Dean isn't one for touchy feely crap, never has been, never will be. But Sam is suffering in a way that Dean can't begin to imagine, and not knowing how to help is the worst kind of helplessness.
He is checking them out of another run down motel while Sam packs the car, waiting for the elderly woman behind the counter to hurry up and sort through her fifty years' of paperwork piled up back there. He is rocking on his heels a little, not particularly impatient, idly surveying his surroundings.
There is a pile of old paperbacks on the counter top, with a hand written sign that reads, 'Secondhand Books. $2" and Dean's eyes fall on the top one, and the title reads, 'The Seven Stages of Grief.'
Normally he would just walk away, but he doesn't normally have to lie awake at night listening to Sam's nightmares.
Dean is sceptical of the idea that grief is something that can be mapped out by a book; he's pretty sure that it isn't something that you can buy a manual for. But anything is better than nothing, and he tosses the paperback next to the bell on the counter with a charming smile.
"Add that to the bill."
The book talks about pain and guilt and Dean can identify that with what Sam is going through. He reads the book in snatches, while Sam is in the shower; while Sam is mercifully…if rarely…asleep. He scans over the pages with a hunter's eye for detail, picking out the important information, trying to find something that will help.
The book says that guilt is a natural emotion, and that's for people whose mother wasn't murdered by the same supernatural entity, who know nothing about the things that really do go bump in the night, whose loved ones die from stepping in front of a bus or one too many Big Macs for the old heart to handle.
If these people feel 'unbearable guilt' at times, Dean doesn't want to think about the amount of guilt Sam is feeling. Misplaced guilt, Dean stubbornly maintains, but guilt all the same.
And pain, yeah, Sam is feeling plenty of that. Physically and emotionally. He starts throwing himself into their hunts with a ferocity that at first scares Dean, then starts to piss him off. It is always Sam who is getting hurt; a nasty cut on his arm from the hookman, a lamp cord nearly choking him to death in their childhood home, another Wendigo taking a swipe out of his back in Colorado, a spirit slamming his head in a door in Oklahoma.
Dean can't escape the sinking feeling that Sam is deliberately placing himself in harm's way, whether it be conscious or unconsciously, and Dean doesn't really care either way. All he cares about is that Sam cuts it out.
He doesn't bring it up until nearly a week after they vanquish the poltergeist haunting their childhood home in Lawrence, Kansas. He keeps hoping that Sam will get his act together of his own accord; that they can avoid what is potentially another angst filled confrontation.
Another piece of the puzzle that is Sam has clicked into place though, now that Dean knows about his 'dreams that come true', and the fact that his little brother dreamt of Jessica's death months before it happened. He knows now what Sam was hiding; knows what he meant when he said that he hadn't told Dean everything. Dean wants to rip him a new one for that, but after their run in with the poltergeist Sam's neck has a collar of bright purple bruises and his eyes have an even more haunted look and Dean just doesn't have the heart to attack him any more than he has already been attacked. He figures that Sam has enough to process anyway, what with seeing their mom and nearly dying and all.
A new hunt provides a distraction, and they are both keen to throw themselves into it and be distracted.
It's another haunting, and they're more common than you would think. People die, they don't usually like it, and they're not usually happy to go. Most of them are still here, waiting, angry and confused, and it's the Winchesters' job to make them move on.
The place of this haunting is original, though, an old slaughterhouse just out of Detroit. Which means lots of sharp objects for the spirit to throw and even more potential than usual for injuries.
Dean looks over at his bloodied and battered brother after the spirit is vanquished and they are both sitting in the Impala again. Dean himself has barely a scratch; what the spirit gained in quantity of weapons, it lacked in quality of aim. That fact doesn't seem to have helped Sam any though, he is bleeding from multiple cuts and lacerations, including a particularly deep one running almost parallel with his collarbone.
Sam is staring woodenly out the window at the rainy night, ignoring the steady stream of blood from the wound, and Dean tries to stop his hands from shaking as he reaches into the backseat to retrieve one of the towels they keep there for situations just like this.
"Sam!" He barks, his voice loud and rough and angry in the small space between them.
Sam turns a little frown on him, his jaw set moodily. "What?"
Dean shoves the towel against the wound, eliciting a small hiss from his brother. "Hold that there. You're bleeding all over the damn seats." He snaps.
Sam gives him a mutinous look but obeys silently.
Dean turns the key in the ignition and drives them back to their motel and tries not to think about the way that Sam threw himself into harm's way, again and again and again.
Once they are inside Dean pulls himself together, reigns his anger in while he scrubs at his hands in the kitchen sink. He has his back to Sam and that helps, he takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. Then turns back around to face his brother, who is flicking moodily through the TV channels, a small frown line between his eyes.
"I need to have a look at your shoulder." Dean says calmly, crossing over to the small table where he has already dumped the first aid kit on his way in. He pats the back of one of the chairs there in invitation.
"It's fine." Sam says flatly, rejecting another channel choice with a savage press of a button, but Dean can see the paleness of his skin from here, the tightness around his mouth and eyes.
Dean is something of an expert on pain, especially his little brother's.
"It's not fine, Sam." He says, still cool but firm. "Now sit your ass in this chair before I kick it into it."
It's not a threat, just a mild warning, and he knows it could go either way from here. It's possible that Sam is spoiling for a fight; that he would welcome more pain. But Dean is hoping he isn't willing to piss his big brother off that much to get it.
Sam glowers at him, then tosses the remote aside and all but stomps over to sit stiffly in the chair. Dean would smile at the petulance which is reminiscent of a much younger Sam but he is too tired and too worried.
Dean helps him ease his jacket off, would help him unbutton his over shirt and pull it off as well but Sam bats his hands away impatiently. "I'm not two, Dean." He snaps, but Dean doesn't miss the way his brother's fingers are trembling and clumsy with the simple task.
"Then quit acting like it." Dean says coolly, and leans over to get a closer look at his brother's exposed skin. The wound is still bleeding sluggishly, and it is hard to see how deep it is, so Dean straightens up and turns to the first aid kit, soaking some gauze in antiseptic in preparation to clean the cut.
His eyes fall on the dog-eared box of painkillers and he tosses them in front of Sam absently. "You should take a few of those."
Sam ignores him, his face turned away from Dean and his jaw set.
Dean pauses in what he is doing. "Sam." His voice is a warning growl.
"I don't need them." His brother says stiffly, not meeting his gaze.
"Quit lying to me." Dean says tightly. He can see Sam's hands trembling, and up close his brother is even paler under the yellowish motel room lights.
"I don't want them." Sam amends his statement, and Dean has had it with being calm and patient.
"Why, Sam?" He raises his voice involuntarily; he's sick and tired of this shit and Sam and not being able to help or even understand and his concern nearly always comes out as anger.
Dean drops the supplies in his hand back in the kit, scrubs a hand roughly over his face, reigning his anger in. It won't get him anywhere, he knows that. Not with Sam. "Man, what is going on with you?" His voice is quieter but no less frustrated.
"What do you mean?" Sam is playing dumb, Dean knows because his brother still won't meet his eyes.
"What do I mean? Look at you." Dean says roughly. "You were like a pincushion for that spirit back there. And don't think I don't know that 90% of those wounds could have been avoided, Sam. And now the macho man act, I don't want to take anything for the pain? What are you, like getting off on pain these days or something?"
Sam doesn't answer, just stares ahead. "Are you gonna fix it or what?" He says finally, tightly, and Dean almost throws up his hands in frustration and despair. How can he fix this?
He'll keep trying, though. Because Sam is his little brother, and it's all he knows how to do. He picks up the gauze soaked with antiseptic. "This is gonna sting." He growls, then pushes it against the wound roughly.
A little too roughly, he realises too late. Sam makes a small, throttled sound of pain in his throat, the sting and the pressure with which Dean applies the gauze making him light headed, and he sways and dips forward on his chair.
He isn't sure if he passed out for a second, but as the haze of pain around him clears he can hear Dean's soft chant above his head, "Sorry, sorry, sorry."
Sam blinks wearily. The last he remembered he was doing a nose dive towards the table, but his face doesn't hurt, only his shoulder. Slowly he takes in his surroundings. Dean's hand, firmly curved around Sam's good shoulder, holding him sitting upright, his brother's warmth at his back. Dean caught him. Of course.
"Sorry," Dean says again, his voice soft and remorseful. Sam nods wearily. The anger drained out of him with the pain and he is just tired and sore.
Dean dabs extra gently at the wound this time, and Sam winces but stays put. He can't see his brother's face, Dean has moved so that he is mostly behind Sam and can support his brother's back with his chest if need be. He holds Sam still, holds him up with his free hand, and Sam lets himself relax into the firm surety of Dean's hold. Dean is here, he thinks wearily. Sometimes that's the only thought that keeps him going.
"Just because you had a vision of Jess dying, that still doesn't make it your fault, Sam." Dean's quiet words are unexpected, and Sam blinks impatiently at the sting in his eyes to match the one in his shoulder.
He wants desperately to believe Dean's words, but he knows they aren't true. Of course it is his fault. He should have told her, should have warned her. He's a freak, a freak who has visions of people dying, and if there was one good thing that could have come of that it's that he might have saved Jess. But he didn't, he didn't say anything because he was a coward, and now she's dead. And it's all his fault.
Dean has stopped cleaning the wound, really. He strokes the gauze slowly over Sam's skin, the pain from such a gentle movement no more than a tickle. The motion is slow and monotonous, lulling his brother, and Dean can tell because Sam is as relaxed as Dean has seen him in months, and swaying slightly in his older brother's grip.
"You didn't know they were visions, Sammy." He says quietly, his eyes on Sam's shoulder, making sure the bleeding is stopping. "How the hell could you? Of course you thought they were just nightmares. After what happened to Mom. And if you had told Jessica, what do you think that would have changed, anyway? Something still would have killed her, Sam."
"I should have been there." Sam's voice is so quiet Dean almost misses it, but he doesn't because he is listening hard, using this rare moment of calm and quiet to try and mend his broken little brother.
"You were there, Sam, and it didn't help." He says gently. "Dad was there when Mom died, and that didn't help, either."
"I should have protected her!" Sam insists. He isn't relinquishing his hold on his guilt so easily. It's his, all his, a part of him now and he can't imagine living without it.
Dean allows the outburst without letting go of his brother, waits a minute before he says softly, "You couldn't have protected her, Sammy. What do you think you could do that Dad couldn't?" Sam doesn't answer, doesn't have one. Dean lets the silence speak for itself. "You have to stop this, Sam." He says softly at last, making sure there is no confrontation in his tone.
"Stop what." Sam's voice is small and barely audible but Dean hears and responds.
"This. Stop punishing yourself." He says quietly. "Mentally and physically." He punctuates the last word with a very gentle poke to his brother's injured shoulder, and Sam winces away. "You keep going the way you're going, man, you're gonna get yourself killed." Sam doesn't answer, and Dean's voice hardens minutely. "Jess wouldn't want you to get hurt, Sam. I don't want you to get hurt. And no matter what you think you deserve in that warped head of yours, you don't deserve to get hurt."
Sam winces again at the choice of words and Dean knows he has hit a nerve.
He tugs at Sam lightly until his brother has his back leant against Dean's chest again, and he can keep up the pretence of needing the closeness to attend to Sam's shoulder. Once Sam is back against him he relaxes into the contact, and Dean presses on quietly.
"The way you're going, you're gonna get one or both of us hurt, or killed." Sam has plenty of guilt, may as well use some of it for a better cause than keeping him up at night. Dean knows Sam would never willingly put his brother in danger. "You know I'm always going to try and protect you from danger, Sammy." He presses. "If you keep putting yourself in danger, you put me in danger, too."
Sam is silent while he processes this for a minute, then he sags a little and drops his head back against Dean's chest and closes his eyes. "You're right, Dean. I'm being an ass. Sorry." The words are weary but the apology is heartfelt.
"I'm not looking for an apology here, Sammy."
Sam tilts his head forward again, away from Dean's chest, to shake it in hopeless frustration. "What do you want me to say, Dean?"
His older brother lays a hand on the top of his head and tilts it back against his chest again, and Sam allows this, sinking back into the warmth that is his brother and that is all that is keeping him from sinking into despair.
Dean's fingers card through his hair and over his scalp carefully, and Sam lets him check for bumps and lumps, his eyes sliding wearily closed again. He is so tired. Hunting and grieving at the same time is exhausting, he feels it down to his bones.
Dean stays silent for long minutes, letting his brother relax again.
"I want you to say that you know Jessica's death isn't your fault." He answers his brother's question finally, his voice a soft rumble somewhere above Sam's head.
"Dean…" Sam trails off helplessly.
"What, Sam? What else you got? Coz I know all about the visions now, and I still say it doesn't change anything, not a damn thing. Blame the thing that killed her, little brother, but you gotta stop blaming yourself. It was not your fault.:"
"Just because you say something doesn't mean it's true Dean." Sam says miserably.
Dean snorts softly behind him. "Of course it does. I'm your big brother."
Sam's mouth curves up slightly and he snorts a little in return, wishing it were that simple. "I get what you're trying to say, Dean, I do." He sighs heavily, pressing back a little with his head against Dean's chest to emphasise his words. "I just….I guess…" He fumbles with his words, huffs another sigh of frustration and impatience at his inability to express himself.
Dean waits patiently, fingers still tangled in Sam's hair, hoping that the touch is reminding him physically that he isn't alone, that Dean is there and wants to help and will listen if Sam wants to talk.
"I guess…I want to hang onto the guilt, because…because it's familiar now." Sam confesses at last. He feels a little embarrassed; his words are slightly melodramatic, he thinks, but it's easier to voice his feelings with Dean standing behind him so that Sam doesn't have to look him in the eye while he speaks. He realises wearily that Dean is probably very aware of exactly that fact, but he's started speaking now and he may as well get it out.
"If I didn't feel guilty, then I wouldn't know…I wouldn't know what to feel." He sighs again, but this time it is weary and quiet, none of the frustration or irritation of earlier. "Focusing on the guilt…it gives me something else to think about, other than the pain, I guess."
He falls silent, suddenly tired to his very core.
Dean waits another long moment to make sure Sam is finished speaking, the pads of his fingers rubbing very slightly and very gently at the back of Sam's head while he waits. The motion is soothing and lulling and Sam sinks back a little more, sinks further into the warmth and strength that is his brother.
"What you're saying makes sense, Sam." Dean says quietly at last, and Sam blinks wearily.
"Yeah, it does." Dean confirms in the same hushed tones. "You just lost the woman you love. Of course the pain that you're feeling is terrible. Of course it hurts. And of course you want a distraction from that." Sam doesn't even have the energy to be surprised that Dean understands what Sam is feeling; that he is able to articulate it better than Sam can himself.
"But dude, what you're doing? The way you're distracting yourself? Letting all that guilt eat you up inside?" Dean's hand leaves his shoulder briefly to tap gently against Sam's chest; the same spot that physically hurt some days, that seems to be the epicentre of Sam's suffering. "What you're doing isn't healthy, Sam." The words are firm but the tone is gentle. "You have to stop it, man. This mission of self destruct that you're on? Jessica wouldn't have wanted that for you."
The words are quiet, the admonishment gently delivered, but it still hurts. Because it's true, and Sam knows it.
"You need someone, something to blame, I get that." Dean continues, still quiet. "And you know, some people, when someone they love dies, of cancer or of AIDS or because they walked in front of a bus, they've got no one and nothing to blame, Sam. But Jessica didn't die of old age and she didn't die in some random accident. That thing killed her. So blame the thing that killed her, Sam. Hate it all you want."
Suddenly the warmth of Dean at his back was gone, and his brother was there beside him, crouching down to put himself at Sam's eye level, reaching across to grab the arm of the chair Sam is sitting in and tug it sideways so that his brother is facing him. He puts himself directly in Sam's line of vision and waits a beat, until his younger brother raises weary brown eyes to meet the elder's direct, open gaze.
"But quit. Blaming. Yourself." Dean's voice is low, hard and soft at the same time as only Dean can be. "Her death is not your fault."
Sam blames the way his eyes are burning on how tired he is; and he honestly is exhausted. His emotions are so intense and so many these days; and he feels like he has felt them all in the space of an hour. He blinks a few times, trying to keep a hold on his emotions. He won't cry. He won't. Dean has seen him break down too many times over the last few months.
A solitary tear betrays him and splashes down off his lashes, landing on his brother's hand where it rests on the arm of his chair.
"Sorry, Dean," Sam says automatically, his voice small and breaking a little at the end, and not a second passes before he is wrapped snugly in Dean's arms and his face is hidden against Dean's shoulder.
"You don't have to be sorry, Sammy." Dean's voice, quiet and tired, somewhere near his right ear. "You're allowed to grieve. It's natural, it's normal. But you're not allowed to keep blaming yourself, okay? That part of it has to stop."
And Sam finds himself nodding into Dean's shoulder, because despite everything, Dean's words tonight have reached him. He's heard them and they've made sense. He takes a shaky breath to calm himself, to help ground him along with the feeling of Dean's warm, strong arms holding him close.
"Okay." He even manages to speak, waits a beat before pulling away from the hug himself, and Dean lets him go, his face softening when Sam meets his gaze and gives him a very small smile. A watery, hesitant smile, but a genuine one nonetheless, and one of the first indications that Dean has seen in a long time that his brother will be okay.
He squeezes Sam's thighs lightly. "I don't want to have this conversation again, okay?"
Sam nods, a little more surely. "Okay. Dean... Thanks."
Dean brushes this off easily; thanks are not needed, not for being there when his brother needs him.
He rises with a gentle final pat to Sam's thighs. "Come on, princess. Dry your eyes. Time for bed."
Sam gives a small, genuine snort of laughter and shakes his head, but he obeys. And Dean retreats to his own bed feeling lighter than he has in a long time, basking in the relief of finally having been able to help his brother with his grief and pain and guilt.
He doesn't know then that Sam will take his advice to find someone or something other than himself to blame literally, and that anger will be the next problem that they have to deal with.
That is in the near future, but still not near enough to worry the Winchester brothers tonight. Tonight, for the first time in a long time, they will both sleep peacefully.