A/N: This was written on a whim, unbeta'd and very raw. Take that as fair warning. Just needed a healthy dose of brother love.
There are good and bad ways to be woken up. The best way doesn't require any explanation. The worst way would be at gun point. The realization that the latter happens more frequently than the former is so fucking depressing that if Dean were to let himself think about it, he'd probably eat his own gun. But of all the unique ways he had been forced into consciousness over the years, this one is new and possibly the most disturbing.
He snaps upright, pillow launching through the air, knife firmly clutched in hand. "Huh? What?"
His first thought is that Sam must be talking in his sleep, but when he squints, he can see his brother's lying on his side, staring back at him from the other bed. So many conflicting emotions sweep through Dean at that moment. Fear, rage, confusion. But Sam's eyes are drowning and he's breathing a little too hard, so all of those feelings take a backseat to the ever present concern that monopolized Dean's thoughts in the two weeks that Sam has had his soul back.
"I'm right here," he answers straight, struggling to get a feel for Sam's headspace. Dread snowballs in his stomach and he has to fight the urge to jump out of bed and run his hands all over his brother, searching for breaks. He knows it's futile; he can't get inside Sam's head. No amount of coddling is going to keep that wall up.
"Yeah, okay." Sam shifts, blinks hard a couple of times, works his bottom lip between his teeth. "Good. Okay." He reaches a hand out from under the covers to scratch at his head, a nervous twitch Sam's had for as long as Dean can remember. It's hard to tell in the dark, but Dean's pretty sure Sam's not looking somewhere past him. "Sorry."
Dean shrugs, as if Sam had done something as simple, as normal, as accidentally bumping into him. "S'alright," he says back.
Maybe Sam goes back to sleep, maybe he doesn't. Dean dozes off after listening for the tell-tale signs for over an hour.
By the time Dean wakes up, Sam's showered, dressed and 100% lucid. They don't talk about it the next morning, though Dean doesn't stop thinking about it for one minute.
Nightmares are normal – it would be weird if Sam didn't have them - but the situation in Sam's head is fragile. Dean would be a bad brother if he didn't dwell on that thought for a good long time.
It doesn't happen again. Not really. It gets weirder.
As soon as they settle into their respective beds at whatever motel they're calling home that night, Sam starts asking questions. Sometimes really fucked up questions – things Sam doesn't usually give two shits about.
Things like, "How often should you change the spark plugs in the Impala?" And if the answer's short, he tags on a superfluous, "Why?"
Occasionally he throws out what seem to be blatantly provocative statements that get Dean's blood boiling.
"If you really listen carefully, today's music has so many more nuances than that crap you make us listen to all day. If you weren't so closed minded, you'd probably hear it too."
Dean glares at the ceiling while he rants and raves and disproves Sam's theory countless times. Maybe he gets a little carried way, but, "What the fuck, Sam? Really, do you have to be such a piss ant?"
There's no answer, and if Dean weren't so riled up, he probably would have noticed that Sam fell asleep a while ago.
"Whatever," he growls, flipping over and pounding his pillow unnecessarily before seething himself into a restless sleep.
It isn't until they're crossing into North Dakota that Dean realizes there's more to it.
Sleep has been coming second to their efforts to track a shifter across the last few states. Dean's tired, irritable and cranky and they're dangerously low on funding options. When the bastard crosses into South Dakota, Dean feels a sense of relief. At least they can bunk at Bobby's and share some of the workload while they rustle up some new credit cards.
Going to Bobby's is the most obvious – the only - option, but when Dean tells Sam where they're heading, he freaks. Really freaks. At first he's very still in the passenger seat. Dean glances over because, really, Sam should have at least confirmed he'd heard what Dean said. Then he starts clutching at his leg just above his knee, a grab and release motion that repeats every two seconds. "Sam?" Dean asks, looking from Sam's leg to his face, which is way too white. "You okay? What's going on?"
Then just like that Sam's in the midst of a full on panic attack. Dean jerks the car to a stop on the shoulder when Sam starts to gasp loudly, the one hand still grabbing at his leg, the other braced against the dash.
"Hey! Sam! Hey, look at me. Look at me, okay?" Dean ducks down to Sam's current level, gently puts a hand on Sam's chin and tugs so that their eyes can meet.
"Breathe, Sam. Slow it down," he says softly, keeping his voice low. "Take it easy. You're good, you're okay."
Over and over again. Sam barely allows himself to blink, completely locked in on Dean like it's the only thing keeping him from collapsing completely. His lips move but nothing comes out for the longest time. Until finally, when he grabs two deep enough breaths in a row, he manages to whisper, "Okay. You. Okay," followed by a short nod.
Dean can't even pretend he knows what that means, what any of this means, but he nods back, moving the hand from Sam's chin to the back of his neck.
"Sit back, all right? Easy, slowly," he reassures quietly, guiding Sam back into his seat. Sam's neck is slick with sweat but Dean keeps his hand there anyway.
"I don't… I'm sorry. I don't…"
Dean moves his thumb in small circles. "Hey, don't worry about it. Just focus on breathing for a second. We're in no rush."
Sam takes a solid minute to compose himself. His hands are still trembling but at least his breathing has slowed down enough that Dean's no longer worried about him passing out.
Dean knows it's over when Sam shifts in his seat and angles his face away with a cringe, embarrassment lending back some color.
"You good?" Dean asks, trying not to sound put out or scared or anything that will cause Sam to back away too much.
"Yeah." Sam sniffs once, clears his throat, wipes at the sweat on his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket. "Yeah, I'm all right. Sorry. I don't know… I…"
Dean can feel them moving backwards, so he takes over. "Don't apologize. Take all the time you need."
Sam nods, fixing his gaze on something outside the window, avoiding eye contact.
"You okay if I drive in the meantime?"
He wants to get to Bobby's, and fast. Sam's scaring the shit out of him.
Sam nods again. Dean gives Sam's neck one final squeeze before taking his hand away.
They drive in silence for the hour it takes them to get to Bobby's. Dean has to bite his tongue to keep from speaking. He wants Sam to speak first, on his own time. No pressure.
The silence doesn't appear to be helping Sam much.
It's fucking killing Dean.
Dean cuts the engine just inside the salvage yard, still far from their usual parking spot. He stretches nervously in his seat. "We got about a minute to ourselves here. Anything you want to share with me while we're still on our own?"
Sam's lip has found its way between his teeth again.
"If this is about what happened with Bobby, you know he doesn't hold that against you, right? We're all good here, Sam."
Sam shakes his head. "Yeah, no. No, I know. I just…had a moment, you know?" He cautiously meets Dean eyes, corner of his lips quirking into the smallest of smiles. He looks so fucking hopeful that Dean can't NOT buy into it.
"A moment," Dean repeats. "You sure that's it? Because you can tell me if—"
"That's it," Sam says firmly. He sounds more convincing than he looks.
"Okay, then. Let's go."
Bobby's elbow deep in maps in his study. Promises he'll be out in a few minutes. Until then, he says, grab a beer and make up the beds. They don't usually bother with the "beds," but this is one of those unusual times when they show up in the middle of the day, dry, more than half awake, and relatively unharmed, so there's really no reason for them to forgo the unimportant things like pillows and bedding.
Dean gets the spare bed made up, then unceremoniously throws Sam's duffel in there without a word. He'll take the couch this time.
Between the three of them, they polish off more beer than they probably should, but still Dean's nerves feel raw. Sam is drinking at a much faster pace than usual and if Bobby notices anything's off with either of them, he doesn't let on.
When they've finished their fourth hand of poker, Bobby says his goodnights. Dean feels a yawn itching at the back of his jaw and knows that he too should get some rest, but as soon as he thinks it, Sam gets wild-eyed and shifty.
Dean knows Sam's teetering – knows that one wrong step, one wrong word, one wrong thought can shatter his little brother into a million pieces, but he's not sure that avoiding this problem isn't going to yield the same results.
Dean watches Sam carefully, notes the tremor in his fingers as he gathers up the cards.
"You should probably get some sleep, Sam. You're looking a little pooched."
Sam's grip tightens around the deck cards, nearly bending the entire stack in half. "Wh-what about tomorrow?" he stammers. "We should work out a plan. I mean, where are we going?"
Dean leans back in his chair, narrows his eyes at Sam, who's positively vibrating all of a now. "Bobby just went over that with us." He rubs a hand over his face, leans forward and rests his forearms on the table. "Sam," he says calmly, "what's going on?"
"Tell me again," Sam demands quickly, but his eyes are jumping around the room, as if searching for something. Beads of sweat are forming across his brow and there's a hitch in his breath and that's all leading to something a little too dangerous for Dean's liking.
Ideally, he'd like to yell, shout, shake Sam by the shoulders and demand to know what the fuck is going on, but Sam's a heartbeat away from another panic attack so he exercises every last bit of restraint. Instead, he does as Sam asks, carefully reciting the details Bobby had just gone over with them, all the while watching Sam's every twitch.
He's not sure what he expects, but it's not this. Another panic attack, maybe, but not the tears that are suddenly tracking down his brother's cheeks.
Dean stops speaking, reaches out and places a hand over Sam's, forcing him to stop the compulsive shuffling. "Hey. Hey, hey. What? What's wrong?"
"Don't go," Sam says brokenly. "Please," he whispers, more tears spilling.
"Go where? I'm not going anywhere."
"I need… I…" Sam's starting to choke on too-quick breaths. And Dean will do anything to avoid going there again.
"What do you need? Sammy," he says sternly, though his voice is barely above a whisper. Sam looks up at that. "You can tell me."
"Talk to me."
"You want me to talk to you?"
Sam nods, pulls his hand away, leans forward onto his elbows and clutches his hair on either side of his head.
He sounds so resigned when he says, "It doesn't matter."
Dean starts with the Impala, which leads into a surprisingly philosophical take on the correlation between hunting and the old westerns, which somewhere along the line turns into a rant about the lack of quality fake ID technicians these days.
At some point they migrate from the kitchen to the living room. Sam sleeps on the couch, Dean beside him on the floor, fighting off sleep to maintain a steady flow of mindless dialogue.
It's not the biggest problem. If someone had told Dean that he could have his brother back from hell under the condition that he talked to him while he slept, he would have considered it a win.
It's not easy but they find their rhythm quickly enough. The lights go out, Dean starts talking, Sam falls asleep, Dean falls asleep, Sam wakes up in sheer panic, screaming Dean's name at the top of his lungs, Dean starts talking again, and around and around they go until morning. Three times since this whole things started, Sam has slept through the entire night, and it's those following days that are the best. Though it never happens two nights in a row, so it's hard to view it as progress.
It's all fine until Dean gets sick. Just a cold. All it does is irritate him with a nose that alternates between running and stopping up, and a throat that's dry and sore when he goes too long without swallowing in a while.
Other than that, it's barely an inconvenience. Dean's just relieved Sam hasn't caught it, because he can only imagine what sickness would do to his already screwy sleeping habits – what a fever would do to the delicate mortar holding him together.
He's so anal about keeping Sam healthy that he won't even share his pen without first slathering it in hand sanitizer.
Sam quirks an eyebrow. "You know what airborne means, right?"
"Shut up." Dean waves his hand in a shooing motion. "Go breathe over there."
But after a week, the cold still refuses to back down, and Dean wakes up on day eight at the mercy of a whole slew of new symptoms. Worst of all is the worsening cough and the effect it has on the headache that gains momentum throughout the day.
Dean doesn't bother with thermometers, though a fever's a given considering how awful he feels.
He hacks and coughs his way through the interview with the Trails and Parks maintenance manager. He has to squint to see properly even though the sun is hidden behind thick, low-lying clouds. When they get back into the car, Sam reaches over and plasters a giant hand across Dean's forehead
"No touching," Dean grates out, jerking out from under Sam's touch and pressing up against the door of the car, getting as far away as possible. He's dizzy from moving too quickly and his stomach rolls, transitioning from the queasy feeling he's had all day to flat out nauseous.
"Dean, if I was going to catch it, I would have gotten it by now."
"Doesn't matter," he gasps, turning to cough harshly into his sleeve. "You can't get this, Sam. You can't."
Dean's vision is too blurry to focus on microfiche and he can't stop coughing, which would only irritate the hell out of everyone around them, so they turn in earlier than planned, forgoing the library. Sam grabs food from the diner across the street but Dean only picks at it, catches himself dozing in and out of half-sleep. He vaguely registers Sam removing the take-out box from his lap and the feel of calloused fingers pressing into his face. The movie Sam has settled on only muddles Dean brain more than the headache and fever, and he finds himself working bits and pieces of dialogue into disjointed, five minute dreams.
He's hot one second and shivering the next, his chest burns even when he's not coughing, and he has what feels like a lead tennis ball rolling around in the pit of his stomach. Oh, fuck, he's sick.
At some point he throws up. How he gets to the bathroom in the first place is a mystery, even more confusing is how he ends up back in bed, sweating and shaking simultaneously under a pile of blankets he's positive weren't there earlier. He must drift into something like sleep because he wakes up to a regretful voice speaking his name.
He cracks his sore eyes open, and things look…different. First, the room's dark with the exception of the light from the television, second, he's lying flat instead of propped up against the headboard like he last remembers.
"Dean?" He rotates his head slightly but that sets of a chain reaction of horrible sensations and it's all he can do not to throw up, cough, and let his brain slide out of his head all at once. He does cough, somehow avoids puking all over himself, and his brain must survive the onslaught because he's still breathing when the dust settles.
There it is again.
He has to look up just a little bit to find Sam, or rather, Sam's hair. And, God, that doesn't make him feel any better.
"I'm sorry," Sam says, but all Dean can see is the top of his head. Sam must be kneeling beside the bed, forehead pressed to the edge of the mattress beside Dean's elbow. "I'm so sorry, I just… I don't…"
Shit, he should have expected this. He should have prepared for this. What the hell was he thinking? Sam's self-destructing and Dean can't hold his own head up.
"Sorry," Sam whispers, choking back a sob.
"Sammy," Dean tries to say, but the two syllables crackle and he's hacking again, gasping for air between coughs. "Sam," Dean croaks, manages to reach up with his left hand and on the second try, finds the top of Sam's head.
"I need to know…"
Dean know exactly what Sam needs, he's just not sure he can give it to him tonight. Still, he swallows dryly, tries his hardest to drum up some energy. "You're 'k," he says hoarsely. "I'm here. You hear me, right, Sammy?"
Dean feels Sam's head nod beneath his hand. "S'good. Good."
"You're sick," Sam says in a small voice, like they might get in trouble if someone found out.
Dean coughs then, turns as far to his right as he can without losing contact with Sam's scalp, determined to keep his germs as contained as possible.
"I should've done something to p'pare. M'sorry, Sammy. I didn't…think, think I'd get so sick…" Dean swears he can feel the tension seep out of Sam's hair. He coughs a couple more times and clears his throat. "You gotta tell me next time, huh? You're s'possed to be the smart one. Need to tell me…tell me when m'slacking off."
Sam lets out a long, shuddering breath. It's quiet for a minute or so, and Dean has to force himself to think, but it's like sleep has him hooked and is reeling him in.
He can't, though. Sam… Sam will break.
"Don't fall 'sleep, Sammy. Y'can't sleep there."
Dean blindly reaches over to his right, grabs onto the edge of the mattress and somehow finds the reserves to drag himself to the other far side of the bed. He clumsily swaps out the pillows before he coughs into the already contaminated pillowcase. When he can breathe again he says, "Up, Sammy. C'mere."
Dean's eyes are closed, but he feels the bed dip beside him, can feel Sam's warmth already spreading to his side of the bed. He pats over Sam with his left hand until he finds his brother's arm, wraps his fingers around his forearm.
"Might fall 'sleep, Sammy. Really tired."
"I know," Sam replies, sounding a bit steadier. The small hit Dean has given him seems to have taken the edge off. "You're sick. I'm sorry."
Dean squeezes Sam's wrist.
"M'gonna hold on, though. S'you wake me if you need me, 'kay? M'right here. Whole time."
Sam's other hand latches onto Dean's wrist, holding onto Dean who's holding onto him.
"M'right here," Dean says again, but his voice is pretty much gone and it barely comes across. "M'here."
The last thing he hears before he drops off into a feverish sleep is, "You're here. You're here. You're here."
It's rough for the rest of the week, but it never gets as bad as that night. The fever drops the next morning and then falls off completely two days later, and Dean's worn out but lucid enough to coax an exhausted and frazzled Sam through an expectedly bad night.
Unsurprisingly, Sam does get sick, but by then Dean has his voice back and literally talks him through three straight nights – Sam jolting awake in a feverish and panicked state if it's quiet for more than a few minutes. Because it doesn't seem to matter what's being said, when he runs out of shit to ramble on about, he breaks into song, says the alphabet and recites The Godfather word for word until he's sick to death of his own voice. By dawn he's chugging water, his still recovering throat raw and dry, but he keeps up a running dialogue until Sam is officially up for the day, dosed with Dayquil, and slipping into his daily lucidity almost imperceptibly.
In the morning, Sam insists on grabbing breakfast. It doesn't go unnoticed that he stays out of the room much longer than it would take to walk down the street and order food, allowing Dean to grab some much need, uninterrupted sleep.
Later that afternoon, when Sam's exiting the bathroom, towel wrapped around his lower half and running another over his wet hair, Dean stands directly in front of his brother's bag and holds out an offering. Sam stops suddenly, eyeing the CD warily.
Sam reaches out slowly and takes the disc with his free hand. "What is it?"
"Listen, I can't keep staying up all night," Dean anticipates Sam's reaction and reaches out to grab his brother's arm, griping for emphasis. He makes sure their eyes are locked. "And don't you dare feel bad about that, that's not what I'm saying." He waits until Sam gives a slight nod before continuing. "I recorded myself last night."
Sam looks up at that, eyebrows rising, lips starting to curve into a smile. Dean releases his grip on Sam's arm.
He points to the CD in Sam's hand. "Put that on your pansy iPod," he says with a smirk of his own.
Sam's suddenly all dimples, looking healthier than he has in days.
It doesn't work all the time, but it's a step in the right direction, and the anxiety that has been squatting in Sam's brain every night slowly tapers off until Dean is only awoken once or twice a week. Sometimes Sam crawls into the bed beside him in the middle of the night. Dean wordlessly offers his arm and Sam's long fingers curl around his wrist.
It's not a solution – there simply isn't one to be found – but it's enough for now.
On really quiet nights, when Sam rolls over and an ear-bud slips out, Dean is awoken by the tinny sound of his own voice rambling on about everything from carburetors to fairy tales, singing Dead or Alive. He can think of worse ways to wake up.