"What were you thinking?" John Winchester bellowed over his shoulder as he tore away from the vampire nest, accelerating so quickly that some of the rubber from the Impala's tires was left as stripes on the asphalt.
In the back seat, Dean braced his feet against the door and the carpet, trying to hold himself upright as the car fishtailed back onto the main road. He had found a rag under the seat and he was using it to mop up the blood that was oozing from his shoulder and slowly soaking his shirt. "I'm sorry!" he answered.
John slowed down the car only marginally as he looked in the rearview mirror and confirmed that they weren't being followed. "You begged to come hunting with me," he reminded Dean, "And I let you, on one condition. One! What was it?"
"That I'd follow your orders," said Dean through gritted teeth, "But Dad, I had a clear shot! If there hadn't been more in the back…"
"There are always more in the back!" John shouted, "There's always something or someone you didn't plan on. Whenever you think you've got everything accounted for, you'd better look again, because there's something you've missed. Every time. And you don't know how to deal with that yet, because you're only six-fucking-teen, so the only way you're going to stay alive long enough to learn it is to mind me when I tell you to wait for my signal."
"I said I was sorry," Dean muttered.
"Are you talking back to me?"
"No, sir." For how much it was bleeding, Dean couldn't believe how little his wound hurt. He allowed himself to think that maybe it wasn't that bad after all, but when he peeled open the tear in his shirt to take a look at it, and saw how deep it was, he had to quickly look away.
John's eyes flashed in the rearview mirror, meeting Dean's for an instant before sliding back to the road. "You okay? You gonna to make it back to the hotel?" he asked, quieter now, the fight all gone out of him.
"I think it's pretty bad," Dean admitted, pressing the rag back to his shoulder as it gushed a fresh bloom of blood. Then, remembering that he had to make a good impression, he added, "But I'll make it. I'll be fine."
They drove the rest of the way in silence. They weren't followed as far as either of them could tell, even though there had been at least two vampires left alive back at the nest. Dean almost asked what they should do about those survivors, but he was distracted by his shoulder. The adrenaline of the fight had ebbed, and it hurt now. It hurt a lot. It hurt enough to make him lightheaded.
"I think I'm gonna puke," Dean groaned.
"Not in the car," was all John said.
By the time they pulled into the hotel parking lot, the bleeding had mostly stopped but the pain had reached new heights. Dean stumbled as he got out of the car. John quickly grabbed him by the arms and straightened him up. He took off his jacket and wrapped it around Dean, helping him with the sleeves and closing it in front to hide the bloodstains beneath.
"Stand up straight," he said, "We have to pass by the front desk, and if they see you bleeding like that they'll call CPS on me."
They got past the front desk without incident, though Dean's vision was starting to swim at the edges. John was about to jam the key into the doorknob when Dean put a hand on his arm. "Careful," he said, "Sammy might be asleep."
John stared at Dean for a moment before nodding and unlocking the door as quietly as possible. He cracked it open, and they both peeked inside. Sure enough, Sam was curled up on the bed nearest the window, the TV still flashing the bright colors of cartoons. Dean switched the TV off on his way to the vacant bed, where he sat and closed his eyes and waited for the walls to stop spinning.
He didn't have a chance to regain his balance before John sat down next to him, a first aid kit in his lap. "Let me take a look," John whispered as he tugged his jacket off Dean's back.
Dean tried to pull his shirt over his head, but John swatted his hands away and used a pair of bandage scissors to cut it off instead. It was ruined, anyway. The soaked fabric slid away to reveal a gash that ran from the point of Dean's shoulder to just under the inside edge of his collarbone. It was deep enough that the edges puckered outward, pushed up by the swelling underneath. Dean felt bile rising in his throat again. He swallowed it down.
"Dumb kid," John muttered as he pushed Dean flat on the bed and opened the first aid kit, "Nearly took your head off."
"Sorry," Dean whispered. With his shirt gone, he could feel the open air on his raw flesh. It was pleasantly cool, but it also stung. Dean wasn't sure whether it was better or worse. He stared up at the ceiling and listened to John rummaging in the first aid kit, waiting to be told what would happen next.
Without warning, something cold splashed on Dean's shoulder, and he had no more than a second to wonder what it was before it began to burn. He curled in on himself, trying to escape it, but John pinned him by his good shoulder and continued washing the wound out with hydrogen peroxide. "It wouldn't be so bad if you hadn't used that filthy rag as a bandage," John admonished.
Dean could barely hear John over the sound of a low groan rising in his throat. When the groan broke and started to sound like a sob, there was a sudden movement from the other bed. Sam rolled over in his sleep, turning to face the familiar sound of his family's voices. He smacked his lips twice and sighed. Both John and Dean froze and waited until Sam lay motionless again.
Their eyes slowly rolled away from Sam's sleeping form and back toward each other. "Dad," Dean choked, "I can't…"
Dean thought he saw a spark of regret in his father's eyes before John's face hardened. He leaned down, put his mouth next to Dean's ear, and said, "You want to be a hunter? Well, this is part of it. You've got to protect people, and not just from the monsters. What do you think would scare Sam more right now? Knowing that there's a nest of vampires just down the road? Or knowing that his big brother is hurt?"
Dean swallowed hard. He didn't need to answer out loud.
"You're his hero, Dean," said John, "If you want to stay that way, then you can't ever let him see you bleed. Now, here's what's going to happen. I'm going to stitch you up, you're not going to make a sound, I'm going to go back out there and finish what we started with those vampires, and Sam is going to sleep through the whole thing. Okay?"
It took Dean several deep breaths before he trusted his voice enough to say, "Yes, sir."
The bite of the needle was cold and unforgiving. Dean gripped at the sheets, and then at the side of the mattress, and then at the headboard, but nothing gave him the anchor he needed in order to keep holding back the scream that was sticking in his throat. Not until he turned his head away from his father's busy, bloody hands and looked at Sam. The peacefulness of his sleeping face struck something deep inside Dean and gave him the strength to breathe through each new stab of pain. Just as John had said, Dean never made a sound, and Sam never stirred.
John surveyed the long row of completed stitches with satisfaction. With two light pats on Dean's cheek and a whispered, "Good boy," he was gone.
Dean was motionless for a long time, listening to the sounds of breathing – Sam's rhythmic snoring and his own ragged gasps – before rolling out of bed and slowly finding his footing. He made his way to the bathroom, closed the door, turned on the fan, and finally allowed himself to throw up.
He used the sink to wash the worst of the blood off his body, and then struggled into a fresh t-shirt to hide the ugly wound from sight in case Sam woke up before Dean did. Tiptoeing back into the main room, he found every scrap of fabric with blood on it – his tattered shirt, the bed sheets, the peroxide-soaked rag – and stuffed them into the back of the closet, behind the safe. They belonged in the dumpster outside, but Dean knew he didn't have a chance of making it all the way out there and back, so some poor cleaning lady would have to get a nasty surprise.
Finally Dean collapsed back into bed, but he couldn't sleep. The pain was uniquely distracting, making him aware of every breath, every angle of every joint, every inch of skin. Even when he closed his eyes, he could feel the whole of his body swirling around the throbbing epicenter of his shoulder, and his brain refused to let him forget it long enough to fall asleep.
He was still awake hours later, when John came back and fell asleep sitting in the chair by the window. He was still awake when Sam finally awoke and began to gather his things for school.
"You okay?" Sam asked Dean on his way out the door.
"Fine," Dean grunted.
"Where are your sheets?"
"Go to fucking school, okay?"
Sam shrugged and left, frowning.
Over the years, as that wound healed, shrank, and eventually became nothing but a pale streak of scar tissue, Dean became more accustomed to pain. He learned how to function with it and how to sleep with it. Scars piled on top of scars, and he took them without a word a protest.
When Sam began to hunt with them, and wounds became a shared family experience instead of an accident to be covered up, Dean started to comprehend what John had meant when he had warned Dean never to let Sam see him bleed. He hadn't been talking about literal blood; he had been talking about weakness. Even when it got to the point that it was Sam stitching Dean up more often than not, Dean continued to protect Sam by swallowing his pain and fear and hiding it behind a cocky attitude and relentless teasing. Better for Sam to think Dean was a jerk than to know that he was terrified most of the time, and very mortal.
Whenever Dean felt tempted to confess his fears to Sam, he had only to look at the scar across his shoulder, and that was usually enough to make him bite his tongue.
Even after Castiel gripped him tight and removed the scar from his body along with all the rest, even after Castiel fell and became human, even after Sam started getting a separate room because he had woken up to his brother and his best friend having sex one too many times, Dean remained reluctant to let his pain bother anyone but himself.
They staggered home from a hunt, the three of them, bruised and bloodied but still laughing.
"You sure you're okay?" Sam asked as he pulled out his room key. He was staring at the dark stain on Dean's shirt.
"It's nothing, Sammy," Dean lied, "It doesn't even hurt."
As Dean went into his own room, he heard Cas say very quietly behind him, "I'll take care of him. Goodnight, Sam."
Cas followed Dean into the room and steered him toward the bed, ignoring Dean's insistence that he was fine. "You should have been more careful," Cas said as he stripped Dean's shirt off, "That blade nearly took your head off."
Something about Cas's wording made Dean stammer and then fall silent. A moment later, Cas peeled Dean's shirt away to reveal the wound: a gash running from the point of his shoulder to just under the inside edge of his collarbone. It was not a serious wound compared to some that Dean had endured, but for the first time in years the sight of his own blood produced an uncomfortable swirl of nausea deep in his belly.
Dean was grateful that Cas let him sit upright instead of pinning him on his back, but the bright pain of the hydrogen peroxide was just the same. Dean could feel the bubbles forming and breaking against his skin, and suddenly he was sixteen again and swallowing down bile and tears.
Cas stopped. "You're not breathing," he pointed out.
Dean let out a shaky breath that he hadn't know that he had been holding. "Yes I am," he said.
Cas narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You're very pale."
"Just get it done with," Dean grunted.
There was no one to hide from here. There was no one to protect and no reason to lie. Sam was grown, Cas was a fucking ex-angel, and by now both of them had already seen Dean bleed in every way possible. But still, Dean couldn't shake the sense memory of his father kneeling over him, pressing him into the bed, threading suture through his burning flesh even as he whispered, "You're not going to make a sound. You're not going to make a sound."
When Cas touched needle to skin, Dean blinked, and a silent tear overflowed from each eye. He wiped them away instantly, mortified. Cas froze.
"Dean," he said, softly. It wasn't a demand or even a question. There was no accusation or pity in it. It was a simple, gentle statement, as if he had said, "I'm here."
"Cas," said Dean. His voice was breaking and this time he didn't bother to try to stop it. "I can't…"
In an instant, Cas had put his hand behind Dean's neck and pulled him in for a kiss. Dean sighed his relief into Cas's mouth, the pain in his shoulder briefly overshadowed by the pleasure of Cas's lips on his. Cas held him close until his eyes were dry.
When they pulled away, Cas didn't ask for an explanation. He just held up the needle and proposed, "A kiss for each stitch. Tell me to stop, and I'll stop. Is that acceptable?"
"I'm not a baby, Cas," Dean huffed, "I don't need you to…" But then he stopped as he realized that, yes, this time, this one time, he really did need someone to coddle him. And Cas was offering it to him. And maybe there was no shame in that. "I mean…" he said, "Yeah. Let's try that."
The bite of the needle was cold and unforgiving, just as it had been when Dean was a teenager, but this time it was followed by a tender press of lips and a gentle brush of tongues. With a kiss, Cas called Dean away from his memories and centered him in the present, where he had grown strong enough to withstand the pain.
"Ready?" said Cas, and he waited for Dean's nod before placing the next stitch.
It continued, Dean teetering between his awful memories and his comforting present, until he found somewhat abruptly that he was looking forward to the next kiss more than he was fearing the next stab of the needle. He breathed a little easier. His father's voice faded and was gone. The ordeal became just another in a long line of patch-jobs: painful, but nothing to be afraid of.
Cas tied the last knot and, with one more congratulatory kiss, placed a loose bandage over the wound. While he got up to put the first aid kit away, Dean collapsed backwards with a heavy sigh. A moment later, Dean felt a tugging at his feet and lifted his head to see Cas taking off his shoes for him.
Dean thought about protesting, but then he just laid back and let Cas take care of him. He angled his hips up a little so Cas could slip him out of his filthy pants, and then Cas lifted him under his knees to pull the blankets down from under him. Stripping down to his boxers and snuggling up beside Dean, Cas then pulled the blankets back up and tucked them both in.
This time Dean's consciousness, instead of gripping his body harshly, drifted lazily around Cas. The mop of hair resting on his chest and tickling his nose, the leg thrown over his waist, the body pressed up against his – they were such comforts that the pain had no hope of keeping him awake. His eyelids were getting heavy already.
Just as Dean was about to drift off, he was brought back by Cas's mumbled, "I'm sorry I can't heal you anymore."
Dean shifted his good arm to wrap it tighter around Cas and replied, "Cas, you heal me every day. You heal the wounds I didn't even know I had." Then, with a grimace, he realized how unbelievably corny that had sounded. "If you ever tell Sam I said that, I'll fucking kill you," he added.
Cas smiled with his whole body, leaning even deeper into Dean's embrace and sighing contentedly. "My lips are sealed," he promised.