Title: Dust Between
Characters: Sam Winchester, Dean Winchester
Category: Gen, Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Spoilers: Up to 4.04
Summary: Things are wrong, and Sam doesn't know what to do. He used to know, he's sure of it, but he can't figure out how to find his way back.
Word Count: 3858
Disclaimer: Alas, I cannot afford to own these pretties, and I would have no place to keep them, besides. Sam would get quite the sore back trying to sleep on my couch, and Dean would be freaked out by my pets.
Author's Note: This is not a sequel or companion to "Dust on the Edges" so much as it is a re-do, so there's absolutely no need to read that first. This fic exists merely because I am supremely dissatisfied and unwilling to wait for Show to fix things. A certain something has been bothering me for more than a week now, and therefore I must make up my own explanation for it.
Sam watched through half-lidded eyes as his brother shuffled across the motel room and crashed down on the other bed, once again not even kicking off his shoes before falling into sleep, still fully dressed, only his jacket draped over him. Dean had been out walking for a long time, maybe even hours, trying to exhaust himself into a decent rest. Sam didn't glance at the little clock radio on the stand between them—he didn't want to know for sure exactly how long it had been. Maybe at another time Sam would have been out there walking with him, talking about stupid stuff or just shambling along silently, the quiet easy between them. Not tonight.
It had been this way for days, weeks. Dean caught sleep in hard-won snatches, curled up wherever the need took him over—on the floor, in the car, slumped in a booth at a diner while Sam kept ordering more coffee and quietly begged the waitress to leave his brother alone. It never lasted long enough. And he kept waking up scared.
Sam's sleep schedule was still a little wonky from the many nights spent sneaking out with Ruby, but he was trying to settle out of that. It was hard, breaking all those habits he had built up over the months without Dean, going at night to do what couldn't be done in daylight, learning to depend only on himself, finding moments of relief wherever they could be found. But he was determined to do it, determined to give it up. Spending all night in the same room was a decent start.
And now that he was doing that, he was realizing just how little Dean was sleeping, just how thin he was being stretched. How had Sam not noticed this from the beginning? There had a been a moment of concern that night Dean caught him and Ruby in the act, when he looked at Dean asleep on top of the covers, but Sam had been too strung out on anxiety and eagerness and his need to get away to really wonder why his brother was sleeping like that. He hadn't even paused to pull a blanket over the guy, for God's sake—why hadn't it even occurred to him? Had he been so lost in his own quest that he forgot that the prize he sought had already been given to him? He was doing a piss-poor job of showing his gratitude for the gift, that was sure.
And now… Dean kept waking up scared, and Sam didn't know what to do. He would have known exactly what to do at some other time, earlier, or even later, maybe. Nothing else would have mattered—Sam would have just done what needed done to make it better. No hesitation, no doubt, no letting Dean push him away—he would have just done it. Whatever it was.
But now, Sam didn't even bother to ask what was going on. He had forfeited the right to ask questions with that one lie. "Practically your dying wish." The look of betrayal in Dean's eyes when he figured out just how little that dying wish had meant, how little weight his desires had carried…
The trust between them was gone, leaving only a fine powder of dust behind, dry and harsh. Sam didn't know how long it would be before he was allowed to ask questions again. He didn't know what to do.
It itched at him, seeing his big brother laying there, so strangely vulnerable without a blanket to cover him up, protect him from the cold. But now, with all this, Sam didn't even dare to go over there and spread a spare blanket over him, didn't dare to touch his shoulder or try to wake him when he started making those little shifts, restless in dream. He knew that Dean would snap up, maybe punch him, and then be unable to go back to sleep. He would end up napping in the car all day, bitching about Sam's driving.
So not worth it, just to ease Sam's mind for a little bit. For now Dean was sleeping, his face slack and easy. It would have to be enough.
Sam turned over on his other side, facing away from Dean, and chased his thoughts down into the sweet gray of sleep.
Morning sun streamed in the window, unkind to the faded puke-green wallpaper, dark pink bedding, worn gray carpet. Sam turned over and saw, with a flush of gratitude, that Dean was still asleep. He showered and dressed, watched Dean from the bathroom doorway for a little bit, then went back over to the bed and sat down so he could look in his brother's face more easily, bracing himself with one hand holding the edge of the bed on each side of him.
Those first few days Dean was back, Sam had stared at him like this all the time, and Dean had put up with it easily enough. How quickly Sam had forgotten, fallen into old habits. Still all wrapped up in his secrets. They had kept him going through the hard months, but they were stripped away now. He didn't want to see Ruby again—he didn't even want to think about what they'd been doing. There had to be another way to deal with the headaches.
He couldn't ask Dean what was going on, and he knew that Dean would never bring it up on his own. Dean didn't talk about himself, unless it was connected to Sam. At the end of the rougarou hunt, he had admitted that Sam's power terrified him, even apologized for it, let him know in a thousand different ways that he was concerned, but still on Sam's side, still wanted all the best for him. Dean's heart was a freaking open book when it came to his brother, always had been. But not what was going on with just Dean, nothing about his own hopes and fears and griefs.
How the hell was Sam supposed to figure out what to do when he didn't even know what was wrong? The frustration was like a cancer, gnawing him from the inside out. And meanwhile the dark circles under Dean's eyes just got bigger and deeper.
They were supposed to go interview witnesses, but Sam didn't want to wake his brother up. Just a few minutes. Then they could go for coffee and donuts. Just let Dean sleep for a few more minutes.
Dean woke with a gasp, eyes flying wide. Sam bent down for his shoes, tucked half under his bed, pretending he'd been in the middle of the motion all along and not sitting motionless and staring like a creep.
"Dunkin' Donuts?" Sam asked, casual, slipping one shoe on and propping his foot on his knee to tie the laces. "I think I saw one over on the state road."
"Hell, yeah." Dean sat up, letting the jacket slide off his shoulders. "Gimme the classics. So much better than that Johnny-come-lately, Krispy Kreme. Can't even spell their name right."
Sam felt his forehead wrinkle, his mouth twist. "I'm pretty sure they were founded at about the same time, Dean."
"How is it that you know this stuff, geek boy? Do you look up the history of donut corporations between Google searches for aswangs and wights?"
"Hey, the history of donuts in America is actually quite fascinating, I'll have you know." Sam reached for his other shoe.
"Yep, cooking food in fat, an American tradition stretching back generations." Dean rubbed his hands over his face, pushing his fingers against his eyes as if holding them there, afraid they would fall out.
It went on a bit too long, longer than it should take a person just waking up from a good night's sleep, and Sam let his hands fall still on his shoe, laces still half-tied. Watching his brother push at his own face with clawed fingers, trying to hold himself together. He wanted to say something. He wanted to reach over and grab Dean's shoulder, just let him know he was there.
Finally, Dean lowered his hands and gave Sam a smirk. "What are we still hanging around here for? A paradise of deep-fried dough awaits us." He was on his feet already, pulling on his jacket, checking his wallet and handgun.
Sam put his feet on the floor and stood up with a shrug. "Sure, Dean. Sounds great."
He wanted to grab his brother and shake some sense into him, make him tell him what was going on, why he couldn't sleep, why he kept waking up scared. Why he couldn't seem to open his mouth to tell Sam this one little thing, when he told him everything else. He wanted to shove the stupid bastard into a wall and make him reveal everything. Make him stay with him, stop wandering off like this, leaving Sam behind, alone and confused in the dust like an abandoned toy.
They drove down Kentucky roads that cut through the high hills, jagged white slashed rock on either side beneath overhanging green as deep and riotous as a jungle. Narrow, two-lane roads that twisted and turned and fell and rose, just level enough for safety, majestic views all around them that quickly grew familiar and dull, each mountainous tree-blanketed hill just like the one before it and the one after it, shrouded in light mist, blue and green and gray. Fall was coming and soon these hills would be ablaze with color, but now the leaves just looked tired and dusty, the green muted with age.
"I was saving people," Sam blurted, unaware that he was going to say the words until they fell out of his mouth, hard and rough, like spitting rocks, the edges bruising his lips and slicing his gums. "What I was doing… I was saving people. Was that so bad?"
Dean looked over at him, stricken, but had to turn his eyes back to the winding road. "No. No, Sam, of course that wasn't a bad thing. But the way you were doing it, man… That wasn't just visions and some telekinesis once in a while. That was what you said Ava was doing at Cold Oak. Wasn't it? Controlling demons. That was…" He faltered and fell silent, shook his head, and glanced back at Sam in silent pleading, eyes wide and sad.
Sam stared forward, swallowing hard, fighting a shudder. What had Ava said? Once you open the door… Poor little secretary from Peoria.
"No, you're right," he said, subdued. "Sorry. You're right."
Dean nodded, once, and focused his attention back on driving. The way these roads twisted and slithered was mostly unpredictable. Even a good driver could easily make a mistake, here.
Anna Grady's house was set back in the sheltered corner of a hill, woods rising all around, a sloping swatch of grass for a yard and a gravel track for a driveway. The house itself looked like something out of a picture, long wooden porch along the front warped with rain and age, hand-hewn shingle roof and curtains in the windows. It had once been painted a bright blue, it looked like, but the color had faded to a more respectable robin's egg shade.
She let them in right away, just "You the boys from Animal Control? Come on in and have some lemonade," easy as pecan pie. Anna was a smiling middle-aged lady with long brown hair, wrinkles of kindness around her eyes and deep in her hands. She spoke with the sweet Kentucky twang, long vowels elongated and accented, more sing-song and lightly lilted than a southern accent, "My husband said you'd be by to have a look at things," and "I made some blondie bars…don't you boys leave now without eatin' some cookies."
It was a good thing she was so easy with them, all hospitality and home-grown charm, because Sam and Dean were still out of sync, stepping on each other's lines and getting in each other's way. Usually Sam had a way with older ladies and Dean had a way with young ones, but Anna seemed to be taken more with Dean—she kept plying him with cookies and refreshments, asking if he would prefer some coffee or hot tea instead of lemonade.
Dean smiled back, all bright-eyed boy, and offered a soft, "No, ma'am, this is fine," already adopting the Kentucky accent with his chameleon's grace. They sat elbow to elbow at the small table in Anna's sun-sweet kitchen, breeze shifting the curtains in the window, plate of blondies between them. Sam ate one of the chewy, golden squares and let Dean have at it.
"Ma'am, can you tell us what you saw down by the crick the other day?"
"Well, I ain't never seen such a thing before, that I'll tell you…" She told them all about the strange creature she had seen at the water's edge, shaped like an otter but far too big, all sharp teeth and claws, bent over a shape she recognized. Anna shuddered at the memory. "My neighbor Pat's missing coon dog, poor ol' thing, all ripped up and that animal eatin' out his insides… Oh, I'll never forget the sight, tell you true. Wish I could, though."
"And you ran right away?" Dean asked.
"Straight home lickety-split and never looked behind me. This something you boys can take care of?"
"Definitely." Sam nodded. "Thank you so much for your time, Mrs. Grady. We'll make sure it never bothers your neighborhood again."
At the door, she gently took Dean by the wrist, preventing him from leaving, and looked up into his face with a concerned wrinkle between her eyes. "You boys take care now, you hear? You're lookin' peaky. Might be you're comin' down with something."
Sam glanced over at Dean with narrowed eyes, and noticed, as if for the first time, just how wan and pale he looked, a dark flush of red high on both cheeks. This wasn't new, he was sure, or certainly he would have noticed. Dean had been looking like this for a while.
"Oh, I'll be fine," Dean said, smiling. "Thank you."
She squeezed his wrist and let him go. In the car, though, Sam drew in a deep breath opened his mouth.
Dean threw him a glare. "I'm fine, Sam. No coughing, no sneezing, no nothin'."
"Fever? You have a low-grade fever, don't you? Always with you, making you uncomfortable, not enough to do anything about but a constant irritation in the back of your mind. You know, Dean, lack of sleep suppresses the immune system. You're open to all kinds of stuff you'd usually be able to shrug off with no problem." Sam hadn't meant to go into lecture mode, but there it was, pouring out of his mouth, all of his concern and frustration with the situation coming out in a tirade that made him sound like a prissy old man.
Dean started the car, growling along with the Impala. "There's nothing wrong with me. Come on, let's just get the stuff we need to kill this water hound and take care of it."
"Maybe we don't need to kill it. It hasn't touched any humans yet. Maybe it will go back into the wild."
Dean calmed at this, the familiar discussion they had during every hunt, already knowing how it would go but needing to say the words anyway. "Yeah, but it's comfortable enough to steal a dog right out of its kennel. It's getting too used to being around humans. And once it tastes human flesh, it won't stop."
Sam nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, I know."
"Maybe we could trap it, let it loose somewhere way out in the hills."
"No." Sam sighed, staring out the windshield. "This isn't like Jack Montgomery. It's an animal. We can't take the chance."
It was actually kind of nice, having a clean, straightforward hunt. A dangerous supernatural animal starts causing problems, so the Winchesters come in and kill it. And then they go out for pecan waffles. Simple and sweet.
Sam should have known it wouldn't be that easy. The lack of cohesion that had plagued them since Missouri—since Dean came back, truthfully—had them stumbling into each other out in the woods, zigging when they should zag, leaving a gap in their defenses for the water hound to slip through. What should have been an easy hunt turned into a long, exhausting chase through the woodsy hillside, tripping over logs and each other's feet, crashing through the bracken and flailing ineffectively with silver knives until they finally tracked the thing to its lair.
And there, unfortunately, they discovered that the creature was female, and it had a nest of pups. It was nastily unpleasant, killing the mother and then each of the babies, but they couldn't leave the little things to suffer. Sam felt the gorge rise in his throat and then just stay there, unrelieved by the sweet smell of the herbs they used to burn the bodies. The water hound had caught his forearm in its teeth at one point, but he barely felt the sting of the jagged, shallow gashes, too busy trying to rub the blood off his hands with a handful of damp leaves.
Dean was grimly determined throughout, just doing the job, though Sam could see by the set of his shoulders and mouth just how little he liked doing it. The water hound had been beautiful in its own wild, lethal way, all sinewy grace and rippling brown fur, and killing the soft, helpless pups felt like the worst thing in the world. Sam had to keep bringing Anna Grady's face to his mind, her kind face and hospitable smile, remember that the hound could have easily turned from shredding the neighbor's dog to kill the woman who had unwittingly stumbled upon its meal.
Back at the motel, Dean cleaned and wrapped his forearm, fingers gentle and firm as always, getting the job done as efficiently as possible, yet pausing at the end to squeeze Sam's elbow in silent comfort. They said nothing, hadn't said a word since some flurried instructions back during the chase. The quiet should have felt easy between them—certainly they had finished up plenty of other jobs in similar silence—but it pulled at Sam, burrowing under his skin and writhing around until he fidgeted with it, unable to be still. Dean looked ready to fall over, thoroughly exhausted from the long hunt, but Sam prickled with a restless need.
Dean saw. He offered a knowing smile and handed Sam the TV remote, then curled up on the other bed, half clutching the pillow to him, half resting his head on it, eyelids drooping. "Just keep the volume low, okay? A little nap, and we can get some supper."
Sam nodded. He found a brainless action movie and settled against his headboard to watch it, waiting for car chases and explosions to wind him down. His eyes kept straying over to his brother, though. Dean was asleep in five minutes, heavy and limp, a slight wheeze coloring his breath. He probably was coming down with something after all. Great. That was all they needed.
After half an hour, Sam had to admit that he wasn't following the movie at all, and explosions and fight scenes just weren't calming him down the way he'd hoped they would. He turned off the TV and rolled his head over to look at Dean. He'd been glancing over at his brother every thirty seconds or so anyway—might as well just give up and admit that that's what he wanted to do.
Dean didn't look peaceful, though, not even in sleep. He looked tense and unhappy, anything but relaxed. And since when did Dean sleep curled up in a ball? It was all, all wrong.
Something about the way Dean lay there, so still and pale and wrong, made Sam remember all the ways he had died on that horrible Tuesday. He remembered him lying in a hospital bed, paler than the sheets around him, smiling weakly and making jokes about the fabric softener teddy bear. Remembered him on the floor in a suburban house in New Harmony, Indiana, his eyes the only part of him not splattered with blood.
Sam looked forward and swallowed hard, blinking, fighting the prickling in his eyes. This was so stupid. They'd been given a second chance, a third one, fourth one, whatever. Why were they wasting it? So, so stupid.
He jerked his head back, though, when Dean gasped, eyes already opened wide, fingers tightening on the pillow. Waking up scared, one more time. How long had he been asleep, an hour? Still those smudges of weariness under his eyes, still the spots of fever-flush on his cheeks.
"Dean…" Sam's words died in his throat. There were too many of them, clogging up behind the dam.
Dean smiled crookedly, deliberately relaxing into the mattress. "I told you, I'm fine." He glanced at the TV. "Movie over? Musta slept longer than I thought. You ready to go find a place to eat?" He made no move to get up, though. He seemed too exhausted even to shift where he lay.
Sam shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
"Oh. Okay." Dean blinked slowly, still not even bothering to uncurl his body from around the pillow. Sam wondered how long it would take him to find sleep again.
And that was it. This was stupid. Sam wasn't putting up with it anymore.
He stood and crossed the space between them in a single long-legged step, crashing right through the dust, the splintered bridges. He pushed Dean over into the middle of the bed to make room and lay down beside him, wrapping him up, curling around his ball in a larger envelope of protection, trapping his big-little brother against his chest in the tightest, strongest embrace he could manage. Dean gasped and stiffened for a bare second, then went totally limp, his face hidden against the hollow of Sam's throat.
Sam pressed him close and warm, and they lay still for the longest time, just being. Sam heard Dean's breath hitch at first, troubled and confused, but it soon evened out, hot against Sam's neck. The fever wasn't bad—he could feel it, this close—but it certainly must be annoying to live inside that skin, too warm, too tight. How long had Dean been fighting this?
Well, he wasn't going to be fighting it alone anymore, that was for sure.
Eventually Dean turned his head slightly to the side, huffing out a breath in the suggestion of a chuckle. "You wanna tell me what this is about, Sammy?"
"I mean, I know you're a giant girl and everything, but usually you're not quite so open about your unquenchable need for a good cuddle."
"Just go to sleep, Dean."
After another minute or two, Dean did.
He slept for a long time.