5.14 My Bloody Valentine tag

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"I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance." – William Faulkner

The Light in the Vessel

What can fill an empty vessel when neither food nor drink nor companionship can satisfy his longings?

There is but one thing able to fill that void, only one thing capable of illuminating the dark.

It does not come from without, but rather fills from within, expanding out from the very essence of the man to light his way.

For the soul of a man cannot be taken; rather, it can only be surrendered. A brave man, determined and true, might shudder from the weight of unfathomable burdens, might cry out from the intolerable pain crushing down upon his tender heart, but in the end will stand firm, never wavering in the shadow of evil, never admitting defeat.

His soul, an eternal flame refusing to be extinguished…burning bright through the longest night, holding steady in the darkest storm.

x

"Cas… is it true?"

The angel looked up, the same blank look on his face, the same empty emotions not registering in his deep monotone voice as he casually responded to Sam's inquiry with no real comprehension of the underlying need. "Is what true?"

"Dean… You heard him…he said…" Sam gasped, his eyes starting to tear, his chin subtly trembling as he tried to say the words, words unimaginable. He took a deep breath, forcing the words out and facing the possible ramifications. "Famine… He said Dean was already dead inside." Sam took another breath, as if the very concept sucked the life from him and he needed to breathe life back into his withered form. He looked up; eyes pleading for some form of hope, while it appeared he'd already lost all hope. "Is it true?"

Still mired in practicalities, Cas matter-of-factly responded, "Dean's not dead. His heart still beats…"

"Cas…" Sam's voice broke off, unable to continue on. He took a moment to compose himself as his eyes scanned the motel room occupied solely by himself and the angel, his brother out getting food. He had to wonder if Dean volunteered for the food run because he was in need of sustenance or because he sought the solitude. Dean had been so unpredictable lately, so not himself, and this interaction with Famine had only caused more concern. Sam's return bout with his demon blood addiction hadn't helped. When he'd emerged from Bobby's panic room the first thing he saw was his brother, the strain evident, on his face and in the defeated slump of his body. The fear and worry ever present in his big brother's solemn eyes, his shoulders stooped over from the unreasonable responsibility Dean always seemed to take on when hurt came to claim his kid brother. He hated seeing Dean so broken, hurting because of him, even though he loved him even more for being there, for caring so deeply. He only wanted to return the care and comfort Dean had always so willingly given, and this was his chance to get to the truth without pulling Dean into his doubts, without subjecting him to even more pain.

As if he were reading his mind, digging through all his spent emotions, Cas quirked his head to the side and inquired, "Sam, are you all right?"

Sam stuttered, hating the deflection from Dean's needs, despising that in the midst of this epic battle, the freakin' apocalypse, they had to worry about him. Worry that he would relapse, fall off that damn demon blood wagon and through his weakness insure the world's doom. It was bad enough that he'd started it, he'd be damned if he'd bring about its end. "Yeah…yeah, I'm fine," he dismissed, his eyes flickering to the side and away, unwilling to let the angel tunnel further inside him, wanting any angelic insights he might be able to offer to pertain to his brother. They all knew what was wrong with him, the red stain marking his face and the iron lingering on his tongue made his addiction hard to hide. What was wrong with Dean was an unknown, but wrong still the same.

The panic room and its enforced detox had done its job, easing the physical effects of his addiction, leaving only shame and regret, haunting memories of crying out to his brother, of begging him to release him from his agony. That wasn't him. Dean had to know that…would have known in the past, back in the days when he could trust his brother to stand firm, back before this impenetrable gulf that now separated them. Hell, he'd been the one to tell Dean to lock him up, demanding they leave him there until they were sure they could trust him again. He couldn't control what he'd said or done in the throes of his addiction and that terrified him. Being out of control, desperate…unreliable, so not what they needed right now. They both needed to be at the top of their game, ready for this fight.

He had to wonder how much control Dean could grab hold of, just how close to the edge this latest trial had taken him. Dean had been teetering on the brink for so long now, locked in denial, adamant that Hell hadn't broken him. Insisting that he was still able to do the job; focusing on that fight instead of facing down his own demons. Sam was sure that Dean would fight with everything he had, until his dying breath if need be, but the toll the struggle imposed, the damage to the man in the meantime, that was what concerned him now.

Sam literally shook from his rampant thoughts, everything converging into critical mass. He honestly didn't know how long either of them could keep fighting, how long before the pressure found an outlet, how long before this whole thing exploded in their faces.

These endless cycles, the constant weight bearing down on them, pushing and prodding them toward that devastating confrontation between Lucifer and Michael, made any hope of winning this war dim in the encroaching darkness. Wherever they turned, regardless of what choices they made, they always ended up facing down another angel or devil relentlessly demanding they say 'Yes'. Beyond all that and the vast uncertainty of what truly was their right course, Sam needed answers. He needed to know about his brother. He repeated in frustration, his voice fracturing as the breach spread out to consume all thought, "Cas…his soul…"

Momentarily losing touch with the human understanding he sometimes exhibited, Cas reverted back to his angel sensibilities, only looking at the surface, impervious to the urgency and the need. "What about his soul?" he questioned, that same aggravating blank look consuming his emotionless features.

Sam again shuddered through all the horrors of losing Dean to Hell, his mind ravaged by the images he'd tried to ignore, what Dean had gone through for forty years…forty years. As if that weren't enough, his mind then replayed the days since Dean's return, the few times he'd talked of Hell, how tore up he was, barely able to force the words out, devastated by his time in the pit. And that was only the beginning. Sam couldn't possibly fathom how much Dean had buried, only to escape each night, assaulting his brother in his nightmares. There were a hundred signs detailing Dean's descent: the drinking, the fighting, and now, the not eating and the disinterest in lusting after women…all indications that something major was wrong, something that might not ever again be right. "Famine touched his chest and felt nothing…said there was nothing there…" Sam fixed his eyes on the angel and demanded, "Is that true?"

Castiel narrowed his eyes as he tilted his head slightly to the side to study the younger Winchester. A slight glimmer of recognition flashed within curious eyes, his voice registering subtle realization as he tried to adjust to the human's concerns. It was always difficult with these Winchesters, oftentimes damn near impossible, and he and Sam hadn't had the interactions he'd experienced with Dean; they were still in the getting-to-know-you stage. Although the brothers were both Winchesters, possessing many of humanity's most admirable traits alongside a select few of its faults, Sam and Dean were fundamentally different in how they approached life; and yet, they both engaged him in ways he had yet to fully comprehend. "Dean isn't dead…there is emotion there." Cas pondered the evidence he'd been witness to, connecting the dots to try and figure out this most complex of men. His voice slowed and he reacted with awe as the many conflicting facets of the man intrigued him further. "Sam, perhaps there is too much emotion." He let that thought settle for a moment as he became more certain of his analysis. When he was ready to continue he offered a tender half-smile in support of the man anxiously awaiting his insight. "Dean feels too deeply and considering what he endured in Hell, it is remarkable he is even able to function."

"But is he?"

"What do you mean?" Cas genuinely asked.

"Functioning? I mean, I think he's losing it." Sam blinked back insistent tears, his head shaking off the ominous threat as he tried to focus on the angel and some possible salvation, regardless of how unlikely that now seemed. Confronted with the continued puzzlement on the angel's face he tried to further explain his concern, still desperately hoping the angel could alleviate his worries. "Dean's always buried his feelings…since we were kids, just refused to admit that anything got to him. He's strong…hell, he's the strongest man I've ever known, but how much longer can he keep that up? How long before he just can't go on?" Sam sat down on the bed, his hands folded between his knees as he stared at the carpet, the dingy, yellowed carpet with its multitude of stains marking all the damage inflicted on it over the years. He looked up and locked eyes with the angel, his voice soft, trembling from a sense of wonder for the strength his brother had always demonstrated, near breaking as he considered the weight that was constantly being placed upon him because of his devotion and sense of duty. "I don't know how he's done it this long…I really don't." Sam stopped; the cost of all his brother's sacrifices, and the penance he'd insisted on paying, collecting again, a bottomless pit of pain and suffering. Just the thought of that burden bearing down on Dean was enough to make Sam pause. "Cas, he sold his soul for me. And they collected… When you brought him back, did we get all of him? Did his soul come too? Or…"

"You think his soul might still be in Hell?" Castiel calmly filled in.

"Is it? Is that possible?"

"Yes."

Sam's face collapsed, his voice making that final break as he gasped out, "Oh, God…"

Castiel cocked his head to the side, his voice rising only slightly as the dismay on the younger Winchester's face fully registered. "Sam, I didn't say it was…I simply said it was possible."

"But he's not himself…and Famine, he said there was nothing there."

"Sam… Famine couldn't feel it…doesn't mean it's not there. There may be another answer."

"What, Cas?" Sam was holding his head, his hands sweeping back through his hair in nervous anticipation. His voice seemed angry, desperate, frantic in his need. "Please, tell me something that doesn't end with Dean soulless…and dead. I couldn't take that, not after all he's been through."

"Sam, humans are intricate creatures. The very fact that Dean feels pain, feels guilt…that he can empathize with those who are suffering, dismissing his own hurts and focusing on them…those are not the actions of a man who has lost his soul."

"So why couldn't Famine feel it? Why is Dean acting the way he is?" Sam shook down a wave of anxiety, his eyes rising to search out some sliver of hope. "He's been through so much…and he's not the same. He's just not…he's different."

"Yes," Cas agreed, almost stopping until he witnessed the pleading eyes of the human, the air charged with need as Sam expectantly waited. The angel took in a deep breath, more to focus his mind on what he wanted to say, to explain what little he'd come to understand about the human in his charge. "Because Dean cares so deeply, because he has suffered so much, he can't dismiss what happened to him in the pit…or more importantly, what he did there." Castiel's thoughts took him back over the months he'd know the older Winchester. All the pieces that had never before fit taking shape, the puzzle that was Dean Winchester finally coming together, ragged and worn, but the outer edge was still holding steady as his inner turmoil shifted, trying to find a way to exist within himself and reconcile what he had done in the pit. With an analytical tone he tried to explain. "The core of a man is made up of three parts: the mind, the heart and the soul. When I first pulled your brother from Hell, he couldn't remember; his mind wouldn't allow it. What happened to him was too horrific for a human mind to comprehend. When he'd regained some of his strength, when he was more able to accept that reality, the memories came flooding back. That was his first struggle, and he's been fighting his way back ever since." Castiel adopted a compassionate look, tenderness saturating his eyes as he paused, letting the man breathe and digest the information provided thus far, hoping the short break would ease the tension of the words he was offering. When Sam again looked expectantly on, Cas continued, "It took great courage for him to confess to you what he remembered…what happened to him in Hell, how time moves differently, months turning into years…decades of unending torture. As devastating as that was, as painful as his own torment was, he somehow endured… Sam, that in itself is remarkable." Sam solemnly nodded, tears again threatening. Cas' voice went even softer as he continued on, "It was when he faced up to what he'd done during those last ten years that his heart shattered. His actions, his weakness…the guilt he felt for not being the man he thought he should be… Sam, that almost destroyed him…surely would have destroyed a lesser man."

"I know…but that wasn't his fault. He lasted longer than any man could," Sam quietly defended. "He's only human."

"Yes, his actions are understandable…to us. To him, he feels he was lacking." Castiel offered a small, hopeful smile, an honest validation of the human he had come to admire. "It takes time to heal. His body was pieced back together, healed with all scars removed, all physical evidence of his torment erased, and yet it is still there. His mind and his heart can't reconcile the reality of what happened to him. Sam, his heart was damaged and the heart is not so easily mended."

"So what can we do?"

"Wait."

"Wait?" His tone was sharp and indignant, his mouth twisting with distaste as he formed the vile word. They needed to help Dean, try to fix him. They had already waited far too long. "Wait for what?" he barked out.

The angel never reacted to the outburst, instead calmly continuing on with his analysis. "Dean finds it hard to ask for help, to admit he needs it. He's been struggling all this time to reconcile actions that in his mind are indefensible."

Sam quieted down and dejectedly repeated, "He did the best he could. No one could have held out longer. He has to know that." His eyes were pleading with the angel, his soft voice whispering for some kind of hope. "He has to know we understand."

Compassion again crept across Castiel's face, both brothers hurting and needy, both so deserving of peace. His voice took on a gentler tone, all he could do to bring comfort. "Dean can't accept that others could forgive him because he can't forgive himself. He has always held himself to a higher standard, demanding the impossible. He is his own worst critic."

Sam nodded in agreement, every memory reaffirming that thought. A slight smile graced his lips in appreciation of his brother, as his eyes brimmed with the bitter irony of how Dean could never see his own worth. "He's accomplished the impossible so many times."

"That he has."

Sam fell silent, his mind stuck on the toll imposed on his bold brother; always fearless and true, pushing onward despite a million reasons to tremble and turn back. His heart throbbed within that knowledge, shuddering through the horrible truths the angel was presenting, knowing the injustice ran deep, possibly beyond Dean's brave response, beyond his reservoir of strength. His voice was soft as he pressed for more, needing to know, hope and dread sparring for Dean's salvation. "So…Cas…his soul…" His voice broke on that word, soul, the importance staggering. He took a deep breath, finding a temporary calm, channeling how the angel maintained that balance, seeking out the angel's wisdom to make him believe. "How can his soul bear all that's happened to him? What he was forced to do?"

"It can't. That's why Famine couldn't feel it."

The final verdict was devastating, blunt and cruel and totally unacceptable.

"So, what, Cas?" The Winchester anger burst upon the scene, the words demanding, furious at Dean's circumstance and the blasé way the angel dismissed the effects on his soul. "Where the hell is his soul?"

Cas turned to face the younger Winchester, his face softening as he tried to explain so the human could find that needed peace. "Protected."

"Protected? What the hell does that mean?" More insistently Sam pleaded, his voice wavering on the edge of begging, "Where is his soul?"

"His soul is where it belongs, deep within him at his core." Castiel's eyes bore through the young hunter, true compassion and understanding finally breaching the surface as he tried to make his meaning clear. "I believe his soul is dormant."

"Dormant?"

"Waiting out his pain…hibernating until he can handle it." Castiel's voice descended lower, signaling more heartbreak to come. "Dean has bore the weight of much suffering, more than most humans could ever exist within, but there is more pain to come."

Tears welled in Sam's eyes. "But he's already suffered so much."

"But, Sam, as you said, Dean is strong. Most men would have never found a way to live through what he has so far. Sam, I know this is difficult, but it is all part of the healing process. I believe Dean's soul has been cocooned, insulated from the enormity of what happened to him, but slowly those feelings are starting to seep out along with his memories, assaulting him and fighting to take him down." The angel shifted slightly, his demeanor displaying the desired concern. "His soul is battered, but it is not defeated."

"So he'll get through this?"

"That remains to be seen."

"Cas, can't you do something?"Sam pleaded. "Anything?"

"What would you have me do?"

"You're an angel, heal him…do something!"

"That is beyond my abilities. All we can do is stand beside him." His eyes softened as his voice whispered his support. "Sam, I believe he will survive this. He was chosen. There is a reason God placed his faith in him." The angel stood taller, rising up as if pride in his friend was bolstering him. "Dean has already demonstrated incredible strength. This is just one more test."

"Strength can only take you so far," Sam whispered, again on the brink of defeat. "He needs help. Hasn't he already proven himself? What more can God ask of him?"

"I don't know, Sam."

Sam chewed on his bottom lip, his anger and resentment warring as he battled against his frustration. He again looked to the angel. "He needs help."

"And he'll get it, when the time is right. When he finally accepts his limitations and asks for help."

"What does that mean?"

"No man is an island."

Sam again shuddered at the implication; at the very idea that Dean would feel he needed to face this alone. He wanted to be there for him, not only in support, but to carry him through if need be. Dean had always taken care of his family, taken care of him. His entire life had been spent relentlessly working to save hundreds of innocents he didn't even know, denying his own needs to do the job. He deserved the same care he so freely offered others. When would it be Dean's time to be cared for? When would Dean receive what he'd earned so very long ago? Sam sighed in defeat, taking a much needed moment to wallow in the uncertainty, to let out all his fears and apprehensions before Dean came back and he once more needed to be strong and supportive, as much as his big brother would allow. He took a deep breath and again engaged the angel, taking this opportunity to gather as much information as he could to help Dean through this trial. "So, where do we go from here? What's ahead for Dean?"

Castiel was tender in his response, kind eyes and a steady voice offering his own brand of hope. "A damaged soul can be reborn. As long as he holds on, I believe he'll grow stronger."

Nodding his head in agreement, Sam quietly added, "Dean will hold on. He won't give up."

Castial smiled, his eyes narrowing in admiration for both Winchesters, acknowledging that both were noble and true, fighters to the end. He continued on with his assessment of the older brother, his respect growing stronger the more he observed him. "His soul shines bright, Sam. It won't be contained for long. When he is able to stand the pain it will again be set free." He locked eyes with the younger brother, willing over his faith in both brothers to bolster his flagging spirit. "Famine has yet to see a soul like Dean's. Famine couldn't possibly understand it."

Sad, expressive eyes pondered that thought, tears forming as Sam considered his brother and how now, more than ever, he only wanted to stand beside him, battle their demons together, brothers united in this fight. Sam didn't have time to further question the angel. The door to the motel opened and Dean was back, several sacks of food jostled in his hands as he maneuvered to lock the door behind him.

Hunter instincts seemed to clue Dean in that something was amiss; his eyes flickered between his brother and the angel, his head quirking inquisitively to the side as he set the bags down on the dresser. The sudden silence as he returned to the room immediately put him on edge, waiting for the hammer to fall. In typical Dean fashion he attacked the problem, shaking out his broad shoulders as he studied the two of them. "So…what's the category?" he finally asked, his eyes glimmering with interest and mistrust. He smiled, a bit anxious before shifting into a more confident smirk, another mask sliding effortlessly into place. He dug around in the bag for his burger, the one with extra onions, and breezed off another comment. "We in Double Jeopardy yet?"

Castiel tilted his head to the side, like a bird on alert for the drop of the worm. "We are not in peril…not here."

Dean expelled a slightly exasperated chuckle, his eyebrows arching as he offered a sideways glance toward his brother at the hopelessness of the angel. As far as they'd come, it appeared the angel would never adjust to pop culture. He tossed Sam a burger as he teased the clueless angel. "Game show, Cas, questions and answers…or answers and questions, you know, trivia."

"I see," Cas replied, nodding his head in understanding. "Like that Japanese game show, Nutcracker?"

Sam grimaced while Dean squinted his eyes in empathy, a sympathetic moan involuntarily escaping. "Not exactly. Here in the good old USA it's prizes, not punishment."

Settling on the edge of the bed to eat his burger, Dean looked almost peaceful, nearly normal. No apparent evidence that Famine's words had damaged him further…but then Dean was a master at deception, at hiding his hurts and playing the game. At least he was eating. Not with his usual abandon, but in deliberate bites, chewing the requisite amount of time and then swallowing. It was something. At the moment it was all they had.

Maybe in time it would be more.

Sam simply watched his brother, glad he was back, relieved they still had time. His concerns still weighed on him, but Castiel's words did offer hope. He prayed Dean's soul was still intact, waiting out the raging storm. He hoped Dean's strength and resilience, the ability he'd always possessed to come back from any defeat was still there, waiting for the chance to shine through.

The End

"The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny ... it is the light that guides your way." – Heraclitus

June 2010

bjxmas

All standard disclaimers apply.

This one's been sitting on my computer forever, just waiting for me to tweak it further. I find anymore I am concentrating all my time on the process of writing and not finding the time to post. In many ways I am writing these stories for me, so if you are enjoying them please let me know with reviews. Yeah, I'm one of those unsure writers who like all of us could use a little encouragement from time to time. So thanks for reading and we'll see what else I might have sitting around that may be ready to post. Later, B.J.