Sometimes it starts in a dream. A nightmare. Always the same one. Jess.
Other times it starts when he's awake, with a thought. Almost any thought, really. Jess. Research papers. Demons. Jess. Clowns. Car accidents. Jess.
The thought turns to a tingle in his fingertips. An itch in the center of his chest he can't scratch. Beads of sweat form on his forehead and under his arms.
The thought grows. Jess on the ceiling. Murders on the nightly news. Global warming melting polar ice caps. Jess bleeding and burning. Failing final exams and losing his scholarship. Earthquakes that shatter buildings and homes and lives. Jess with her white nightgown, far too perfect for his fucked up life.
The tingle in his fingertips makes his hands shake. The itch in his chest becomes pressure. Pain. Blood rushes so hard and fast he can hear it. He's not getting enough air so he takes a shaky breath, but his chest locks up. Air won't come in. Air won't go out.
That's when it explodes. Panic.
Jess bleeding and burning on the ceiling and there's nothing he can do to stop it. Flunking out of school no matter what he does, losing whatever hope he had for a normal life. Bad people and bad things in this world and not enough good. Dad's gone Dean's gone Jess is gone everyone's gone and he's alone alone alone. Jess dying burning scorching his lungs filling with smoke but all he can do is watch.
He can't breathe. His chest hurts, his heart hurts. Jess. He's trembling and sweating and his vision is going dark in spots and everything sounds far away. This heart attack is never going to stop. Jess. He's never going to breathe again. He's going to die. He wants to die.
Jess. Jess. Jess…
Sam sleeps on the couch that night. He tells Jess it's because he doesn't want to keep her awake, but Dean knows better. It's because he doesn't want to sleep under the ceiling where he keeps seeing the girl he loves.
So Jess sleeps in the king-size bed alone. Sam sleeps with his head on Dean's knee, his legs dangling over the arm of the couch, socked feet hitting the end table.
Dean doesn't sleep. Dean thinks. It's gotta be a coincidence. It's gotta be some memory that Sam's brain has kept locked up since he was 6 months old. Now that Sam's falling in love and stressing himself out over school and not sleeping enough, that suppressed memory isn't so suppressed anymore. That's all. That's gotta be it.
He thinks he should call Dad. Let him know what's going on. But panic attacks? He knows what the reaction would be.
"Tell Sam to rub some dirt in it. Get your ass back out here," John would say. Or maybe, "That's what he gets for leaving." Or maybe worst of all, "I don't fucking care."
No, Dean can't tell his dad. Taking care of Sam is on his shoulders. Nothing's changed.
Sam rolls from his side to his back, head pressed against Dean's hip. Worry creases Sam's forehead even in sleep. Dean smoothes the lines with one finger, wishing that was all it took to make things right.
A few minutes later, Sam moves again, arms and legs thrashing against the couch. Dean holds his breath. It's too soon. The sleepless night before, the long day at the hospital, Sam needs sleep. The last thing he needs is another nightmare.
But then Sam's moaning, "No, no, no," and his fists are clenched and there's sweat building on his hairline.
"Sammy," he whispers, one hand on his brother's shoulder. "Hey, Sammy. Wake up. It's okay."
Sam's muscles tighten and he lets out a cry that goes straight to Dean's heart.
"Hey." He squeezes Sam's shoulder. Hard. "Sam. Wake up. You're okay. Wake up."
Sam sits up so fast that it's like he's on a spring. He looks at the ceiling and clutches at his chest and cries out Jess's name with breath he doesn't have.
Dean turns on the lamp and crouches down in front of his brother. "Hey. Sammy. It's okay. It was a nightmare. You're fine." It's hard to say everything's okay while Sam is trembling and gasping and full of wide-eyed terror, but Dean forces himself to stay calm. He squeezes Sam's knees and draws his attention away from the ceiling. "Just breathe, Sammy. Hey. You're okay. It's okay."
Their eyes lock. Sam's shallow breaths don't slow now that he's awake. If anything, they get faster. The pain and fear is evident on his face. This isn't just a nightmare. This is a panic attack. Again. Already.
"Okay, kiddo." Dean circles Sam's wrist and feels his pulse jumping in his veins. "It's just a panic attack. You gotta slow your breathing. Calm down. Nice deep breaths."
"Hurts," Sam gasps.
"I know, dude. I know. Just breathe through it. Nice and slow."
Tonight is different than last night. Dean knows Sam is not having a heart attack. People don't die from panic attacks. Do they? Dean probably should have asked the doctor that. Because even though he knows what this is, it doesn't make it any less real and it doesn't make it any easier to watch.
Seconds pass. Minutes pass. It's not stopping. Dean's constant mantra of "It's okay, you're okay, just breathe," isn't doing a damn thing.
"Shit," Dean mutters. "Hey. Sammy. You want a pill? You want to take something to calm you down?"
Dean takes the lack of resistance as assent. He grabs the pharmacy bottle, surprised to see that his own hands are shaking slightly. He fishes out one of the tiny pills, puts it in his brother's mouth, and helps him take a sip of water.
"Good," Dean says. "That's good. It'll start working soon." Dean continues his soft litany of soothing words, alternating glances between his still-panicking brother and the clock.
After 20 minutes, Sam's breathing begins to slow. Tension drains from his muscles one at a time. Though he's still shaking, it seems to be from exhaustion rather than fear. Dean wraps fingers around Sam's wrist and lets out a sigh of relief when he finds it slow and smooth. He lets his forehead fall to his brother's knees, offering some kind of silent prayer, then takes his place on the couch.
"You okay?" Dean asks.
"Yeah." Sam breathes. "Nightmare."
Dean almost hates to ask. "Jess?"
"We gotta find a way to make those stop, huh?"
"Nightmares? Or panic attacks?"
Sam nods. "Doesn't feel like a nightmare, though."
"Feels different. Feels like it's going to come true."
"It's not." It's a promise Dean isn't sure he can keep.
Sam's head falls to Dean's shoulder. "Right."
Dean wraps his fingers around Sam's wrist one more time. Cool skin. Normal pulse. "That drug's making you tired, huh? You should sleep."
"Can't sleep too long. There's this exam on Monday and I have a paper due and I need to…need to…" Sam trails off, his head growing heavy on Dean's shoulder.
Dean stays awake and listens to Sam breath, long and deep.
"What are you doing?" Jess asks, voice thick with sleep.
Dean freezes before throwing a few pairs of Sam's boxers in the duffle bag and closing the dresser drawer. He turns. Jess is sitting up in bed, hair a mess, a line from her pillow across her cheek. "Packing. I'm going to take Sammy for the weekend. Away from school and studying and stress. Might do him some good, don't you think?"
She frowns. "Where are you going to take him?"
Dean shrugs. He hasn't thought that far ahead yet. "Somewhere relaxing."
Jess pulls her knees up to her chest and runs her fingers through her hair. "How'd he sleep?"
"He had another panic attack. Around 3 this morning." Dean crosses to the partially open closet and takes a few of Sam's shirts off hangers, tossing them into the bag. "I had to give him one of the pills to get it to stop."
"Jeans are on the right hand side."
Dean tosses two pairs into the bag. "Thanks."
"Is he okay now?"
"For the moment. Still out of it from the drugs." Dean zips the duffle bag and slings it over one shoulder. He turns to Jessica. "I promised him we wouldn't leave until you were awake. He wants to say goodbye."
Jess nods, then tilts her head to the side. "You didn't sleep last night, did you?"
"I'm fine. It's him I'm worried about."
"You'll call me if anything comes up?"
"Absolutely. And you call me if anything..." Dean shifts the duffle bag to his other shoulder. "If you're worried. Or anything. Call."
Jess slides out of bed and smiles tightly at Dean as she walks out of the room. Dean follows her towards the kitchen and leans against the doorjamb. Sam is sitting at the table, cup of coffee – decaf – in his hands. "Hey, baby," Jess says gently, kissing Sam and rubbing at the stubble on his chin. "You had a bad night?"
"Keep it that way, all right? Dean says you're going to take a trip for the weekend?"
Jess smoothes Sam's shirt sleeve where it had been folded up at the hem. "I hope it does. I'll miss you, baby. Call me, okay? Anytime."
Jess kisses Sam again, lips, forehead, cheek. He stands and wraps her in a hug.
"You two behave, okay?" Jess asks, tears in her voice and eyes. "If you end up in jail, I'm not bailing your sorry asses out."
"Understood. But… strippers or no strippers?" Dean asks.
Jess laughs and wipes at her eyes. "Unless you're talking about comic strips or stripping paint, I'm going to go with no on that one."
Dean walks over and squeezes his brother's shoulder. "Such a wet blanket, that girlfriend of yours."
Sam doesn't say anything, just lets Dean lead him towards the door. He sways a bit, so Dean doesn't let go.
"Love you," Jess says, giving Sam one more kiss when they reach the door.
"Love you, too," Sam echoes.
Dean's about to follow his brother out the door when a small, warm hand grabs his wrist. He turns and gets a face full of blond hair and an arm full of his brother's girlfriend. He closes his eyes and holds her tight. "I got him, Jess. I'll take care of him."
She nods into his shoulder, then lets them go.