden railing, wanted Dean to have some sense of control. Though he fully expected Dean to retort with a smart aleck comment, his brother simply nodded and curled his hand around the wooden railing, wore a closed down expression.

Hoping that it was merely an outward sign of Dean's hatred of being helpless, Sam didn't press Dean, opted for silence instead. Slipping to Dean's other side, he kept his arm bracing Dean and began pulling the books off the steps through the railing with his other hand. But as fate would have it, even his arms weren't long enough to reach the two others steps occupied by books. With reluctance, he released his hold on Dean even as he vowed the physical disconnection with Dean would only be for a second, a mere blinking of the eye, one inhale, two at the most. Stepping beside the staircase, he hurriedly snagged the books off the steps.

A familiar ache spread through Dean. This he remembered. Though it usually came at his father's hand not Sam's. The 'work through the pain son' therapy, the 'I'm not always going to be there to save your butt, Dean. You have to learn to survive on your own, to count on nobody but yourself.' The survivors code. The suck it up and do what must be done no matter how badly you're hurt, how much blood's flowing or that laying down and dying sounds more appealing than living. His father had taught him well. He could perform even when he was dead inside, just ask Famine.

Sam's heart skipped a beat as he turned to see that Dean was moving forward, was raising his foot and tentatively lowering it unto the first step. The books fell from his grip as he lurched forward even as Dean was forcing himself to proceed to the next step. Then as if his fears were realized, Dean misjudged the step's height and his foot caught mid-motion.

Falling, Dean threw his hands out, hoping, albeit forlornly, to somehow brace himself. But before gravity could do its number on him, an arm collided with his chest, and he felt like he was getting sacked in a football game. Suddenly his fate changed from falling forwards to falling backwards. But the solidness that he landed against, he couldn't quite attribute it to Sam for a moment, as he tried to process how his brother could move so fast. How Sam could be beside him one second and behind him the next in time to catch him. His brother's hissed words right by his ear confirmed that Sam had done just that type of feat.

"What the heck Dean?" Sam exclaimed incredulously, heart still tripping along at how close Dean had come to falling, hitting his head on the stairs, of maybe exacerbating his existing wounds. Wrapping both arms around Dean, he wasn't sure who he was steadying more, his brother or himself. "You couldn't wait for me for two seconds," his fear surfacing as anger.

"Thought you were…" Dean began to defend himself but he broke off, didn't want Sam to know what he thought.

'Gone,' Sam finished and he felt his jaw clench. Dean thought it was so easy for him to leave him, that he did it as easily as he breathed. Inhale/Stay. Exhale/Leave. And there was no one to blame for that but him. Well him and his father. Only the people Dean trusted, needed the most. "Well, I'm not," he vowed stridently, as if he was angered by Dean's assumptions. But it was himself that he was mad at, not Dean. Not his brother. Quietly, with more fervent promise, he vowed, "I'm not, Dean. I'm here."

Dean nodded, couldn't find the words to answer the pledge in his brother's tone. Struggled to realign his thinking again, to remember that, for all that Sam was like their father, he was nothing like him either. Every time he was hurt, Sam was there, helping him, putting him back together again, was sometimes even treading the line of coddling him. "Yeah, I should have known that," he admitted, shamed at his own lack of trust. Especially after all the crap they had just went through for the past couple of hours, wondering if they were about to get a bullet into the brain, were about to be split up forever. "Sorry, Sammy."

Dean's apology, his so causally uttered "Sammy", it was what bound Sam to his brother, would forever bind him to Dean. His brother's compassion, his ability to make him feel safe, secure, loved just by calling him by the nick name. Maybe that was the way of family, that there was understanding and some habits and a level of kindnesses that you couldn't get from anyone else, that you might not even accept from anyone else. He still hated that he had let Ruby call him Sammy. But he had needed to hear that nickname so badly, needed to have some tie to Dean, he thought he would curl up and die if he didn't get it. Ironically, he had needed it enough to accept it from the very type of evil that was torturing his brother in hell.

Breaking out of his dark ruminations, Sam replied to his brother's apology, "No, I should have told you I would be right back, that I had to leave you for a second."

"I'm not a kid, Sam," Dean bristled at the notion that he was helpless, needed his brother to hold his hand, even through this event.

Feeling Dean's body tense under his arms, knowing that Dean's next reaction might well be to refuse all of his help, Sam loosened his manic grip on Dean and quickly agreed, "I'm not saying you are, Dean. Just…I should have warned you." Relinquishing his hold back to causal support, he moved to his brother's left side. "The stairway's too small for us both so you go first and I'll just be a step behind you."

"Or I could just use the sink in the kitchen to rinse my eyes," Dean suggested, a wave of dread and exhaustion coming over him at the tedious task of traversing the stairs.

"The shower's better, has a steady spray to rinse your eyes out, plus your clothing is probably stuck to you by the dried blood so you need a good soaking. And last but not least, the best bed is upstairs. You know the one Bobby has never let us sleep on, no matter how hurt or sick we were," he tacked on, hoping Dean would react to the added incentive.

"Now you're talking. For that type of creature comfort, not to mention payback, I can do some stairs." But this time, Dean didn't venture forward until Sam's arm was securely around his back with familiarity and his brother's strong hand was latched unto his arm. He waited until Sam was with him, until they could move together, in synch with each other.

Dean wasn't fooled by the first step being easy, he had been there before. 'But alone.' And he knew that was the difference. It always was.

"The steps aren't all the same height because it's an older house, original owner probably built them himself," Sam pointed out, as if were just polite conversation, wasn't a justification for Dean's earlier failure, or a word of warning to his brother. Guiding Dean forward, he watched, with a held breath, as Dean raised his foot. To his relief, it cleared the first step and came to rest on the second step. Then the next and the next.

"You think Bobby built this house?" Dean asked, did it so he could think about something more intelligent than 'Ok next step. You can do it'.

"Don't know," Sam distractedly answered, eyes still on his brother's feet, didn't have time to warn Dean to raise his foot higher before his brother's boot caught the top of the step, threw Dean off balance. Instantly, Sam pinned Dean to the railing, hoping to keep them both from tottering backwards, hated that Dean hissed in pain at the rough handling. When he was certain that they were holding their position, he asked, "You Ok?" intently focused on his brother's face to get the truth.

"Have I said lately that this sucks?" Dean growled, hating his helplessness, that the natural grace and athleticism he had always relied upon to keep him alive meant little in a world of darkness.

Pain shafted through Sam for his brother. He knew Dean wouldn't welcome reassurances murmured in his ear, though he totally deserved sympathy and soothing, he wouldn't accept it. So Sam forced himself to disguise his sympathy, his concern in a sarcastic dig. "Whine much, Dean?" Giving Dean a nudge, he set them back into motion. Added on a few moments later, "You and Bobby want to have a competition, whose life sucks worse?"

"I'ld win but he'ld never concede the victory," Dean volleyed back, glad Sam wasn't going to let him wallow in self pity. "So we getting close? Five stairs, ten stairs? What?"

Having used their conversation to regulate their pace, to ensure Dean didn't over think every step, Sam focused on achieving some real progress. He didn't answer until he had prodded Dean up a few more stairs. "None," he happily announced, relieved to find them cresting the top of the stairs and stepping into the safety of the hallway.

Hand leaving the railing, Dean reached out as Sam guided him to the left and his fingers came into contact with the wall. Confidently, he pegged that they were in the hallway, that the bathroom was about ten steps away. "I can take it from here."

"Not happening," Sam defiantly replied, not caring how much Dean protested his help. "I think I read that you should use cold water to rinse stuff out of your eyes," he spoke matter-of-factly, as if that was the topic of conversation the whole time.

"Don't tell me, you did a medical class at Stanford, tried to pick up some hot nurses?" Dean joked, knew that wasn't his brother's style, was his. Sam called him on it too.

"That's why you would take that type of class, Dean," Sam bantered back, glad for the return to normal, well normal for them.

"Yeah," Dean heartily agreed as if Sam was crazy if he had to question his motives. And Sam's small laugh, it vibrated through him, flowed over him. Made whatever they had been through, whatever they still had to survive seem not so bad. "I'm not leaving," the words slipped out of him, from one breath to the next, and the vow, it was the truth. Was a truth he couldn't bear to withhold from Sam a second longer.

At Dean's fervent vow, Sam stumbled a stop, brought Dean to a stop with him. "Dean.." he breathed out his brother's name, uncertain of the words to follow.

"Grant's a dude I hunted with like twice," Dean began, knew that he was talking in riddles. Sam didn't interrupt him when he paused there, tried to get his thoughts in order, but he felt his brother stiffen at his side, waiting for him. And that was the thing about Sam, he was there for him, whenever he deemed himself in need of a brother, or a hunting partner, or a best friend. Sam was there. "You think I would forgive him and not you? You're my brother, Sam. My brother."

"But what I've done…the blood…." Sam stammered, couldn't let his past transgressions go untallied.

"And I played torture master in hell," Dean bluntly stated, wore that guilt every day, would always wear it. "If the world's looking for a bunch of saints to save it…well, they are certainly out of luck 'cause all they got is us."

"Team Free Will?" Sam smirked, reveling in Dean's laughter, his cocky smirk.

"That's us," Dean proclaimed proudly, like he believed in that particular team's ability to win, to save the very world. "I'm not saying…" he stopped, didn't know how to say that everything wasn't 100% back the way it was, that it couldn't be. But he thought that, just maybe, what they might end up with would be better than what they had even started with.

"That you don't trust me fully," Sam provided the ending to his brother's statement. "I know and I don't blame you, not at all."

"Sam, I didn't mean…"
"But it's true and I accept that. I've betrayed you and I need to prove myself to you…"
"You have, Sam," Dean insisted, hated the guilt he heard in his brother's voice.

"I've started to," Sam countered. "Was starting to and then the whole…off the wagon thing with Famine, my drinking the blood again and using the powers. I screwed up and I wish to God that I hadn't."

"A friggin' horseman. That's what we were up against, Sam. Thing had Cas, an angel, down on all fours, shoving raw hamburger into his mouth," Dean pointed out heatedly, wanted Sam to see the true situation, that everyone fell under Famine's wave of destruction. Well, everyone alive inside did.
"But, my drinking the blood, that's not what bothers you," Sam quietly broke in, biting his lip, wished he could take Dean's excuses and let things go, pretend they would heal, that the truth could stay buried. "You're right I couldn't help that. But I could have resisted using the powers the blood gave me. That's what you can't forgive."

Dean didn't want to have this conversation, ever, but it was easier to have it now, without having to see Sam, to know how much he was hurting his brother. "You're right. I'm having a hard time with that."

Sam nodded, couldn't speak, his emotional floodgates too weak to allow that gesture.

"You love having that power, Sam. You do. I see it in your eyes." And he felt Sam shift beside him, prepared for Sam to desert him now after the accusation, but his brother remained dedicatedly at his side, his arm and hand stayed supporting him. "And that…it scares me, Sammy. More than anything, it scares me," he confessed, felt his voice break under the truth, under the fear that he had been living with since Sam did his first exorcism by his mind control. A fear that only racketed higher every time he saw it, that made his blood run cold in that restaurant, colder than even Famine's touch, his proclamation could.

Sam wanted to protest his brother's words, to reassure Dean that it wasn't like that, that he was worried about nothing. "It scares me too," he admitted instead, the quiet words loud in the hallway, in the too quiet house. "I…I wish I could deny it, could tell you that there isn't …satisfaction flowing through me when I use those powers." He felt Dean's shaky inhales, saw Dean's head bow as if he were being crushed under the weight. He leaned closer to Dean until his chin was practically resting on his brother's shoulder, his forehead almost touching Dean's bowed head, said quietly, with aching fear, "Famine would have killed you, Dean. If I hadn't shown up…if I hadn't had my powers…and I …I can't pretend I would change that. That, if I had to do it over, I wouldn't choose that path."

"Don't say that, Sam, don't say that," Dean nearly pleaded, didn't want Sam to walk that path for anyone, certainly not for him.

"Like you said, you're my brother," Sam stated, as if that was proof enough. And it was, was all that mattered. "If I would risk everything, my very soul to save the world, to save strangers, how much do you think I would risk to save you. There isn't anything I wouldn't risk, wouldn't sacrifice, for you."

Dean's breath caught and he raised his head, could feel how close Sam was..and yet he knew it could all change, any second. That something, someONE could come in, separate them, maybe forever. "But that's what they want, what they're hoping, Sam. It's the way they can manipulate us, get us to say yes…"

"They think so but I don't," Sam announced, had had this thought bouncing in his head for awhile now. "Because either of us saying 'yes', you and I both know that it would be us sacrificing the other. We won't do that, can't. Like you said, there's love between us, family, and that's something stronger than they know how to manipulate…or break."

"What if it's not, Sammy? What if it's not?" Dean breathlessly asked, wanted to believe Sam, wanted to believe in Sam so badly that it hurt.

"It is, Dean," Sam promised, clung to the belief as he tethered himself more tightly to his brother. But only truly believed it himself when Dean nodded, when his brother's tension melted away to be replaced by a defiant stance of resolve.

Voices from downstairs floated upstairs, broke into their private world…

Bobby's irritated voice came to them first. "Dang it, Rufus! You owe me new windows. That the best you could come up with?"

"No," Rufus drawled before he let venom carry in his next words. "I coulda let them execute the kid. You like that ending better than a few broken windows."

"You know I don't!" A heartbeat of silence then Bobby growled, "Don't gloat!"

There was rare humor in Rufus' tone. "Never knew you were so prissy about your house, Singer."

"Oh, I don't know, I just don't like holes where they shouldn't be," Bobby sarcastically bit out.

"Least it's warmer weather."

"And what? I looked like I wanted my bed to have an unobstructed view of the night sky?" but the voices were already fading away as the two men again headed back outside, to do who knew what.

Sam smiled at Dean, saw that Dean's expression matched his own. "I told you upstairs, out of the line of fire, was the way to go."

"Glad I listened to you," Dean said, letting Sam again guide him forward, didn't even keep his hand to the wall anymore, didn't need that extra support, that measure of control. Sam was there, was in control. That was good enough for him.

"For once you listened to me." Finally reaching the bathroom, Sam instructed, "We're at the bathroom so hang a right…now." And Dean obeyed on command, stepped through the doorway of the bathroom as if he was as confident as he would have been sighted.

After turning right and taking a step, Dean stopped, knew he was standing in the middle of the bathroom, could smell aftershave and the flowery shampoo Sam wouldn't admit was his. "Stay there a sec," Sam ordered unnecessarily because, this time, when Sam's hands slipped away from him, he didn't think for a second that his brother had abandoned him, that Sam expected him to find his own way in the darkness, knew that, his brother was clearing the path for him, was doing everything in his power to make sure things were set up for him. Hearing the squeak of hinges, the hiss of the shower coming to life, the pelting of water hitting the shower floor, he startled when hands wrapped around his forearms.

"Sorry," Sam apologized. "Shower's on and the water…I've got it pretty cold." Tugging on Dean's arms, he backed up even as his brother stepped forward. Stopping when his own foot ran into the wall beside the shower, he halted Dean. "I'm going to take the bandages off now Dean," he announced waited until Dean nodded before he reached up began unwinding the bandages from around his brother's eyes and head. He hissed at the sight of the blistered redness around his brother's closed eyes, having almost forgotten the damage done.

Hearing Sam's hiss, Dean worried inquired "What's wrong?"

"It looks bad," Sam quietly admitted. "Pepper spray shouldn't blister the skin," anger carrying in the words.

"Like we said, hunters improvise," Dean calmly reasoned, too tired to resurrect anger at Devon.

Swallowing his own anger at his brother's mistreatment, Sam said, "We'll put ointment on the burns later." Knew that Dean would react better to the 'we' idea than the 'I' statement, regardless that it would solely be him doing the patch up this time. Sliding to Dean's side, he gripped his brother's right elbow. "Ok, the shower's straight ahead, three steps."

But Dean didn't budge, taunted instead, "Whoa, forgetting something Sam?" At Sam's silence, envisioning the way his brother's face would scrunch up in confusion, Dean answered his own question, "My clothing?"

"It's not the first time you've gotten drenched, besides, like I said, we need to loosen up the dried blood before you can get your shirt and jeans off. Consider this multitasking." And Sam nudged Dean forward.

Dean took one step and then stopped. "My shoes too? These are my favorites, dude. I have them broken in just right, they aren't too holely…or stinky."

Sam sighed as if he were dealing with a child. "Alright, alright. Kick them off." Reaching out, he pulled Dean's hand onto his shoulder. With Dean properly balanced against him, he watched Dean perform his perfected ritual of toeing off his shoes. Found the action not as familiar as it should have been.

"You don't take them off to sleep anymore," Sam suddenly realized, head snapping up to Dean's face, to his brother's closed eyes, blistered skin…and closed down expression. "Do you?" the question was gentle because he knew that there were reasons his brother didn't let down his guard, even in sleep. And those reasons? None of them were good. "And you keep your clothing on…never get under the covers anymore…" Sam couldn't shut down the observations, wouldn't. Had let them go unquestioned for too long. Had let Dean keep it all inside, to himself. 'And it's only hurt him worse, not talking about it, us not talking about it.'

"Dude, shower's running and you know the way Bobby feels about wasting water," Dean deflected took a step forward uncaring if he ran smack into the shower door, just wanted the conversation to end.

But Sam's hand came to rest on his chest, stopping him with the lightest of touches. "You can't keep going on like this Dean, barely sleeping or eating," his brother's gentle voice was nearly his undoing. He couldn't face such tenderness when the topic was so gruesome.

"Sure I can. I won't have to do it much longer since the world's ending," he quipped darkly. "But I really would like to see it coming Sam." And he raised his hand, pointed to where he knew the shower was as if he were asking permission. He heard his brother's sigh of defeat and he was grateful that he could still win a victory here and there.

Accepting that now wasn't the time to press Dean, Sam removed his hand form Dean's chest, slid it to his brother's bicep and guided him forward, under the shower's spray. He stepped into the shower at his brother's back, fully clothed, his own favorite shoes be danged. He snagged Dean's blindly searching hands, pressed them to the shower wall so Dean could orient himself, hold himself upright as he finally stepped forward far enough to have the spray of the water cascade over his face, into his eyes. Reaching forward, Sam adjusted the shower head, made sure the water hit Dean exactly where it needed to. Then he drew back a step until his back came up against the shower wall. Felt drained as he watched Dean pry his eyes open, flinched when a moan of pain escaped his brother's barriers as the pepper spray continued to unleash its menace on his brother's eyes.

Determined to not shrink from the pain, to get the crap out of his eyes once and for all, Dean forced his eyes opened, to stay open. A choked cry erupted out of his throat again as the agony returned full force. But then the pain lessened as the water continued to pelt his eyes, made him remember the first time that he had opened his eyes underwater, had seen things that fascinated him. Knew that his mother had been right, it had been cool, not scary, to open his eyes under the water.

Sam knew the instant Dean's agony started to sluice away, was being replaced with contentment, could detect the change in his brother's body language. He was surprised that his own voice was husky when he spoke, his own relief washing over him. "Is it better? Does it still hurt?"

"Yeah," Dean answered simply.

And Sam cursed himself for asking two questions, one of which yeah was good and one of which it was very bad. He was about to ask for a clarification when Dean did that on his own.

"To both. But the pain's more like a sting than the 'knife in my eyes' kind now."

Sam hated the description Dean used, knew that Dean's didn't exaggerate his pain, barley spoke of it instead. So 'knife in the eyes'…that was how bad it had been…for hours. "And you can see?" his tone careful, tentative, his worry evident. He saw Dean drop his head forward to let the water rain down on the back of his head. Then Dean nodded. He couldn't help wish that Dean would use his words. A declaration from his brother he would believe more than the silent gesture but he didn't press the matter, accepted the answer Dean had given.

It took Sam a moment to move, to say what he knew he should, "Guess you don't need me sharing your shower anymore then…" tried to say the words jokingly but they sounded thick with emotions even to his own ears. Couldn't help feeling that his stepping away now, it meant Dean didn't need him, at all. For anything.

Knowing the emotions behind his brother's words, Dean turned around, reached out, this time with his eyesight mostly in tact, and gripped Sam's arm, stopped his brother from walking away thinking that he wasn't needed. For the first time in hours…maybe in days, his eyes met Sam's, saw the fear and the pain and the exhaustion in the depths. Saw also the affection, the love his brother had for him. Regardless of all the wrong things he had done, had said, how stupidly he had reacted to the things Sam had gone through. "Sam, I…" and he saw Sam's fear increase, knew that his brother didn't know what to expect from him anymore. And that had to change. "Thanks, Sammy. I really needed you and you didn't let me down." Sam gave a nod and a watery smile, one that had nothing to do with the shower water. "There's no one I would want at my side when the world's coming apart but you. And I trust you more than anyone else..I do.…I just need…"

"I know, Dean," Sam assured, and he did, knew that Dean was telling the truth, knew just as well that Dean needed time, needed more proof that that trust wasn't misplaced. And he wanted to give all that to Dean. Would. "We'll work this out, this stuff between us." He felt like something broken inside him was starting to heal when Dean nodded, when his brother's bloodshot eyes held his and radiated that familiar twinkle.

"We'll go on Jerry Springer, talk about possessions, addictions, torture methods, self delusions, self harm," Dean joked because it felt good, the hope that Sam was offering to him, the idea of even having a future, especially one with Sam at his side.

Sam laughed easily. "Dean, I think we're too much for Springer to even handle."

Dean shrugged, "Larry King?"

Shaking his head in disbelief and humor, Sam stepped out of the shower, his wet shoes squeaking on the bathroom floor as he shut the shower door. "I'll bring in some clothing for you."

"Great, 'cause somehow mine are all soaked," Dean grumbled through the shower door.

"Wash your eyes out for at least ten minutes with the cold water," Sam ordered, heard Dean's "Yes, Mommy Dearest," just before he slipped out of the bathroom and closed the door.

Heading back down the stairs for Dean's clothing and the first aid kit, Sam knew he was smiling like an idiot, that he was practically bounding down the stairs, not with urgency but happiness. Sure the day had started out crappy, had only gotten worse but now…it seemed like one of the best days he had had in a long time. And that had nothing to do with stopping a seal from breaking, realizing that his curse could be useful, that he was stronger than he thought, that they had won some victory over evil. None of that. Instead it had everything to do with knowing that he still had his brother with him, that Dean still chose to be with him, that Dean still loved him, was working on forgiving him, wanted to trust him again. And it was a startling revelation, to know that, sometimes the greatest things in his life weren't what he achieved himself but was what other people freely gave to him.

SNSNSNSNSNSNSNSNSNSNSNSN

Dean wasn't all that impressed with Sam's version of providing clothing to him. With only a pair of boxers on, he felt like Marky Mark. Course a knifed up, bruised, blood shot eyed Marky Mark. The pain pills his brother had sat on the countertop for him? Those were right up his alley. Wasn't surprised when his brother's voice came through the bathroom door, "Dean, you decent?"

"Define decent?" Dean retorted, looked away from the mirror to the door as it opened to reveal Sam.

Sam scowled at the stark proof of the damage Devon had inflicted on Dean. Stepping into the bathroom, his jaw clenched as he saw his brother's back, the diagonal cut Devon had made, could more clearly see the cuts on his brother's stomach, hip and arm. His vile hatred for Devon flared again, knew that, if the man was in the house, even in the state, he wouldn't have been able to stop himself from attacking him again.

Reaching out, he gently touched the wound on his brother's back, both admired and hated that Dean didn't react to the pain, stood still, like it was something he was familiar with, accepted, even deserved. "This is going to need stitches," he announced wretchedly, an apology in his tone. Then he slid to Dean's side, hands inspecting the cut on his brother's arm before moving to skim over the slash on his stomach. He knew when Dean flinched it was more about his ticklishness than any reaction to pain. A small smile turned up his lips, which of course Dean saw.

"Like you're not ticklish there too," Dean grumbled, knew what Sam was thinking. And that was reassuring, to know for certain what was running through his brother's head, to not have to wonder, to guess, to dread what thoughts were there, thoughts he might not want to know.

"Yeah but not as ticklish as you are," Sam proudly shot back, eyes flickering to Dean's before he focused on the cut on his brother's hip. He sighed before he faced Dean again, "All these need stitches Dean."

"No they don't," Dean protested, turning his head to look at his left arm, hand reaching up to feel the cut again. "This one will be ok with some butterfly bandages and…" But before he could touch the wound, Sam arrested his hand and their eyes clashed.

"Is that what you would say if I had this cut?" Sam baited, knew when Dean looked away that he had Dean backed into a corner. Releasing Dean's hand, he crossed to Dean's other side and supportively wrapped his arm around his brother's waist. "This will be easier with you lying down," he announced before he maneuvered Dean toward the door, felt relieved that, instead of resisting his help, Dean laid his arm across his shoulders. Course he knew that type of capitulation was also a testament of how weak and in pain his brother was.

Bobby's bedroom was only the next room down the hallway but Sam took it slow, didn't allow Dean to rush the process, to pretend he wasn't limping, that the cut on his hip didn't cause pain to flare up with every step. When he had helped Dean up the stairs, he had forgotten that injury, that Dean had not only been negotiating the stairs blind but with an injured leg. But he knew why Dean hadn't mentioned it, hadn't allowed himself to limp, to falter: 'The jerk didn't want me offering to carry him.'

"What are you smiling about?" Dean asked in curiosity, perplexed at the soft smile Sam was wearing.

Caught in the act, Sam spared a look to Dean, saw the inquisitive look on his brother's features and came clean. "Just envisioned me trying to carry you up the stairs earlier."

Dean snorted, "Wouldna happened," his tone implied that he would not have let it happen.

"Coulda," Sam volleyed back, smirk in place instead of defiance as he and Dean passed through the bedroom doorway, headed for the bed. Sam had turned down the sheets and had the foresight to line the mattress with towels. Because, using Bobby's bed and surviving was one thing. Staining it with blood was another entirely different, far greater offense.

"Over my dead body," Dean growled back but knew he had said the wrong thing when Sam flinched, when his brother's coloring, which honestly wasn't that great, went paler. Sometimes he forgot that he wasn't the only one of them that knew what it was like seeing his brother's lifeless body, of carrying it, of knowing that the most important person in his life was gone. As they approached the bed, he quietly said, a chuckle in his tone, "Remember when Dad had us running around, carrying each other in a fireman's hold?"

Sam's head snapped to Dean at the reference, knew that Dean purposefully didn't revisit their childhood training exercises because he resented them. Well most of them. He smiled at this memory though. "You mean the time that I was carrying you and you made me trip and we landed in that patch of poison ivy?"

"I didn't make you trip, you tripped all on your own, Sammy. That was all you," Dean refuted but he was smiling at the memory, of him and Sam lying on the ground, laughing so hard that they had to clutch their stomachs, unknowingly getting more and more areas of their bodies covered with poison ivy.

"You jabbed me in the ribs, Dean, made me…" Sam broke off, knew it was the evidence Dean was looking for earlier.

Dean smirked at his victory. "Exactly, I made you laugh 'cause you're ticklish there."

"See, it was your fault," Sam focused on the part of the story that he needed for his defense. Arriving at the bed, he turned them around and eased Dean backwards to sit on the side of the bed. Then he slowly helped Dean put his legs onto the bed and gradually settle back onto the mattress before he removed his touch. He stood there a moment, looking down at his brother, noted that Dean's complexion was as white as the sheets and his eyes were closed, concealing the painfully bloodshot whites of them from his view.

Crossing over to the nightstand where he had laid out the first aid kit supplies he deemed he would need, he scowled again at the needle that had taken him so long to thread, his hands shaking almost too much to be of use. Knew that it was the result, not of nerves, but of exhaustion, from still being weak from his detox, from using the extent of his energy on beating the crap out of Devon, of helping support Dean's weight as they got up the stairs and into the shower. Fisting his hands, he prayed that they would still when he needed them to, when he was stitching up the wounds that marred his brother's body.

Centering on first things first, he doused a sterile bandage with antibacterial solution and turned to Dean, was rewarded with his brother's eye contact. No words passed between them, none were needed. This was a way of life with them, being hurt, stitching each other up, taking care of each other. Knowing that there was no need to offer a warning or an apology, seeing the trust in Dean's eyes, Sam stepped to his brother's side, pressed the treated bandage onto the savage cut on his brother's stomach.

And this time Dean didn't react to Sam's touch there, wouldn't take the chance that Sam might think it was in pain, was a rejection of him. Using his steel nerves to ignore the pain and the ticklishness, Dean lay still under his brother's treatment. But Sam's jaw clenched all the same because, like it or not, Sam knew him, always knew when he was in pain without him having to telegraph it. And sadly, Sam was also too familiar with similar wounds on his own body, knew the pain of getting them and getting them treated. It was the life they lived.

"Least we don't need holy water," Sam tried for lightness but his voice was raw, ratted out his emotions as if his voice has broken.

But Dean didn't disappoint. "Yeah, it's such a relief to get stabbed by mere humans," he drawled with sarcasm, his eyes sparkling up to Sam's.

Both Sam and Dean's eyes shot to the end of the bed as another voice spoke in the room.

"What transpired here?" Castiel asked, bitterly noting the wounds on Dean's body, perceptively reading the worry in Sam's essence, and utterly surprised by the total lack of tension between the brothers.

Looking to his angel friend standing at the end of the bed, sporting a scowl of confusion, Dean smirked. "Hunters' reunion. Wild party. Wild. Sorry you missed it."

Accustomed to Dean's deflection, of the man's habit of using humor when a situation was far from comical, Cas came to the side of the bed, stood beside Sam but his eyes didn't leave Dean's. "You are hurt."

"No flies on you," Dean mumbled.

Sam's reply was more helpful, though he didn't meet Cas' eyes, met his brother's instead even as he shuffled under the guilt. "Some hunters wanted us to pay for what happened to Pamela, Ellen and Jo."

"You did not cause their deaths," Cas stated matter-of-factly, a hint of indignation coming to life in his tone, in defense of his friends. Seeing the brothers exchange a look of guilt, Cas stepped closer to Sam, to Dean. "I saw in each of their hearts, knew that they believed in the fight…and in both of you. Sadly, in war there are causalities but not in vain, not when their efforts are for the side of good." Finding Sam and Dean staring at him, almost in surprised awe at his words, Cas shook himself, took a step back, as if distancing himself from the Winchesters and the emotions that were becoming more of his everyday existence. "I have lost comrades before, lost brothers. I know the pain of loss...and I also know my brothers would do it all over again because of their faith in the fight. It is the same way with Pamela, Ellen and Jo."

Pulling his look from Cas, Sam looked to Dean, saw that his brother was still contemplating the angel. Turning to Cas, he decided to speak for himself and Dean both. "Thanks Cas. That means…a lot."

Cas nodded as if his job was done, as if he had provided a solution to the brothers' plight. "I do not sense anyone else here so where are these other hunters?" he asked, trying to put the pieces together, to figure out how his two charges could get into trouble when he was gone for such a short time, not even a day, a blinking of time when compared to his existence in heaven.

"Long gone," Dean exhaled as if the matter was over, nearly forgotten.

"Is there something I can do?" Cas asked, his eyes on Dean. But he read the man's denial that he was even in pain, let alone needed aid. So he turned to Sam, who wouldn't downplay his brother's wounds, wasn't too proud to ask for his help when it came to his brother's well being.

"We could use from sterile saline solution to put in his eyes and a bottle of artificial tear drops for later. And some more bandages," Sam ticked off the mental list that he had started in his head after he went online and found out what the best first aid treatment for his brother's eyes was. Well, the best treatment if you weren't inclined to go to a doctor.

"And some pie for later," Dean smart-alecked, adding to Sam's grocery list. Was surprised when the request earned him both Sam and Cas's sharp attention.

"You will eat a pie if I get it for you?" Cas asked with surprising intensity.

Unprepared for the seriousness in Cas's eyes or the way Sam was looking at him as if he were waiting for something, Dean fidgeted on the bed. "When have I ever turned down food?" he deflected, forcing a smirk onto his features.

"You have for the past few days," Cas replied, not in judgment but in worry.

Dean's eyes flickered to Sam, not wanting his brother to know that since Famine, the very thought of food had made his stomach churn. But by the look Sam was leveling at him, Sam knew that. And knowing his little brother, he had already been wracking his brain on ways to trick him into eating or trying to decide if he could force him to eat. Again the curse of knowing each other too well was that neither of them was able to hide when they were hurting, or doing something self destructive.

"Well I could eat…" Dean meekly admitted, realized that the words were true even as he said them. That somewhere along the line that day, he had stopped being dead inside.

Then Cas was gone off on his shopping mission.

Facing Dean, Sam gave him a quick but honest smile and then doused the bandage again and began cleaning out the cut on his hip. "This one's pretty deep," he reported, free hand wrapping around his brother's leg above the knee even as he dabbed the cut with the antibiotic solution with his other hand.

"There goes my Nononsense nylon commercials," Dean quirked, liked that Sam snorted even if he didn't shift his focus from his leg.

Satisfied that the wounds were as clean and treated as he could get them, Sam plunked a chair by the bed and picked up the threaded needle, silently cursed as it vibrated it his unsteady grip. Inhaling a breath, he tried to will his body to obey him. Of course that was the problem lately. That his body, his addiction, was overriding what he wanted. He hated that it was still doing that, making him not as useful to Dean as he needed to be. Wanted to be.

Sinking into the chair at Dean's side, he stalled by inspecting the wound on his brother's arm again, wished Dean was right, that a few butterfly bandages would pull the damaged skin and muscle back together again. Knowing that his diagnosis was right, that the best thing for Dean was to stitch the wound closed, he poised the needle and tried to steady his hand. He didn't want to cause Dean more pain or do a lousy job of tending to the wound.

Sam's hesitation was too obvious for Dean to overlook. Wondering if something about the wound was bothering Sam, he looked over to the wound then to his brother. He read Sam's misery a moment before his brother's shaking hand drew his attention. Concern spiked through him. "Sam, are you alright?" he demanded, shifting, turning to face his brother, a thousand scenarios running through his head. That Sam was hurt, that his addiction wasn't over, that the detox had caused nerve damage, that Sam was too angry to patch him up…

Unprepared for his patient to sit up, turn to him and reach for his shaking hand, Sam yanked the needle away from Dean, afraid that he would jab Dean by mistake. "Whoa! What are you doing? Lay down."

"You're trembling, Sam. What's wrong? Is it the detox or are you hurt?" Dean urgently fired the questions at his brother, needing to know what was wrong before he could fix it.

Leave it to his big brother to turn the worry to him, to not be concerned that his "surgeon" had shaking hands, might stitch him up as pretty as Doc Benton. "Nothing's wrong," he denied but at Dean's heated, probing glare he grudgingly confessed, "I'm still weak from the detox." Dropping the threaded needle onto the night stand he spun to his feet, ran his hands through his hair in utter frustration and cursed, feeling a thousand times useless.

But Dean, he took the admission with relief. This scenario he could handle. "No biggie. I'll do the stitching," he stated, reaching for the needle Sam had discarded. And it was no big deal. He had patched himself up before, lots of times. Would be able to do his torso, leg and arm. And he would only need to have Sam slap some antibiotic cream and bandages on his back for that wound to heal, sort of.

Lighting fast, Sam snatched the needle from Dean's hand. "No." At Dean's sigh and patient but protesting look, he spoke more firmly. "No way, Dean. Bobby will do it…"

"How? He can't make it up the stairs, Sam, and even if he could, the angle's too hard for him to work with," Dean countered, hand held out waiting for Sam to see the logic in what he was offering.

But Sam stubbornly took a step back, held the needle hostage, prayed for another solution other than Dean having to put himself back together again. Of Dean playing contortionist and hiking his already high level of pain. As if an answer to prayers, Cas blinked into existence right beside him.

"I'm not sure exactly what "artificial tears" are but this bottle said, "natural tears," Cas rattled away, juggling his "purchases". He stilled as Sam turned to him and smiled. Had had enough experience with the Winchesters to know that look and to dread it. "What?" he demanded, his dread obvious in his tone.

By the way of an answer, Sam held up a threaded needle like he was offering up a viable weapon for his use and throwing down a challenge to him simultaneously. Tilting his head in confusion, Cas waited a second, knew that Sam, unlike Dean, wouldn't roll his eyes as he tried to catch up to what the two men were thinking.

"If you're sticking with us, this is part of it," Sam explained but the angel's confusion seemed to increase at his statement. "Patching us up, maybe us patching you up," he clarified, saw the angel's comprehensive and acceptance of the duties almost instantly. Then suddenly, the angel's eyes darkened with an emotion Sam didn't recognize.

"I…I don't know how to "patch you up"," Cas haltingly admitted, hated that it was true, that, for all his residual powers, healing wasn't one of them. It hadn't been in his array of abilities for over a year now.

Sam felt his heart soften toward Cas as he understood that what was in the angel's gaze was fear…and regret. Was convinced, in that moment, that Cas wanted to help, to even heal Dean, but he just couldn't. And Cas' pained expression of helplessness, it raised a question in Sam, reminded him of a contention he still held against Cas. It made him wonder if it was deserved.

"Sammy's a good teacher," Dean reassured, sinking back onto the bed again, relieved that he wasn't going to have to play doctor. He was confident that, between Sam and Cas, he was in good hands.

Even as Dean's compliment warmed him, Sam snorted in objection. "Dean's a better teacher but today that would be like the blind leading the blind."

"Oh you're hilarious," Dean grumbled back he was smiling.

Cas looked between the brothers, certain that he had missed something vital but also too nervous at the prospect of patching up Dean to pursue it. With hands as steady as a mountain, he took the needle from Sam's hand, stepped to the side of the bed, looked down at the wounds on Dean's arm, torso and leg and asked, "What do I need to do?"

Dean had to admit, Cas had a gentle touch for a warrior angel. Course being awake while getting stitched back together while he was under the only slightly effective haze of pain pills still hurt like a mother. There was no way that it wouldn't, no matter what Sam thought.

"Easy! Gentle!" Sam hissed as Dean flinched under Cas's ministrations. Wished, not for the first time, that it was him stitching Dean up and not Cas, an angel that had never, ever done the task before.

"How can I be gentle when I'm piercing his skin with a needle," Cas said sharply, hating that he was causing Dean more pain in his effort to stop his friend's pain. Only such contradictions could exist in this troubled world.

Knowing how to defuse the tension between his two nursemaids, Dean reached for Cas' hand that was poised above the cut on his torso, groused, "I can do it." Remembered playing such mind games with Sam and his father, knew that, no matter what, they would put aside their differences if he needed them.

"No," Cas and Sam forcefully denied at the same time.

And Dean's hand was captured, not by Sam this time, but by Cas. But the grip, it was careful, gentle, as if the angel realized his own strength and didn't want to unleash too much of it upon his wounded human friend.

"I can do this for you," Cas vowed, a plea lurking in his eyes for Dean to allow him this, to trust him as he had with so many other things.

Dean nodded, was surprised that Cas didn't find this beneath him, painstakingly putting together a human, the man that started the end of the world, who had convinced him to give up his place in heaven. Who had made him believe he could find another solution, a better solution and had yet to deliver on that promise.

When Cas released his hand, Dean withdrew it, settled it back on the bed and turned to watch Sam, saw that Sam was looking at Cas in wonder, as if the angel's attitude surprised him as well. Then Sam's eyes shifted to his. When he raised his eyebrows in confusion and question, Sam shrugged back his reply, both finding that this particular angel, he was a surprise, time and time again.

With meticulous motion, Cas returned to stitching Dean's skin together, found that it wasn't so unfamiliar to him, patching Dean up. He had done something far harder for this same man, had restored Dean's ravaged, dead body so that his soul once again had an earthly home. He had always regretted that he didn't have the power to heal the man's soul, to erase the horrors of hell that scarred him. But he knew the memories, they had to remain. That the pain had to be a part of who Dean Winchester was if he was to become the man he was destined to be.

Putting in the last stitch on Dean's stomach wound, Cas almost released a humanly sigh of relief. Might have if he didn't sense that Sam intended to tell him something most likely unpleasant. To his surprise, Dean moved, rolled over in fact, and showed him that his task was not yet complete. Sharing a look with Sam, he noted the sorrow in Sam's eyes, knew that every stripe on his brother's body was like one on Sam's, but harder to take. Without a word, he set his hands to the final wound, remembered healing wounds on Dean's back before with only a touch, wounds on a dead body in a grave, wounds caused by the claws of hell hounds. When the last stitch was made, he sent Sam a searching look, knew the feel of relief when the younger Winchester nodded.

"Done?" Dean's hoarse voice questioned, his voice almost startling Cas. The man had been immobile amid the piercing of his skin, was almost like that corpse, cold and still, not yet inhabited again.

"Yeah," Sam answered as he stepped forward, wrapped his hand around Dean's arm, aided Dean in rolling over. He winced when Dean did, knew that there wasn't going to be a comfortable position for Dean to sleep in, not for awhile. Grabbing the eye drop bottle of sterile saline solution, he handed it to Dean, "This should help your eyes." Watched as Dean put the drops in his eyes, and then squeezed his eyes shut, let the solution leak out of his eyes as if they were tears. Prying the bottle from Dean's grip, he sat it back on the table and picked up a tube of antibiotic ointment. Then he carefully claimed a seat on the bed by Dean's side.

Feeling as if he were intruding, as he often felt when it came to the two brothers, Cas walked out of the room, left them to their privacy. Wondered if his absence would even be noted.

Sam caught Cas's departure, almost called out a thank you to the angel but didn't have the chance.

"Least he's using doors once in a while to leave," Dean observed, his eyes still closed but his perceptiveness as reliable as ever.

"Now if only he would come using a door," Sam wise cracked.

"Might be too much to ask."

Sam agreed but did so silently. He had already asked and received a lot from Cas. He wouldn't demand more, not now. "I'll put some ointment around your eyes to help with the burning."

"Ok."

Picking up a clean cloth off the nightstand, he gently dabbed at Dean's eyes, wiped away the excess saline solution, the streaks that seemed too close to tears. Then he put some of the ointment on his fingers and lightly stroked them under Dean's eyes, on the blistered, red skin that Devon's makeshift eye repellent had left behind. Dean's eyes twitched at the touch but Dean didn't open his eyes or flinch away, left his brother's ministration continue without protest.

"Think I've got it covered pretty good," Sam quietly said, not sure if the words were for him or for Dean.

Dean offered up a "hhhmnn"' in reply, sleep pulling at him with his brother's tender touch and the ointment's soothing properties. Somewhere he registered when Sam's hand left him and a soft cloth came to rest over his eyes. Would have fought the new darkness but it was one of comfort now and safety because, Sam was still sitting beside him. He didn't need to open his eyes to know that. He and Sam were together, no one was trying to kill them at the moment so getting a little sleep, he could afford that small luxury at least for a little while.

SNSNSNSN

Sam watched Dean sleep, knew that it was only one of the many things he had missed when Dean died, when he had gone off with Ruby, when he had been locked in the panic room. The contentment of knowing his brother was asleep in the next bed, that even in the middle of the night, surrounded by darkness, in some new place, contemplating taking out whatever evil the town boasted, he wasn't alone. That Dean was with him, that they would face things together. After Dean had died, it had been hardest waking up and finding that second bed empty, of waking up knowing that there was no second bed, that there was only one bed and it was his, of finding Ruby in his arms and an ache in his heart that proved to him that resolving the issue of being alone wasn't the same as filling the hole in him, the hole where Dean once was. And being chained to that bed in the panic room with a version of Dean pacing around him, it was a bitter sweet wish come true. Something he forced, demanded…that his addicted mind had seen fit to twist.

He startled when Cas came to a stop at his side, joined his protective guard over his brother. Looked up at the angel, he saw the way Cas studied Dean, as if he were able to judge his brother's physical wellbeing just by standing there. But there was also a softening in the angel's demeanor, made him believe that the angel hated to see Dean hurt, almost as much as he did. It reinforced what he had come to suspect. "After Dean was attacked by Alistair, when I asked you to heal him, you weren't refusing to be stubborn, were you?"

"No," Cas answered, his tone clipped. Then he spared Sam a glance, knew that the man wanted more from him, wanted the truth. And it was maybe time for that type of honesty. He had called Sam Winchester his friend, it was time to start trusting him like he would a friend. "After I brought Dean out of hell, I healed him. And after that I…" it was harder to voice the truth than he realized it would be, to admit that weakness. Sam saved him the humiliation.

"You couldn't heal any more. You had used up all of your ability to heal on Dean, on bringing Dean back to life," Sam concluded, the pieces coming together to form a true picture.

"Yes," Cas admitted, eyes swiveling again to Dean, to the man that he had lost so much for, because he believed in him, in his destiny, in his goodness.

Gratitude surged in Sam that Cas had been the one to pull Dean from hell, that the angel had healed his brother, had stuck with Dean on his path to his destiny and hadn't abandoned Dean when he sought to defy the designs of heaven. But he had to wonder if Cas cursed the day he had heard Dean's name. "You ever think that you got the wrong assignment? Wish that someone else had gone to hell to get Dean out?"

Cas's reply was instantaneous and certain as his eyes unflinchingly met Sam's. "No. It was an honor." Then he looked again to the wounded man, to the first man he had called friend, to the man he considered his brother. "And it still is."

SNSNSNSNSNS

It was agony and it was fear and it was heat and it was despair and it was never ending. Long after his screams had rendered his voice useless, long after his mind couldn't find a way to escape, long after a physical body would have ceased to survive, he was still there, still felt every cut, every broken part of his body, his soul. And he knew it would go on like that, for eternity…if he didn't say yes, didn't reach out his hand, didn't face the fact that there was no such thing as goodness where he was, that there was no part of his soul to protect, to safeguard. He had nothing more of himself to lose.

Then a loved voice echoed in his despair, pulled him from the agony, reminded him that there was still something to lose, a part of him that deserved to be protected, safeguarded. The part of him that he had given to Sam. And it was his brother's voice that was calling for him. Then a hand was reaching out for him, touching him, a hand that was gentle, its grip soft, familiar.

Jerking awake, Dean heaved in breath, his heart racing. Then he saw his brother, saw Sam's worried features hovering over him. "Hey," he groggily greeted, fighting to rid himself of the images of the nightmare, of the memories.

"Hey," Sam returned, keeping his hand on Dean's chest, able to feel the sharp beat of his brother's heart under his hand. "How are you feeling?" knew it was an open question. He would take any answer Dean offered.

"Better," Dean answered, focused on the physical aspect of Sam's question, purposefully ignored the other probe. "How come you're not sacked out too?" he asked, seeing the exhaustion clearly marked on his brother's face.

"Couldn't sleep." But honestly Sam never tried, had found it more relaxing sitting beside Dean than slipping into any type of rest.

Dean tried to sit up but Sam held him against the bed with his hand on his chest.

"Whoa, where you going. You've barely slept an hour," Sam protested, had had some hope that the fatigue in his brother's eyes would have faded away with the bloodshot whites. Hated that he had hoped in vain.

"Sleep is overrated," Dean pointed out, smiling bitterly.

It was the breaking point for Sam, the point where he was going to stage his own intervention, do for Dean what his brother had tried to do for him, though he had screwed that up, had bolted the first chance he got, went out hunting for Ruby. Shaking his head of those dark memories, he steadily met Dean's eyes. "You can't keep this up, Dean."

"What?" Dean parried, hoped the conversation wasn't going where he thought it might be.

"The not sleeping, the barely eating…..accepting Famine's lies," Sam forced himself to uncover all the truths that they weren't talking about, did it because he cared too much to watch silently as Dean suffered.

Gruffly Dean retorted, "Alright, therapy time is up," and he shoved Sam's hand off of him, sat up, was slightly surprised when Sam stood up, seemed willing to abandon the road he had started traveling down. But then, instead of heading out the door, his brother sat beside him on the bed, drew his leg up on the side of the bed and faced him, wearing his determined but devoted little brother expression. 'Ah crap,' Dean thought, knew that this time Sam wasn't going to let him skitter away from him with no answers or even with half truths.

Drawing in a breath, eyes pinned to Dean's, Sam began, "I don't know how you feel, what it was like in hell, how much you're hurting…" He flinched when Dean looked away because it was proof that Dean was indeed hurting, hurting too badly to cover it up, to hide it from his little brother like he wanted to. "But I know that I want to help. That I would do anything to take away some of your pain, some of the pain of losing the people that we have, of all that you've been through, at the way I've betrayed you." With that last clause, Dean swung his look to him, opened his mouth to again forgive him but Sam pressed on. "You're not dead inside, Dean. You've just buried everything to get through the days. But doing that…it's only making you suffer more."

'Maybe it's what I deserve Sam, but only a small taste of what I deserve.' Aloud Dean asked rhetorically, "What should I do, Sam? Cry? Scream? Sack out on a therapist's couch and spill my guts?" knew that none of it would help, that even Sam had to know that.

"Yes," Sam bluntly answered, got a wide eyes reaction from Dean at the one word reply. "Cry. Scream. Talk about it. Just don't…" he clamped his jaw shut, looked away, cursed himself for not making it through without getting emotional.

"Don't what?" Dean prodded gently, knew that Sam was hurting too. That his pain wasn't the only thing between them. That Sam had his own pain, his own guilt to work through.

Meeting Dean's open expression, encouraged by his brother's soft question, Sam finished his plea. "Don't give up. On yourself. I'm not going to give up on you, Dean. Not ever again. And Famine didn't know anything about your goodness, about the terrible pain that comes when you allow yourself to care too much. You care what happens to the world, you've always made it your mission to take care of me and you've added Bobby and even an angel into that mission! You ask the impossible out of yourself and accept the very least from the people you love. Famine only knew about taking…not giving, Dean. To him, you were dead…because you don't take, don't have the need to take. You're all about giving of yourself. All of yourself. But you have to keep some of that for you, Dean. You can't give every ounce of your energy, your heart and your soul to saving others and keep none of it back for yourself. No one wants that type of sacrifice from you. Bobby, Cas and I, we want you here, with us, well enough to stand at our side. Because fighting this battle without you, it's something I can't do, Dean. If you fall…I'll have nothing to fight for. What's the point of saving a world of strangers if I already lost my family."

"Sam, don't say that."
"What? The truth? We're fighting for a billion people who, if they knew us, would feel about us like Devon does, that we're the evil ones, the ones to be afraid of. But we're fighting to save them anyway because it's the right thing to do, because it's what we've been raised to do, save strangers. Just don't think that I'm strong enough to exchange saving the world for losing you, because I'm not. If the choice comes down to you or a billion strangers…"

"You'll make the right choice," Dean assertively answered, knew Sam's heart even if his brother didn't.

Sam shook his head in denial. "You don't know that. When you left me before…I got…lost, Dean."

"But you found your way, Sam."

"Yeah, because of you, Dean. Only because of you. So if you're still thinking I'll be fine without you, that the fight will go on if you surrender…you're as wrong as you were before. My strength comes from what we have between us, from you standing with me, us fighting together. So how about you stop trying to leave me, huh?" He paused there, saw that his words were sinking in before he lightly threatened, "So stop mistreating yourself or I'll kick your butt. I will, Dean."

"You and what army?" Dean challenged back, knew that Sam had said his piece and was trying to find a graceful, even manly way to exit the chick flick conversation. Sam nodded at his words, silently thanked him for the barb, for letting him get back on solid ground. "It goes both ways, you know?" Dean said, had to make Sam see that his little speech wasn't just about how he felt. At Sam's raised eyebrow of confusion, he explained, "I need you beside me too, Sam." He left Sam accept that before he added, "So no more solo trips to the panic room to avoid me…"

"You're a jerk," Sam laughed even as he couldn't believe he found humor in his recent addictions. Only Dean could turn the most horrendous events into jokes. It was one of the things he loved most about his brother.

Dean accepted the compliment with a cocky smile.

SNSNSNSNSNSNSNSN

Against his little brother's objections, Dean made his way to the kitchen table for dinner, though he had a 6 foot 4 inch figure shadowing his every step. Sinking into the chair, that of course Sam pulled out for him, Dean felt exhausted but in a good way, a satisfied way. Was kind of awed to see that Bobby, Sam and Cas were all seated around the table, as if it were a regular occurrence.

He eyed the spread of food on the table with suspicion before he looked to Bobby, who sat at the opposite end of the table. "Thought there wasn't much food in the house, that you needed something from the store," repeating the words the older hunter had said that morning to shove him out the door.

Bobby's face actually turned red. Then, to Dean's surprise, the older man directed his answer to Sam, not him.

"I was wrong. Everything we need is right here." Bobby hoped Sam knew what he was saying. That he was admitting that he had been wrong, one hundred percent, in thinking that the brothers needed time apart. Had been crazy to think that what they needed was anything other than each other. Sam's gentle smile was a beaming pardon for his transgressions and Bobby smiled back.

Not sure what was going on between Sam and Bobby, Dean turned to Cas, who sat at his right, wondered if the angel was as confused as he was. He was startled to see the angel was busy eating, like an average ordinary human being who had been asked over for dinner. "So you're eating now, regularly?"

"It doesn't seem to harm this vessel…or me," Cas answered noncommittally, but Dean smiled until he confessed, "Yes, I like the taste of food."

Nodding his head at the angel's admission, Dean looked back into the living room, to the broken windows that were now covered by plywood, most likely courtesy of Rufus. Swinging his gaze back to Bobby, he said, "Hope you thanked Rufus for us. I'm kinda surprised he bothered to get involved but his arrival was awesomely timed."

"Yeah, about that…" Bobby began, tugging on the brim of the hat that he wore.

The older man's nervous tell caused Dean to freeze. "What?" he asked, dread building, wondering what unforeseen trouble Bobby was about to reveal.

"Rufus said he didn't know a thing about Grant's little trial," Bobby's statement caused all three of his house guests to stare at him in confusion.

"Then why was he here?" Sam asked, uncertainty in his tone. As far as he understood, Rufus wasn't the Christmas card type …or the visiting type either.

Bobby shook his head, "Car trouble, if you believe it."

"Car trouble?' Dean repeated as if he might have misheard. "Am I missing something?"

"If you are, then so am I," Bobby heaved out his breath. "Said he was running down the interstate when his car starting having fits, figured I was the closest mechanic he could get to who wouldn't care what weapons he had stashed in the bed of his truck."

"So it was…a coincidence," Sam haltingly spelled out, eyes meeting Dean's, because they both knew how they felt about coincidences.

"If you believe in that type of thing. But there's more." Bobby had regained all three pairs of eyes again before he forced himself to complete the tale. "When I went to check his car…dang thing started right up, no problems. Darn near purred."

Dean pointedly turned to Cas as if it was the angel's turn to explain things.

"I had nothing to do with that," Cas immediately denied under Dean's scrutiny. "If I had known you were in danger, I would have come myself, I wouldn't have caused a car to malfunction so a hunter might show up and might be useful in defusing a violent confrontation," his own guilt at not being there when Dean and Sam needed him flaring to the surface.

Dean raised his hand, "OK. Ok, Cas. Don't get your boxers in a twist."

Sam tried to be subtle about it, had snagged Dean's plate when Dean had swung around to inspect the broken windows, had spooned small portions of food onto the plate as Cas offered up his denials. But now there were no more distractions to cover his actions, leaving him stuck sliding the plate back in front of Dean with Dean tracking his every movement.

When Sam returned his plate to its proper place in front of him, Dean noted the careful distribution of food on his plate before giving Sam a defiant stare. But Sam didn't cower, instead his brother's chin raised in that pit-bull stubborn way of his. If he tried to fight Sam on this, he knew that he was going to lose. Like he had when he was three and had wanted to leave the table before eating his vegetables. Maybe Sam was more like his mom than he ever realized.

Picking up his fork, he sensed that all eyes were on him, as if they were waiting for him to perform a circus trick. "I know, I'm fascinating to watch," he drawled, but the eye contact didn't loosen. Sighing in over exaggerated frustration, he stabbed a piece of beef and shoved it in his mouth. The action satisfied his audience enough for them to turn back to the food on their own plates instead of on his. But he didn't miss the glances Sam kept shooting over at him, as if he were an anorexic who might dash off to do the purge thing.

To settle Sam's worries, he made almost a show of heartily digging into his food. And then, before he knew, he had cleared off his plate, even had a craving for second helpings. Sam smugly handed him the bowl of potatoes before he even asked for it.

SNSNSNSNSN

Somehow Dean had managed to escape from under Sam's watchful eye, to slip out to the salvage yard. Leaning up against the Impala, he studied the stars overhead. It seemed unreal that only a few days ago he had stood there, certain that he was at the end of his rope, begging God to help him. And now…things were better, in so many different ways. Sam was weak but free of the blood's addiction, they had more allies on their side than they had ever thought they would and he and Sam were…better. Were almost good. Honestly good.

And he could write it down as a coincidence, the new turn of happy events, just like he could count Rufus stopping in because he had car trouble that disappeared coincidentally. But he didn't believe in coincidences. But the alternative..he wasn't sure he wanted to go there. 'If you didn't think praying would do any good then why did you pray in the first place? Admit it, you believe in prayer, that God would listen, that God would help. And now that He has, that He did…now you want to pretend it was a fluke.'

He heard the angel shuffle behind him, knew that, announcing his presence, it was Cas' way of trying to be considerate. "God answers prayers sometimes, right?" he asked, found it easier to ask without having to look at Cas, to see the angel's hope that he had turned a corner in his faith.

"God hears all prayers, Dean," Cas earnestly replied, came to stand before his friend, surprised by the question. "Sometimes He answers them in ways that are unexpected…maybe even unwelcome but always for the person's own wellbeing."

"Hurt me to help me, huh?" Dean said, dropped his look from the heavens to his angel companion. He saw contemplation on Cas' features, even worry.

"Sometimes. There have been many great servants to God that have gone through many trials and tribulations," Cas pointed out, knew that Dean was one of them, that his pain wasn't something that should be denied, forgotten.

"So having a crappy time sometimes just means the big guy loves us?" Dean sallied back, trying to get his head around the way God worked.

"Yes," Cas affirmed, eyes locked with Dean's. "God doesn't always remove the need for battle but He will give you the strength to go on, to be victorious, for good things to come out of the bad."

"Victorious. Is this what victory feels like?" he scoffed, his hand coming up to brace the wound on his torso.

"You are alive, are with the people who love you and I sense some contentment in you…and in Sam," Cas stated. No longer blindsided by the ache that usually emanated off of his friend, he knew that, whatever had transpired that day, it had done some good.

"We're alive to fight another day," Dean downplayed.

"Together." By the way Dean looked at him, Cas knew Dean got his meaning, clearly Because Cas did know what mattered to Dean, more than his own survival. That being with his brother, being able to trust his brother, not only to have his back but to entrust his heart to him was what Dean had been missing fiercely. And that had been restored to him, the certainty that he and Sam were a family, were brothers again, in the truest sense.

Looking down at his feet, Dean scuffed the ground. "I prayed, you know. For help. After Sam…" he broke off didn't want to say it aloud, to remember Sam in that panic room, crying out for him, for all he knew, dying. He drew in a breath but still didn't raise his eyes to Cas.

"And He answered your prayers," Cas quietly said, not in awe that God answered Dean Winchester's prayer but that Dean was ready to admit that was what happened.

"I got knocked out, tied up, beat up, blinded and sliced up and put on trial..thought Sam and I were going to get executed," Dean listed incredulously and then he braved Cas's inspection. "But I'm…better, Cas. It…helped, crazy as that sounds." He raised his hand to halt Cas's next words, "Don't quote the Bible to me, Cas."

Cas nodded but the words burned in his heart, had to be said even if only in his own head, 'The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.' But when Dean started to walk by him he reached out, wrapped his hand around Dean's arm. "You're not alone, Dean."

"What? God's always with me?" Dean challenged was surprised when Cas nearly snorted, broke into an expression that was the infantile stages of an honest smile.

"Well, yes He is, but I was talking about myself," Cas admitted, almost sheepishly.

Dean reached out, patted Cas on the chest, "That's good to know Cas…on both accounts." And it was, made the weight he carried lighter. "Now earlier you promised me pie…"

SNSNSNSNSN

When Dean and Cas turned the corner, they could see Sam standing on the porch, hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. When Sam spied them and stalked off the porch, Cas said, "I don't have need for more food," and then he disappeared even as Dean hissed, "coward."

'So much for him having my back,' Dean groused and then he turned on the charm for his brother. "Sammy, you want to take a walk under the stars too?"

"What I want is to not wonder where you are? Dean, I looked all over for you! In the house, in the salvage yard, by the Impala!" Sam ticked off the locations on his fingers as he towered over his brother.

Dean shrugged but it turned into a wince, the wound on his back sending him a message of displeasure. "Went for a walk then hung out by the Impala," he admitted, hand coming up to press the base of his spine, as if that would shortcut the pain.

Sam sighed, couldn't be mad in the face of Dean's obvious pain, could still be frustrated though. "Great time for a walk," he reprimanded but his tone was gentle and he was gripping his brother's elbow and helping him up the steps and into Bobby's empty kitchen. He pushed Dean into a chair before going to the sink and filling a glass with water. Sitting the water on the table along with the bottle of pain pills he claimed a chair to Dean's right, watched in satisfaction as Dean swallowed down three pills.

"Heck of a day, huh?" Sam chose as a starter.

"Yeah, like that's new for us," Dean parried back, wondered where this was going because Sam seemed to have a purpose. He usually did. "What are you thinking?" he decided to go the direct route, had had too long a day to talk weather and sports stats.

For a moment Sam tapped his finger on the table wouldn't look at him and then when he did, Dean could see the pain, the confusion in his brother's eyes.

Knowing that Dean was the safest person for him to be vulnerable around, Sam admitted what was in his heart. "I miss them, Dean."

And the forlornness in his brother's voice hurt Dean. He didn't need Sam to say their names, they had been tossed about all day. Knew too, that, it wasn't just the most recent people they had lost that Sam missed. There was a long list. "I know. I do too."

Dean's admission, it strengthened Sam, made him know that he wasn't alone in his pain. "How do we honor them, what they did, make their sacrifices worth something?"

They were the hardest questions Sam had ever asked him, the questions that he had asked himself time and time again, at every loss he had suffered. Had asked himself when his mother died, how he could honor her memory, keep her with him, never lose her. "I chose to be brave because I thought Mom would want me to be. I chose to keep hunting because I thought Dad would want that from me. I guess we all have our own ways to honor the ones we love. Me, I …I keep them in my heart, remember why I loved them, that they left me only because they had to. That Dad did it because he thought it was the best way he could help me..think Jo and Ellen and even Pamela felt the same way. They fought, died to help us, so we could carry on the fight. Guess that's the way we honor them best, by remembering that we loved them, by not giving up, to keep fighting until we finish what they fought for."

"It's a lot to carry," Sam admitted, knew the weight Dean carried, that he carried, that the load was heavy already.

And Dean thought about that, what he owed so many people, the responsibility he had. And then he remembered the first big responsibility that he had been given, had been entrusted with. Taking care of his little brother. That type of responsibility, it was the greatest thing anyone had asked of him …until God tapped him on the shoulder to save the world that he had broken. "Some weight, Sammy, is an honor to carry," he admitted, saw Sam's confusion and took pity on the kid like he always did. "Dad trusted me to take care of you and look how well that turned out. And you would know what I'm talking about if you hadn't refused to carry me up the stairs this afternoon."

"I didn't refuse! Besides you wouldn't have let me…" Sam heatedly shot back, couldn't believe Dean was going to turn this around on him.

"Always with the excuses, Sammy. First you used to tell Dad that I was too heavy, then it was you were way younger than me, than it was you were carrying the heavier weapons," Dean reminisced, climbing to his feet, knew that Sam would stay at his side. And his little brother didn't let him down, surged out of his chair and was pacing him as he headed into the living room. Sam was sticking by his side, no matter what, Dean knew that now. Trusted in that.

"After the poison ivy thing you refused to let me carry you, even after you had your leg all chewed up," Sam shot back, pacing Dean, wasn't going to let his brother have selective memory about this.

"When was my leg chewed up?" Dean countered, didn't remember anything like that happening, not that he couldn't walk on it, needed his little shrimpy brother to carry him.

"You two want to shut up!" Bobby growled from the bed by the window. "Isn't it enough I got bugs crawling through the broken windows into my bed now I gotta listen to you two all night long?"

For a moment the brothers almost responded with a "Yes sir" but they shared a look first, remembered that they weren't boys anymore. Dean snorted, "Bobby it's like…seven o'clock in the evening. I had no idea it was past your beddy bye time. You want Sammy to read you a story, tuck you in bed?"

"Its nine o'clock and I don't know why I put up with you two!" Bobby railed back, turning his back on the two men who were grinning widely. 'Cause I love the jerks, that's why.' Hearing them make their way up the stairs, he couldn't stop himself from calling out, "You owe me new windows and….and a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue."

Halting on the steps, Dean looked over the railing into the living room, studied Bobby's back that was turned to him. "Johnny Walker Blue? You upgrading from your rot gut?"

"No," Bobby petulantly replied. But he could hear the house creak in the silence that fell, knew Dean wouldn't let it go, would hound him until he spilled it. "Figure it's the least I owe Rufus for saving your stupid behinds."

"Awwww, he does care," Sam sarcastically drawled, his laughter in harmony with Dean's.

Their laughter echoed throughout the house and secretly, Bobby loved the sound. It was the sound his wife said the house was always missing: The sound of children laughing. 'Guess some prayers do get answered in some unforeseen ways.' But that didn't mean he wasn't grateful, from the bottom of his heart.

Heading up the stairs, Sam trailed closely behind Dean, kept his hand hovering above his brother's back, was surprised, though he knew he shouldn't be, when Dean kept glancing back at him as if checking if he needed his help. Sam smiled at the proof that Dean hadn't given up his big brother role, that he hadn't given up on him. That they weren't giving up on each other. Ever.

Seeing Sam's smile, Dean almost rolled his eyes, could guess that Sam was immersed in a chick flick moment in his head. But instead of jeering at his brother, he returned his smile. Like Cas had said, they were alive, together and that was enough to make him realize that Famine had been wrong, he wasn't dead inside, felt too good right then to believe that lie anymore.

With new conviction Dean vowed that he would take a page out of Ellen's book, that no matter how bleak things got, he wouldn't abandon his family. That whether they won or lost, he and Sam would do it together, because love didn't die and families, they stayed together, to the very end.

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Thanks so much for everyone who read this story and was kind enough to encourage me to finish it, though the storyline had to take an AU route. I'm so glad that I was able to post it before the season five finale!

And a million thank yous to my awesome beta! She's wonderful enough to trudge through all my stories and rewrites! Without her help, you wouldn't want to even bother trying to read my ramblings!

"The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" ~ James 5:16

Have a great day!

Cheryl W.