A/N - Well here we are, the last chapter! I know, FINALLY! Thank you all so much for going on this depressing little journey with me, your comments and encouragement kept me going. Now that we are at the end, I would love to know what you thought of the story, good, bad, whatever, it all helps me to get better! So please consider leaving a review if you would like. Thanks again for all the support and I do hope you enjoyed it. ~ Samantha

I'm not searching the sky for a reason to live

Cause I found beauty right here and found the passion to give

So let me give you my heart, let me give you my tears

Let me give you my life, let me give you my fears

"Open Letter" by The Amity Affliction

Dean woke up gasping, feeling like he hadn't taken a breath in hours, his lungs burning and deflated. Gasping became coughing, the spasms wracking his body and reminding him of his assorted injuries. He sat up carefully to assist his laboring lungs, a hand coming to rest on his back to help him, then rubbing in soothing circles once he was upright. Dean forced his watering eyes open to see Sam hovering over him, anxious and hopeful as he tried to help ease the ache in Dean's chest. He was crying and Dean couldn't help the lance of guilt that pierced him over that.

Wait. He actually felt that, the familiar desire to take care of Sammy even though he was sore and wounded, his own injuries not important in the face of his little brother's pain.

He was back. He was okay. The flood of relief that filled him almost made him lightheaded

"Sammy," Dean breathed, his arms reaching out to pull his little brother to him. He needed to touch him, confirm that he was real, that he was here. He needed one last thing to wipe away the rathra's stain, to ground him to reality.

Sam started in surprise at the unusual gesture of affection, wrapping his own arms tightly around him. Dean's body protested the pressure on his various aches and pains, but Dean was so relieved, so elated to feel something other than the dragging desolation and worthlessness he'd been living with for the past few weeks, he barely noticed.

"Are you okay, Dean?" Sam asked, his voice muffled from where his face was buried in Dean's uninjured shoulder.

He was more than okay. He was tired beyond belief, hurting, and still felt like his mind had been fractured and sloppily pieced back together, but that didn't matter. He was Dean again, or at least well on the way. For a while there, he had been afraid he would never see his brother again. Holding him now, he was reminded about all the things he'd said to Sam under the influence of the rathra, and before, in his own depression, the things his brother had seen. He wasn't sure how he was going to ever make it up to him, putting Sam through all that, but he was going to start right now.

"Oh yeah, Sam, I'm just fine now. Thanks to you, man," Dean said, giving Sam one last squeeze before he released him.

Sam was trying to smile, but it kept collapsing, tears still pouring down his face. "I was so scared we were going to lose you, Dean," he said quietly.

"Nah, you're not gonna lose me. I'm too tough," he stated lightly, trying to ease down some of Sam's worry. He didn't fully remember all that had happened past his attempt to escape out the window, it was all bits and pieces floating around in his head and it was difficult to discern what was real and what wasn't, but it had to have been awful. Sam looked like he'd been put through the ringer, all big haunted eyes and unnaturally pale skin. At the very least, he had seen Dean well on his way to shoving a piece of mirror into his throat. Dean wanted nothing more than to take it all back, wipe it away from Sam's memory, but he couldn't. All he could do was try his hardest to be the big brother that Sammy expected, that he needed.

A movement over Sam's shoulder drew his attention. It was Dad. Dean was taken aback by his father's haggard appearance, his eyes rimmed red with dark circles underneath, strain settling into the lines of his face, making him appear years older than he was. He was smiling, but like Sam's, it was tight and trembling, like it was an effort to do so.

It was hard to see the visual evidence of what his breakdown had done to his family, the guilt was almost crushing in its weight, but it also helped him to see that they did care, that they had been worried about him, not apathetic about his plight like the rathra had said. It didn't excuse what he had done, and yes, he'd been infected by a rathra for part of it, but for right now, he fought to see the positive. He'd been too focused on the bad for too long and it had led him astray, made him forget his purpose in life.

"Hey Dean," Dad greeted him.

"Hi Dad," Dean replied, his eyes not quite meeting his Dad's gaze. He had seen Dean at his worst and he knew it would take a little time for him to forget that. He was mortified that he had broken down so completely and could only hope that Dad would give him the chance to earn back his trust. And if he could not ever mention any of this, that would be really cool, too.

"Did you kill it?" Dad asked.

"I'm not really sure. I know I hurt it and that its hold on me is gone, but I don't know if it's dead," Dean answered uncertainly, afraid that it was going to upset his Dad that it might have survived.

He wanted to be able to say positively that he had finished it, but there was no way to know. The fight had been in his head, it wasn't actually real. It had mentioned that he might kill it, but he didn't know for sure. There wasn't a body that he could see. All he might have managed to do was kill the connection between them, setting himself free. He could hear that hateful inner voice of his in his head starting to whisper about him failing, but he silenced it before it could get louder. He had done his best and he wanted some time, any amount of time, to not hate himself. He knew he couldn't keep it quiet forever, but just a little break would help him immensely right now.

"Well, dead or not, you did good. You came back," Dad said huskily, that smile finally firming up and staying put.

Dean returned that grin, finally lifting his eyes those last few centimeters to meet Dad's. "Thanks Dad." He had really needed to hear that, it felt like some of the shadows covering his heart evaporated.

"Hey Sammy? Why don't you go grab Dean something to eat? I bet he's starving. Then I'll get out of your hair and you boys can chat, all right?" Dad asked directing his gaze to Sam.

For once, Sam just nodded and with a relieved smile tossed Dean's way, he left the room to head to the kitchen. Dean was hungry enough to eat an entire buffet, but he knew why Sam was sent away. Dad had something to say. It was inevitable, but Dean had been hoping for more time. If Dad wanted to do it now, though, Dean owed it to him. He could only imagine what they had gone through watching him fall apart.

"How are you really doing Dean?" Dad asked solemnly, moving closer to Dean.

"I'm good, really. I'm seeing things a lot more clear now," he replied, not understanding why Dad winced when he said that.

"Are you? Do you still want to kill yourself?" he asked bluntly.

Hearing the words come out of Dad's mouth was like a slap in the face, a shocking reminder of how far gone he had been. There would be a reckoning, he knew that, and not just with Dad and Sam, but with himself. He had let himself sink so far, so deep, that it had made him weak enough for something to attack him. He had not only failed as a brother and a son, he had failed as a hunter.

"Can we save this for later?" Dean pleaded, hating the emotional crack in his voice.

"No, Dean. Not this time." There was no leeway given in that tone. Dad meant to talk this out. Dean wasn't going to give in so easy, though. He really wasn't ready. It was all still too fresh, too raw. He needed to let it heal a bit so he could frame it all appropriately.

"Come on, Dad, I've had a really bad day." Maybe Dad would hear the desperation he was trying so hard to hide and take pity on him.

"Letting you save it for a later that becomes never is why this happened, so we're talking about it now," Dad said firmly.

Or maybe not.

Dean sighed, resigned and nervous about heading down this road of questioning. "Okay, no, I don't want to kill myself. I was just having a few bad days and the rathra decided to take advantage and made it a lot worse. I'm really fine, it actually helped me to see what I have and set me straight," he explained in a rush, hoping it would provide his Dad with what he needed to hear. It was all basically true, just extremely abbreviated.

Dad just looked at him for a minute, with that special stare he had that seemed to look into every dark corner of your being, seeing what you had no intention of showing anyone. Right now, Dean had no dark corners anymore, they had all been blasted into the light by the rathra, so it was all on display, every awful bit of it. Dean hadn't yet had time to rebuild. So he wasn't sure what his Dad was seeing, he could only hope it wasn't too much.

"So what happened on the black dog hunt, that was the rathra?" Dad asked.

"Of course," he confirmed, looking Dad right in the eye.

Dean had to lie. If Dad knew even for a second that his soldier had broken down that badly, he would never trust him again. Dean was supposed to be the rock, the person that Sam and Dad could depend on implicitly and he had botched that royally. Even worse, he would probably be on suicide watch for some amount of time, constantly having eyes on him, being questioned, under suspicion. He wouldn't be able to deal with that. He had been able to patch himself together again, he would be back to normal soon and this would all be forgotten, chalked up as a successful run in with a supernatural being.

If he could blame that incident on the rathra, he was going to. There was no need for the truth, it would just hurt everyone and raise a lot of questions, and that's the last thing he wanted to do. He had hurt them enough. Besides, maybe the rathra had been lying, just another method to try and attack his fragile psyche.

Yeah, maybe.

Dad's eyes narrowed on him, something moving beneath that level stare that made Dean uneasy. Once he identified it, it took all Dean had to keep the panic from erupting.

Dad didn't believe him.

Dad really had no way of knowing when the rathra got Dean, but something had happened to make Dad doubt him. Dean wasn't sure what to do, if Dad pushed, he was going to break. He didn't have defenses right now, they were all gone. There was no way he could ever let Dad find out, Dean would take it to his grave if he were able, but he knew that if Dad wanted to, he could get Dean to spill it. Get him to share all those terrible and nasty thoughts that had made him so appealing to the rathra. He just didn't have the strength or mental clarity to dodge and weave a Dad inquisition right now.

All he had was the illusion that he was back and he had to be allowed to maintain that until he was able to make it real.

Dad's gaze softened and he shook his head sadly. "Of course. You know, though, if it hadn't been, that it would be okay? That I'm here to help you, even if it doesn't always seem like it? Because we can't lose you, Dean. I can't lose you," Dad's gentle, encouraging voice becoming harsh at the end.

Nodding dumbly in shock, Dean couldn't believe that Dad had let him get away with the blatant lie. He couldn't even speak, his relief and astonishment too strong to allow clear thought. He actually wanted to hug his Dad, thank him for letting it go, promise it would never happen again, but that would ruin their silent acceptance of the lie. So he didn't.

Dad sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Dean, I know I'm not always there for you and I know I lay a lot on your shoulders. I have for a very long time. I want you to know that you can always come to me if you need help, that it's okay to need help. I'm so used to you never asking for it that it doesn't always occur to me that you might just need me to offer it. You don't really ask anything for yourself, do you? I know that and I take it for granted that it means you don't need anything rather than you thinking it might make me think less of you."

Dean had no idea what to say to that. Dad wasn't wrong, he did refuse to ask for help unless it was an emergency so Dad didn't think he was weak or incapable of handling things. Dad had to be able to trust him so he could continue his hunt. He had enough on his mind, he didn't need to deal with Dean's issues too. It sounded like Dad was trying to blame himself for that and Dean didn't want him to.

"I know that, Dad. I know I can come to you," he reassured him.

"Yeah, but will you?" he asked sharply. Before Dean could say anything, Dad continued. "Because I'm home so much, right? And I always pick up the phone when I'm gone, don't I?" Dad added sarcastically with a bitter chuckle that appeared to be completely directed at himself.

Dean remained silent, unable to refute the truth in those words. Dad was gone more often than he was home. He could be impossible to get on the phone at times. Sometimes it sucked, but for the most part, Dean knew to expect it and he handled it. It's what he did.

As for talking to Dad? That would happen the fourteenth of Neveruary. Not because he didn't think Dad wouldn't care, or wouldn't want to hear it, but because Dean had an image to maintain; strong, unshakeable, capable. He wasn't sure how long it would be before he was able to get that image back, but once he did, he wasn't losing it again. So there was no need to talk to Dad. He would keep it under control, never let himself fall this far again. At the very least, he would make sure to keep it to himself until it passed.

"Well anyway, I'm glad you're okay. You uh…you really had us worried," Dad added, ending the awkward silence.

Shame faced, Dean looked back down at the sheets covering his legs and nodded. "I know and I'm sorry."

Dad shook his head. "No, Dean, nothing for you to be sorry for. You beat something that was supposed to be impossible to defeat and you did it all by yourself. I know it wasn't easy. I am so proud of you. You always make me proud. I know I don't say it enough, but don't ever forget that. I am so honored to have you as my son and my hunting partner. There's no one I want at my back more."

To say Dean was touched by those heartfelt words, would not have done the emotion filling him justice. Dean had been longing to hear Dad say that to him. It had been a while. Dean hadn't really done all that much to earn Dad's praise lately, but he didn't get the sense Dad was saying it just because he needed to hear it. He really seemed to mean it. And underneath it all, he could hear the 'I love you' that wasn't spoken, but was interlaced in every word.

"Right back at ya, Dad," was all he could manage to choke out, fearing he might cry if he aimed for more.

Dad reached down, his hand coming out to clasp around Dean's cheek, looking down at him like he was trying to memorize his face. There was so much emotion shining out of his eyes; love, fear, pride, sadness, that Dean felt the urge to look away. It was too much for him to handle right now, but he forced himself to look back, knowing his own bared soul was easily seen in his.

"I'm always here for you, Dean. Don't ever forget that," Dad said softly, his voice suspiciously thick.

Dean nodded, feeling some tears of his own stinging his eyes.

"All right, kiddo, I'll let you eat and rest," Dad started to turn away, when he paused and turned back. He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, a sure sign that he was highly uncomfortable. Oh no, he wasn't actually going to try for the 'l' word was he?

"I know the rathra made you see things, twisted your memories up on you. I just wanted to make sure you knew that those….beatings…never happened. I never did that to you, I never would. I just want to make sure you still know that," Dad said earnestly.

Dean nodded immediately. "I know that, Dad. It got me messed up for a while, but I know what's real again."

Dad nodded and started to turn away again, but Dean stopped him this time, one last burning question he needed answered. "Dad? The night with the black dog? I looked for you when it was attacking me and it….it looked like you were walking away, leaving," he said uncertainly. He hadn't meant to bring it up, but he had to know what that happened.

Confusion spread across Dad's face and that right there was enough to lift that weight off of Dean's chest. It didn't even matter what he said at this point, it obviously hadn't been a deliberate act. Then understanding was dawning and Dad looked even sadder than he did before.

"I was looking for the duffel. I had lost my gun and if I tried to pull that thing off of you, it would have ripped your throat out. I'm sorry, Dean, it took me way too long to get to you. I should have just tried to distract it so maybe it would leave you and go for me, but I couldn't chance that it wouldn't. It was centimeters from your throat. I thought it would be best to get the gun. I made a mistake. I would never leave you like that, son," Dad explained solemnly.

He had been looking for the duffel to get a weapon. Dean had seen the gun get knocked out of Dad's hand. Of course he had to rearm before he helped him. Once a black dog got its jaws locked on you, it wasn't letting go until it wanted to or it was dead. Dean slumped back in the bed, fighting back the remorse and anger at himself that was starting to brew up. He had nearly dropped out because of what he thought he'd seen, what he concocted in his own mind. Looking back on it now, it was so clear, so obvious.

How did he ever let himself get so buried in self pity that he actually thought Dad was going to let him die? Never again, he swore right then and there. He knew he had bad days ahead of him, who didn't, but he would never let it get this bad again.

"Yeah, of course. I'm sorry, Dad, I don't know what I was thinking," Dean said dismissively.

Before Dad could reply, Sammy was back in the room, carrying a plate of sandwiches and a glass of milk. Dean could feel his mouth start to water at the thought of getting the sandwiches in his mouth, but he would have really preferred a beer, or better, some whiskey, over the milk, but he wasn't turning anything down right now.

"I got you a bologna, a PB&J and a cheese sandwich. Didn't know which you would prefer," Sam said holding out the plate.

Dean took it, already reaching for the bologna.

"Don't keep him up too long, Sammy. I'm sure Dean needs some rest," Dad warned.

Sam nodded without looking at him, his wide, happy eyes still fixed on Dean, who was now groaning in pleasure as the first bit of food hit his stomach. He was pretty sure it had been months since he'd eaten.

"I'll see you later, Dean," Dad added, that soft, rarely seen look on his face again.

Dean waved the remnants of his sandwich in his direction, his mouth too full to say anything, but he tried to say it through his eyes; thank you for not giving up on me, for trusting me. Dad nodded, message received, and left the room. They weren't back on solid ground yet, and he knew Dad was going to be watching him like a hawk for a while, but Dean could handle it, because he knew it was because he cared, not because he didn't trust him. It made all the difference in the world. When Dean finally blew up and told him to knock it off, then they would all know he was back, one hundred percent.

Taking a big swig of milk, Dean sighed in satisfaction, feeling that empty pit in his stomach start to fill. "Thanks Sammy, you're the best."

"Am I?"

That question spoken in a downtrodden, sad little voice caught Dean's attention immediately. Sam looked like he was on the verge of tears again, his eyes fixed firmly on the plate of sandwiches, and nowhere near Dean's face. Dean knew what was going on, Sam was feeling guilty and responsible and he had to nip that in the bud right away. Sam was allowed to grow up, he was allowed to have bad days and lash out. It was his right as a person and it wasn't his fault that Dean took it all so personally.

"Yes, Sam, you really are. Nothing that happened here was your fault," Dean insisted. Sam did glance up at him then. "I was being attacked, it was making me take things the wrong way. It wasn't because of you. Hell, you saved me Sam. If you hadn't done your little greeting card routine with me, I wouldn't have pulled out of it enough to fight it off. So yeah, you really are the best, squirt."

Sam was full on staring at him then and it was almost eerie how old he could look sometimes, like he'd lived a million lives before this one, that he'd seen and done it all. Dean tensed up in reaction, automatically bracing for what Sam was going to say. It wouldn't be the first time he'd thrown a bomb at Dean when he got like this and it was always a doozy.

"It wasn't all the rathra, Dean." Dean stopped breathing. The bomb was nuclear this time. "You've been different for weeks. A person doesn't survive being poisoned by one of those things that long. A few days at most. So while I know all this really awful stuff was due to the rathra, the other stuff wasn't. You had to be feeling pretty bad for it to get you," Sam stated gravely.

Dean was already scrambling to mount a defense. Sometimes it wasn't in his favor that Sam knew him so well. This is what Dad had known too, what he had let Dean get away with. If he had ever been in need of his best line of bullshit, it was now, but it wasn't coming. He'd been forced to drag out his deepest feelings, mewling and flinching, into the light to fight that damn monster and they were still out, not even bandaged up yet. He managed to get around Dad because Dad was just as uncomfortable talking about this stuff as Dean was. Sam, though, Sam thrived on this shit.

"Don't lie to me, Dean," Sam warned, aware of all of Dean's tricks and evasive maneuvers. He was too damn observant for his own good. "Nothing will get fixed that way."

Dean sighed, his gaze dropping down to his hands, now clenched into fists in the sheet. He knew he was beat. Sam wasn't going to let this go. He really didn't want to do this now, but Dad had been right. He stowed so much baggage in his head, all the emotional wounds, that it had become too much for him to handle. He thought he had an endless capacity for dealing with shit, but if nothing else, this had shown him even he had his limit.

Sam wanted to help. Why not let him? Even if it did go against everything he believed about maintaining a front for Sammy so he had someone he could always depend on without fail. Maybe he could open up just enough to satisfy them both.

"I just had a few bad days, Sammy," Dean started hesitantly, trying to pick his words carefully. "A lot of things have been changing and I'm not adjusting to it fast enough. You're growing up, you don't need me watching out for you so much. It's just...hard sometimes. I used to know my place and now it's different. I'll figure it out, Sam, I know that, but for a while there, it just got away from me. And then that thing got me and it was just overwhelming, everything was too much and I couldn't deal with it."

There was silence for a moment and it drew on long enough that Dean finally looked at Sam. His little brother looked so sad and Dean crumpled inside. He hadn't meant to make Sam feel any worse about what happened than he already did, but he failed. He could feel that familiar, overwhelming sensation of disappointment in himself, that despite all his efforts, he was never going to make things better. It was more than he could stand right now on the heels of everything else and his mind turned to flight, because he simply couldn't fight.

"Dean, I'm never not going to need you, no matter how old I get," Sam said softly, curtailing Dean's almost manic need to escape. "I know I get mad and say things that hurt you, but I really don't mean to. I just get so frustrated and my mouth takes over. I'm angry, all the time lately, and I don't know what to do with it. I get what you're saying, things are changing, I'm changing, and I know I cause more problems than I solve, but you have to know that I will always, always, have your back."

The death grip Dean's teeth had on his lip to keep himself from tearing up again was starting to fail.

"We're brothers, Dean, family. That means I'm here for you, too. You don't have to keep everything to yourself. You're allowed to sad, angry, depressed, hurt. Despite how bad you smell sometimes, you are human," Sam added lightly with a little grin that Dean returned. "You don't have to be strong all the time."

"Yeah, I do Sammy. It's my job," Dean argued.

Sam's brows lowered in irritation. "That's Dad talking, not you."

"No, Sam, it's me," Dean insisted. This was the basis of their greatest disagreement. Did Dad instill this overwhelming urge to protect Sam at all costs? Yes he did, but whether Sam believed it or not, Dean did have his own mind and he would refute it if he wanted to. He just happened to agree with Dad on that directive. The thing that killed Mom had been in Sam's nursery, not Dean's. Sammy was the one that was in danger, not Dad, not Dean.

"You are all I got, Sam. If something happened to you…" Dean turned away, needed a moment to pull it back in, all the emotions even the thought of losing Sam brought up. He swallowed it down, fought for composure and was grateful when the tears didn't spill over. Man, he really had to toughen up again, quick. Every five seconds he thought he was about to cry. "I will keep you safe, Sam, no matter what that takes. Even if you don't want me to, because I can't do anything else. And that means I have to be strong, I have to be ready," Dean explained simply, truthfully.

Sam nudged at him with his shoulder and Dean scooted over so he could join him on the bed. They both stared ahead of them, Sam's eyes on his feet, Dean's on his knees. It wasn't an awkward silence, they were too comfortable around each other for that, but it was loaded with possibility. Dean was tense with anticipation of what Sam was going to say next, scared that Sam was going to start an argument or get angry that Dean had no intention of letting up on his guardian duties. He was equally afraid that Sam was going to start bawling and accusing Dean of trying to leave him.

"I've said this to you before, Dean, but you always seem to forget it," Sam said wearily, but there was something else there too, something more like fond exasperation. "So I'll just keep saying it so maybe it will sink in someday. You're all I got, too. I mean, I know we have Dad and I love him, I really do, but we're a team. We've survived in spite of him, not because of him. It's been because of you, Dean. You're the one that's always here, making sure that we're okay, it's always been you. You're kind of my everything, you know? The only thing I really want is for you to see me as an equal so that I can help share the load. I'm not a kid anymore, Dean."

He could feel the weight of Sam's gaze on him now, and he couldn't deny the unspoken command to look at him. Sam looked so serious and determined, but for all that, Dean could still only see that round little baby that he used to feed bottles to, the little five year old that would follow him around everywhere, the ten year old kid that took to wearing the same type of clothes as Dean because he wanted to be just like him.

And it wasn't fair to Sam, because he wasn't that kid anymore. He was rapidly becoming a man. Despite Dean's best efforts, Sam was growing up far faster than he wanted him to.

Maybe if Sam had a little space, some room to grow into the man he was becoming, he would stop being so angry all the time. Perhaps he could even find some common ground with Dad, some understanding. If the fights stopped, or at least reduced, then that would help Dean, too. He would stop being terrified that his family was falling apart, could try to relax and find himself again.

But if Sam thought he could ever offer him an equal partnership? Yeah, that wasn't going to happen. Dean could try for sixty/forty though. Well, maybe seventy/thirty.

"I know you're not, Sam. I forget a lot, but I do know that and I'll try, okay? I'm gonna tell you now, though, if it comes down to me or you in the shit, it's going to always be me. You can get as pissed as you want, that's the way it is and will always be. Got it?" Dean warned.

Instead of getting upset, Sam just smiled that dimpled grin, his hair falling over his forehead as he cocked his head. "Yeah, we'll see. Dad is positive I'm going to be taller than you, so your days of standing in front of me are running out," he teased.

Dean could have almost hugged his little brother again, he was so grateful that he hadn't fought him on it, but he figured he had freaked the kid out enough today. Instead, he ruffled his hair and said, "That's never gonna happen, shrimp."

They quietly split the rest of the sandwiches, the mood much lighter than it had been before. Dean could tell Sam still had something to say, but was working up to it, so he just chewed and waited, enjoying the tight feeling caused by stress and tension in his chest easing. He was so tired his eyes hurt, but he would stay awake as long as needed to make sure Sammy was okay. Whatever Sam needed to make sure Dean wasn't going to ever try to pull what he had done in that bathroom, he would do.

"If you died, I think I would, too, Dean," Sam finally said, barely over a whisper.

The remains of Dean's sandwich hit the plate, his suddenly heaving stomach unable to handle another bite. The thoughts that had run through his head while beneath that black dog came back to him, and he had actually thought that Sam would be glad to get rid of him. Looking back on it now, Dean couldn't understand how he could think that. How he could ever decide to leave his brother alone. A cold finger walked its way up his spine at the thought. There aren't words for how messed up he'd been.

"Don't say that, Sam," Dean ordered, not able to bear even hearing it.

Sam just shrugged. "It's true, though. Every time something happens to almost take you away from me, I feel it. Like I didn't just almost lose you, I almost lost me too. Because living without you? I can't even imagine it, I don't want to. So when you're jumping in to keep me from getting hurt, can you just remember that and try not to get yourself hurt, either? For me?" Sam pleaded, using his big eyes to look like the most forlorn person to ever walk the earth. It had never failed to work on Dean and this would be no exception.

"I'll try, Sammy, but what I said stands. You or me? Always me," Dean pledged. That he could get behind. It's not like he ever went out intending to get hurt, it just kind of happened.

"And will you promise to talk to me if things get bad for you again? Before some evil thing uses it against you?" Sam added hastily.

"You're pushing it, Sam," Dean cautioned, trying to inject a lightness into it, but he failed. That was one thing he couldn't promise. He had let Sam see him weak and broken down once, it was now his new goal in life to never let him see that again. If Sam had even an inkling how fucked up he was inside, he would never trust him to take care of him again.

"Yeah, I thought that was going to be too much to ask. Worth a shot, though," Sam sighed.

The dejected line of Sam's shoulders was enough to stoke up his big brother instincts that, despite the weeks of ignoring them, were still in tip top shape. After all, if he had found a way to articulate how hard things had gotten for him, he wouldn't be in this mess now.

"I can't promise, Sam, but I will try. Best I can do, little man," Dean offered.

"Your best is always good enough for me, Dean," he said, bumping Dean's shoulder.

"Thanks Sammy," Dean replied, tossing an around Sam's shoulders and tugging him close for a quick hug.

"So we ready to end this little tear jerker movie of the week?" Sam asked with an excellent imitation of Dean's pained intonation, an eye roll borrowed directly from Dean and a crooked smile all his own.

Dean laughed then, a good, hearty cleansing laugh that seemed to brush away the last remnants of the rathra's poison, of his own uncertainty about his worth to his family. He knew without a single doubt that his inner voice, the worst critic he had would soon be back, but for now, he was content to drown it out with the laughter of two brothers that meant the world to each other.

When Dean Winchester broke inside, he never thought it would be seen by the naked eye. He had no intention of asking for help, he didn't want anyone to see. He didn't change anything about his outside appearance or try to find ways to paint his pain inside into his skin with blood and steel.

He thought he was keeping it to himself, that no one would notice. That he would just drift away, without a single person giving a damn.

In the end, though, the right ones did see it in time.

The people he loved, protected and treasured above all things, showed him that they felt the same about him. They enabled him to save himself from the darkness. It was more than he could have hoped for.

They showed him that Dean was needed and that's all he ever wanted.

The End.