Dean drives south along streets as close to the coast as he can get. Every glance at the glittering blue water allows him a glance at his brother. Sam is sound asleep with his head against the door. It feels more like home than Dean wants to admit.
He drives in silence for two hours before Sam starts to stir. It's restless stirring. Uncomfortable. It's a nightmare. Dean eases the car onto the shoulder.
"Hey. Sammy," he says with a gentle squeeze to his brother's shoulder. Sam wakes with a gasp and eyes that go straight to the roof of the Impala. Dean doesn't have to ask what he's looking for. "You okay?"
Sam breathes hard while he looks around, getting his bearings. "Where are we?"
"Doesn't matter. Breathe, okay? You're all right."
Sam nods, pulling in a few too-shallow breaths. He looks out the window and opens the door. "Gonna walk."
Dean lets him go. Sam walks with both hands folded on top of his head, like he's winded after running too many miles. If only this was that easy.
When Sam disappears behind trees and down a hill, Dean unbuckles his seatbelt. He digs out Sam's pills and shoves them in his pocket, just in case. By the time he catches up to his brother, Sam is sitting on the sand a few feet away from the water, knees drawn up to his chest. With the exception of a few surfers, the beach is empty.
Dean takes a seat next to his brother. The sand is warm through his jeans. The breeze is cool and carries the scent of salt and seaweed. Even though the water is loud, Dean can hear Sam breathing. Slow. Steady. Even. Just like the waves. "You okay?"
"Sometimes I can stop them. Sometimes I can't."
Dean picks up a fistful of sand and lets the grains run between his fingers. "That's good."
"Shitty definition of 'good.'"
"Maybe. But if it means you're breathing, I'll take it."
They sit in silence. It's not uncomfortable. It's how things are supposed to be. Sometimes Dean forgets how much he misses his brother. After a while, Sam sighs.
Dean digs a piece of a shell from the sand and holds it out to his brother. "Shell for your thoughts?"
Sam takes the shell and rubs it between his pointer finger and thumb. "I don't know what to do."
"Jess. School. Life. Anything."
Dean searches the sand around him. "Fuck. I'm going to need a bigger shell."
Sam laughs, and it's the best sound Dean has heard in a while. Sam passes the shell from one hand to the other. "Do you think it's like throwing a coin in a pond?"
"The shell. Do you think making a wish while throwing a shell in the ocean is the same as making a wish while throwing a penny in a fountain?"
Dean smiles. "Dad used to get pissed when I'd give you coins. But it made you so damn happy."
Sam takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, then tosses the shell into the ocean. It disappears from sight.
"You wished for a pony, didn't you?"
Sam laughs again and nudges Dean's shoulder with his own. "Yeah."
"Aw, man, you're not supposed to tell me. Now it won't come true."
Sam's smile falters, then falls. He picks up another shell. "So if I throw this in the ocean, wish for Jess to die, then tell you my wish, it won't come true?"
"Hey." Dean closes Sam's fingers around the shell. "Jess isn't going to die."
"You don't know that."
"You want me to call Dad? See what he thinks?"
Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. "No. He'll just tell me I shouldn't have left. That this is what I get."
"Wishes don't come true. Dreams don't come true. I'm just…" Sam digs his hands into the sand on either side of him. "I'm losing it. Ask the doctors. They'll tell you. It's the stress. It's the lack of sleep. That's what's doing it. Right?"
When Sam looks up, his expression is so desperate it breaks Dean's heart. "What about that? School and all that. You seem pretty miserable. Is this still what you want?"
The tide is coming in, and a big wave rolls almost up to their toes. "I think so. It's just harder than I thought. Easy to get stressed out, you know?"
"Yeah. I know," Dean says even though he doesn't. "So, here's the plan. I think you'll feel better after a whole weekend off. We should get a motel room. More beer than we can possibly drink. Just relax."
Sam nods slowly. "That sounds good."
"Awesome. We can…" Dean's sentence is cut off when the next wave rushes right up over their feet, soaking their shoes and the asses of their jeans. "Fuck," Dean mutters. Sam laughs again and it sounds like a song. "You couldn't have warned me that was going to happen?"
Sam stands and toes out of his shoes and socks. "What, not afraid of a little water, are you?" He takes a few steps into the surf and cups his hand, splashing back at Dean.
"Hey, bitch. You sure you want to do that?" Dean follows suit, tugging off his own shoes and tossing them on dry sand.
"Oh, I'm sure."
"You asked for it." With that, Dean takes off at a run, splashing into the water and using both arms to soak his brother.
They end up in an all-out splash fight like they haven't had since they were kids. Maybe not even then. They're both laughing and cussing and soaked completely through. Salt water stings Dean's eyes and fills his mouth, but he could not care less.
"Okay, okay," Sam finally says when Dean has him pinned under his arm, ready to dunk him under the next wave. "I give up. You win."
Dean laughs and lets Sam go. "Did you forget? I always win."
They trudge out of the water and collapse on their backs onto the warm sand. Their shoulders are touching. They're both breathing hard.
Dean reaches one hand up to his brother's chest. Through the damp fabric, he feels Sam's chest rising and falling, fast but regular. "You good?"
"Yeah," Sam breathes. "I'm good."
"Good." He pats his brother's sternum. "Get comfortable. We are so not getting in my car like this."
Sam rolls onto his side, facing Dean. "Why not? It's just a little water. A little sand."
"Just…a little…" Dean sputters, glaring hard at his brother. "How the fuck long has it been since you've been in my car?"
Sam smiles. "I'm messing with you, man."
Dean rolls his eyes and squints back up at the blue sky. "Good. Thought I was going to have to knock some sense into you."
They're quiet for a few minutes. Breathing. Relaxing.
"It's been too long," Sam finally says.
Dean's eyes sting. "Yeah, Sammy. It has."
They find a motel a few miles from the coast. They stock up with beer and junk food. Dean flops down on the same bed as Sam instead of the empty one across the room, and Sam doesn't protest. They watch TV. They talk, but not about school or hunting or anything else that might stress Sam out. They drink. They eat. They laugh. Dean wants to bottle Sam's laugh and save it for a rainy day.
When Dean wakes the next morning, Sam is still out, curled up with a pillow clutched to his chest. His phone vibrates in his pocket, and he realizes that must be what woke him. The screen reads "Jess," and Dean panics, but the word holds some different meaning now that he's seen Sam's attacks.
He slips out the door and answers the phone before it can go to voicemail. "Jess? Are you okay?"
A pause. "Me? I'm fine. Why?"
It's easy to forget that she doesn't have a clue. He takes a seat on the curb near the Impala. "No reason. What's up?"
"Still sound asleep."
Dean tugs at his jeans, which are stiff from the salt water. "No. Actually, I think he slept all night. No panic attacks."
"Good. Maybe you were right. Maybe this is what he needs. I wish I would have gotten your ass out here a long time ago."
Dean's smile hurts. "Me too."
"So he's okay? You guys are having a good time?"
"Yeah. He had the start of an attack yesterday, but he stopped it. We went swimming. Ate crappy food. Drank beer." Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. "A lot of beer."
Jess laughs. "He's going to be so uncivilized when I get him back, isn't he?"
"Damn straight. But at least he'll be calmer and uncivilized."
"I'll take it. Have him call me if he gets a chance?"
They say goodbye and Dean pockets his phone before returning to the motel room.
Sam is awake and looks up when Dean walks in. "Hey."
"Hey yourself. Your girlfriend called."
"She okay?" he asks, snapping upright.
"She's fine. Just worried about you."
Sam visibly relaxes and falls back against the bed. "Oh. Okay."
Dean sits next to him. "How'd you sleep?"
"Good. Really good."
"No nightmares? I didn't sleep through a panic attack, did I?"
"No. I was fine. It's been a long time since I slept like that."
Dean grins so hard it hurts. "That's awesome, Sammy. Now, what do you say we go get something to eat? You're too damn skinny."
"Food sounds good."
Dean stands. "Perfect. But first, I really need to shower. I have sand in places you don't even want to know about…"
They're out on the road, enjoying another sunny California day when Sam decides to call Jess.
"Huh," he says, pulling the phone away from his ear. "Went to voicemail."
"She's probably out buying yarn to knit you a sweater."
Sam wrinkles his forehead in Dean's direction. "A sweater?"
"I don't know what sort of domestic shit girlfriends do. First thing that came to my mind."
"I'm pretty sure Jess doesn't know how to knit. Plus, it's California. We don't wear sweaters."
"Oh. Right. Well, I'm sure she's fine, Sammy. Don't worry."
"Yeah." But the word has never sounded so unsure.
They drive in silence for a few miles before Sam picks up his phone again.
"Shit," he whispers as he hangs up.
Without a word, Dean makes a turn and starts heading north towards Palo Alto. They're an hour and a half away. Dean is kicking himself for not staying closer. Sam tries Jess's cell a 3rd and 4th time with no response. He sits hunched forward with his head in his hands.
"Hey," Dean says gently, putting a hand on Sam's back. He's not surprised to find that Sam is trembling. "You breathing?"
"Yeah," Sam says, breathless enough that Dean doesn't believe him.
"Maybe you should take a pill."
"No. I can't…I have to…" Sam gasps. "Dean, what if she's…?"
"Hey. Don't play that game, Sam. You can 'what if' yourself to death, but until…" Dean trails off when the phone in Sam's hand starts ringing, loud and obnoxious.
Sam stares at the display before holding it up to his ear. "Jess?" He's quiet, then goes boneless against the seat.
Dean almost tears the car off the side of the road until he sees that Sam is just relieved. Fuck. There's relief all over his face. Jess is okay.
"I'm here," Sam finally says, voice weak.
They only talk for a few minutes. When Sam hangs up, he drops the phone and digs his palms into his eyes. "She was in a yoga class. That's why she wasn't answering."
"Fucking yoga," Dean says. "Everyone twisting themselves into pretzels. It's not natural." When Sam doesn't respond, he nudges his brother's shoulder. "You okay?"
Sam pulls his hands away from his face. "I was so worried."
"I know, man. I know." The car is still heading north. "You want to go home?"
Sam nods. "Yeah. Sorry, Dean."
"Don't apologize. I get it. We'll be there soon."
When they pull up to Sam and Jess's apartment, Dean doesn't turn the car off.
"You're not coming in?"
Dean smiles at his brother. "I'm gonna go catch up with Dad. Got some work to do." Some research to do. About demons and pretty girls with blonde hair and dreams that may or may not come true.
"Thanks for coming."
"Anytime." Dean claps a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Take care of yourself, okay? I'll be checking up on you. Call me. I mean it. And try to relax. Take those pills when you need them."
In lieu of a response, Sam leans over and hugs his brother. Tight. Dean hugs Sam back and squeezes the back of his neck. Movement catches his eye. Jess is standing at the apartment door, smile on her face.
"Dude, as much as I'm enjoying this chick-flick moment, you should probably know that your girlfriend is watching."
Sam lets go and looks up at his girlfriend. He grins. "She's okay."
"Yeah, Sammy. She's fine. And you're going to be fine, too."
They say goodbye and Sam gets his bag out of the trunk. He rushes up to the front door, drops the bag, and lifts Jess into a hug, spinning her around. Dean can hear her laughing. They both wave to Dean, then walk inside, arm in arm.
Everything's going to be fine.