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it's all just background noise

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When it starts, nothing seems abnormal, which is the most anal thing to say, because everything is abnormal in their lives.

The first time it happens, they’re in the Impala. Fitting, that everything always starts there. Sometimes Dean wonders if it’ll all end there too.

Dean, like the little shit he is, doesn’t worry too much about most things, or at least he tries to act like everything is cool all the time. When it comes to Sam though, he could give a shit. It’s his little brother. The only person on the face of the Earth he knows he’ll be there for and who’ll be there for him, unconditionally. So naturally, when things start going south of fucked, he tries to play it cool at first.

But it’s Sam, and Sam is his little brother.

Even when they were hunting with their dad, Sam got this kind of shit. Just regular ol’ headaches where he had to lie down and squeeze his eyes shut and take some painkillers. They’ve never disrupted the hunt (except for the visions, but that was a whole other can of worms), and Sam’s mostly learned to deal with them. His sketchy coping methods work, until one day they just don’t.  

It’s the third day after a nasty hunt in Dallas, and they’re driving back up to Wherever, USA, when Sam gets a headache. The fact that he got his head conked by a supernatural being doesn’t help, but usually, he’s back to normal in the first 24 hours, not the first 72.

They’re in the Impala, and Dean’s recounting the ever exciting tale of when he killed some monster in Poughkeepsie, one he knows he’s told hundreds of times, but he’s just saying it to annoy the fuck out of his brother. Usually he gesticulates too, taking his hands off the wheel and letting the car lurch, which makes Sam turn pale as a sheet and lets a howl out of Dean, but this time word vomit might just  be rolling off his tongue because he knows it’s one of the only stories that genuinely gets a laugh out of Sam. On the other hand, Sam is not in the laughing mood. He’s lying in the backseat, knees drawn up and hands over his eyes. It’s a little worrisome, but he knows he already took three (or was it four) Advil’s so Dean just stares back out on the road and lowers his voice a bit.

“-and so, there I was, ready to light the place up-” He’s saying, just about to get to the exciting part, when Sam suddenly interrupts him.

“Dean.”

“-I had the lighter in my- What?” Dean’s tone could be considered rude, but A) it’s his brother, and B) he was just interrupted while telling the greatest story in all of hunting history, so he’s within his rights. “What’s so important that you had to interrupt the best part of the story?”

“Dean-” Sam jackknifes up, face ashen. “Pull over, I’m going to throw up.”

“Shit, ok,” Dean jerks the car over onto the shoulder of the road and scrambles out, opening the right-side passenger door to help Sam get out. He helps him turn around and sits him on the edge of the leather seat, a somehow steady hand hovering on his brother’s back, just in case. Headlights from the interstate flash by and illuminate Sam as he dry heaves and spits out bile. His knuckles are white as he grips his knees tightly, head between them as he leans forward.

“Jesus,” Dean breathes, gently patting Sam’s back once he’s sure that nothing’s gonna come out.

“Sorry,” Sam breathes heavily, coughing roughly. His eyes are half-open, and to Dean, they look dark and wet.

“S’ ok, s’ok,” Dean rambles, putting a palm against the back of Sam’s neck to feel for a fever or anything out of the ordinary. He’s clammy, but not too hot, so the urge to heave was most likely from the concussion. “Come on, let’s get you lying down again.” He says quietly.

Sam gulps and nods, wiping the spit from his chin with the back of his hand. “Sorry,” Is the mumbled apology he gives again.

“No, I’m sorry for running my mouth,” Dean helps his brother sit back in the car, and passes him a bottle of water from the cooler, grabbing a coke for himself. He needs to keep driving and if things turn heads up, get Sam to an ER. Not the healthiest way to do it, but he’s gonna need caffeine.

“You should sleep. That son of a bitch gave you some concussion, huh?”

Sam drinks ¼ of the bottle then looks up at Dean distantly as if he has to stare through a lot of fog to make him out. It takes him a little too long to answer, but Dean figures it's just the fatigue and the thrumming in his skull.

“Yeah… Just got knocked a little too hard this time,” Sam says, trying to go for a light laugh. It comes out in a twisted expression that Dean can only decipher as pain.

“Any more times and there won’t be anything left to knock,” Dean says, closing the passenger door and getting back into the driver’s seat.

Sam sighs and lies down again, hands interlocked above his eyes. Dean doesn’t say anything else and lets his brother sleep, but something about the minute slur to Sam’s voice sets him on edge. He makes a mental nose to keep checking on him.

Dean takes a sip of his Miller Lite and shakes his head, humming some Nine Inch Nails song very quietly. Surprisingly enough, Sam dragged him into that one.

Besides that, everything is quiet and dark.

 

-x-

 

It happens three other times before Dean decides shit’s fucked.

The second time, Dean’s humming and lightly air guitaring Children of the Grave while Sam’s lying on the carpet, eyes closed. They’re playing their stupid-ass humming game in their hot motel room, waiting for the AC to come back on. Dean squeezes his eyes shut and tries to put as much Ozzy Osbourne as he can into his hums, but he’s never been very gifted with music. It takes a while for Sam to respond, and Dean gives credit to the heat and the tiny headache he can see blooming behind Sam’s eyes.

“You gotta know who this is, Sammy-boy,”

Sam scoffs as if insulted. “Metallica, duh.”

Dean knows Sam isn’t a fan of most of the bands he has on cassette, but this is obviously a joke. There’s no way he doesn’t know Children of the Grave. Sure, Dean’s humming sucks on a good day, and he has no sense of rhythm or tone, but this is Sam’s favorite Black Sabbath song.

“No, chucklefuck.” Dean says, fake disgust plastered on his face. “I get the heat is melting your brains, but try again.” Faintly, he hears the sound of a pool party from some neighbouring motel wafting in through the open window and gets uo to close it. Sam’s just playing him he knows it.

Except Sam opens his eyes and sits up sluggishly, leaning back on his elbows. “That’s a Metallica song. I know it is.” He says, confusion bleeding into his voice.

“Sam,” Dean turns around slowly, leaning against the window sill and crossing his arms. “I thought college was supposed to make you smarter, not dumber,” He tries to slide some humor into his words, but when they come out of his mouth even he doesn’t hear it.  He hums it again, this time doing the most to try and nail the tune. “Ozzy? Tony? Black Sabbath? Children of the Grave ?” Dean asks incredulously.

“No, it’s- I thought.” Sam blinks twice, then lies back down. “Whatever. Your taste in music is questionable anyway.”

That’s what he says, but Dean sees Sam’s white knuckled hands make a reappearance. In the dim light of the motel, his eye visibly twitch under his eyelids.

Fuck.

Dean sees the cover up for what it is, but sits back down anyway.

A few hours later Sam’s lying in the stuffy motel room with a migraine so bad that all Dean can do is sit outside of their room in the blazing heat and try not to make any noise.

 

-x-

 

The third time they’re limping into an empty diner at the ass crack of dawn.

Both of them are bloody and dirty and covered in more graveyard dirt than they will be when they die , but the waitress isn’t fazed whatsoever. Her blonde hair flips back as she leads them into the diner and grabs some menus off the counter.

“Tough night?” She asks with a raised eyebrow as they slide into a booth. Dean stares at her with a funny expression, looks at her milky blue eyes for a second too long.

“Guess you could say that.” Dean takes both the menus when he sees Sam already laying his head down on the table.

If his Dad where here he would tell Sam to show some manners and sit up, but Dean isn’t Dad, so he just gives the waitress an exhausted smiles and stares down at the menu. “Anything you recommend-” He snatches a glance at her name tag. “Lena?”

He sees the beginning of an eye roll from her, but then she starts listing various foods, all of which sound good to Dean, who at this point will eat anything. He hasn’t seen Sam eat since yesterday and wants to get some food in him before they get back to their dingy motel.

“Hey, buddy?” Dean pats Sam on the arm gently, watches as he raises his head with all the effort in the world.

“Mm?”

“I’m gonna get you eggs and toast, sound good?”

Sam barely nods in response before putting his head back in his arms.

“Eggs and toast for him, and for me just-” He scans the menu again, then sighs and gives it to her. “Whatever’s got a bit of everything. Oh, and coffee, please.”

Lena nods, a small smile on her face, then leaves them alone.

“Sam. Sam, talk to me.” Dean probes, giving his brother a soft nudge with his foot under the table.

“Jesus, Dean. What do you want me to say?” Sam croaks, raising his head slightly. “That I feel like shit?”

“Your headaches didn’t used to be this bad, and I know you’re not concussed this time.” Dean says, tone dark. “Something’s wrong.”

“No, I just- I just don’t feel good, ok? Bug or something…” Sam isn’t even trying to smile at Dean this time around.

When Lena brings their food, Sam sits up with bleary eyes and wrinkles his nose, poking at the eggs like a little kid. It’s exasperating enough that the whole time he eats Dean feels the need to give Sam the death stare.

“C’mon man, eggs are like, your shit. Eat.” Dean says after he finishes his whole plate.

Sam doesn’t say anything back but manages to stuff a few forkfuls in his mouth, chewing very, very slowly.

Dean’s mouth twists a little with worry when he sees Sam bring a hand up to his ear to try and cover it. There’s an attempt at making it seem like he’s scratching his earlobe, but eventually Sam just outright covers it. Some gentle music plays in the background that Dean barely registers, but he can tell that to Sam everything’s ten times louder. So like the fantastic brother he is, he gets up and downs what's left of his coffee.

“I’m gonna go get a refill.” He says quietly, barely catching the tiny nod Sam offers.

He strolls up to the counter and sits, setting the mug down in front of Lena, but before he can even get a word out she’s got her hands on her hips.

“Uh, uh, no - The cook back there? He’s my boyfriend.” She points to the kitchen. “Besides, it’s like 4 in the morning.” The waitress says in a thick southern drawl, laughing softly as she pours Dean another cup of coffee. “You didn’t think I ran a 24 hour diner alone, did you?”

“Relax, I wasn’t trying to hit on you,” Dean says, catching narrowed eyes peeking out from the kitchen. He gives a small wave to the supposed boyfriend and takes a long sip out of his cup once she slides it back. “Just wanted to ask you if you could turn down the music a little. As much as I love soft blues, my brother’s got a headache.” He says politely.

She nods and gives Sam a quick glance. “No offense, but he looks like shit. You go to a doctor or somethin’ yet?” She asks while she turns down the volume.

“No. He says it’s just a bug, but I know my brother.” Dean turns to look at Sam who’s still picking at his food like a bird with a brain bleed. “I just need to find a way to get him to go.”

“And how you look has nothing to do with his monumentous headache?”

Dean glances back at the dirt they tracked in.

“Shit, sorry about that.”

“This is a 24 hour diner, and we’re not exactly known for being family friendly. I’ve had to clean up more puke than you’d care to know.” Lena sighs tiredly.

If every few seconds he didn’t keep catching the eyes of her boyfriend through the slit to the kitchen, if he was on a road trip or some cheesy shit like that, if he wasn’t a few more pained glances away from dragging Sam to a medical professional, Dean would totally take this girl out to lunch. Not even because she’s attractive, which everyone thinks is his usual MO, but because she looks like she could take a long fucking break.

“Hey, Dean,”

“God, Sammy.” Dean almost jumps out of his seat when Sam taps him on the shoulder. “You ready to go?”

“Yeah, just gonna…” Sam motions vaguely in the direction of the bathroom. Dean turns to look at the plate he left at their table. He barely ate anything.

“You do that.” Dean takes out his wallet to pay the bill and puts it up to his forehead in salute. He watches as Sam moves to the bathroom and gnaws on his lip, carefully considering his options. He’s not going to lie and say he isn’t worried when he really is. This is at least the 8th headache of the month, and Sam not accepting that he’s going to have to get help sooner or later is extra concerning to say the least. Dean can’t just keep putting on this facade that everything is ok, but he also wants to not be up Sam’s ass and give him some space before he makes everything harder for both of them.

Lena cuts into his train of thought, leaving him with exactly zero considered options.“My ma used to get headaches like those. Migraines, really.”

Dean slides her a twenty. “She ever get diagnosed for anything?”

“Yeah.” Lena says after a moment, dropping Dean’s change into his open palm. “Brain cancer.”

Dean feels the blood rush out of his face and suddenly his heart’s racing a million miles a minute.

Lena almost chokes on her coffee.“Not that I think he has brain cancer or anything. Ma had a lot more symptoms.”

“Jesus.” Dean scrubs a hand across his face. “Sorry. About your mom.”

“Well.” Lena squints, eyes fixed on the front of the diner. “She’s not in any pain anymore, and that’s all anyone can hope for.”

Dean sticks the change in his pocket and doesn’t say anything else besides a mumbled agreement. He was never good at the whole emotions thing, and is continuously impressed every time Sam uses his empathic prowess to comfort people.

“Anyway,” Lena runs a damp rag over the counter, wiping off the dirt that flakes off Dean’s hair. “I think your brother’ll be ok, but better be safe than sorry.”

“Speaking of… Where the fuck is he?” Dean says it without a hint of malice. “I’m gonna go check on him,” He gets up and follows the short hallway to where the bathrooms are, pushing open the electric orange door that’s got a half-faded cowboy hat on it.

“Sam? Sammy, you good?”

No response.

Dean walks down the short row of stalls, trying to be quiet. “I know that you don’t usually do breakfast, but the eggs weren’t that bad where they? I ate all my stuff fine-” The last stall is open, and that’s where he finds him.

Sam is shivering, knees pulled up to his chest as he sits up against the wall. His eyes are screwed tight against the fluorescent light and he’s taking weird disjointed breaths, like a fish outta water.

Dean doesn’t even need to peek into the toilet to know Sam’s brought up the two bites of egg he had. He retraces his steps to the door and turns the light off, leaving them in almost total darkness except for the light of the rising sun coming in through a tiny window.  

“Sam, I’m gonna sit next to you,” He whispers, letting the bleak light guide him to his brother. One look at his brother tells him what he already knows. “Dude, we have to go to the hospital. Or a clinic, or something,”

“No, no, no, no, no, no, please,” Sam whispers, head pushed back against the tiled wall. “No hospital. It’s just a bug. It’s just a bug. I’m okay.”

“Stop saying that. We can get you help. Prescription pain meds for whatever it is that’s going on. This isn’t normal.” Dean pleads.

“Please, please, just-” Sam breathes sharply through his nostrils, his eyes finally opening. He doesn’t turn to look at Dean, just focuses on breathing normal. “Let it pass, and then if shit’s- If shit’s still bothering me we can go. I promise.”

For a moment Dean looks at Sam. Beyond the floating specks of dust, he can see the sweat beading on his forehead, see the small tremors that run through him.

“Ok.” Dean never should have said it, but he does.

He helps Sam up and into the car, gratefully accepts the bottled water from Lena, and gives his brother enough sleeping meds to knock a horse out. By the time they’re two states over, the migraine is gone, Sam’s awake, and the only sign of it ever being there is Sam’s missing appetite.  

They never talk about getting him help.

 

-x-

 

The fourth time it happens Dean almost shits his pants.

It’s scarier than all the apocalypses and monsters they’ve faced combined, and Dean thinks if he ever has to witness it again he really will shit his pants.

South Carolina has decided to cook them alive, so Dean’s countering with finally using a motel pool. The sun glints off the milky water and Dean sees more than just dead bugs floating around in the water. If he squints hard enough it looks green, so he decides to just go for it.

Sam looks grossed out, but he laughs as he settles down on the edge of the pool with a book.“If you get some brain eating parasite ‘I told you so’ will the first words out of my mouth.”

He sticks his feet in the water. “Fuck, it’s not even cold. It’s like warm saliva with chunks of-”

Dean cuts him off before he can keep going,.“Ok, ok, I don’t want to hear anymore Samuel. Sorry, you’re too pussy to take on the mysterious water of this here lagoon.”

It isn’t that funny, and Dean’s certainly done better in the humor department, but Sam throws his head back and laughs, eyes crinkling with mirth.

It’s the first time in a few weeks that he’s seen Sam produce a real laugh, not the short kind that he makes when he pities Dean’s shitty jokes. Dean grins and approaches the rickety diving board, but after he puts a foot on it and it seems to slide forward he decides against it. “Brain parasites I will take, but I am not cracking my head open.”

Sam takes a sip of beer and squints at Dean. “It’s all or nothing,”

“Fine. I die, this is on you,”

He gets on the diving board as quickly as possible and bounces off, hitting the water like a fucking idiot. Sam’s right he thinks as the water bubbles up around him. This is definitely brain parasite nesting grounds. The water is uncomfortably warm and he feels all sorts of weird things coming in contact with his skin. Jesus. Dean knows the longest he can hold his breath is three minutes, maybe three and a half, but he doesn’t wanna have his head under this water any longer.

Dean pushes off the bottom of the pool and crashes through the water, shaking his head like a wet dog.

“Well, I didn’t crack my head open, but still not sure about the brain parasites,” Dean admits, flipping around on his back.

This, this is the moment when he almost makes the shit pool even shittier.

Sam’s sitting where he was before Dean jumped in, but his legs aren’t moving back and forth in the water anymore. He’s opening and closing his mouth again and again, blinking roughly like his eyes can’t process the light.

Dean wades to the edge of the pool as fast as he can, stopping directly in front of Sam.

“Hey, hey. What’s wrong?” He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he snaps his fingers in Sam’s face, trying to get a reaction. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

“Wh- hatheni- Pool..” Sam stutters, raising a hand to touch at his lips. He moves his tongue in his mouth, bites on it and then make his lips move again. “Pool-”

“What’s your name, huh? Tell me your name,” Dean says, his voice cracking with panic. He has no idea what he’s saying, he has no idea what’s happening, but something’s wrong, something’s really fucking wrong.

“I’m-Murky-” Sam mumbles, hands scrabbling at Dean’s shoulders.

He thinks Sam is having a fucking stroke.

Their Dad, whenever he got drunk enough, would say that Sam had eyes like sunflower fields. Now the sunflower fields are up in flames, smoke rising into the atmosphere of Sam’s irises. Dean thinks he looked less terrified when he died.

“Ok, I’m gonna, I’m gonna go get help, Sam you need,” Dean’s trying to get out of the pool but everything is slippery and then his face is careening towards the ground and he’s smacking his head on a rusty lawn chair and there’s buzzing in his ears but he thinks Sam is having a stroke so it really doesn’t matter and-

Now Sam’s getting up, trying to get Dean to sit up from where he just ate it, and he hears disjointed mumbling and words just trying but not being able to spill out of Sam’s lips, and-

“Hey! Yo!”

Dean looks up and sees a kid opening the metal fence and jogging over, kneeling down by the two of them.

“You two good, or just really stoned, because that was one fucking faceplant, and-?”

Dean cuts him off. “I’m fine, but I think my- I think my brother’s having a stroke, so if you could just get us a fucking phone, or find a doctor or something-”

Sam’s waving then, trying to say something unintelligible. He keeps blinking in that weird way that’s making everything ten times worse. He shakes his hands in a ‘no’ sign, pointing at his head.

“Iz- Sidewalk. Iz, I’m n-” Sam squeezes his eyes shut and stares at the ground, grinding out a ‘fuck’ in between mumbles. Under normal circumstances, Dean would laugh because of fucking course the only word Sam can get out is a profane one, but also Sam’s brain is fucking failing him so it is not a time to be laughing. He stands up and puts one hand on the back of Sam’s neck, tries to steady him. The kid’s run off to get help, or a phone, or whatever the fuck.

“Hey, Sammy, whatever’s happening, it’ll be ok, we can get it fixed, I promise,” Dean’s rubbing a hand against Sam’s neck, staring at him as if it’ll make things any better.

Sam’s just doing his weird fucking blinking, and the stuttering, and he’s sitting on his haunches but two blinks later he’s falling on his ass and his eyelashes are fluttering shut and-

And no. They can’t get it fixed. Dean’s fucking lying.

When Sam passes out, that’s when Dean can hear again, and all he hears are the sirens getting nearer.