Title: Perchance to Dream
When Sam almost gets them both killed, Dean decides enough's enough.
Lately he's pretty much stayed on the sidelines when it comes to his brother's insomnia. Tired of Sam repeatedly--and heatedly--dismissing his concerns, he's taken to faithfully following the John Winchester code of conduct: Don't press. Give him space. He's not a little kid, Dean. He can take care of himself.
So he doesn't comment on the deepening shadows under Sam's eyes or the fact that they should own stock in Starbuck's and Mountain Dew. And he certainly doesn't mention that every time he needs to take a piss in the middle of the night he finds his brother awake and staring blankly at some crappy infomercial on the muted television.
Sam seems fine with the arrangement, relieved even, that he doesn't have to deal with any more of Dean's attempts to make like Dr. Phil. They both become very good at ignoring the large elephant squatting in the middle of the room. And life goes on like that with Sam not sleeping and Dean not noticing.
Until tonight, when Sam screws up and a werewolf with possibly the worst breath in the known universe knocks him twenty feet down a ravine and nearly rips out Dean's throat before he puts a bullet between its eyes.
Miraculously--except Dean doesn't believe in miracles--Sam limps away with cuts and bruises, and the scratches on Dean's neck, though they bleed like a sonuvabitch, are shallow. Sam's silent on the ride back to the motel, overly solicitous in his attempts to help clean the dried blood from the cuts on Dean's throat. Somehow that just fuels Dean's already simmering anger, and he slaps his brother's hands away with a growl.
"I've got it, just back off."
Sam's eyes go wide and defenseless for a split second, then shutter. He stands and rummages through his duffel. "Fine. I'm gonna take a shower."
"Don't use up all the hot water."
Sam's answer is to slam the bathroom door.
Only when he hears the hiss of the shower does Dean drop his head into his hands, shivering in reaction.
Sam almost got them killed.
Even swamped by a fresh surge of anger, a corner of Dean's brain whispers it's not really his brother he's mad at. For weeks he's looked the other way while Sam gives off warning signs like neon lights. His hands shake. Clumsiness has replaced normally fluid grace. And worst of all, his sharp mind has grown sluggish, offering only lame come backs to Dean's needling and failing to make the intuitive leaps they've both come to rely on.
Rule number two: never go hunting if you're not at the top of your game. He'd ignored that, too, and tonight they nearly paid the price.
Dad would've ripped them both a new one.
The shower shuts off, but Dean's still steaming. It ends here and it ends now. He's done letting Sam pretend the insomnia's not an issue. Even if it means sleeping pills or--Dean cringes--a session with a headshrinker, his brother's going to get some help.
When he finally comes out of the bathroom, Sam's clad only in a worn pair of sweatpants. Drawn out by the hot water, purpling bruises pepper his torso, especially down his left side and across his ribs. He scrubs a threadbare towel over his hair, wincing a little when the motion apparently pulls sore muscles.
"It's all yours," he says, carefully avoiding Dean's gaze. "I left bandages and the antibiotic cream on the counter."
Dean knows the routine. He's supposed to stalk into the bathroom and take his shower. By the time he comes out, Sam will be stretched out on his bed, asleep--or doing a passable job faking it. Tired, sore, and unwilling to disturb his brother's rest, Dean then turns out the light, promising himself they'll talk in the morning.
Except, of course, they never do.
Well screw that.
"We need to talk."
Sam gives a slight jerk of surprise as he bends over his duffel, but he recovers quickly and pulls out a tee shirt. "That definitely makes the top ten list of things you never expect to hear from Dean Winchester."
"I mean it, Sam."
Sam gets pissy, all clenched jaw and narrowed eyes, and tugs the shirt over his head. "I'm tired, and you're covered in blood. I think it can wait."
His brother's surly response convinces Dean he's on the right track. "Yeah? Well, you think wrong. Now park your ass on the bed or I'll do it for you."
He knows he's pushing some major buttons, that this will go one of two ways depending on who responds. Sam will push back--hard--spouting belligerence and righteous anger, telling Dean to take his orders and shove them. Sammy, on the other hand, will sulk and mutter but do as he's told.
It's a gamble. If there's one thing his brother has made very clear these past few months, it's that he's not a child anymore. Though he left Dean as Sammy, kid brother and third in the Winchester pecking order, he's returned as Sam, an equal partner capable of pulling his own weight and, when necessary, saving Dean's ass.
Dean's counting on the guilt and lingering fear he sees written in Sam's tense shoulders and averted eyes to bring out that lurking little brother. Sammy he can deal with, Sam...he's not so sure.
And just as it has in countless hands of poker, Dean's bluff pays off. Sam huffs and shoots him a murderous glare, but plunks himself down on the bed opposite Dean, arms folded. "So talk."
Dean hangs on to his temper. "What happened out there?" He knows the answer. He just wants Sam to say it.
Sam gives him a quick, sideways glance through his lashes before his eyes skitter away. "You were there."
"Meaning you know what happened."
There it is, just the slightest tremor in Sam's otherwise emotionless voice. Dean digs in his heels and pushes harder.
"Well I'm not so sure you do."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
It's the first time Sam's looked him in the eye, and Dean takes full advantage, holding his furious glare. "You screwed up."
"That thing was fast, it was on me before--"
"You dropped your gun, Sam, like a rank amateur." As hard as he struggles to stay calm, the memory of how close they came raises Dean's blood pressure--and his voice.
"It hit me full in the chest! The thing must've weighed two hundred pounds!"
"Your reaction time's shot to hell. You were too slow, you fumbled your weapon, and our hairy friend kicked your ass."
"I'm sorry, alright? Is that what you want to hear? It won't happen again!"
It's only anger on the surface, and Dean knows his brother well enough to hear the hairline cracks beneath the thin veneer. One more shove, he thinks.
"You're right. It won't." He leans forward, elbows
propped on knees. "You nearly got yourself killed, Sammy. And
what's worse, you nearly got me killed. A half-inch deeper, a
second later and you'd've been an only child. Now I know you've
always been jealous, me being the good-looking one and Dad's
And there it is. Sam's voice cracks and he looks away, blinking hard.
More than anything, Dean wants to let Sam off the hook. His brother's tears have always hit him like a sucker punch, and Sam's as close to losing it as he's ever seen him. It's like he's managed to pull out a crucial block in the tower of denial Sam's been building since Jess's death.
But he's finally started this thing, and he's going to finish it.
"So...what did happen out there tonight?" he asks again, gentler this time.
Sam doesn't get defensive, but he hesitates, chewing his lip. When he does speak, it's as if 10 years have melted away. If Dean closed his eyes he could believe Sam's standing in front of their father, fighting tears of shame as he tries yet again to account failing John Winchester's high expectations.
The fact that Sam's using this pained tone of voice with him makes Dean's chest ache.
"It happened so fast. But...I think I kind of--I don't know--maybe zoned out for a minute while we were waiting, right before... And then the gun slipped, and..." He swallows and his throat clicks.
"Zoned out? Or nodded off?" Dean presses.
Sam's silence is confirmation enough.
"Level with me, Sam. How much sleep have you been getting?"
Sam hitches one shoulder. "Three...maybe four hours."
"A night?" His anger sparks again--at himself for not realizing the depth of the problem and at Sam for being so damn good at hiding it.
"It's not as bad as it sounds. I'd get less than that during finals."
"For a week--maybe two. This has been going on for months. Damn it, Sam, it's no wonder you screwed up!" When a little more of the color drains from Sam's face and he ducks his head, Dean draws in a calming breath. "Why didn't you level with me?"
"At first I thought it would pass. Then..." A slight shake of his head. "I was afraid you'd think I couldn't pull my own weight."
Dean bites back the obvious retort--tonight's fiasco is answer enough. "Sam--"
"I have to be part of this!" Sam blurts. "I have to find the thing that killed Jessica. Nothing else matters."
"Yeah, I get that, kiddo. Not even me."
Just as he hoped, Sam flinches as if slapped. "What?"
Dean shrugs and goes in for the kill. "You don't have to draw me a picture. I mean, dude, you're obviously willing to risk my life if it means you can keep hunting."
"What? No! It's not like that. Dean, you're all I've...I--I'd never--" Sam looks away. A muscle jumps in his cheek and his eyes fill.
Congratulations, Dean. You've just ripped your little brother to shreds. Happy now?
The answer, of course, is no. But Dean's never been above playing any card, no matter how dirty, if it will keep Sam alive.
"Then you need to cut the 'lollipops and candy canes' bullshit and let me help you."
Sam shuts his eyes but a tear escapes to trickle down his cheek. "I don't think you can," he says, the words rough and broken.
And Dean may be pissed but he's not made of steel. He moves to sit beside Sam, shoulders brushing. "You're forgetting something." When Sam looks at him with wet eyes, he pastes on his best shit-eating grin. "I'm the big brother, Sammy. I can do anything."
Sam snorts but one corner of his mouth turns up. "You're an asshole."
"And you're a whiny bitch." He waits until a little of the tension leaves Sam's shoulders. "So...tell me."
Sam's sigh holds the weariness of a battle-scarred soldier faced with a war he can never win. "Falling asleep isn't the problem."
"Yeah. I've noticed." These days Sam's usually out the minute his head hits the pillow, not to mention all the times he nods off in the car or while reading. Dean grimaces--he should have figured that sooner or later it would happen on a job. "Nightmares?"
Dean's staring straight ahead, trying to give his brother at least that much space, but he sees Sam nod from the corner of his eye. "I thought they'd gotten better."
"More like I've gotten better at not waking you."
"But not better at going back to sleep." It's sharper than Dean intended, but damn it, he's still pissed.
Sam's quiet for a long moment. "Sometimes I can't. Sometimes...I'm afraid to."
The admission is all raw emotion--shame and resignation with an edge of defiance. It blunts the edges of Dean's anger and sparks a memory.
"Why did you let me fall asleep?"
"'Cause I'm an awesome brother."
Not "Why didn't you wake me up?" but "Why did you let me fall asleep?" The significance had slipped past him then, as he focused on the nightmares rather than their aftermath.
How many nights had Sam fought to stay awake, while just a few feet away Dean slept on, oblivious?
"Look, I can see the nightmares are bad. But Sammy, not sleeping isn't the answer."
"Maybe not. But it's the best I've been able to come up with." Sam blows out a long breath and grinds the heel of his hand into one eye. "Are we done for now? Because ironic as it may seem, I don't think I can stay awake much longer." He wrinkles his nose. "Not to mention the fact that you really need a shower."
"God, you really are a chick."
"Whatever." Sam flops onto his back with a groan, blinking heavily.
"Hey." Dean waits until his brother looks at him. "Next time you wake me."
Already sinking toward sleep, it takes Sam a minute to process. "Dean... It's not that I don't appreciate the offer, but I don't see what--"
"I don't either, but I'll figure something out. Promise me, Sam."
"Okay, okay. I promise."
Dean flicks off the light by the bed and stands. The gouges on his neck twinge in protest, and he's sure they're going to sting like a sonuvabitch in the shower. He's shuffled halfway to the bathroom when Sam's soft voice pulls him up short.
"Hallmark moment's over, Geekboy. Go to sleep."
The pillow nailing him in the back of the head tells him Sam's reflexes aren't so shot after all.
He takes his time washing up, letting the hot water ease his overtaxed muscles. The antibiotic cream soothes the burning itch of raw skin, and by the time the scratches are bandaged Dean feels loose-limbed and clumsy with the need for sleep.
Sam's right where he left him, his long body angled across the mattress, bare feet still touching the floor. Dean has a sudden, clear memory of his brother as a small child, scrubbed-clean skin and footy pajamas, worn out from a hard day at play. Shaking his head, he shoves and prods, murmuring quiet reassurances until Sam's rearranged under the covers. The familiar routine brings a lump to his throat--that even now, after all he's been through, Sam subconsciously gifts him with the same unconditional trust he showed as a little boy.
Leaving the bathroom light on and the door cracked, he climbs into his own bed. Chemically laundered sheets chafe his tender skin and the mattress sags toward the middle as he shifts and squirms, searching for a comfortable position. Then, just when he's ready to admit defeat and boot up the laptop, sleep ambushes him.
Sometime later Dean comes awake fast and hard, bolting upright with his knife in hand. After a split-second he recognizes the dark shape looming over him and lets the tension seep from his body. "Dude, what the hell? Never sneak up on me like that."
"You said to wake you up."
"Yeah, wake me up, not freak me out." As Dean knuckles the sleep from his eyes, the hoarseness of Sam's voice registers. Squinting in the dim light, he watches his brother retreat to perch on edge of his bed.
Sam's tee shirt is damp with sweat and he's breathing too fast. When a shiver races through his body, he wraps both arms around himself and hunches forward.
"You want to talk about it?"
He sees a flash of teeth as Sam grimaces. "Wouldn't be my first choice, no." Another shiver.
Dean scrubs a hand through his hair, frustrated. "How 'bout you at least give me a one to ten?"
The silence stretches long enough that he thinks Sam won't answer.
"Eight. Maybe nine."
At least, Dean thinks, knowing Sam's more likely to downplay than exaggerate. He gets up and retrieves a water bottle from the fridge. Sam's hand is a little unsteady, but he chugs the contents. When he tries trading the empty bottle for the TV remote, Dean snatches it out of his hand.
"No way, Sammy. Time for all little boys to go back to sleep."
"Give it to me."
"It's two-frigging-o'clock in the morning, man. Forget it."
"I'll just turn it on for a little while, until I don't-- Just until I get sleepy."
"You turn that on now and we both know you'll be up the rest of the night. You've gotta stop doing this to yourself, Sam."
"Dean, I can't. If I shut my eyes, I'll see..." He presses his lips tightly together, throat working. "I know you're trying to help, but this isn't the way."
And Dean sees he's right--if anything Sam's more wired than before. He's come at this thing all wrong, trying to rationalize something that's pure emotion. Sam may be an adult, but fear can reduce even a grown man to a little boy.
And suddenly, Dean knows what to do.
"Lay down," he says, tossing the remote out of reach. And when Sam starts to protest, "Trust me."
After only a brief hesitation, Sam does--though stiff and tense as hell. Dean crosses to the other side of the bed and gets in, stretching out on top of the blanket, close enough that he can feel the anxiety vibrating through his brother.
Sam stares up at him, wide-eyed. "Uh, Dean? What are you doing?"
"How quickly they forget. You used to beg me to climb in bed with you after you had a bad dream."
"Yeah, when I was like, five."
"Do you want my help or not?" Sam rolls his eyes but nods. "Turn over."
"You are seriously weirding me out," Sam mutters, but does as he's told.
Dean stretches out on his side, head propped on one hand, and tentatively lays the other in the middle of Sam's back.
With a soft gasp of surprise, Sam goes rigid. "Dean?"
"Just shut up, Sam."
He rubs circles over his brother's shoulders and down the length of his spine. Face buried in the crook of one arm, at first Sam holds very still. Then, gradually, tight muscles begin to loosen.
"I remember this," Sam mutters, voice muffled.
"Yeah. Me too." How many nights had Dean chased away the monsters and coaxed his little brother back to sleep with his voice and touch? Odd how being able to give Sam this soothes a little of the ache in his own soul.
Sam turns his head until one eye appears. "You gonna tell me a story?"
"Smartass." Dean works his fingertips into a particularly tight knot. "Hey, remember that time Dad took us down to Key West?"
Sam's mouth curves. "How could I forget? Man, that was paradise."
"The sky was so blue, there wasn't a single cloud," Dean murmurs. "And the beach stretched on for miles, just...endless. I'd never seen sand that white."
"And warm." Sam's voice is slow and deep, and Dean hears the smile in it. "I remember digging my feet in, squishing it between my toes."
"The way the sun reflected off the water, it was so bright it hurt your eyes. You wanted to wear Dad's sunglasses, but they kept sliding off your shrimpy little nose."
"We had a picnic. Fed the seagulls bread crusts."
"Till one nearly took off your fingers."
"You chucked a rock at it. Almost hit it."
"Damn bird got lucky." Dean slips his hand under Sam's hair, massaging his neck down to the knob of his spine. "Then we walked along the water and picked up shells. Dad found that big one that sounded just like waves crashing on the beach when you put your ear to it."
"Could taste the salt on my lips." The words slur. Sam's eyes are shut and his smile has faded to the dimple in his cheek.
"Yeah. You decided that must make the ocean just about the safest spot around." Dean chuckles quietly, gentling the motion of his hand. "We built a huge sand castle and then watched it melt when the tide rolled in... God, I wanted that day to never end."
When Sam doesn't reply, Dean stops rubbing and just rests his hand in the middle of Sam's back, feeling the steady heartbeat under his fingertips. His brother's expression is peaceful, his breathing slow and even.
An unintelligible mumble is his only response.
Dean tugs the blanket up to Sam's shoulders before easing down to lie on his back. "Not bad." He smiles into the darkness. "I've still got the touch."
Soon he'll go back to his own bed where he can indulge in his customary sprawl. But for now the warmth of Sam's body and the rhythmic whisper of his breath provide a familiar comfort he can't resist.
Dean's not foolish enough to believe this is over. He can't heal Sam's broken heart or banish his guilt, and God knows things really do go bump in the night.
But he can make sure Sam doesn't face the nightmares alone. And maybe--just maybe--he can even give him a sweet dream now and then.