"It's okay, Dean. It's gonna be okay. We can patch this up. Don't worry."
Dean clenches and unclenches his hands inside his hoodie, still hiding them as pain shoots through his joints, his skin cracking. "I couldn't stop. Dunno why, but I couldn't... I couldn't stop, Sammy."
"It's okay," Sam says soothingly, sitting down on top of the closed toilet seat. "Please let me help you."
Dean shifts around on the edge of the bathtub, not wanting to show his brother how bad it really got this time. How bad it gets every time he backslides. He bends forward a little, protecting his hidden hands.
But Sam handles this well, and he always has. He sits silently and still. He waits patiently like he's got nothing better to do. He's got so many better things to do.
Dean knows he won't win this. Not like he wants to. He craves Sam's help with the same tenacity that he craves his rituals. Slowly, he drags his hands out from under the hem of his hoodie and holds them out.
Blessedly, Sam doesn't even flinch. He just swivels around to grab the lotion, ointment, and bandages from the sink counter. They're always there, right on display. "It's not a failure," he says quietly as he first works the heavy duty Vaseline lotion into all the cracks and crevices of his brother's hands. They're still bleeding a little bit, but not too badly anymore.
"It's always a failure when I get his bad," Dean mutters, staring at the top of Sam's head instead of looking at his ruined skin.
"No, it's not," Sam insists quietly. "Not today."
Today is November 2nd. The years have passed into decades, and Dean's still scared. Still mourning. Still trying to comfort himself in his own way. "I should be over it."
Sam glances up sharply. "You shouldn't have to be over losing Mom. Or Dad, for that matter." He moves on to the ointment, spreading a thin layer over the bloody parts.
"You handle it just fine," Dean argues, if only to distract himself from the stinging.
Sam huffs. "No, I don't. Or did you forget that I pretty much failed out of college and did drugs?"
They view that year following John Winchester's death a lot differently. There's no denying that Dean spiraled abysmally, ending up in an acute treatment facility when his rituals had escalated so far that he hadn't been able to leave the house.
And Sam had spiraled as well. He'd shirked his classes in favor of illegal substances.
But Dean suspects in his heart of hearts that it hadn't just been about their dad. The responsibility for Dean's tenuous hold on his mental health, and keeping him functional, had suddenly fallen to Sam, and he hadn't been ready for it. Shouldn't have had to. He was 18, a full time student. He'd had friends and a social life. He'd had a girlfriend and a bright future. Then John Winchester had had a heart attack, and Sam had been saddled with an older brother who was incapable of keeping his shit together.
It had fallen apart for the both of them, and while Sam will twist himself into a pretzel to leave his brother blameless, Dean is perfectly able to blame himself for the both of them. "Sammy..." he says with a wealth of emotion that he can't express better in words.
"I mean it," Sam warns, sounding suspiciously full of blubbery emotions himself. "We're not gonna talk about failing. We're gonna talk about fixing. How long were you at it today?"
Dean glares at the sink. "Ran the hot water heater out," he mumbles. "So, I dunno? An hour? Hour and a half?"
Sam nods along easily. "Do you need your Xanax?"
Shaking his head, Dean says, "nah, I'm good. Calm. Fucking exhausted."
Sam finishes securing the bandages but holds onto his brother's hands, finally meeting his eyes squarely. "Your therapist said that even if you're calming down, it's good to take one get a nap, and get yourself back in order, right? We'll deal with the rest when you're at full capacity, and I've got time to wait. Is that okay with you?"
With the way his exhaustion is eating at him like it always does at the end of a particularly long ritual, he can't find it in himself to protest. It's probably how people feel after running a marathon. It's why Dean thinks Sam is insane for jogging. "Yeah, s'cool."
Later. Sam's right. It'll be better later. It's always better later.
~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~
Dean crosses his ankle over his knee, sinking down into the comfortable couch cushions. "Go for it."
She gestures towards him with her tablet's stylus. "Your hands are looking pretty raw. Is that because of the weather getting colder, or is something else going on here?"
Unconsciously, Dean wrings his dry, cracked hands, tucking them into the space between his legs. "A little bit of column A, little bit of column B."
"You wanna talk about it?"
Dean stares at his scuffed boots. "Sam's decided to start classes again this semester."
Donna's eyes widen. "That's great news, right?"
Dean nods emphatically. "Yeah, it's totally great. I'm proud of him. Just... it's... it's a long commute."
Donna hums in understanding. "I see."
Rubbing his hands, feeling them start to sweat a little, Dean continues, "He wants to stay in our house, too. Doesn't wanna move somewhere closer."
"What's worrying you about that?"
Dean shrugs. "He says he wants to stay there because it's the family home, but I don't know if that's true. Could just be because he's too worried about me living alone. The last time I did... well, fucking disaster. And then I'm worried about that commute. Feels like it's just asking for the catastrophe to come true. And maybe he's holding himself back from getting his own apartment because he doesn't think I can hack it on my own."
Donna smiles. "I get that. But we've talked about you assuming Sam's real feelings before. How valid does his reason for staying at the house with you really sound?"
"I get it," Dean says slowly. "It's the same reason I don't wanna move. Besides the stress of moving in the first place. It's where we grew up. The last connection we have to our parents besides the car. We've fixed it up over the years; erased the fire evidence that Dad couldn't bring himself to. It's a good home."
Carefully, Donna makes a note on her tablet and asks, "I do understand that, but do you think it might be time to return to our original conversation about your obsession years ago?"
"About us both moving?" Dean asks, though he's positive it's that. It's always been that.
"Yeah," Donna answers. "How has your obsession with the house fire been lately? Say, in the last year?"
Dean tilts his head from side to side thoughtfully. "Better-ish. I guess. I mean, it's still there. Not all the time, though, obviously. I don't stay awake half the night anymore, or go around unplugging everything. I can fight it off sometimes."
"That's awesome," she says encouragingly, starting to shift around in her seat in poorly-contained excitement. "So, do you think it has something to do with where you live still, or do you think it would be the same anywhere else?"
Scratching at his ear, he admits, "I'm not positive, but I'm so used to the thoughts that they'd probably happen anywhere."
"Maybe that's something to explore with your occupational therapist?"
Shrugging, Dean says, "yeah, I could do that. See what Jody's got to say about it."
Satisfied, Donna rests back more casually. "That'll work." She pokes herself on the forehead right between her eyes. "See ya got your thinking face on, there."
"Guess so," Dean says distractedly. "We've talked about it a million times, though."
"Doesn't matter," Donna assures him. "If it's still something you need to noodle out, it's still worth talking about. Give it a whirl."
Smiling a little at her constant cheer, Dean asks, "how do I get over all this guilt for more than a month or two? How do I start to believe it when you, and Sam, and Jody tell me that I haven't been holding Sam back from his life? When does this therapy shit really start to work?"
Donna rolls her fond eyes. "It is working. You're asking those questions, ain’t’cha? You're able to get out of your house. You're able to let Sam get more than a few steps away from you. You're able to drive, work, function outside of your head. I'm not trying to belittle you at all here, Dean-o, but your world’s improved."
"I know," Dean allows. "All thanks to you."
She shakes her head and she reaches over to smack his knee. "Credit's yours, pal. Just keep moving onwards and upwards, 'k?"
"You can't control everything, and you surely shouldn't have to. You were a kid when that awful fire took your mom and hurt Sam. But it's not on you, Dean. It's never been on you."
Shaking his head, Dean says softly, "I wish my brain agreed with you, even if I do."
"It will one day," Donna promises.
The rest of the session goes much more smoothly. More of a check in than anything else, and Dean's tension drains as usual over the course of an hour. As much as he rails against this talk therapy thing most of the time, it does ground him. Does give him a point of reference. Does reset his brain so that he can start the week with something like dignity.
Plus, Donna's a hoot.
At the end if the session, Donna does the same thing she always does. As Dean's getting ready to leave, she holds up a ceramic bowl with cartoon cats painted all over it and stuffed to overflowing with lollipops.
"And, hey," she says with a kind and cheerful smile. "Happy five year anniversary with me."
"What's that one?" Dean asks breezily. "Tin?"
"I'll bring you a baseball bat or something next time."
"Just what I always needed to bash someone's head in!" she chirps. "See ya next week."
With a smile and a small salute, Dean grabs a green sucker, gets his prescription refill, and gets on with his weekend.
~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~
Dean opens it. "Hey," he says with a yawn. "'Morning."
"Yeah, it is," Sam beams. "Ready for breakfast?"
Dean waves him towards the stairs. "Make yourself useful and get the coffee started."
Sam rolls his eyes, but does as he's told. Like they haven't had this conversation for as long as they've both been adults living on their own. They used to live in an apartment since the family home hadn't been fully restored after the fire, but that had been a disaster. It had quickly become readily apparent that Dean needed his own space in order to be fully functional. And it's gotten a lot better over the past decade. Now they can move around each other without being on top of each other. Sam's domain is the master bedroom and most of the space on the ground floor, while Dean's got his peace of mind upstairs in his childhood room, plus an office in Sam's old room.
Once the coffee is started, Sam pokes his head out of the kitchen and yells up the stairs, "Did Bobby send you your schedule?"
"Yeah!" Dean yells back. "Hold on!" There's a few minutes of banging around and then Dean is tromping down the stairs fully dressed in his Monday morning "uniform." It's the red and black plaid. He hands off his printed schedule to Sam as he passes by him to get himself a cup of coffee.
"Oh, wow," Sam says. "You're gonna do more than just the scheduled repairs and restorations?"
Dean shrugs. "I said I'd try a few calls. See how it goes."
"That's big," Sam says with as much forced casualness as he can.
It's not that big. But it also kind of is that big. "Don't oversell it," Dean says. "It's nothing."
"Dude, it's a lot!" Sam protests. "You've come a long way since your first therapy session. What did you call it?" He kicks his feet out under the table, tapping his chin with exaggerated thoughtfulness. "Oh, right! 'Snake oil for the mind.'"
"Whatever," Dean mutters. "It's been a while now. Saying 'I told you so,' is getting real old."
"I'm not," Sam says, grinning. "I'm just really, really happy, is all. You're getting better, and that'll make you happier, and that's all I care about. I don't want to hold you back for the rest of your life."
Dean blinks. "What?"
Sam's hippie hair falls low over his eyes when he dips his head down. "I've been to some of your sessions with you, remember? I know all about your obsessions. I know you have OCD because you grabbed me out of that fire and almost got hurt yourself. It's how you deal with the trauma. This whole..." he waves vaguely at Dean. "This whole thing is because of me."
Dean slams his coffee cup down on the table harder than intended. He sits right across from his brother, staring him down hard. "This ain't about you, Sammy. Never has been. You didn't set the fire, and you're not responsible for my trauma. I'm serious, man. You gotta believe me, okay? It's not because of you. That fire fucked me up for years, sure, but my brain's always had these issues. It's just who I am. The issues just, like... manifest as that. Not like that wasn't the worst thing we've been through. If there'd been something worse..." his shoulders tip up. "I'd be freaking out about that instead."
Sam finally looks up, almost smiling in encouragement. "I'm still sorry that you're dealing with this. Is there anything else I can do to help?"
Shaking his head, Dean says, "no. You already do everything you're capable of. Just keep doing what you're doing. Being happy. I'm glad you're going back to school, too, for the record. I can fix the rest on my own. I've got to. Can't rely on everyone else to fight my battles forever."
"Can I say I'm proud of you without you thinking I'm being condescending?"
"Nope," Dean chirps.
Laughing Sam holds up his hands. "Fine, I'll leave it. Have a good day at work." He gathers his things and takes his dishes to the sink.
On the way out, Dean calls over his shoulder, "yes, dear!"
He talked a big game to be able to do this, but ritual is more necessary than ever on a day like today. Dean sits at the kitchen table nursing his first cup of coffee like it's no big deal, but with his leg jiggling hard under the table, until Sam has finished his morning routine and promising to text once he gets to school. The garage door screeches up. Dean winces. It screeches down.
Palms sweating, Dean pushes out of his seat and rushes back upstairs through his room to his en-suite bathroom, heart thundering behind his ribs harder and harder until the first shock of cold water in the sink hits his hands.
He sighs, hanging his head. "Don't panic," he whispers to himself. "Don't panic, don't panic, don't panic."
He soaps up his hands, scrubbing vigorously to the count of thirty. Rinses for thirty. Repeats.
Tells himself he won't keep count, but he does because he has to end on an even number, or else.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he refuses to let the scenario play out in his head. "I'm doing what you want, brain," he mumbles. "Don't make me see it. I'm doing what you want."
The terror doesn't take hold. The waking nightmare doesn't take hold. The consequences of him stopping the ritual don't take root in his mind.
And when his cell phone pings loudly with a text, he's able to shut off the water, knuckles throbbing with cold.
It's from Sam, thankfully.
Campus is bigger than I remember. Parking was a bitch. See you at home!
Dean tries to smile, but feels like if he moves his facial muscles too much, he'll end up barfing. Sam's okay. Sam's happy. Sam's out of his car. He's at school. Nothing will happen for now.
Dean dries off his hands, hangs the towel back up on the hook perfectly evenly, then steps back into his room to collect his wallet and keys. He shuts his bedroom door behind him, pointedly not looking at the clock on his desk. Today is Monday. He doesn't want to see how much time he's started the week by wasting on his useless bullshit. He needs to get going. If he's too late, he'll miss his chance to get to the cafe, and the whole goddamn cycle will start again.
At least the roar of the Impala's engine is enough to drown out the white noise. It always has been. The uneven roar and vibrations under him, trickling up his arms to his fingers on the steering wheel. Back before he got into talk therapy and occupational therapy, he'd spent more than a few nights tucked into the back with his sleeping bag just to have a few hours without any nightmares. Sam never said anything about it, just made sure that the garage was closed and the car off.
But ten minutes later, he's shutting off the car, the hum of low-grade anxiety that had been soothed by the car, simmering back up. He can manage it, though, at least when everything is moving along as it should. He steps into Espresso Lane, the smell of roasting coffee and sweet pastries filling his nose with relaxing familiarity. He glances at his watch and counts the people in line. A minute and fourteen seconds behind schedule. That's manageable. And there's an odd number of people waiting, so he makes it even, and that's a bonus. He's been coming here five days a week for years and orders the same thing, so he can't pretend to study the menu while he waits off to the side for someone else to wander in and put the right number of people in the line. Exposure therapy and doing this a million times has helped immeasurably.
The morning rush is just ending anyway, Dean the last one behind three other people as the cafe empties out with the other local coffee snobs heading off to their respective jobs.
Dean watches his boots steadily as he creeps forward in the line, unable to take a real look around this morning. Too much movement. Too much chaos. He's only been awake for three hours and it already feels like he's getting to the end of his rope. Maybe Donna was right to worry about too much too soon with Sam starting classes on the same day that Dean will be picking up random, unscheduled repairs. Question marks in the routine. He shoves his shaking hands into his leather jacket pockets. He notices a scuff on his right boot while cursing himself for insisting on jumping into the deep end of life changes.
"What can I get for you, sir?" A cheerful female voice asks. Female? No, that's not right. His barista is never female. There's only one person who can serve him coffee. He can't be gone for his morning break already?
"Uh, hi," Dean says, embarrassed, staring harder at his boots. All or nothing, he supposes. He can ask for what he needs or run like hell like a complete embarrassment and never come back here again. Jesus. He can't even imagine what that would do to him. It's already bad enough today. "I... would it be possible for Cas--"
"Hello, Dean," Castiel interrupts warmly. God, it sounds great to hear.
Dean's head comes up slowly, the ten ton pressure in his chest easing in an instant. "Hey, Cas," he says, letting his smile finally break free now that it's genuine.
Castiel Novak is the best part of Dean's work week. Owner of Espresso Lane, vocal proponent of direct trade coffee, and, in Dean's opinion, super hot for a tree-hugging hippie.
The guy wears hemp dress shirts rolled to his elbows and faded denim like a freaking fashion model with his constant scruff, deep blue eyes, and messy dark hair.
He also bodily shoves his employee out of the way with a laugh, handing off the cup he was prepping for the previous customer. He glances over at her and says, "don't worry, Dean's a regular. I always serve him." Then he turns back with a bright smile, the crow's feet around his eyes deepening. "Sorry, she's new, and hasn't learned the routine yet. But she makes a killer chocolate mocha. Anyway. The usual?"
"Yeah," Dean says softly, trying to fight back the humiliating burn in his cheeks. "Please."
Without being asked, Castiel strips off his gloves, pops on a brand new pair, and pulls out a plastic cup from the middle of the towering stack. At the bar he scoops up a spoonful of ice. "Ten ice cubes, two pumps caramel sweetener, cold brew dark roast." He shows Dean every part of the process and hands the cup over proudly once he pops on the lid.
"Thanks," Dean says, fishing out a five and waving away the change as usual. "Sorry for being so picky every morning."
Castiel beams. "You have literally the easiest order I make all day. Trust me, it's no problem." He tosses the change into the tip jar on Dean's behalf. "Have a great day." He winks.
Dean swallows hard. Raises his cup in cheers, "you, too, man." Then he steps to the side to grab a straw while watching Castiel smile at the next customer in line, as always, hoping it's not just his imagination that he doesn't look quite as genuinely happy to see them as he does Dean. Wishful thinking, but some days, it's the best Dean can hope for in a full schedule of intrusive thoughts.
The best thing about Espresso Lane is that it's almost exactly halfway between the house and Bobby's salvage yard. Their coffee is pretty fucking great, too. Ten more minutes and he's pulling up to the front of the yard, into the parking lot at the garage portion where he spends the daylight hours.
Bobby's behind the front desk, feet kicked up, reading a real newspaper like the internet was never invented. "Look who decided to show up," he says without looking away from the paper. He says that every day, even though Dean is perpetually ten minutes early. Gives him time to get his head in order and his jumpsuit on.
"What would you say if I was actually late?" Dean asks, not standing on ceremony while he yanks his jumpsuit up over his clothes.
"I'd express my great surprise that you were alive," Bobby answers dryly without missing a beat. He gestures to a teetering stack of papers on the corner of his desk. "Get to work since I ain't nice enough to pay you to stand around looking pretty."
Dean grabs the folders. All his repairs for the day. Maybe the week depending on how involved they are. No surprises. Bobby lets him make his own schedule and prioritize the projects for two reasons. First of all because Dean's been around long enough that Bobby trusts him. Second of all, because Dean wouldn't be able to function unless he was able to control this much. It's no hardship on anyone, though. He gets the work done.
However, he'd promised Jody. And Jody scares him sometimes. So, he clears his throat and says, "I'm cool with a few oil changes today."
Bobby doesn't look up from his ancient computer, but quirks an eyebrow. "The drive-ups?"
"Maybe two," Dean amends.
Bobby shrugs like it's not a big deal because he knows exactly how big of deal it is. "Suit yourself. Garth's too slow on 'em, anyway."
"Thanks," Dean grunts, and then he's getting the hell out of Dodge because that was a bit much, and it's barely nine in the morning. On Sam's first day of returning to school. Jesus.
~ o ~ x ~ xoXox ~ x ~ o ~
The first time Bobby calls for him to do one is before lunch. Dean had been so wrapped up in the tire change he'd been doing, that Bobby's voice yelling his name had nearly made him jump out of his skin. And then it takes him almost as long to prepare to do the oil change as it does to actually do the oil change. His hands shake the entire time and he can't stop calculating over and over in his head how far behind his meticulously planned time he's getting.
The second time that Bobby asks, he must see something on Dean's face because afterwards, he makes up some lame excuse about closing shop early, and sends Dean home. And as much as Dean wants to protest, he's too busy running for his life.
He drives over the speed limit and nearly blows through a red light on his way home. And the only thing that he can think about once he gets there is diving towards his workbench in the garage and dumping his tackle box onto the floor. Hundreds of nuts, bolts, nails, and screws clatter across the concrete. He scoots them into a heaping pile, sits cross legged on the cold ground, and begins the painstaking process of sorting every last one of them into their respective slots in the box. He drops the first several, his hands are shaking so badly thanks to his pounding heart.
However, as the minutes tick by and the calming exercise starts to appease his anxiety, he calms, mind going blank.
He's maybe halfway done with the pile when the garage door screeches up. He really needs to oil the track again. He's blocking part of the space from where he's sitting, but doesn't bother to move. Predictably, Sam cuts the engine on his car and steps inside a moment later, plopping down beside his brother.
"Hey," Dean grunts because Sam won't let him get away with ignoring his presence for long.
"So, this is the bad sorting, then."
"Not too bad," Dean answers honestly, not to be deterred from his task.
"How'd it go?" Sam asks, purposely keeping the question vague so that Dean can answer with as much or as little information as he pleases.
It's appreciated today. "Two unscheduled oil changes and then I had to leave," Dean summarizes.
He can see Sam nod out of the corner of his eye. "Sounds good. I'm hungry. Wanna eat?"
The corner of Dean's lip tips up. "It's fine. Stop fidgeting and just help."
Following Dean's lead, Sam picks up one item at a time and drops it into the proper slot. Over the years they've figured ways for Sam to help speed up the rituals when Dean isn't too locked in on them. The ritual has served its purpose this time, but they both know it can't stay half-done.
But once it is, Sam leads the way inside. "So, how do we really talk about your day without either of us feeling like an asshole?"
Dean shrugs and kicks his foot out behind him to shut the garage access door. "There's no way, man, so might as well just do it however. Look, I get it. We can't talk about anything without it coming back around to my crazy."
"You're not crazy," Sam says with his best sour lemons look. "We established this years ago when you decided to start therapy."
"Okay, my former crazy," he amends, just to be the obnoxious big brother some more as he grabs two beers from the fridge. He hands one over, taking in the full brunt of Sam Winchester's attitude. The only solution is an eye roll and a release of the information. "Today was okay, and then it wasn't, and now it is again. Like I said, no big deal." He pushes up onto the counter. "I'm more interested in how your first day was."
Unable to help himself, Sam beams like he won the lottery. "It was good. Really good."
"Why? You got a hot professor, or something?"
"Nah, but there's a TA who's not so bad," Sam answers cheekily.
Dean grins. "I should have gone to college."
Sam pops the top on his beer and takes a long drink. "I said he's not so bad. But he's got nothing on your old trade school teacher."
"Benny?" Dean arches an eyebrow.
Sam nods. "I was so freaking jealous about that forever!"
Laughing at the sudden admission, Dean spits beer right down his chin and wipes it away with his forearm. "Dude. You should be. Benny was..." he closes his eyes and kisses his fingers like he's just sampled a meal of artistic proportions. "He was the cream of the crop. There'll never be anyone like him."
"You don't know that," Sam disagrees. He steps around Dean's idly swinging legs to dig through the cabinets for dinner supplies. "You said he was, and I quote, 'a good ride,' but I got the feeling that you never really fell too hard for him."
With a small snort, Dean agrees, "would'a been a stupid thing to do. I always knew he wanted to go back to Louisiana eventually. Which he did, by the way."
"Yeah, I know. It's just... how much better do you think it would be if you actually fell in love with someone?"
Dean is silent for such a long time that it inspires Sam to glance over his shoulder from his post at the stove, but Dean isn't angry or shut down. Just thoughtful. He shakes his head with a wry shoulder tilt. "That's just wishful thinking for me. I'm not the kind of guy who people want forever with." And for the first time in a long time, Dean kind of regrets that. And to avoid that can of worms, he downs the rest of his beer and silently watches Sam cook.