Sleep is a precious commodity if you're a Winchester, and Dean has learned to appreciate every single minute he can get. Years of dealing with Sam's nightmares and insomnia, and then his own nightmares and insomnia have made him luxuriate in sleep the way a dog rolls in the grass, unabashed and entirely gleeful. He gets Sundays and Mondays off at the store, and those are his days for sleeping in, face mashed into his pillow and drooling. It's undignified, but he doesn't care. Besides, he lives all alone with his brother, so it's not like there's anyone to impress anyway.
So he kind of resents the fact that his fused knee sometimes makes sleeping a tricky business. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes the leg stiffens up in just such a way that he can't really get comfortable. He's lucky enough that he's always preferred to sleep on his stomach (the better to grip his knife under the pillow, a habit he's kept in spite of being ostensibly retired from hunting), but sometimes it's still uncomfortable, and he can't shift the way he wants to in order to find a better spot on the mattress. He twists over onto his back, heaves a sigh, and glances at the clock, not surprised to see that it's two o'clock in the morning. This sort of shit always happens at that hour.
And okay, maybe his insomnia might have just a little something to do with the fact that there are two hunters in town, and that he’s being dragged back into a world he thought he’d left for good. He should have known better than to think that, he tells himself bitterly: your past always catches up with you, and there’s always going to be something gunning for you or the people you love. Fuck. He turns over, punches his pillow viciously and tries to settle again more comfortably. Fuck Eli and fuck Donnie and fuck their stupid questions about demons. He hasn’t called them yet, but come the morning he’s going to have to, and since he can’t get around that far on his own it means he’s going to have to invite them into his goddamned house and expose Sam to more of their fuckery. Because what they really need these days is reminders of their old life.
A flicker of blue light catches his attention a moment later, and he sits up, listening. There's a faint murmur of voices, and he tries to remember if he switched off the TV before they went to bed. Either way, it's on now, so he swings his legs off the bed, pushes himself carefully to his feet, and limps his way to the stairs. He eases himself down, one step at a time, thumping his way to the bottom. There's no real graceful way to attempt stairs anymore, these days, one of the many aspects of being newly-handicapped that he's still having to get used to. A year ago he would have taken the stairs at a run —a painful run, but a run. Two years ago he wouldn't have even given the stairs a second thought.
He finds Sam on the couch, half-wrapped in a blanket, head propped on one hand on the arm of the sofa, staring at the TV without really seeing what's playing. Sam isn't looking good, is all he can think, pale in the flickering blue light, his cheeks hollow, dark smudges under his eyes. He's lost more weight, too, Dean notes with disapproval. He's going to have to work on getting him to eat more. Or eat at all, for that matter. His eyes flick to the floor by the couch, where there's an empty bottle of Jim Beam and a used glass, also empty, and a nasty feeling he doesn't want to identify coils in his stomach.
Sam starts a bit at his approach, then immediately sits up so Dean can sit with his leg up on the sofa. He draws his legs up underneath him, curls up in a way Dean wouldn't have thought possible for a guy his size, and switches off the television. “Hey,” he manages a small smile, but he sounds a bit hoarse. “I didn't mean to wake you.”
“You didn't,” Dean deliberately sits next to Sam and stretches his leg out away from them, tucking a throw pillow under his knee. Whatever's going on with Sam, it looks like he's completely lucid right now, which is rare for his nocturnal wanderings. “Woke up, couldn't get comfortable again. Why are you up?”
Sam rubs a hand over his face. “Couldn't sleep.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Dean leans back, nudges him with an elbow. “You feel like elaborating on that maybe?”
“Don't really want to talk.”
“No, seriously. My throat hurts. Don't feel like talking.”
Dean twists around, face pulling into a frown. “Again?” he brushes the back of his fingers against Sam's forehead, feels the frown deepen. “You've got another fever.”
“Barely. I checked. It's, like, a degree or two.” Sam jerks his head away, then winces in pain, and Dean can't help but feel a little rejected, as ridiculous as it is. It's one thing to have his brother flinch away from being touched when he's not all there, but he's awake and coherent now, or at least as coherent as he ever gets these days. It’s stupid, but he’s kind of become used to being close to Sam, and getting pushed away hurts more than he’d like to admit.
“That's the third time this year, and I bet you anything it's strep. Your head hurt?” he asks, and Sam just shrugs. “Yeah, I figured. You take anything? Apart from the bourbon, I mean. Which, might I add, you're not supposed to be drinking with your meds.”
“One glass. Bottle was nearly empty. And yes, I took something.”
“You want to go back to bed?”
Sam doesn’t say anything.
“Sam, come on. Talk to me. I'll even make you that tea and honey crap for your throat,” he tries for a bribe, and gets a quiet laugh in response. The mirth doesn't quite reach Sam's eyes, though. “You're making yourself sick, you know.”
“I know. I can't help it,” Sam scrubs at his face again. “It's worse at night. Louder.”
Dean feels himself go tense. Sam hasn't so much as said a word about what it is that's going on in his head, not since the first few completely incoherent attempts when Dean was still dragging him from specialist to specialist trying to figure out just how the hell to fix all this. Back when he still thought that this was something that needed fixing.
“What's louder, Sammy?” he keeps his tone quiet, as though he might somehow scare Sam back into silence if he says the wrong thing, speaks too harshly. He's not sure if he should even breathe.
Sam shakes his head. “The light.”
“It's loud. All the time. Sometimes it's like I never left.” Sam lapses back into silence, and starts worrying at the back of his left hand with his thumb.
Dean holds himself very, very still. Waits. After a few minutes, Sam starts talking again, so quiet Dean has to strain to hear him even in the silence. “He kept me in the light, and he talked to me.” There’s no question who ‘he’ is. “He was gentle, you know. Always gentle. And then sometimes he'd hand me over to them. But he kept me, mostly, and he'd make me listen to the screams instead. I couldn't see them, but the light was filled with screaming, all the time. I think he was happy, because he could share it with someone, you know? He never did before.” Sam stops, clears his throat and swallows painfully.
Sam just slumps and lets his head drop to Dean's shoulder. “I can't explain it better,” he says. “I'm sorry. I... the light kind of bleeds through, and then everything washes out, and I can't tell if anything's real anymore. It all blurs together. It all looks the same.”
“Is that why you keep getting lost?”
He gets a tired nod. “'s too fucking loud, sometimes. I can’t hear anything except the screaming, and the light makes everything look the same. Bright and loud.”
“Shit,” he shifts uncomfortably on the sofa until he's able to pull Sam into his arms, even though it jams his leg into an awkward position, and Sam just lets himself sag, head still on his shoulder. “I didn't know.”
“I'm not crazy. It’s just loud.”
“I know you’re not crazy, moron.”
“I wanted to tell you. I did.”
“It's fine. Don’t worry about it.”
It's not fine. It's anything but fine, but he can't exactly tell that to Sam. Sam who's got a fever (again, and that's just not fucking normal) and is hanging onto him like when they were kids and Dad was gone, except that this is nothing like that and it's nothing Dean even knows how to begin to fix. There wasn't any light when Dean was in hell. It was all darkness and blood and shadows, and the only light there was from the fires that they used for burning people. He remembers the only time he ever caught a glimpse of Lucifer's light, and he can't imagine bearing that for a day, let alone a hundred years. The darkness was unliveable until he let it become part of him. He reaches up and strokes Sam's head.
“You want that tea now?”
“Bourbon'd be better,” the words come out muffled by Dean's shirt.
“Yeah, I think I already set a really good example of how self-medicating with whisky is a shitty way of dealing with things.” Sam makes a noncommittal noise. “How's your throat?”
“How about a hot toddy? Tea and bourbon. Best of both worlds.”
“Why are you not freaking out?” Sam looks up at him, eyes so wide they look like they might swallow his face.
Dean just keeps stroking his head. “I sort of am,” he admits. “But you didn't freak out when I told you about hell, so I'm trying to return the favour. Besides, it explains a lot. What's so funny?” he asks when Sam shakes with silent laughter.
“I totally freaked out. I'm just a really good liar, apparently.”
His stomach bottoms out. “We need to stop these midnight confession things,” he mutters to himself.
“It’s not midnight. Maybe we should have done this on the side of the road, next to the Impala. Always worked for us before.”
He snorts. Figures Sam would develop freakishly good hearing right at this moment. “Bitch.”
“Jerk,” Sam doesn't move his head from Dean's collarbone, and Dean can feel the heat seeping from him. He chuckles again. “We're really predictable, you know that?”
“Part of our charm. You think you can get up? I’m a little stuck, here.”
Immediately Sam sits up, guilt plastered over his features. “Fuck, your leg. I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were all twisted around. You okay?”
He rolls his eyes. “I'm fine, Sam. Give me a hand up? We'll move this to the kitchen, I'll make a hot toddy for you, and then we're both going back to bed.”
For a moment he thinks Sam's going to argue with him, but his brother just nods, then puts a hand under his elbow to steady him as he gets up. It's yet another thing he's gotten used to, this casual reliance on Sam for physical support. When he bothers to think about it at all, he views it as the logical extension of the relationship they had before, just having each other's backs on a hunt, or even as kids in school or when well-meaning social workers came to visit them in whatever rent-by -the week apartment. Even on his bad days, Sam seems to have developed a sense for when Dean needs an extra hand. He helps as best he can, although they both worry that one day it won't be enough, and neither one has dared voice the concern aloud.
He tests his leg, decides that he's still okay, and limps toward the kitchen. He doesn't like using the cane, but generally he keeps the brace on, and it feels a little strange to be walking without it. Sam drops into one of the chairs at the kitchen table, his blanket half-trailing on the floor, head in his hands.
“If you're not better by tomorrow, I'm dragging your germ-ridden ass back to the doctor,” Dean says as he plugs the electric kettle into the wall socket by the stove, then rummages for the new bottle of whisky he just bought last week, pours an ounce or so into a tumbler. “Strep's contagious, you know.”
He reaches into the fridge and grabs the bottle of lemon juice they keep in the door, sets it on the counter, and pulls out the box of tea Sam prefers. When the kettle whistles a few minutes later he drops in the lemon and honey, pours hot water over the teabag, and brings the whole thing to the table, along with the bottle and another empty tumbler. He lowers himself carefully into a chair next to Sam, stretching out his leg under the table, the tiles cold under his bare feet.
“Dropped some cloves in there for you, too.”
“Thanks,” Sam nods, turns the tumbler on itself on the table, waiting for it to cool a bit before taking a sip.
“I'm not ignoring what you said,” Dean says after a while.
“I know. I wouldn't know what to say if I were you, either.” Sam sips at the hot toddy, makes a face, swallows. “It’s okay.”
“It really isn’t.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Sam screws up his face in frustration. “I don’t... we can’t fix this,” he says finally, echoing what Dean’s been thinking all along. “And I know you think there ought to be a way, but I don’t think there is. No, Dean, shut up,” he holds up a hand before Dean can interrupt. “I need to say this and if you interrupt me I’ll lose it and I don’t know if I’ll get it back.” Dean just nods, waits for Sam to gather his thoughts, such as they are.
Sam sighs, stares at the tabletop, and Dean can’t help but wince when he sees Sam’s right thumb start worrying at his other wrist under the table. “Look, I know how much this sucks for you. I’m not... reliable, or whatever. Not since I got back. I can’t get a handle on any of it, and I don’t think it’s ever going to get much better than this, and it’s freaking me out. I can’t function by myself, even if I’m twenty-nine fucking years old, and I can’t be trusted to be around when you need me and not, I dunno, catatonic or hyperventilating because someone touched me the wrong way. Fuck,” he rubs the back of his hand harder, leaving a red mark on the skin. One of these days Dean is pretty sure he’ll wear right through the skin there. His voice has gone hoarse. “I don’t even know where I’m trying to go with this anymore. I just... I want you to know that I know how hard it is for you, and I’m trying, I swear I am.”
A year ago Dean would have been pacing up and down the kitchen by now, and he’s itching to get out of his chair, except he’s not sure his leg could take the punishment. If Sam had anything else to say, it’s gone now. He’s siting with his head bowed, still rubbing the back of his hand with his thumb, and Dean has to actively refrain from grabbing his hands to stop him. It won’t help, and on a couple of memorable occasions Sam actually freaked out when he tried. He has no idea what to say, but it’s obvious he has to say something. He reaches for the bottle of bourbon, pours about a finger into the glass, and sips at it carefully, and pats his pockets in a vain search for a cigarette. He’s pretty sure he left the pack on the coffee table.
Sam looks up, squints at him for a moment as though he has no idea how either of them got there, then abruptly shoves his chair back and disappears into the living room. Before Dean can so much as extricate himself from his own chair he’s back, and drops the wayward pack of cigarettes onto the table in front of him.
“Those things are terrible for you,” he says, features pulling into a familiar scowl. “They’ll screw up your lungs and I don’t need to tell you what the doctor said it would do to your recovery, do I?”
Dean pulls out a cigarette and lights it, feeling the shaking in his hands begin to ease almost immediately. He blows the smoke away from Sam, for what little the gesture is worth, and doesn’t bother answering. He’s not an idiot, and Sam knows he’s not, and they’ve had the smoking-is-bad-for-you conversation more times than he can count, ever since Sam caught him smoking that one time behind the school bleachers with Sandy Marsala when he was fifteen. Sam just shrugs and swallows the rest of his hot toddy, wincing a bit as the now-tepid drink slides down his throat.
Dean clears this throat. “Sam...”
“You don’t need to say anything, Dean, it’s fine.” But he casts a speculative look at the whisky bottle before going back to fiddling with his empty tumbler.
“But I had a poem prepared, and everything!”
Sam snorts, but Dean is gratified to see the corners of his lips pull into a small smile. “Jerk.”
“Look,” Dean taps the ash from the tip of his cigarette into Sam’s empty tumbler, thus ensuring his little brother won’t be tempted to pour himself any more alcohol. He ignores the resulting bitchface with the practice that come from years of ignoring all of Sam’s bitchfaces. “I hear you, okay? And you’re wrong. It’s not hard, never has been. You think I’d trade this?”
“God, you’re an idiot,” he says, and Sam flinches. “You weren’t there, man. I know what you were going through was a million times worse, but you weren’t there before. I was a fucking mess, Sam. I had nightmares and I drank too much. Lisa and Ben were great, but I nearly wrecked their lives, and all I could think of was trying to get you the fuck out of that cage, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. You have no idea, man.”
“I got some idea, actually,” his brother says mildly, but Dean ignores him.
“The point is that you could be a vegetable and I’d still rather have that than anything else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re lucid enough to angst at me at three o’clock in the morning,” he grins, and Sam’s smile widens a bit even as he shakes his head, “but even if you weren’t... Shit, Sam, you think you can’t manage without me? Well, I can’t fucking manage without you either. It’s probably not healthy, or whatever, but that’s just how it is. So I don’t want to hear any more of this bullshit, okay? We’ll chalk tonight up to your being messed up because you’re sick and those guys threw you off, but you don’t get to decide what’s best for me, okay?”
Dean snorts. “I pour my heart out and all I get is ‘okay’?”
“Poetry’s your department. Besides, don’t I get a pass if I have a fever? That’s the rule.”
“You got, like, three passes tonight already, but I’ll let it slide.”
“You have no idea.”
“They’re gonna come here tomorrow, aren’t they?”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who Sam’s talking about. “Yeah, I think that’s probably easiest. You think you’ll be okay?”
Sam nods. “They just caught me off-guard. I’ll be okay. Or else I’ll just stay out of the way, whichever.”
“You don’t have to talk to them at all. I’ll handle it.” Sam nods again, but it’s clear he’s not convinced. “I mean it. They’ll ask their questions, I’ll answer, and then they’re out the door, and we can go back to enjoying our day off. Speaking of which, you think you can get to sleep now?”
But Sam doesn’t move from where he is, and for a long time, neither does Dean.