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5 Times Dean Thought About That Kiss (the Free Bird All-Star Live Jam)

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1.

Ohio

Spooning Cassie in her sun-warmed bedroom, Dean breathes in the Sunday morning quiet and the scent of coconut from her hair. His body doesn't ache (except in the good way), doesn't bear any stitches or bruises. Just a healing rug burn from his first night with Cassie. Healed and haired-over in no time, his dad would say.

Some people have this all the time. Dean's never thought about it before, but maybe he could have this, at least part time, between hunts. A home to come back to. A woman to come back to. This kind of peace to fall into, for at least a few days at a time.

But the peace only goes so far -- inside Dean, there's a war going on. Between the hunger for more of this, and everything he's ever been taught. Don't tell the truth, don't get too close, don't get so settled in that you forget who you are. When you start thinking you can have what other people have, that's when the people you love get hurt. But Dean wonders. Is it that protectiveness that has kept his dad from getting close to anyone since Mom died -- or is he so obsessed he can't even think of anything but the hunt?

If Dean had to make a guess -- well, Dad sure as hell hasn't hesitated to put his sons in harm's way, has he?

For the first time in long memory, Dean doesn't push away these rebellious thoughts the second they arise. But this is also the first time Dad has sent Dean off on his own hunt, about as far from Dad's own mission as he could possibly make it.

Signs of things to come. Sammy gone, then Dad. Who's Dean supposed to be then?

Maybe he could be something to Cassie.

His palm resting on Cassie's ribs, Dean feels the change in her breathing as she slowly comes awake. Dean feathers his hand along her side as the laxness gradually leaves her muscles.

"Mmm, that's nice," Cassie says sleepily. When she starts to move he thinks she's going to burrow into him, but instead she pushes herself upright and finger-combs the masses of curls out of her face. Turning to regard him, she frowns. "You okay?"

He raises a smile, "Better than okay. I could lie here like this all day."

Cassie bends to kiss him lightly. "That's a beautiful thought, but impractical. Unless you're into being peed on."

Before he can make a joke about trying almost anything once, Cassie's up and sashaying toward the bathroom, giving him the consolation of a first-class view of her gorgeous ass.

"Besides," she adds, "I want to go out for brunch before all the church people swarm the place."

Dean had been hoping for a better use for his morning wood than jacking off in the shower, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Though nothing says he has to be alone when he gets off in the shower.

He waits until he hears the sound of water on tile and porcelain and Cassie's pretty voice rising in song, then he rises and follows her to the bathroom, sliding back the curtain to step into the spray with her.

"Showering together will get us out of the house a whole lot faster," he says.

"Liar."

But she leans into him when he buries his face in the curls she's piled up and clipped on her head. The droplets that reach her hair glitter like diamonds. Dean glides his hand over her soap-slicked breasts and taut belly, down to the heat between her legs. Murmuring into her ear how beautiful she is, how much he wants to see her come apart beneath his hands, he strokes until she arches against him, crying out.

Cassie moves to repay the favor, but Dean fends her off, distracting her with kisses. "Church people," he reminds her. The next time Cassie takes him into her, there'll be no more lies between them. She'll know who he is.

***

This is new, too. Brunch. Perched at a table on a terrace, watching people in the park. People walking dogs, college kids playing Frisbee, couples strolling, moms pushing strollers, dads rigged up in baby slings. It's all so breathtakingly normal, and Dean wonders Sam's doing one of these things right now with some pretty girl -- or will be in three hours' time out there in California. For Dean it will be in between hunts that he has this normal life, not every day, but he's bound to appreciate it all the more.

"You're quiet today," Cassie says in the middle of her second mimosa. Dean's still working on his first beer.

"It's a quiet day. Peaceful. I guess I'm just going along with that."

"Seems like you're thinking about something."

"There's something I want to talk to you about, but this isn't the place. Let's finish our brunch."

Cassie offers him a slightly quavery smile. "Well, I guess that means you're not breaking up with me. They always say the perfect place for the breakup speech is a nice res--"

"Douches might say that; I don't." Dean skims his fingers over the satiny skin of her hand, tracing slow circles. "This isn't a breakup speech. Everything's good, just relax."

They both pick at the rest of their food without eating much. Finally they abandon their plates and head into the park. Settling onto a bench in the shade of a massive maple, Cassie eyes him expectantly. This is still more public than Dean had hoped for, but it'll have to do. He sits beside her.

Tracing the edge of a finger along the inside of her wrist, he says, "Don't be nervous."

"You're nervous."

"Yeah, well. It's not so much about what I'm gonna say as the fact that I'm saying it at all. It kinda goes against family tradition. My old man would have my hide, I think. But you're worth breaking a few rules."

Readjusting her position on the bench, she cocks one arm on the back, leaning toward Dean. Receptive. That's good.

Dean takes a deep breath. "Don't get mad at this first part. I'm coming clean here, and I need to explain some things."

"Okay."

He's not sure if that's a promise or just a signal to go ahead. He'll find out, he guesses. "So I told you ... I told you some things that aren't the truth. It's how I was raised, that people have to be protected from some things, that you can't be honest about them."

Her face carefully neutral, Cassie asks, "Such as --?"

"Okay, I'm not a student here. I came down here to do some work, and I knew it would go smoother all around if I pretended I belonged."

"What kind of work makes you lie about who you are?"

There's an edge to her voice that makes him want to switch tracks, tell her he's a counter-terrorism agent tracking a group of foreign students, a DEA agent -- something that doesn't carry as much risk as the truth. Something his dad would approve. Watching some birds fighting over the crusts of a discarded sandwich, he takes a deep breath, lets it out. "Here's where we get to the crazycakes stuff. I came down here to find a ghost, put it to rest."

Just like that, the warmth disappears from her voice. "A ghost."

"I know how it sounds. It's hard to believe, but Cassie, the supernatural world, it's real. I've known about these things since I was four. I've been fighting these things since -- hell, I think I was nine."

Dean slants a look toward her, but her expression is stony.

"Tell me, how does a nine-year-old get into ghost hunting?"

"Same as any hunter. Something bad happens that changes your world, opens your eyes. My mom was killed by something. My dad's been chasing it ever since. He took me and my brother along for --"

Abruptly, Cassie's off the bench, stirring the air with the scent of coconut -- that's all the perfume she wears or needs. The birds abandon their battle and its prize, taking noisy flight. She stands, legs apart. The sunlight outlines her shape perfectly under the thin fabric of her sundress, and Dean aches to be back in her bed, that body moving in rhythm with his. "Stop it, Dean. Or is that even your name?"

"Yeah, Dean is true. But it's Winchester, not Winston. I want you to --"

"No. Stop. I can't believe you think I'm so stupid as to swallow this crap."

"I don't, Cassie. Just give me a minute, let me explain. Everything I'm saying is true, you have to believe me." Is this, he wonders, what begging sounds like? Self-disgust and anger and shame roll through him, but he still holds his breath, waiting for her to relent and say she believes him.

"I've known you two weeks. You don't get to tell me what I have to do." Snatching up the straw bag she'd left on the bench, she adds, "I don't think you left very much stuff at my place. Come by after four o'clock and it'll be hanging on the doorknob."

"Cassie, wait --" Dean thinks maybe he should go after her, but it feels like there's a large lead weight holding him down.

This is what happens when you open up enough to let that raw need show. You drive off the people you're trying to hang onto. Anyone else would've learned that after the last time, but Dean -- well, he can be a special brand of stupid.

He thinks about that kiss, the one that fucked up everything. The warmth and patter of the water in that camp shower, just the two of them after a long bout of sparring and wrestling.

An impulse, which he'd followed.

And it wrecked everything, fucked Dean right in the heart. It took its sweet time, but this is why he's alone. Nothing will ever convince him otherwise.

2.

Minnesota

Dean's life doesn't flash before his eyes. It stays in his head, because it takes too much energy to keep his eyes open, and it crawls.

But that seems about right, because he's dying slow. Doctors give him a month or less.

Jesus Christ, Dean. Jesus Christ. What the fuck made you fire the fucking Taser when you were lying in half a foot of water? This was pretty much the mantra he heard as Sam carried him like a sack of potatoes and drove him to the hospital -- at least for the parts when he was conscious.

"I had a shot," Dean said. Or thought he said, he wasn't really sure. Shit, if it was a choice between dying by rawhead and frying himself extra crispy, he'd do the same thing every time.

Well, maybe. He feels scorched inside and out, and the unbearable pressure on his chest makes every breath a struggle. The temptation to stop fighting plays at the edges of his mind, but he knows he won't. Sammy needs him. He's so broken, torn away from the normal life he tried so hard to have, still lost in grief over Jess, and now--

The least Dean can do is stay with Sam as long as he can, help him make his peace with this latest bit of life's random fuckery. He'll stick around and fight, for Sammy's sake.

So he's like that poor stupid bastard in A Clockwork Orange, strapped in a chair, eyes forced open to watch films of the sickest violent shit imaginable. Except it's Dean's body keeping him bound, and his eyes are closed, but the inside of his eyelids make a great place to project the exclusive screening of Dean Winchester's Epic Fuckups.

There really should be an intermission, because this shit is long.

There's that thing with the shtriga, when he'd disobeyed Dad and nearly gotten Sammy killed. That time in Flagstaff when he'd fucked up while Dad was away on a hunt and let Sam run off for two weeks. And that time--

It's always Dad, isn't it?

Even when it's about Sam, somewhere farther down, it's about Dad.

That's why he won't let himself abandon Sam until his body fails him. Dad put Sammy in his care 22 years ago, and this is one thing he isn't going to screw up. Except, he already has.

His body tugs him down toward sleep, even while his surroundings seem devised to keep him buoyed. Lights that never go off, sharp stink of antiseptics and disinfectants, noises of monitors and pages and the fucking cooing of the fucking pigeons nesting on his windowsill. But sleep is an undertow, and as it sweeps down, Dean wonders if he's ever going to come back up.

***

Leaning on the nurse's desk, Dean attempts his high-octane charm on the homely blonde stationed there, but he's too worried to nail it. "I'm looking for my dad," he says. "John..." Fuck. Fuck! He's forgotten the name they were using.

Frowning in concern, the nurse -- Angie, her badge reads -- gets to her feet. "You shouldn't be here."

"Yeah Angie, I know it's after hours. But my dad's here, and I need to know what room." His chest feels so goddamn tight. Dean knows he needs to chill the fuck out, but he'll do that after he sees his father.

Muttering something to another nurse at the desk, Angie comes around to the front and takes him by the arm. "You should be in bed."

"I'm not a kid," he protests, then puts a hand to his chest as a wave of pain mixed with vertigo sweeps over him. "Just tell me where my dad is."

"Was he brought in with you?"

Dean gives his head a hard shake and nearly topples over. Hands push him into a wheelchair as he says, "I brought him in. If you people have fucking lost my dad --" Another pain spears through his chest, and as he grits his teeth to ride it out, he suddenly notices as Angie guides his feet onto the cold metal pedals, her hands are wrapped around two naked, hairy legs. "What," he says, pausing to draw in a wheezing breath, "happened to my damn pants?"

"They're fine, Dean," she says. "They're with your other things."

Now he notices the short, light blue gown he's got on and the peculiar drafty feeling at his ass and between his shoulder blades, and he raises his hand to inspect the plastic band encircling his wrist. He's a patient?

"Would you like me to call your brother? I think he's in the cafeteria."

"Sammy? He came from Stanford?"

"Let me get you settled back in your room, and I'll call him." It takes Angie and an orderly to get Dean back into his bed, because Dean is somehow unable to help them at all.

"Where's my dad?" he says for the dozenth time, but no one has an answer for him.

***

Next time he wakes, Sam's at his side and Dean knows what's going on. He's hooked up again to the tubes and wires, and the monitors are making their Dr. Sexy sound effects.

"Hey," Sam says.

"Hey," he says back, and his voice is barely a whispered rasp.

"You scared the shit out of everyone." Sam's trying to keep his tone light, but he's not quite making it. "And you showed your bare ass to the entire floor."

Dean quirks a half smile. "When you're a god like me, the least you can do is share the beauty." Trying to reach up to scratch his nose, he discovers his wrists are tethered to the bed rails, though the restraints are well padded. "So they decided I'd go for a little bondage fun?"

"That's in case it happens again." Sam gestures reassuringly. "It's nothing to worry about. I guess it's a well-known side effect of being in the hospital a while, especially when you've spent some time in ICU. The noises and the sleep deprivation can mess with your head."

Turning his face toward the window that shows him nothing but a brick wall covered with shifting puzzle pieces of sunlight and shadow, Dean's silent for a long moment. Finally he says, "I thought Dad was here. In here, as a patient, after a hunt. I couldn't find him."

"You and me both," Sam says, and the no-worries tone slips a little more. "I called him, but all I got was his voice mail. I left a message, told him where we are."

"Of course that's all you got." Dad's finished with him, that much seems clear. He's alive -- or was that once when he'd called -- but he's keeping his distance. Dad started detaching that spring Dean met Cassie, and kept moving farther and farther away. Receding with the horizon. It'll be a dead heat to see whether Dad vanishes first, or Dean.

Slipping his hand around Dean's, Sammy squeezes it gently.

"You know I'm only letting you do this because my hands are tied." He squeezes back, making a lie of his words.

"Yeah, I know." Sam's voice sounds all clogged, like Dean's.

"Go get yourself a cup of coffee, all right? You look like shit."

After a moment's hesitation, Sam unfolds from the bedside chair. "Anything I can get you?"

"Ice cream sandwich and a hot nurse," he says, and wills Sam to leave now.

"I'll be back in a few minutes," Sam tells him. "Wait here."

"Dipshit," Dean mutters, and Sam grins.

Sam's no sooner out of the room when tears start to slip from Dean's eyes. He's going to die here, tied up like a mental patient, without ever seeing his old man again. Because he fucked up. Did something suicidally stupid.

Because he fucked up. Pushed Dad away, starting with that stupid kiss.

***

He doesn't know why he did it; didn't then, doesn't now. It had just been one of those days when the grind of training had become something else. A kind of physical joy that infected them both, made them grin at each other even as they grunted and cursed in their efforts to best one another.

For the first time in memory, his dad hadn't barked out orders, criticized his form, mocked a half-assed, hung-over performance. As they'd tussled Dean had somehow become an equal, and as Dean's awareness of this grew, he saw his own joy reflected in his dad.

They'd sparred and wrestled until they were barely able to move, and even the aches as they walked down to the camp showers felt like some kind of badge of honor. Riding that high, Dean had leaned in under the warm spray and pressed a kiss on Dad's lips. Dad grew very still for the space of a heartbeat, but he didn't push Dean away. Reckless, Dean leaned in again, and this time --

This time Dad had parted his lips, let Dean flick his tongue there.

He hadn't pushed Dean away, but he sure as hell has since then. He wonders how much Sam told Dad abut the last few days. Does Dad know that Dean's dying? Is he, deep down, relieved to be free of the sickdirtywrong son he'd produced?

This is one secret Sammy's never going to know.

By the time Sam's back, Dean's tears have dried into stiff tracks trailing down toward his ears.

Setting two white foam clamshells on the bedside table, Sam says, "Sorry it took longer than I thought, but I actually went across the street for pie and ice cream." He fumbles at the restraints on Dean's wrist. "Let me get this. These things are staying off as long as I'm here to make sure you stay put."

"I don't want to stay put, Sammy."

"You're too sick for them to release you." Sam unfastens the first restraint, and once he knows the trick, the second goes much faster.

Well, then it's a good thing he doesn't plan on waiting to be released.

Sam raises the head of Dean's bed, then hands him a clamshell and a plastic fork. He settles on the bed at Dean's feet and opens his own pie. "Eat your pie before the ice cream melts."'


3.

North Dakota

Dean stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Sam, bathed in the heat and the stench of their dad's pyre. Burning a body or a box of old bones is nothing new, but this time the usual defenses -- I smell dead people and a smirk -- aren't remotely possible. The bundle of meat up on the platform they made is their dad. Dean's dad. This is it. After all the game-playing, codes and coordinates and junior spy bullshit, Dad's gone for good.

And now they'll never get a chance to move past the damage Dean had done to their relationship. For a moment he thought, when Dad sent Sam out of the hospital room and opened up to Dean, that he was about to bridge that chasm that stretched between them. Putting a hand on Dean's shoulder, Dad leaned in close, almost brushing his tear-streaked face against Dean's. Both fear and hope surged in Dean at this shocking display of emotion, and without conscious thought, Dean's lips parted as he waited for dad's sign that they were okay again.

But it wasn't a kiss Dad had for him, but his hot breath against Dean's ear as he said -- again -- to keep watch over Sammy. Save him -- if you can't, you have to kill him. That's all he'd had for Dean. He'd asked forgiveness but not offered any for Dean, just handed him a burden Dean doesn't know if he can carry.

He thinks of those women in -- where, India? -- the ones who throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres. He gets that. He's lost. Which doesn't exactly make sense, since Dad gave him a purpose with his very last breath.

A hand grabs a fistful of leather jacket and hauls him three staggering steps backward. "What are you doing?" Sam says, and that's when Dean realizes he's been stepping closer and closer to the pyre, into the same scorching heat that reminds him of the inside-and-out cooking he'd felt after the rawhead hunt.

Dean gives his head a hard shake. Instead of letting him go, Sam pulls him into a fierce hug. Jesus, when had Sammy gotten so fucking large? Dean hasn't felt towered over in years. The last time had been Dad, of course. Years before that kiss.

Without intending to, Dean finds himself leaning into Sam, the way he used to with Dad, back then, back when he gave out the occasional hugs to his sons. Sam pulls him in closer, enveloping him in the smell of gasoline, hospital disinfectant, old sweat, burning flesh and bone. Sam's tears smear against Dean's temple as one hand reaches up to cradle the back of Dean's head. Dad used to do that -- Dean wonders if Sam's even aware how naturally he's imitated the gesture.

"We'll get through this," Sam murmurs, voice husky. Again, he's parroting their dad.

Yeah, Dean knows they will. What else can they do? They're John Winchester's boys.

***

4.

Hell

Eternal torture sounds so simple. But that's not how Alistair works. It's the pauses that make him the artist he is. It's actually not pain that's his favorite medium, but hopelessness. The pauses, like the torture, vary with each session. Unpredictability feeds uncertainty, which feeds despair.

"So many torturers rely on their own imagination," Alistair loves to say. He's damn fond of talking about his own artistry, spouting his philosophy as he works with rack and blade. "Demon and human. That's why they'll never be more than mere craftsmen. Competent, but nothing special. A true master works with his own imagination and his victim's. It's a duet, Dean, between the two of us."

He hates it when Alistair says his name, in the insinuating tone that sounds like he's talking to his best friend. A lover. The only thing Dean hates more is when Alistair caresses his face or runs his hand through Dean's hair. "I like you, Dean," he often says when he has his hands on Dean this way. "I can see the potential shining in you."

Alistair also varies the timing of the pauses. Sometimes he leaves Dean broken and bleeding on the rack, knowing there's more agony to come. Other times, it's after he's knitted Dean's flesh back together and made him the offer he always makes. "Let me help you reach your potential, Dean, and I'll let you off the rack. That's all you have to do, just show me what's already there inside you."

The longest pauses are always after Dean's been made whole again. Among his many gifts, Alistair has a talent for judging just when Dean will start thinking he can't possibly endure another round of torture, and then stretching out the wait even longer. Dean's imagination plays its part, just as Alistair predicted. He quivers in a corner of his cell, clawing at his own skin, weeping and muttering to himself. His breaking point, it seems to Dean, comes sooner with each repetition.

Dean is backed into his corner, his naked skin unmarked except for the red and bloody tracks of his own fingernails, when he opens his eyes to find his father studying him. "Dad?" The syllable cracks on the way out of his parched throat.

"Dean." There's a coldness in his voice that makes Dean wrap his arms around himself and pull his legs closer in.

"Thought I might find you here." He crouches before Dean, close enough for him to smell his dad's scent of leather, tobacco and gun oil. "It's always been inevitable, but the deal really greased the skids."

"Dad. Please... help me."

"You want me to bust you out?"

His tone makes it clear what his answer would be to such a request.

"Sammy... Sammy needs --"

"What? You rammin' your tongue down his throat? That's gonna keep him from turning into a monster? Shit, boy, you're more unnatural than he is."

"Boy." Not "son." Twisting in his corner to better hide his body from his dad, Dean turns his face to the wall.

"Naw, I just came to make sure you really got what's coming to you."

Dad spits at Dean's feet and turns away, footsteps beating a staccato in his haste to leave his son behind.

***

It's not until he's under Alistair's knife once more that his mind achieves the clarity he needs to realize that the visitation was not his dad.

"It was you," he whispers, words slurred through broken teeth.

Alistair bends over him, breath hot against his face. "Smart boy. Are you smart enough to walk away from the rack?"

Not just yet. At his failure to answer, Alistair lightly trails his blade down the center of Dean's chest. Dean gives himself up to the sensation, its promise of pain, reaching for more of the clarity that's an unexpected gift of the blade. Sensing Dean's surrender, Alistair pushes the knife in as he reachis his belly, tearing out the pulsing organs inside and throwing them to his demons like scraps to a pack of dogs. Dean rides the crest of the pain, huffing short, agonized breaths, and Alistair smiles down at him.

"Ah, Dean," he croons. "You've made that leap, haven't you? You're mine now."

Dean keeps his eyes on Alistair, savoring the pain, grateful that it's merely physical.

"You've figured it out, haven't you?" The demon scoops his hands into the firepit at his side, cradling burning coals as he turns and deposits them into the empty space he'd made in Dean. He silences Dean's screams with a coal shoved into his mouth, a gentle finger placed to blackening lips. "You know I'm the one who'll never leave you, never turn away in disgust at the rot that's inside of you." He piles more coals inside Dean, keeping up his monologue. "I'm going to take it and twist it and shape it until it's so beautiful the demons will hardly be able to look upon you." When he's satisfied, he begins sewing Dean's flesh back together, distended and misshapen. "What d'you say, Dean? Do you want to rise up and become my apprentice? Put that unnatural bent of yours to creative use?"

Dean swallows the coal, feels it sear a path downward. "Yes," he manages to say. "Yes."

Instead of the instant relief he expects, the coals burn even hotter, while Alistair caresses Dean's face, cards his blackened and bloody hand through Dean's hair. "That's my boy." The demon leans in and presses his lips to Dean's, not possessively or brutally, but exactly like the kiss that's seared into Dean's memory, that first time he touched his lips to his father's.

And that's when he finds his body whole once more.

5.

Indiana

Dean hoists the serious med kit out of the Impala's trunk as Ben watches.

"Holy shit, that's enormous!"

Fixing him with a look, Dean says, "Hey, now. I'm going to be in serious trouble with your mom if she thinks you're picking that up from me."

"Can I carry it?"

"Sure."

It's a bit much for a ten-year-old to carry, but Ben gets the handle in both hands and shuffles along behind it, letting it bump against his shins. Dean watches him stumble toward the porch, listening to the crazy-quilt song of the mockingbird in a tree shading the house. He's never paid much attention to things like birdsong, unless they were relevant to a hunt, but this mockingbird has added a new element to his song. A dead-on impression of the creak the Impala's driver's side door makes. For the past week the is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex had been driving him crazy until he figured out what it was. Before that, he'd reached for his gun more than once on his way to see who was trying to steal his baby.

Well, he's got to admire the bird's taste in cars, anyway.

As Dean hurries ahead of Ben to grab the front door for him, Ben turns a serious face upward, "Are you sure you wanna do this?"

"Sure, why not?"

"Boy Scouts is kinda lame, that's why. Mom makes me go."

Dean trails behind Ben, rescuing a lamp that nearly topples when Ben bumps the med kit into an end table. "You think? My dad was an Eagle Scout before he went into the Marines. He probably used as much of the stuff he learned there as he did the Marine stuff once he started hunting."

"Yeah?"

"Yup." He thinks about that young guy, fresh out of the Marines. So innocent to what was really out there, so -- well, sort of sweet. Dismissing those thoughts, Dean relieves Ben of the kit and opens it on the kitchen table. "Some of this stuff is kind of specialized. We can leave behind the holy water, and the acacia and angelica root."

"What do they do?"

"Healing and protection. Sometimes you've gotta wash a wound out with holy water."

"So what horrible thing is gonna happen to me?" Ben asks.

"Any ideas?"

Ben grins. "Something gross."

"Compound fracture is pretty gross. That's where your bone sticks out."

"Ooh, yeah, that would be awesome!"

For a moment, the psychic gauze that's completely encased Dean for the past several months drops away, and he remembers the instant bond he felt with Ben the first time they met. The same hunger for family floods him now, with a strong current of loss so cold it slices like a knife. Grasping Ben by the shoulder, he pulls him to his side, scruffs his hand through Ben's hair with a rough tenderness he learned from his dad and went on to share with Sam. "Pretty awesome yourself, sport."

There is a reason Dean thinks of gauze when he acknowledges the layers that usually shroud his emotions. He is the walking wounded. A walking wound.

"Didn't you say you had a lot of homework tonight?"

"Nah, I said I had a buttload of homework."

Another rough pass through his hair, then Dean releases Ben. "Better get on it."

Ben groans showily and shuffles toward the kitchen door even slower than when he'd been burdened with the kit. Stopping, he turns back toward Dean. "How do you know all this stuff? I mean, we can't tell 'em you fight monsters."

"Mountain search and rescue. Colorado. I'll work on the details while you get on your homework, okay?"

"Yeah, cool."

Setting aside the various hoodoo ingredients, Dean packs up the med kit, pausing when he comes to the suture kit. He's sewn up plenty of injuries in his day, though Sam was better at it. None of those times is the one he's thinking of now. The memory of Alistair sewing him up with sinew and a sliver of Dean's own bone makes the bile rise in his throat. Dean wheels toward the sink, spitting into the drain and splashing water on his face.

As he's using her dish towel to dry his face, Lisa returns from her Tuesday evening class. "Oh god," she says as she sees the kit. "What happened?"

"Nothing. Ben and I were planning his Boy Scout project. We're doing a joint presentation on field medicine."

Setting down her bag and her rolled yoga mat, Lisa approaches him. She cocks her head and regards him for a long moment, her hand on his chest. "You okay?"

He flickers a smile. "Trying to be."

Sliding her arms around him, she asks, "Want to talk about it?"

"'Sokay," he says, meaning "no." It drove her batshit crazy when he first moved in, but she's learned to tell 'sokay from okay.

Lisa rubs a hand up and down his back in a way that reads comfort, not sex. (She's not the only one learning to interpret foreign languages.) "Well, anytime you want to." Releasing him except for his one hand, she idly spins his ring with her thumb. "I'm going in to Ben. Thanks for helping him with the Boy Scout thing."

"Yeah, well, he's a good kid." Before she can scold him for never taking a compliment or a thank you (he's been here long enough to see it coming), he says, "You look tired. I'll go pick us up a pizza."

"Sure. Thanks."

***

"You are trying admirably to keep your promise," Castiel says when Dean's two blocks from the pizza place.

Dean narrowly misses taking out a whole row of parked cars like the drunk chick in 40-Year Old Virgin. He's out of practice with angel-induced heart attacks. "That's me," he says. "I'm a world-class tryer."

"You should get a new act," Cas says, and Dean's startled at how human he sounds.

"Act? What do you mean?"

"The whole 'I suck at life' routine. It's getting old."

Dean casts a sidelong look at him, but Cas is gazing out the passenger window at darkened or neon-splashed storefronts, curious as an old lady out for her Sunday drive.

"Nobody's chained you to the seat, buddy. You're free to go anytime."

Turning to regard him, Cas says, "That was unduly blunt, maybe. I'm used to dealing with my brothers. You shouldn't discount all your accomplishments, Dean."

"Like what?"

Cas shakes his head. "You stopped the Apocalypse."

"Sam stopped the apocalypse. I tried to think of a better way. I tried real hard," Dean spits. "Like I always do."

Cas's only response is a disgusted noise as Dean guides the Impala into the parking lot.

"Wait here," Dean says. "I have to go order or this'll take all night."

Once he's given the elaborate formula for a pizza that all three of them will willingly eat, Dean returns to the Impala, hoping Castiel will have vanished, but he's out of luck. Resigned to the inevitable, he settles behind the wheel and waits for more.

It takes a while. The sound of dish washers at work in the restaurant kitchen and one loud cricket in the scrubby grass below its window filter in with the night air.

Finally, Cas says, "Sam couldn't have done it without you. You've always been a hero to him."

Dean scoffs. "Some hero."

"All heroes are broken, Dean. If I've learned anything about humans in thousands of years, it's that."

The sound of Spanish drifts out the pizzeria window, followed by raucous laughter. It has that particular sound of guys joking around about sex.

"Sometimes I hate him," he says softly. "Sam," he adds, though he knows Cas already knows.

"Why?" Again Dean's struck by the humanness in his voice. The kindness.

"For tying me to this promise. It's his fantasy, not mine." Which is a lie. Dean has dreamed about having a normal life; he's just dismissed the notion before it can take root. "For going to hell. I know what's waiting for him, Cas. He doesn't deserve that. I wish it was me, I really do."

"You don't deserve to be condemned any more than Sam does." It's strange how his tone conveys the same declarative fierceness he'd used back when he'd threatened to throw Dean back in the pit, yet his speech patterns are so much more human now.

He remembers his father's hot breath on his fingernail-raked skin -- You're more unnatural than Sam is. "Yeah," he says, and his voice cracks. "Yeah, I do."

"Why?" This time the word snaps out, crackling with exasperation.

Unnatural. Dean looks out of his window, fingers twitching with the desire to switch on the radio, to turn the key in the ignition and drive, something.

"Dean."

Cas's tone commands Dean's attention. He settles his hand, looks over at the passenger seat.

"The sin is in letting one moment define you, destroy you," Cas says. "The sin is giving up on yourself."

Dean's mouth falls open at this. "But I --"

"You have the forgiveness you can't give to yourself. Do you want to scratch at it until you discover it's cheap and false? You won't. But you harm yourself and others with the attempt."

Dean would swear there's a tight band clamped around his chest, because he can only take shallow, pained breaths.

"In the very Last Days," (Dean can hear the capital letters in Cas's voice), "I expected little from you, because I had let myself despair. It's a sin I've repented of. Now I'm going to ask you what I believe might be the hardest thing I've demanded in the time we've known one another."

"Cas, I'm not hunting. I'm with Lisa now." It's easier to say this than to say he's gutted and it's all he can do not to spend every day drinking himself to oblivion. "I promised Sam."

"I know."

"Then what?"

"Forgive yourself. Accept that your father was a badly damaged man who loved you as well as he could, but sometimes made grave mistakes. Accept that he damaged you and that some of your actions grew out of this, then --"

"Love my inner child?" The wisecrack prompts the expected sigh, but it's not as satisfying as it used to be. Dean imagines him using that sigh on his dickish winged brothers upstairs, and the thought makes him grin.

"Love Ben. Accept his love. Do your best not to let your damage spill over onto him."

"What the hell are you trying to say?"

"I believe I always say exactly what I'm trying to say. I'm not accusing you of anything. I know you, Dean. I know you would never intend to hurt Ben. But your father had no more intention of damaging you and your brother."

The idea of even questioning whether Dad might've had the intention or not seems something like blasphemy. It's admitting that Dad fucked up. And opening himself to compassion for his father...

Somehow that seems worst of all. It diminishes his dad, makes him --

Human.

In some weird way, he's never thought of his old man that way. Even after Dean began admitting John Winchester could be wrong -- pigheaded, arrogant, obsessive -- he'd never really thought of Dad as a fucked-up human. Getting by (and raising his sons) the best he could.

The thought cracks Dean wide open. Tightening his hands on the steering wheel, he focuses on the ring that glints in the light from the pizza joint. It quavers like a candle seen through a rain-beaded window.

When Cas speaks his voice is hushed. "I know what it is to ask for more from a distant father. You may as well beat your fists against a boulder and demand that flowers spring forth. You only do yourself an injury."

Dean draws in a breath and lets it out slowly, the same tightly controlled breath that, if he heard it from Sam some late night, would alert him to the fact that Sam was crying. The wet heat of his face confirms this.

"It's entirely natural to long for a father's love, Dean," Cas goes on. "You asked so many times in so many ways, and you went unheard. Don't keep blaming yourself for attempting to ask in an unorthodox language."

"Cas..." Dean's throat clenches around the name and he can't say anything further.

"Now's the time to open your fists, Dean. Take the love that's freely offered."

"Ben." Dean would protest that it's way too early for Ben to love him, but he remembers Sam as a child, back when the family secret excluded him. How Sam's friendships could be forged in the space of an afternoon, and how his grief at leaving behind a friend he'd known for a week was very real and fierce.

Sam. He gave his heart so readily, while Dean kept his in a place like Bobby's panic room, behind an iron door, ringed with wards and sigils.

"Yes," Cas says quietly.

Dean lets this sink in. The screen door to the kitchen slaps softly as one of the dish washers steps outside and lights a cigarette, and the lone cricket abruptly stops its shrill song.

"Your crazy bread is getting cold," Cas says.

Dean shoots a look toward the passenger seat, but by the time he turns his head, Cas is gone with that faint sound of wings. Scrubbing his palms over his face, Dean takes in and releases a long breath. Then he goes back into the restaurant to pick up dinner, and makes his way back home.