Disclaimer/Spoilers: see Part 1

Warnings: There is mention of torture (from Dean's tour in Hell) in this fic.

a/n: Those of you who are waiting until it's finished...here you go. Thank you for reading, and thank you to those of you who gift me with your comments and feedback. Your words encourage me to continue when life and doubt pulls me down. I will continue to reply to your reviews until I hit every last one, so please let me know what you think.

To answer some questions really quickly – this story was completed before Season 7 began, and I'm thrilled that the theme of the story has meshed so well with what we've been enjoying in the show thus far! I set it in Season 5, though, to showcase Dean's trauma from Hell, before Sam had his own. Due to that, one tiny aspect of this chapter is a bit AU. *smiles*

Lastly, MD, thank you for requesting a story from me. I know I took your simple request and turned it on it's ear, but I truly I hope it works for you!


"The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings; words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out."

- Stephen King, via Gordon LeChance, The Body

Part Four: Recovery

Bobby's House

He could feel the soft flannel of Bobby's shirt against his face.

Hovering in the gray world between oblivion and awareness, Dean simply breathed. He could smell the familiar, comforting scents of detergent, outdoors, and sweat as strong arms held him close, but he couldn't—didn't want to—move.

His body was done. Pushed past all limits of reason and reserves. His spirit was wounded, memories saturated in guilt having soaked through to bruise his soul.

He lay, without fight, and breathed.

"Jesus Christ..." Bobby's voice was close and yet far away at the same time. As if Dean were listening in on a tapped phone line. "Sam? What happened?"

Dean could hear tears in Sam's voice. It was almost enough to bring him around, almost enough to force him to climb the ladder to awareness and open his eyes.

Almost.

"Still fuzzy, but…. He saved me, Bobby. Somehow."

"Did you…Sam, the body out front—"

"—witch? I think? I can't remember, it's all…."

"…told him, dammit…."

For several moments, Dean retreated. He didn't want to hear anymore. Didn't want to know. He hid. His mind filling with songs and lyrics so vivid he almost saw the black crest of notes on sheet music, floating through the gray nothing, soothing him with the comforting chords of electric guitars and the rhythmic slam of drums.

And then he was being lifted. He felt his head drop back, hanging loosely from slack neck muscles over the edge of someone's arm, felt arms cradle his legs, felt himself being carried. It was a strange, weightless sensation. He always had to be in charge, in control—of himself if nothing else.

But he had no fight left. No resistance.

Let them carry him.

"…a mess, Dean."

The sound of his name had him turning his head instinctively toward the voice, listening in spite of himself.

"Shouldn't we get him to a hospital?"

"Yeah. We should. But we ain't."

"What? How come?"

"'cause all the ones close would pretty much have me arrested on sight and he needs help now."

The voices faded, moving away from him, and Dean slipped a bit further into the gray, a little darker, a little deeper. Something in the back of his mind, in a place he knew he should listen to but was purposefully ignoring, told him not to go too deep. That if he went too deep, he might not come back out.

He didn't know if he wanted to come back out. If he deserved to. So many awful things…he'd done so many awful things. Things he'd killed others for doing.

Things that made him a monster.

He'd almost been able to forget. Almost been able to pretend they hadn't really happened to him, they were just the words of some lore he'd read about once.

Almost.

Hands were on him, turning him, pulling at him. Clothes, he realized. They were cutting off his clothes, stripping him down, laying him bare, vulnerable. All of his scars, all of his wounds, all of his sins, exposed.

"Need to get these off of him."

"God, look at…. They worked him over good."

"Understatement of the century."

"Why didn't he bandage them up better?"

"'cause he was trying to save your scrawny hide, ya idjit."

"Where were you?"

"On my way back, that's where. I told him, dammit. I told him to wait for me!"

"And you really thought he'd listen to you?"

"No. But I hoped."

The words were beginning blend until he couldn't tell Sam from Bobby. It didn't matter anyway. None of it did. He wanted the darkness. He belonged there.

You look them in the eye.

He turned his head away from the voice. The memory of the voice. Memory powerful enough to conjure his dead parents.

The goddamn memory that never forgot anything.

"Think he's coming around."

"Dean?"

Hands at his face. Coolness along his skin, flashing pain to the surface bright enough that he gasped. He didn't want the pain. He was tired of pain.

"Hey, man. C'mon, that's it. Open your eyes."

He had to. It was Sam.

His vision blurred as he blinked up at his brother's worried face. Sam smiled, but Dean saw pain in his eyes. It was so hard to remember why. And he didn't want to try. If he remembered why, then he'd remember everything else. And he didn't want to remember it anymore.

His eyes were heavy. Too heavy. With Sam staring down on him, he let them fall closed, eliciting an immediate reaction of gripping hands, fingers tapping on his cheeks, a gasping cry of, "Dean! Hey, no, no, hey. Please, Dean. Just—"

He pulled away, his mind falling back, sinking into shadows. He didn't have enough strength to—

"AH!"

The cry exploded from him unexpected and unbidden, the pain in his body—his leg, he realized, it was his leg—so intense it jerked him from the peaceful gray.

He opened his eyes, searching wildly for the danger, the source of the pain, the reason his leg was on fire. Hands held him, pushing him down as he fought to sit up, fought to get free. They were getting him back. Retaliating for the pain he'd caused. They were going to burn him alive.

"Arg," he groaned, unable to articulate clearly through the haze.

"Easy, kid, take it easy. Sam, hold him, dammit!"

"I'm trying, Bobby! He's fighting me—give him something else!"

"I can't give him anything else—not yet."

The words filtered through his confusion. They weren't burning him. They weren't stringing him on the rack, shoving the hooks through his skin. They weren't torturing him. They were trying to heal him.

And it hurt like hell.

"Gah, stop…," he breathed, a pathetic whimper in his voice. "Leave it."

"Shut up, man." Sam's voice. Angry. Tearful.

Sam was holding him, Dean realized. He was leaning back against his brother's chest, Sam's strong arms wrapped around him. His hands…he was clutching at Sam, holding himself steady against the muscle of Sam's arms. He blinked wide, trying to clear his vision and saw Bobby crouched next to his bare leg, cleaning the skin, dabbing at the wounds. He didn't want to watch, didn't want to know.

"Your leg's a mess, kid," Bobby told him gravely. "May need to bite the bullet. Get you to a hospital."

Dean swallowed. His mouth was so dry. He wanted to tell him to forget about it. If he was going to die, just let it happen. Sam was safe.

But Sam was also gripping him tight. Reminding him that there was more than just this.

More than just them.

You don't flinch, you don't fail.

"No," he whispered, hearing a rough voice, grinding gravel. "You do it."

Bobby looked at him, then above his head at Sam.

"Sam, need you to make a call for me."

Dean closed his eyes, riding out the hot wave of pain as Sam laid him back, his brother's cool hand lingering a moment on his face.

The gray wasn't calm and comforting now. It was filled with broken glass and barbed wire. He caught himself on it as he turned, twisting, trying to find a clear path.

He heard voices leading him on, teasing him with safety, but he couldn't understand them. He heard music, tried to find the words that had brought him comfort but the cadence was wrong. His memories teased him, poked at him with tiny needles of heat, bleeding him out from the center of his chest so that he struggled to breathe.

And you fight back because you know, Son. You know you are right.

The heat spiked, burning his eyes, his lips, his body. He knew he had a choice: fight or succumb. He heard whispers in his mind, memories of poisoned voices stringing him along with false hope and then branding him with the cold touch of dead fire. He heard the taunts, the sneers, the laughter…always the laughter.

He shouted—it was the only thing left to him. He was strapped down, helpless, trapped. All that was left were years of insults and curses, vile and nasty, worthy only for the demons that held him captive. He fought them—struggling against their touch, their grip, their lies.

"Easy, kid, no one's trying to hurt you…stop…stop fighting us, Dean…."

No. No, that's what they wanted. For him to stop fighting.

"Dean, it's me, man. It's Sam! Hey…hey, man, it's okay…, please. Don't push me away, man."

He stopped struggling. He'd never heard Sam in Hell. In all that time, they'd talked about him, but he'd never heard him. Not this close. Not this real.

"Need to get some fluid into him…."

"He's burning up, Bobby."

"Gotta cool him down. Help me out here."

Someone was lifting him again.

He felt the world shift, knew something was different, couldn't slow things down enough to determine what. Then he heard Bobby's voice. Sam replying. And he was moving, slowly, across a room, his legs all-but dragging between them. He tried to help, disoriented and embarrassed that he wasn't moving under his own power.

"Easy, kid," Bobby was saying. "We gotcha. You don't have to fight this one."

"Hang onto me, Dean," Sam told him, and Dean obeyed. "It's okay…hey, hey! I'm not going to let go."

Dean blinked, looking around him through eyes that didn't feel like his. Nothing fit, even his skin was too small. Then the cool shock of water slipped around him, climbing his skin, soaking him and soothing him. Closing his eyes, he felt hands at his face, in his hair, gripping his arms, his shoulders.

"Just need to get him cooler," Bobby said, his voice rough. "We get him cooled down, we got a chance."

A chance…, Dean thought numbly. A chance is all he'd ever needed. As his body soaked up the cool water, he felt himself slide away, back and away until he felt nothing.

He'd lost all track of time. Just like before. A year had passed in a minute while a decade lasted a lifetime. He'd been there forty years. He was an old man now. His heart…his soul was in its seventies and he was tired. He was so tired.

Words ebbed and flowed around him…some of them his own. He felt his lips moving of their own accord. An oddly familiar, detached feeling slipped through his body and once again he was staring down at himself, watching his nearly naked body twist and thrash as his family hovered over him—Sam gripping his hand until his knuckles were white, Bobby adjusting some plastic tubing hanging from the headboard.

Dizzily he tried to find his ground, tried to feel Sam's hand. He could see it holding his, could see Bobby tugging a blanket up to cover his bandaged body, could see the damp rag being wiped across his forehead….

But he couldn't feel any of it.

With a lead-heavy weight in his gut, he realized this was his choice. To retreat, escape, let it all go and fade to black…or wake up. And fight. Fight for however long it takes.

"Dean, c'mon, man…." Sam voice broke, whisper-thin and fragile. "We got work to do. Both of us. Just…hang in there. Hang in there with me."

He watched himself take a breath and felt himself fall and for one disorienting, nauseating moment he hovered as he heard Sam call out to Bobby, his voice panicked and Bobby reply with the curt gruffness of worry.

Blinking in burning-eyed blurriness, he saw his brother peering over him, shadows shifting, covering Sam's face, obscuring his expression. Dean forced the word up, trying for the strength for something…just one thing that would ease the pain he felt surround them all.

"Okay," he breathed, then he relaxed, comforted that he'd agreed with whatever Sam had been asking of him.

He tried to turn away into the black, keep the pain shoved low where it wouldn't drown him. But something was tugging at him, making him want to curl inward, retreat. And then there was a voice. Not Sam…but someone close. Someone he'd listened for, reached out to. Someone he'd needed, who'd always reached back.

"Shoulda been here," the voice was saying, the tone heavy with regret and emotion. "Shouldn't've had to be you."

Dean blinked, his eyes barely slits, too heavy to open fully. He could see the bowed figure of someone sitting on the edge of the bed, felt the tug of a rough touch at his leg as the person moved gingerly, wrapping his wound.

"Why didn't you wait for me?"

Bobby.

Dean swallowed, letting his eyes slip closed, instinct prodding him to speak up, to reassure his friend that it was going to be okay. But he couldn't find the strength to speak. His eyes would no longer open. And his hands were weighted with weariness.

"Rufus told me," Bobby's voice was strangely quiet, as if someone was sick and shouldn't be disturbed. Was Sam sick? He had a sudden image of Sam, helpless, fevered, looking to him for help. "He told me that witch was dangerous. And he sounded scared, too, when I told him where you boys were. Rufus scared…well. It don't happen. Not often anyway."

Dean listened to the familiar bristle of Bobby's voice, trying to make sense of the words, trying to decide if Sam was sick…if he should open his eyes.

"But…I was damn scared," Bobby confessed, his voice thick, as if it was a struggle to push the words free. "Scared of what you'd do to save your brother. Already lived through you dying once…. Not sure I could handle that again." Bobby sighed and Dean felt the bed shift, sensing that Bobby was standing, feeling his friend staring down on him. "Knew it wasn't easy for your Daddy…raising you boys in this shithole of a world, knowing what we know."

Dean started to turn, needing to say something, make sure Sam wasn't sick. He couldn't get that image out of his head. And Bobby sounded...worried. But the moment he shifted, the fever-deep ache in his bones flared to life and he sucked air, going still. He felt a cool hand, rough with calluses, rest lightly on his cheek, then fall away.

"Took me too long to see why it was so hard," Bobby said, his voice tight. "You're a good man, Dean. You're better than you know. Better than your Daddy. Damn sight better'n me."

Dean heard the floor creak, and blinked slightly once more, his lashes shadowing the fading image of his friend.

"You're gonna be okay. 'Cause I can't figure on how this world would work otherwise."

He wanted to call out, but the pain dragged him low until the dark crease of nothing replaced Bobby's words. Then, as if the universe decided he'd paid his dues, the heat began to retreat, the pain quieting to a dull roar in the background of his mind.

The voices were gone—even the memory of John's voice. The gray was tentative. The peace conditional.

Dean opened his eyes. He hadn't meant to. But he was suddenly awake and staring at his brother. Sam sat on a chair next to the bed, his elbows resting on his knees, his eyes serious in the dim light. He was staring back at Dean as if watching for something, some sign.

Silently, they studied each other, mentally circling one another as if waiting to see who would be the first to give in. Lost in the confusion and haze of lingering pain, Dean didn't even know what day it was, and the last image he could recall of Sam, his brother had been in pain.

"Y'okay?" he asked, lips barely moving, voice nothing more than a rasp.

Sam's lips thinned in a frown that told Dean more than he wanted to know. His eyes swam with unshed tears and Dean felt there were words said that he'd missed. Something in Sam's expression told him there might have been a lot he'd missed. Reaching out, Sam adjusted the edge of a sheet that covered Dean from mid-chest down, resting his hand on Dean's arm, squeezing gently.

"Yeah. I'm okay."

Dean watched him, his mind purposefully blank, not wanting to remember. Not wanting to know. And then Sam sighed, sitting back, his eyes on Dean, but not keeping him. And after awhile, Dean slept. True sleep.

No gray, no black, no dead relatives, no memories of Hell. But he knew they were there. They lingered on the edge and he knew they'd wait until he'd turned his back before attacking.

"He's been sleeping a long time."

Sam's voice was a surprise.

Dean couldn't remember how long it had been since he'd heard it. He hovered on the cusp of awareness, not ready to face the consequences of his actions. He wasn't ready to confess….

He didn't want Sam to know it all. Not yet. Not…ever.

"You should sleep more." Bobby sounded different. Tired, rough, as if he'd been through something particularly harrowing. Dean tried to remember…was somebody hurt? "You went through hell, Sam."

"Not really. Not like Dean."

"Son…that's different."

"Bobby." The catch in Sam's voice had Dean's worry creeping higher. Maybe he should open his eyes. "D'you hear what he's been saying? You hear what…what he…what they made him do?"

"Yeah, I heard."

Dean felt his heart fall as memory grabbed him. Slipping off the edge of control, it plummeted backwards as he listened to his brother and his friend. They knew. Somehow, he'd told them. He hadn't meant to, but he'd told them.

"Why didn't he say anything? You know…before?"

"How do you say something like that, Sam?"

"You just…you just say it."

Dean felt his heart flip, trying to climb his throat, poised at the base of his tongue, pushing tears of confession and weariness to the backs of his eyes.

"How do you…put Hell into words?"

He couldn't. He never could. He rode out the nightmares and drowned the memories with liquor. He swallowed pills to keep the pain at bay. He kept moving and he did the job. He didn't say anything because nothing made it better. Nobody could help him because nobody knew.

Nobody knew his Hell.

And he wanted to keep it that way. If there was anything left to fight for, it was that. Sam could never know. Never know.

"He looks so tired, Bobby."

"He's beat to hell, Sam. There's a reason for that."

"I should have known…I saw all the nightmares…the drinking. I mean…he tried to tell me. In a way. But…I didn't get it."

"You're his brother, kid. Not his conscience."

"He doesn't want to wake up."

You know you will win.

"He will."

"He doesn't want to fight anymore."

When it's all done, you will win.

"He will."

When Dean opened his eyes, he was surprised to feel the heat of sun once more. He was facing a wall, his body sweat-covered and gritty, his muscles stiff from lying still for a long period of time. Rolling to his back, he shifted carefully on the pillow, his head pounding with a morning-after ache, his mouth dry and sticky.

Blinking to clear his vision, he stared in surprise when he realized it wasn't Sam sitting next to his bed.

It was Castiel.

"You're alive," he said, his voice a hoarse crack of sound. Relief warred with surprise and he felt both shift through him like liquid gold.

"As are you," Castiel replied. His face was impassive, but Dean picked up a distinct look of happiness in the angel's guileless blue eyes. "I have water."

Dean took the glass, though it trembled in his shaking grip, and tried to lift his head enough to sip it. Water slipped out of the sides of his mouth and down his cheek. He tried to push himself higher in the bed, his stomach muscles whimpering. Before he got very far, Castiel's hand was at his neck, supporting his head, helping him sip the water.

"Thanks," Dean breathed as Castiel eased him back down.

"You saved your brother," Castiel said, standing now, staring down at him.

"How'd you get away?" Dean asked, reaching up to rub at the butterfly bandage across his nose. The tape was itching.

Castiel looked out through the window over Dean's head, a tiny smile on his lips. "I am not as limited as I thought."

"You saved our asses, man," Dean said, gratitude turning his voice soft.

Castiel looked down, but not directly at Dean. "It was a mistake to send you in after the beast."

"Hey, I knew what I was doing," Dean protested.

With a very human-like lift of his eyebrow, Castiel's eyes raked Dean's battered form. "Clearly."

"Cas, shit like this…," he rolled his head to the side, looking away from his friend, "it can happen anytime. Even without…y'know…mobs of demon hit men."

Castiel was quiet.

"I'm just saying," Dean lifted his eyes to regard his friend, "it wasn't your fault. It's a dangerous job."

"Dean," Castiel said, his tone that hesitant.

"I mean it, man," Dean insisted. "You can't always know how it's gonna go down."

Castiel nodded.

"Don't suppose you could…y'know…. Zap." Dean squinted up at him, his hand resting lightly on his sore chest. A bandage covered the abrasion he'd received courtesy of the demonic cloud tackle.

Castiel looked at him, confused. "Zap?" he repeated.

"Do your healing thing, man," Dean said, his voice tiring.

Castiel frowned, paused, then with a curious tilt of his head as if saying let's see, he reached out and laid his hand on Dean's forehead. The warmth of his friend's touch was soothing to the bandage–covered cut and for a moment Dean felt that warmth slide through his body until he imagined he was glowing from it.

But then Castiel pulled his hand away and Dean realized he still hurt. A lot.

"I am sorry," Castiel said, looking away, regret plain in his voice.

"Hey, it's okay, Cas," Dean said. "Like you said. Sam's okay. That's what matters."

"Your wounds are deep, Dean," Castiel told him, turning back to face him. "There are ones no one but me can see. Those…I wish I could heal."

Dean felt his eyes burn, knowing what his friend was talking about, wanting the same thing. "Hey, Cas?"

The angel tilted his head, waiting patiently.

Dean swallowed. This wasn't going to be easy. "When…you found me…y'know…. I mean, when you pulled me out…."

"Of the pit," Castiel concluded, having seen, Dean suspected, far more when he saw those invisible wounds than even Dean realized.

"Right," Dean licked his lips, looking down, unable to meet the angel's eyes. "What…uh…what was I doing? What was I…what was I like?"

"You don't remember?"

Dean shook his head, still not looking at him. Castiel was silent for a moment and if Dean didn't know better, he'd suspect the angel was choosing his words.

"You were surviving," Castiel said simply. "I sought your soul. I laid waste to Hell to find it. It…shone," he said, his face pulling into a frown of memory. "Against all of the others who were burning there, sent by their choices and deeds, yours shone. But…you were blood and pain."

Dean glanced up. "But…did you see…. Where you there when I—"

He couldn't finish. Couldn't bring himself to say it even now. Tortured, killed, burned….

"You were never one of them, Dean," Castiel said, his voice quiet and serious, offering Dean absolution he didn't feel he deserved. "You broke, but you are not broken. And if I had been faster…." He looked down as Dean glanced up. "I wish now I could have spared you all of this."

Dean lifted a shoulder. "What could you do, right? We're both Destiny's bitches."

Castiel frowned, his eyes sliding to the window. "I'm not convinced," he said quietly. "Something you taught me is that…there is no fate. No destiny." He looked back at Dean, his eyes large and ancient. "There's only what you decide, and how you live with that decision."

Dean swallowed, prepared to counter Castiel's revelation with recent examples of Heavenly control over his and Sam's life. But Castiel wasn't finished.

"That is how humanity is saved."

"Cas, man, don't put that kind of faith in-in…," me, he wanted to say. He floundered, trying to find words in a mind heavy with latent pain and lingering weariness.

"Dean, you are the only human in centuries of observing your kind I was willing to go to Hell for."

Dean blinked, shocked into silence.

"There are people worth that kind of love." Castiel's smile was brief, unexpected, and then he was gone.

Dean lay still, thinking and, for once, remembering without pain.

Time passed. Dean slept. Bobby woke him to eat or drink. Sam woke him to help him cross to the bathroom. He woke to let someone check his bandages; one of them was near to calm him when the nightmares came.

But mostly, Dean slept.

And then one day, a low, familiar rumble woke him.

It was a sound he'd know anywhere. When he opened his eyes, he was alone, sore, and he had to pee. Rolling gingerly to his elbow, he carefully pushed himself to a seated position, hanging his legs over the side of the bed. He'd completely lost track of time, but could see from the window in his room that it was late evening.

The sky was beginning to bleed colors against the horizon and the air had turned gold. Taking a breath and using the back of the chair still positioned at the side of his bed, Dean stood, his legs hollow and shaky. He was dressed only in boxers, a wide, white bandage around his thigh, forearm, and chest. He could feel butterfly bandages on his nose and forehead.

A small bandage was taped across the back of his hand and he looked around, puzzled, until he saw the empty IV bag and two syringes in the waste basket next to his bed. Shuffling forward, not bothering with clothes, he made his way to the bedroom doorway, leaning there for a moment, listening. Another rumble followed the sound of the Impala as a second car joined her in Bobby's lot.

A different rumble rolled through Dean's belly as he stood listening. He had no idea how long it had been since he'd eaten, but he was ready to fix that, and soon. Turning, he made his way to the bathroom adjacent to the room he'd been in, vague, half-formed memories of someone supporting him from bed to the bathroom a few times over slipping through his mind. He smiled with relief when he saw their duffel bags side by side on the floor of the bathroom. He relieved himself, then turned to face his reflection.

His eyes were bruised, smudges of purpled prints spreading from the cut across his nose to frame the delicate skin. The cut on his head—same spot he'd opened twice before—was sealed and bandaged. He looked thinner, his cheekbones stretching his skin tight, and his beard had grown in thicker than he'd ever allowed it to grow.

He eyed the shower, contemplating, but decided against it. He didn't want to have to remove the bandages on his leg, arm, and chest just yet. Turning the water in the sink on hot enough it steamed up the mirror, he grabbed a towel and soap and washed the sweat from his body. He wanted to shave, but his hand was trembling a bit too much.

He settled for trimming his beard close with the small scissors Sam had left sitting out next to the medical tape and extra gauze. The result was reddish-brown scruff framing his jaw and mouth that he could shave off later when he wasn't in danger of cutting his own throat in the process.

When he was done, he wiped the glass, his stomach muscles tightening as he looked to the side of his own reflection, unable to forget the flash of the witch in the mirror downstairs. Closing his eyes, he turned off the water, the words to Lonely Is the Night inexplicably slipping through his memory.

Grabbing a pair of clean boxers, jeans, and a T-shirt, Dean dressed carefully, avoiding bandages, working around stiff muscles, and uttering low groans of frustration. When he was done, he had to sit on the closed toilet lid for a moment, gathering his strength.

The smell of frying bacon brought his head up and his stomach growled in response.

Making his way carefully down the stairs, Dean saw that the chaos that had torn apart Bobby's house had begun to be repaired. Holes along the hallway wall had been taped up, burned outlets removed, light bulbs replaced. Turning at the base of the stairs, he peered into the study and saw that all of the furniture had been returned to its usual place, the books stacked on the shelves, and Rufus was asleep on the couch beneath the boarded-up window, a bottle of Jack Daniels tipped over at the edge of his fingers.

Dean headed through the study to the kitchen, leaning against the doorway.

"Breakfast for dinner?" he asked, amused when Bobby didn't so much as flinch at the sound of his voice.

"You Winchester boys would come back from the dead for bacon," Bobby replied. He glanced over his shoulder at Dean. "How you feeling?"

"Hollow," Dean told him, easing down onto a chair. "How long?"

Bobby tossed a towel over his shoulder and grabbed a mug. Pouring coffee from the percolator into it, he handed it to Dean with a, "careful, hot," caution before turning back to the stove.

"Let's see…this makes five days now," Bobby told him.

"Damn," Dean remarked, sipping the coffee. "No wonder I'm starving."

"You were in and out of it—never wanted to eat anything, could barely get you to drink," Bobby told him. "Had Rufus bring some high-powered antibiotics and fluids."

"Where'd he get those?"

Bobby glanced back at him, pushing his ever-present hat to the crown of his forehead and scratched at his hairline. "You really want to know?"

Dean glanced down with a rueful grin. "No, guess not."

"Between them demons beatin' the hell outta you, and your head still messed up from the Neresit," Bobby told him, narrowing his eyes as he stared at Dean, "it's a wonder you aren't still sleepin'."

"I was hungry," Dean shrugged.

Bobby turned his back to Dean. "Sam helped me stitch you up real good. Gonna have a few more scars, though. Couldn't be helped."

"I have a lot of scars," Dean said quietly.

He stared vacantly at the table, thinking about the half-memories, the words that had floated around him, the knowledge that he'd inadvertently exposed more of his battered soul than he'd ever meant to. It all felt like a dream. Like Heaven had felt like a dream.

But he knew both had happened.

"You got that stare," Bobby said, surprisingly close to him.

Dean jerked his eyes up as Bobby set a plate of bacon and toast in front of him.

"Stare?"

"Thousand-yard stare," Bobby told him, pointing at the plate. "Eat." He turned back and began mixing something in a bowl. "Seen it on buddies from 'Nam. Seen it on your Daddy." He glanced back at Dean to make sure he was doing as he was told. Dean put a second piece of bacon in his mouth. "You can't get lost out there."

Dean glanced down. "I know," he replied. "'s…just hard sometimes."

"Dean…," Bobby kept his back to him, his arm moving slowly as he stirred whatever was in the bowl. "About the witch." He lifted his head, still not looking at Dean. "I oughta kick your ass for not listening to me, but—"

"You were right," Dean told him quietly. "Sorta."

Glancing over his shoulder, Bobby said, "What do you mean, sorta?"

Dean began to rub at a knot of wood on the table with the pad of his thumb. "She was using me to get out of that panic room. Woulda killed me if she could've…."

"But?"

Dean looked up and Bobby looked away. "She...helped me end it. I don't know why, but she…held the demon inside. Took control at the last minute. If she hadn't…," he shook his head, eyes shifting to nothing. "That was a helluva lot of demons, Bobby."

Bobby set down the bowl, bracing his hands on the counter, his head down. "I'm sorry."

Dean frowned. "What for?"

Bobby turned to look at him. "I'm sorry I wasn't home. I'm sorry the witch was. I'm sorry Sam got bit—"

"Bobby, none of that was your fault, man," Dean broke in.

Bobby took a breath. "I'm sorry you had to relive…all of that. I'm sorry I wasn't the one who got the demon ash."

Dean looked down, vividly remembering how he'd yelled at Bobby, how the thought of what he'd have to do to save Sam sent him spiraling back to that moment—the moment he climbed off the rack.

"It's not your fault," Dean repeated. "I'm the one who…," he couldn't finish, glancing up at Bobby, his food forgotten. "It's not your fault."

Bobby worked his lips over his teeth, clearly struggling with what to say next. "Listen, Dean…I know you think it's all because of—"

"That bacon I smell?" Rufus' whiskey-roughened voice filtered in from the study.

Dean glanced over his shoulder, then back at Bobby with a small grin as Rufus untangled himself from the couch and sat up, looking around.

"Is it mornin' already?" he called out, blinking blearily at his friend.

"No, you idjit," Bobby groused. "And you were supposed to be keeping an eye on Dean while we went after the Impala."

Rufus looked at Dean, then back at Bobby. "Well, he's here, ain't he? Still in one piece and everything." He pushed himself to his feet. "I say job well done."

Dean chuckled, hungry once more. Finishing the bacon Bobby gave him before Rufus could steal it from his plate, Dean stood, refilling his coffee mug.

"Sam outside?" he asked.

Bobby nodded. "Cleaning out the Impala. Needed to keep busy, he said."

"How is he?"

Bobby lifted a shoulder. "Just tired, mostly. Once you pulled the poison from his system, the wounds healed up. Like nothing happened. He basically slept on the floor of your room until I made him get into a real bed."

"Those pancakes?" Dean eyed the bowl Bobby had set aside.

Bobby looked sheepish. "Well…when Sam said breakfast for dinner sounded like a good idea…."

Dean grinned, the bandages on his forehead stretching slightly. "It's perfect. I'll go get him."

"You sit," Rufus ordered with a dark scowl. "Don't need you keeling over. I'll get him."

"Now, don't you go yellin' at that kid again, Rufus, I mean it," Bobby ordered, pointing a dripping whisk at his friend's back. "He's been through enough."

Rufus waved a dismissive hand as he turned to head down the hall. "You're just mad you didn't get to do it first," the man groused over his shoulder. "I know how you like to yell when you're worried."

Dean looked at Bobby as the screen door banged behind Rufus' retreating form. "He yelled at Sam?"

Bobby shook his head, turning back to his stove. "His damn fault you had to face the witch, you ask me. Plenty of angelica in the garage."

Dean remembered Rufus' note and the stockpile of herbs next to the car parts in Bobby's garage.

"Why did he yell at Sam, though?"

Bobby glanced at Dean with an expression that made Dean wonder how many times he'd asked that same question over the past five days. "How do you think that witch got out?"

Dean rubbed his face, recalling that night. The endless stretch of hours as he slowly lost Sam to the demon voices, to the witch's power, to the weakness, to the pain….

"You're awake!"

Sam's bright voice brought Dean's head up and he smiled in reaction to his brother's happy relief.

Dean nodded. "Bobby made bacon."

Sam was still looking at him as if he might blow away any second. "You were out of it for little awhile, man."

"Yeah, well." Dean offered his brother a small grin as he sat back down at the table. "Hope you've gotten the whole delusions of grandeur thing out of your system."

"Funny," Sam arched a brow, then sat down across from him, taking a plate of pancakes from Bobby. "Haven't had breakfast for dinner in…." He shrugged.

"Years," Dean agreed with a nostalgic smile. "Used to be Dad's specialty."

Rufus wandered back in, rinsing out a coffee mug and grabbing a spare, filling both and handing one to Bobby. Dean shared a quiet glance with his brother as they watched the two old friends move around the small kitchen with as much practiced ease as they'd seen them kill a demon.

When there was no one left in the world but the person by your side, balance is the only option.

"How are you feeling?" Sam asked around a mouthful of pancakes.

"Tired," Dean answered truthfully. He didn't think he'd ever be able to sleep enough.

Rufus sighed, leaning against the counter. "Gotta tell ya," he said, noisily sipping his coffee, "I thought I had some nasty nightmares, but…," he shook his head, saluting Dean with the mug.

Dean frowned, looking over at Sam, questions in his eyes. Sam shook his head.

"Don't let him get to you, man," he said, shooting Rufus an irritated glance. "He's just pissed he didn't get to kill the witch."

"Damn right," Rufus grumbled, but Dean could tell this was old territory. There wasn't any heat in the man's words. "You know what I had to go through to catch that bitch? Get her into the panic room in the first place? And then you go and pick the lock."

Dean looked at his brother, slowing on his pancake intake. "You picked the lock?" he asked. "With what?"

Sam's lips quirked, his expression of suppressed humor reminding Dean so much of his dream of Mary, he had to press a hand against his bandaged chest.

"Dagger." Sam tried to look contrite, but a flash of a dimple showed Dean he'd already paid his dues and was looking for his brother's appreciation.

"Bullshit," Dean claimed, grinning in spite of himself.

"I'm serious. One minute I was…dreaming about fire, and the next…I had this little knife in my hand and the padlock was hanging open." Sam turned his hands palms up in a helpless shrug. "I don't know how I did it, but—"

"I do. She coached you." Dean slouched back in his chair, watching his brother.

"Yeah, probably," Sam said, looking down. He smiled softly, glancing over his shoulder. "Thought you were going to have an aneurism," he said to Rufus.

"Almost did," Rufus and Bobby answered together.

Bobby leaned against the counter on the opposite side of the sink, eating a folded pancake like a taco and sipping his coffee. "She worked you over good," he said to Sam.

"You were right, though," Dean said, staring at his empty plate, remembering her voice, the way the words echoed in his head as if she were somehow part of him. "She could only control one person at a time."

"Still not sure how you took her down," Rufus muttered. "I had this whole ritual with sigils and chanting…and here all you needed was a knife."

"Two knives," Bobby reminded him.

"Two knives," Rufus amended.

"And fire," Sam broke in.

"You people delight in showing me up, that it?" Rufus groused, grabbing the last of the bacon. "I practically kill myself stopping her—and let me tell you she was nobody's sweetheart. Killed three men in this town I was in. I find the binding spell, trap her, and I've done my homework, you hear? I knew what had to be done to get rid of her."

He was staring at Sam, a fierce frown puckering his brow. Dean watched with puzzlement as Sam slouched, hooking one arm over the back of his chair and glanced with a bemused smile at the older hunter.

"You hear me, Sam?" Rufus pointed at Sam.

"Yeah, man," Sam told him. "I get it. Thing is…I didn't kill her."

"Yeah, that's right," Rufus shifted his finger to Dean. "That's right you didn't, but you—"

"Rufus," Bobby warned. "Not now."

"No, Bobby," Dean lifted a hand, feeling his aching body pull at him, reminding him that he was older than he used to be. A lot older. "It's okay, man." He looked at Rufus. "I didn't want to kill her."

There is only what you decide, and how you live with that decision.

He saw Sam swivel in his chair, looking at him, humor drained from his expression.

"I didn't," Dean insisted. "But," he looked down, rubbing the pad of his thumb on the knot in Bobby's table again, "I didn't have a lot of choices. Sam was gonna die…."

"I know about the Neresit ritual," Rufus said quietly. "I just don't see how you managed to get past a bunch of demons to trap one inside a witch. A very powerful witch…," he shook his head, staring into his coffee mug. "You got some balls, kid."

Dean swallowed, too tired to take the bait. Too tired to play it up.

"She let me," he said quietly. Looking up, he let his eyes bounce from Rufus to Bobby, then land on Sam. "Maybe she wasn't totally full of shit. I don't know. But…she grabbed onto that bastard…held it inside…let me kill her." He looked down. "And if hadn't," he shrugged, then pushed his chair back, using the table as a brace to stand up. He straightened, then looked up at them. "If I hadn't…I'd have lost Sam."

He moved toward the doorway that led to the stairs, feeling their eyes on him, feeling their silence.

"Think I'm still kinda tired," he said over his shoulder. "Thanks for the food, Bobby."

The room was quiet as he walked away, returning to his bed and the darkness. As another day passed, Dean found that he had the strength to shower, the hot water stinging his open wounds. He emerged, pulling on his boxers, then sitting once more on the closed toilet.

His body was wrecked. And it was starting to piss him off.

"You in there?" Sam's voice came through the doorway.

"Yeah," Dean called back.

"You…uh," Sam cleared his throat. "You need anything?"

Half a dozen outraged replies danced on the tip of his tongue. You forget the meaning of Personal Space? I'm not five! But then he remembered the grip of his brother's hand, the fear in Sam's eyes, the plea to hang in there.

"I'm good."

"'K. Got fresh bandages out here."

Dean sighed. The stitches in his thigh looked like an army of ants crossing his leg. Same with his forearm. He may have been brought out of Hell without any scars, but he was making up for lost time.

Toweling his hair off, he opened the door, letting steam out and Sam in. Wordlessly, Sam handed him the bandages, watching without offering to help as Dean wrapped his leg, his arm, his chest. Dean turned on the water in the sink, watching the steam rise to cloud the mirror. He could see Sam's reflection as he paused in the doorway.

"What?" he asked.

"Just…making sure you don't need anything else."

Dean suppressed the need to roll his eyes. Sam had a hard time letting the caretaker role go once he was allowed to take it. Always had. He'd watch Dean like he was spun from blown glass for days after Dean knew he was ready to get back in the game. He didn't blame his brother for the concern, but it was hard to heal up when someone was always expecting him to collapse under the weight of a normal day.

"I'm good, Sam," he said firmly, making sure he met his brother's eyes in the mirror. "Really."

"'K…," Sam replied. "Just—"

"I'll let you know if I need anything," Dean replied, waiting until Sam stepped from the doorway before filling his hand with shaving cream and painting his face with it.

The scrape of the razor pulled at his skin, tugging the hair and cutting it free. The feel of the sharpened metal against his face, the sound of it dragging across the coarse hair, punched a cold knot into Dean's belly.

How long…, he wondered. How long until I can forget again? Until it's something that happened and not something that's happening?

He tried to pull the razor down his cheek again, but his hand shook, making it nearly impossible to grip the blade. He stopped, took a breath, steadied his hand and tried again. The feel of the edge had his breath hitching, catching on the inside of his lungs, lost in its escape. A tiny drop of blood appeared, turning pink against the shaving cream.

Dean heard the angry sob more than felt it. He dropped the razor into the sink, the water cleaning the blade quickly, and gripped the edge of the counter, hanging his head, trying to calm his racing heart, the harsh hammer of his breath.

He had to get control. Had to stop this panic. He lifted his face, his image shadowed by the steamed-up mirror and took an unsteady breath.

"Watch out. You might get what you're after."

Dean frowned, looking over his shoulder.

"Cool babies…strange but not a stranger."

It was Sam singing. As well as Sam could sing anyway.

Dean leaned over, peeking through the still-opened doorway. He could see Sam's legs sticking out from the edge of the bed and realized his brother hadn't retreated far when he left. He was sitting just outside the door.

Singing.

Keeping the voices quiet.

Keeping the demons away.

"I'm an ordinary guy," Sam continued, his pitch wavering, his voice barely a whisper. "Burning down the house."

Dean looked down, his smile watery, secret. He picked up the razor, wiped the mirror clear with the flat of his hand, then dragged the blade down his cheek once more as he listened to his brother pitch the memories into shadow.

Rufus left the next day. Bobby informed them he was mostly just staying until Dean was on his feet. He hadn't known about the extra angelica and the fact that Dean had faced down a being that had nearly killed Rufus in the first place…well, that wasn't something easy for the hunter to live with.

Later that same day, Dean dressed in his long-sleeved Henley, and realized he was able to tie his boots for the first time without nearly passing out. He found Bobby in the study, repairing the glass from the picture window.

"Need help?"

"Nah," Bobby replied, stepping back and lifting his trucker hat to scratch at his forehead. "Just about done."

"Ah, then I timed it right," Dean grinned.

"Well, don't you look almost human," Bobby told him, giving him a once over.

"Thanks to you," Dean replied. Bobby shrugged. Dean put his hand on the older man's shoulder. "Mean that, man."

"Yeah, well," Bobby raised an eyebrow. "I do have a knack for getting your ass out of trouble."

Dean smiled, looking back at the window. "Yeah. Yeah, you do."

They were silent a moment, then Dean took a breath, looked askance at his friend. "You're a good friend, Bobby."

Bobby's lips pressed outward, his eyes unwavering on the window.

"More than that, man," Dean amended, unconsciously mirroring Bobby's stance. "A helluva lot more. You're…our family."

Bobby cleared his throat, looking down. Dean sensed him shift his weight, one foot to the other.

"You boys…," he started, clearing his throat again, then looking back out through the window. Dean watched his expression, knowing what he wanted to say, knowing what was so much harder to vocalize when the person you needed to say it to was staring right back at you. "You're…," he narrowed his eyes and glanced up at Dean, "gonna turn me into an old man."

Dean huffed a brief laugh, a smile claiming his face. "If you're lucky."

"We don't gotta hug now or anything, do we?" Bobby asked.

"I'm good." Dean pressed his lips closed, holding up a hand. "Sam outside again?"

Bobby nodded. "Messin' around with the Impala. Think you might be rubbing off on him after all these years."

"Took long enough," Dean muttered good naturedly. He went to the kitchen and grabbed a couple of beers, then continued outside.

Pushing the door open, he breathed in the crisp, demon-free air of the evening, and made his way down the steps. Heading toward the garage overhang where he saw Sam had parked the Impala, he stepped over what remained of the broken salt line, moving resolutely past where he knew the witch had died.

No evidence of her body remained. Bobby—or perhaps Rufus—had taken care of the rest of the ashes. But he remembered. He knew it was there.

Sam had the car radio on, Dean's Metallica S&M tape rolling out through the speakers at a much softer volume than he'd ever listened to it.

"Hey," he called.

He heard a bump, crash, and curse, followed by the sight of Sam's form straightening up from beneath the workbench.

"Sorry," Dean said sincerely.

Sam rubbed the back of his head, watching Dean as he made his way around the end of the car.

"Hey," he returned Dean's greeting. "You look…better."

Dean half-grinned. "Aw, stop. You'll make me blush." He handed Sam one of the beers. "What are you doing out here?"

"Just…I don't know," Sam shrugged, tossing a wrench to the side and took the bottle. "Cleaning out the car. Restocking."

Keep busy, keep moving, Dean realized. His habits really had seeped into his brother, it seemed.

"I mean…I figured we could stay here. Rest up awhile, but…after that…." He looked over at Dean. "We still got work to do, right?"

Dean nodded, leaning a hip on the edge of his car. He rested his free hand on the back window, peering inside. If he closed his eyes, he could picture himself as a kid, lying across that seat, looking out at the ever-changing sky as their father drove them to another temporary home.

He could picture Sam playing with green Army men along the window edge and across the back of the seat. He could picture Anna stretched out beneath him on the seat before she sacrificed her human life to regain her angelic one. He could picture his father and brother, side by side in the front, as he lay bleeding in the back.

"…okay, man?"

"Huh?" Dean brought his head up.

"Maybe you should go back and lie down," Sam suggested. He was standing close. Dean hadn't seen him move. "You're still kinda pale."

"I'm okay," Dean said. "I'll turn in early," he amended.

"If you're sure," Sam said, boosting himself up on the trunk of the Impala, the large car sagging slightly with his weight.

Comfortable in his skin for the first time in days, Dean slouched against the side of the car, the low sun warming his face, glinting off the chrome bumper of the Impala. Sam turned sideways to look at him.

"I've been thinking about what you said," Sam told him quietly.

Dean waited, afraid of Sam's next words. Afraid to know what all he confessed.

"Those weren't the best days of my life, Dean."

Frowning, Dean looked over at his brother. "What?"

"What you saw—what Zachariah showed us—in Heaven. They weren't the best days."

Dean rolled his bottom lip against his teeth, looking down. You were played, Dean. Pure and simple. And so was Sam.

"I know," he said softly.

"I mean it. I mean, those days were good ones, but it was all out of context and—"

"It's okay, Sam," Dean said, hearing the struggle in his brother's voice, wanting to offer him an escape path.

"I didn't know what it did to you," Sam pressed on. "When I was gone, I mean. I never stopped to think about it, I just…."

"Hey," Dean cut him off with a word. "It's okay, Sam."

"And I know…I know this whole thing…it's a mess. We're a mess," Sam continued.

Dean waited for Sam to tell him that they had to keep believing, that they had to keep fighting. It was what Sam did: pushed him on when he was weak. Reminded him that he had something to fight for.

But Sam was quiet, his eyes down, Metallica playing in the background. Dean waited, watching his brother's face.

"Y'know," Sam began after a moment. "I really thought I was going to burn to death. I could see it. Like it had already happened."

"I know," Dean replied.

He was well past offering platitudes and epithets of comfort, well past reminding Sam it hadn't been real. It had been real enough for Sam. Real enough that he needed to find his own way to work through the memories.

"I could hear them. And I could hear her…."

"The witch, you mean?"

Sam nodded, then he lifted his eyes. "And I could hear you," he told Dean. "And, y'know, the funny thing? No matter how loud they were? You were always louder." He shook his head. "I heard you no matter what."

Dean looked away.

You gotta believe…in us.

You aren't as empty as you believe yourself to be.

There were things he needed Sam to hear…not pleas, not confessions…but truth. The problem was…he didn't always know what the truth was, or what it would take from him to share it.

"Sam," he started. "There's stuff I haven't told you. But…not because I don't trust you." He dropped his gaze to the ground, at the dust gathered on his boots. "It's because…if I think about it too much…," he looked up, staring at nothing. "It'll end me."

Sam said nothing. Dean felt tears build in the back of his throat, burning his eyes.

"I'd do anything to keep you safe, Sam," Dean confessed around the choke of emotion.

"I know," Sam said quietly.

"But…," Dean continued, blinking to clear his vision, still looking at nothing. "The thing is, this whole…destiny thing? Us being vessels? It's..."

"Big," Sam finished. "Too big."

"Too damn big," Dean agreed.

"It's…freaking crazy," Sam added, his voice cracking with an edge of helpless laugh or cry hysteria.

Dean looked over at Sam. His eyes were dry, but his face tight with emotion.

"I don't know what to do sometimes, Dean," he said. "Some nights…I'll go to sleep with all this…weight, y'know? It's like I can't breathe through it. And I fall asleep thinking...what happens next? What do I do next?"

You look them in the eye. You don't flinch, you don't fail.

"You wake up," Dean said, he glanced away, a sad smile tugging at his lips. "You wake up and you fight."

He heard Sam sniff, the shocks of the car creaking as his brother shifted, James Hetfield resolutely declaring that nothing else mattered.

"You still think it's gonna end bloody, though, don't you?" Sam asked. "You don't think we're gonna make it out of this fight?"

Dean sighed tiredly. His body was ticking down, but he wasn't ready to leave. Not yet.

"Yeah," he said. "I do think it's gonna end bloody. And…I don't know if we can make it out." He took a breath, searching for the words. "Demons…I get. We've wasted their asses on more than one occasion. But…the Devil wants your ass…I got an Archangel after mine and God?" He shrugged. "I don't know, Sam. It's bigger than anything we've faced before." He took a sip of his beer, staring at the ground. "But that doesn't mean we give up, man. We just…learn to fight bigger. Right?"

Sam peered at him through his bangs. "Will you think I'm a pussy if I tell you I'm scared? Like…all the time?"

"A pussy?" Dean glanced sideways at his brother. "Are you kidding? After you…latinated a couple hundred demons into another dimension?"

Sam's grin was contagious. "You were pretty bad-ass yourself, man."

"Yeah, I was, wasn't I?" Dean chuckled appreciatively. "Eat your heart out, John McClain."

They were quiet a moment as the tape ended, rolling over to the other side.

"Dean?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks," Sam said, his voice warm. "Y'know. For saving my life."

Dean looked at him, lifting a shoulder in a slight shrug. "You're my brother, Sammy," he replied, hoping the words were enough to hold everything he couldn't say.

Sam met his eyes, the smile lingering there not cresting his lips. And as the night took hold and Bobby called them inside for food and Sam shut off the Impala, Dean knew that the fight wouldn't end, and no matter what his father said in his dream, there was no winning. There was only just losing a little bit less.

But in this moment, on this night, he hadn't lost what mattered most. They hadn't taken it from him yet.

That was reason enough to keep fighting.


a/n: Thank you for reading. And thank you for your comments. You guys give me a reason. *smile* Some of you might have noticed that Bobby is sans wheelchair in this fic. *nods* Yep, pretty much pretending that didn't happen for the purposes of this story.

Playlist: Since fanficdotnet is so finicky about links, head over to my LJ at http[colon][backslash][backslash]gaelicspirit[dot]livejournal[dot]com and check out the link to an original soundtrack/fanmix collected by yours truly to fit this story. It includes songs referenced in the story as well as songs I thought fit both the plot and Dean's personal struggle throughout the story.

The soundtrack was compiled by secretlytodream and she has created some beautiful (dark) art for each song. If you check out the soundtrack, please take a moment to let her know how amazing it is.

I'll be back.