They have a routine. They never talk about it, it’s just something that they do, something that makes it all easier.
Dean wears short sleeves when he’s with Sam. Only when he’s with Sam. He’s embarrassed of the way his arms look, he thinks they’re gross; Sam doesn’t, though. Sam says that it’s okay for the scars to be out in the open, that he doesn’t need to feel ashamed. What he doesn’t say is that it’s also easier to make sure that there’s no new ones, that way, but they both know it.
It’s routine. Dean wears short sleeves. Sam checks on him.
If Dean’s feeling particularly self-conscious, if his guilt is reaching unhealthy levels, if his thoughts start going in dangerous directions, he starts wearing long sleeves again. Even to bed. That’s how Sam knows when it’s getting bad, that’s how he knows when to step in.
Well, there could be another way for Sam to know: Dean could tell him. But the thing is, Dean’s not great at asking for help. He waits, and waits, because if it’s still bearable there’s no reason for Sam to worry, if he’s still functional then surely he’ll be able to handle it on his own; he waits until he’s so far under that he literally can’t get up from his bed anymore, his mind full of screeching sounds and jagged edges.
That’s the reason why Sam never listens to Dean’s words when they’re talking about his mental health, and listens to his body instead. Looks for the clues he knows like the palm of his hands.
It’s routine. Dean thinks that it’s pathetic that they need to have a routine like that, but Sam doesn’t care. Not as long as it works.
They’re on a hunt in Montana in the middle of winter when the temperature drops way below zero. There’s snow everywhere, everything’s covered in ice, and the news is alerting that a storm is coming.
Sam says that they probably should bail and come back once the weather has gotten a little better; Dean, however, disagrees: «This thing only comes out every thirty-three years to feed. Do you really want to miss it because you’re scared of a little snow?»
Sam would like to reply that no, it’s not only the snow he’s worried about. It’s the fact that Dean’s been eating less lately, that he’s already had two nightmares since they’ve arrived in town, that he has been picking at his left arm like it itches. But Dean’s still wearing short sleeves to bed, so Sam tells himself that he’s probably being overprotective and agrees to finish the case.
Then, the power starts to flicker. They’ve already given up on going out, but now it starts to get too cold even inside of their tiny motel room. The car, of course, got snowed in as soon as they parked it, so there’s no moving to another place until the storm peters down. They’re freezing, so they do the only logic thing left: they bundle up. Thick socks, two pair of pants, and endless layers of t-shirts and plaid shirts. It’s not so bad, once they’ve covered up every inch of their bodies.
Except that Dean’s mind won’t shut up.
He wakes up the following morning with a splitting headache and a burning desire for a blade. He doesn’t know why. He never knows why. Some days are bad, that’s how it is. Problem is, he’s wearing long sleeves already, and Sam has no reason to think that there’s anything out of the ordinary because he’d be fucking freezing if he weren’t.
«I’m going on a supply run, I’ve heard that some shops might close for a while. Do you need anything?» Sam says, drinking the last of his coffee and putting on another jacket on top of the two he’s already wearing. He’d look ridiculously stocky if he were anyone else, but tall as he is it’s barely noticeable.
«Nah, dude, just bring back some more beer.» Dean says, even if the only thing that he really wants is for Sam to remain there with him. The thoughts inside his brain feel like sandpaper, and his mind screams: hide it. Lie. Lie. Lie.
Dean doesn’t want to lie. He wants Sam to stay, because he feels like he might be falling apart. He wants to give in and let himself be soft and vulnerable in front of his brother, he wants to step back and let Sam make everything better.
But the screams are so fucking loud… Calling him a weak excuse for a hunter, calling him a cold-blooded killer, calling him a dirty waste of space. Dean can feel his thoughts spiralling and he can’t do anything to make it stop.
He probably doesn’t deserve Sam’s comfort. Or Sam, for that matter. He surely doesn’t deserve a brother so willing to put up with his bullshit, so willing to clean up after him. He’s dragging Sam down, he can see that, and he knows he’s not worth it. His little brother would be who knows where without Dean’s lazy ass to carry along. And how can Sam not notice it? How can he not notice how broken Dean is? How useless. How pathetic.
Come to think of it, perhaps Sam does notice. He’s probably just waiting for the right time to leave him behind, trying to be nice in the meantime because that’s how much of a fucking martyr he is. Dean would do him a favour if he just killed himself. He would do everyone a favour, really.
Before he knows it, he’s hands deep into his duffel bag, reaching for a knife. He’s making a mess of his clothes but he doesn’t care, and he doesn’t stop until he has a blade in his hands. He starts to roll up the sleeves of his shirt, but he’s wearing too many layers and his shaky hands get stuck in the folds of cloth, so he desperately starts to strip until all he’s wearing is a thin t-shirt.
And then, he catches sight of his arms. The scars there are white, pink at most, on various stages of healing. There are no open cuts, there are no scabs, there’s no redness– because, a voice in his brain reminds him, he quit. He’s not supposed to be doing this anymore. He’s getting better. He is.
In a moment of lucidity he tries to let go of the knife, but his fingers refuse to comply. The urge is still strong, and now he feels even more pathetic, because he’s supposed to be recovering, he’s supposed to be able to take care of himself. Instead, it feels like Sam can’t even leave him alone for five minutes. His little brother is going to be so disappointed.
But maybe… Maybe it’s not too late. He can still make it better, right? He tries not to hyperventilate as he picks up his phone and clumsily deals Sam’s number.
«Sammy? I… I think… Can you come back?» Is all Dean manages to say, eyes squeezed shut and his right hand still clenched around the knife’s handle. He can hear Sam’s startled voice in his ear, but he can’t make out the words. His brother sounds frantic, and Dean would give anything he has to be able to be strong for him, put up an act and tell him everything’s going to be alright.
He’s Dean Winchester. He’s a hunter. He’s supposed to be tougher than this. He’s supposed to be fine.
Instead, he loses his grip on the phone and falls on his knees, as everything around him gets swallowed in darkness.
Sam walks as fast as he can manage, staggering because of the strong, snowy wind that’s mercilessly hitting his face. He’d run if he thought he could manage to do so without tripping. The snow is up to his knees by the time he’s back to the motel.
He’s called his brother back at least three times, but of course Dean never answered. Sam can’t help being terrified. Terrified, but furious too, because he’d noticed the signs and he’d done nothing about them. He should’ve known better than leaving, he shouldn’t have brushed it all off. Guilt is heavy at the bottom of his stomach, as his memory goes back to the bruise-like shadows under his brother’s eyes.
Finally he finds himself in front of their room, unsteady and out of breath. He gives himself one second to calm down, knowing that his panic would only make things worse, and then he opens the door.
Dean’s there. He’s sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, and he’s holding a knife in his right hand. He’s shaking.
Sam calls his big brother’s name once, twice, three times, and breathes out a relieved sigh when Dean finally looks up to him, his eyes glassy but mostly present. Carefully, trying not to startle him, Sam walks over to his brother and crouches down, holds his hand out for the weapon. Dean doesn’t let go of it immediately, but that’s alright. They have time.
«I didn’t.» Dean says, voice barely audible. «I feel…» He stops, then, breathes in, and falls silent. He doesn’t have the words to explain. «You got close, right?» Sam asks, needs to know. The answer is a shaky nod.
«I’m proud of you for stopping. You’ve got this, man.» Sam says, coaxing. Dean protests, or at least tries to; «I shouldn’t…» he says, but then the words get stuck in his throat and he almost forgets what he was going to say at all. He shouldn’t be struggling with something so pathetic? He shouldn’t need Sam’s help? He doesn’t know anymore. He just knows that something’s wrong and somehow, he’s breathing too shallowly and he’s feeling lightheaded.
«Give me the knife.» Sam reminds him then. Dean notices that he’s still gripping the weapon way too tightly, his knuckles white with the effort. He knows that, if he keeps holding on the knife, he’ll give in. He knows it in his bones. He looks at Sam for guidance, ignoring how wrong it feels to depend on his little brother, the one person he had sworn to protect; Sam’s eyes are kind, patient, as he gathers all the strength he has left before letting go of the weapon, flinching back as it falls on the floor between their bodies. Sam's enormous hand is immediately there to pick it up, hiding it out of Dean’s sight.
«That’s great, Dean. Now breathe with me, okay?» Sam says, quiet. Dean nods, then takes in a big breath, holds it, lets it go in a shaky whisper. He feels completely drained, and he can feel his eyes drifting shut.
«Bed?» Sam says. Dean thinks he might’ve nodded again, but he’s not really sure, and before he knows it there are hands gripping his forearms, hauling him up. Then he’s lying on something soft, covers draped over him, and he’s suddenly hit by a wave of gratefulness that almost chokes him up. Where would he be without Sam? He’s the luckiest son of a bitch in the whole world.
He opens his eyes, looking for his brother, and finds Sam’s eyes glistening with tears. He freezes.
«I should’ve known.» Sam whispers. «I knew you weren’t feeling good. I didn’t pay attention. I’m sorry.»
Dean’s slowed down brain can’t think of anything to say, because they don’t talk about this. They have a routine. There’s no need for words. Sam stopped him, Sam was there, just like it was supposed to be.
Dean knows, in his heart, that Sam is the only one who can bring him back from the darkness in his mind. Sam is the only one he could bear to have near through all of this. Sam is the reason he’s still alive, there’s no way around it. And it baffles him that Sam thinks he has to apologize, while if it weren’t for him, they probably wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.
He doesn’t have the words to say any of that, though, so he just mutters: «Stop inflicting chick flick moments on me when I can’t defend myself, bitch.»
If they were anyone else, they would need to discuss everything more in depth, but they’re not anyone else. Dean stopped. Sam got to him in time. And now Dean’s there, shaky and exhausted but ready to start over and keep fighting. Sam’s never been more proud of him.
The answer is ready on Sam’s lips. «Jerk», he says. And with that, the brothers know they’re good.