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He woke on a gasp, heart pounding. He’d been on a bathroom floor, somewhere, nowhere he ever remembered being. But he’d been alone, on his belly, gasping as each breath got harder and harder to pull in, to release. And no one there, no one within hearing, and him unable to move, to rise, to find a phone. All he could do was lie there and feel his ability to breathe. Failing.

It was probably sleep apnea, and he was aware he needed to be tested, that there was a possiblity he could be helped, that these random and increasingly frequent panic dreams would stop—or at least, slacken. But he’d been in so many hospitals, had so many scans and tests and apparatuses stuck on his head for the duration, had so many consults, left AMA when doctors and staff were looking the other way. So far he hadn’t been able to screw up the necessary courage to seek help.

He was aware it was a fallacy to try and analyze dreams that were not about processing his experiences. Gods knew he’d wandered through enough tunnels and caves and sewers and mine shafts, lit only with torches, flashlights, cigarette lighters, flares, cell phones, hoping the batteries wouldn’t expire or the flare or torch burn itself out before a light source was reached. He’d been in enough tight spaces: collapsed buildings, cellar crawlspaces, storm drains, chasing the fugly of the day into crevices where air was thin and spare.

But he didn’t believe these dreams were about those memories. Primarily because they didn’t also involve reliving broken bones, torn skin and muscle, blood, and pain. These were all about the inevitability of running out of air. A flight of stairs disappearing into an opening that shrank the higher he climbed. Inches of air between the ceiling and climbing water, and only darkness below and the impossiblity of finding another air pocket, or light from above and a way out.

Kittens taking refuge in a storm drain with a flash flood coming, and hesitating on the brink between letting them die and drowning himself to go after them. A cave, and a tunnel toward the light that takes a bend and narrows—believing if you just push forward another inch you’ll be through—and getting impossibly stuck, not able to move either forward or back. No one there to pull you back, or forward and through. Alone, always, only alone.

The dreams had started a few years ago, widely spaced, dismissable, especially when Dean walked into the bunker’s kitchen, yawning and aiming for the pot of coffee Sam had started when he jerked awake and knew he couldn’t lie back down, let alone go back to sleep. The intervals between dreams had gradually shortened. But when Dean had gone, slipped peacefully away with a fond look in his eyes and Sam’s name on his lips, the bunker had echoed with emptiness, and shutting his eyes had been impossible. Until he dozed off over an open tome of lore on his lap in one of the leather armchairs in the library, and gasped himself awake, shocked and struggling to breathe.

There were no windows in the bunker, and though it was cozy and familiar, and had become a home to Dean and him, now the walls seemed to shrink inward when he wasn’t paying attention. The lights dimmed, and though he checked the breakers and the updated wiring, he was left with an inward shudder at the thought of being caught underground in the dark.

Claire had custody of the bunker, now, and all the knowledge it contained. She had made connections here and there, sharing lore, and teaching an even younger generation of hunters. Sam knew the bunker and its treasures were in good hands. He dropped by, now and then, when he wanted to look something up, or just for a visit and some company.

But he had found a little house in a small town with a good library, a sandwich shop that served good coffee, a couple of good bookstores, farmers’ market on weekends in season, and he was settled and satisfied enough. He’d taken in a couple of rescue dogs, and a stray cat had befriended the dogs before it approached Sam. But he’d been adopted too, and the cat moved in to share warm sunlit windows and an occasional lap. The four of them were quite content.

But time didn’t stop or slow, in fact it seemed to speed faster, every year, and the dreams came more and more often.

He and Dean had talked about it, about what they expected when they died, what Billie had once promised them and whether her promise would be kept, even if not by her. If they would be together, if they would see the people important to them that they had lost. There was never any definite conclusion reached, but Sam believed both he and Dean were content to go when it was time, and to trust that after wouldn’t be another ticket to hell, after all.

So when he sat bolt upright, hauled awake by another one of his dreams, gasping for breath and his heart pounding, it wasn’t death he feared, nor whatever came after. He realized he didn’t even fear leaving the world alone, with no one there to send him off, to touch his hand, his face, to murmur words of comfort as he let slip his last breath.

No, the feeling was panic at trying to breathe and not finding air. Which wasn’t a rational thought, and wasn’t anything tied to any of his memories. So, after a bit of research he realized he probably needed to see a doctor.

So he did what Winchesters always do, he put it off. Until today. Last night’s dream had been probably the worst one he’d ever had. And honestly, dying in his sleep was sounding less and less a pleasant way to go.

He did a search on his tablet, and picked up his phone.