The first time Sam woke up to find Dean watching him, he didn't give it too much thought. Their beds were side by side and he had rolled in his sleep so that he had ended up facing his brother. Dean was awake. End of story. In fact, Sam was kind of glad to see his brother's eyes open, since he had just had a nightmare. Not one of those tossing-and-turning-before-jolting-awake-with-a-scream nightmares, but a dark, shapeless dream that had woken him up without much fuss. Regardless, it had left him with a clenching uneasiness in his stomach.
"Hey," Sam muttered sleepily.
He couldn't quite make out Dean's expression in the dim light, but he did see his brother's lips tug up to draw a little smile. As if by magic, the memory of Sam's dream faded away.
Dean probably asked him if he was okay, and he must have answered back. But as the pull of sleep grew imperious again, the conversation became one of those midnight talks that took place somewhere in between vigil and sleep. Sam knew, in a vague sort of way, that in the morning he would doubt whether the conversation had really taken place at all.
It happened again a couple of times that week and, after that, it kept happening through the following month. Sam woke up, in a motel bed or in the passenger's seat of the Impala, and Dean's eyes were on him. Most times, his older brother simply looked away the second Sam blinked himself awake. Other times, their eyes briefly locked before Dean averted his. But always, always, Sam would glimpse something flickering in Dean's eyes, an emotion as unidentifiable as it was strong but which barely lasted a second before Dean's mask was firmly back in place.
Sam wanted to ask Dean what was going on, but the older hunter just brushed the questions off with long-practiced ease. Sam wasn't sure whether Dean's behaviour bothered him, weirded him out or just made him curious.
Then, he started to notice that Dean looked exhausted all day. Dark circles appeared under his eyes, and he needed three times more coffee to keep functioning. All curiosity, disturbance or awkwardness was automatically pushed aside and Sam became downright concerned. The fact was that as far as he knew, Dean happened to be awake whenever he was asleep. But if he was also awake when Sam was awake, ―aside from the occasional cat naps in the passenger seat when Sam was at the wheel― when did Dean actually sleep?
That is if he slept at all?
That night when they turned in after a long day on the road, Sam fought the pull of sleep to focus instead on his brother's breathing pattern. At the same time, he tried to keep his own breathing as even as possible in order to convince Dean he was asleep. A couple of hours later, Dean was still awake, his gaze boring holes into Sam's back. The younger hunter decided he had had enough. He turned around in the bed and faced Dean, who blinked in surprise and flinched momentarily.
And there it was again, that damn something shining behind his eyes and which Sam seemed unable to grasp.
"Why do you keep doing this?" Sam asked before Dean had a chance to get on guard.
"What do you mean this?" Dean retorted.
"This staring, man. What's that about?"
"Geez, sorry princess. I promise I won't look in your direction ever again!"
Annoyed as usual by Dean's exasperating, defensive front, Sam huffed and made a conscious effort not to be deterred by it. He had learned through experience that the more of an ass Dean was, the worse whatever he was bottling up inside was.
"Are you having nightmares?" Sam inquired in a softer tone.
All things considered it would be natural for Dean to be tormented by bad dreams after what had happened in the last month, Sam thought. His disappearance and death, the deal, the fight against the yellow eyed demon, seeing their father again. The countdown—
Unfortunately, Sam knew a lot about nightmares himself, so he could easily sympathise.
Dean shifted uncomfortably in the other bed and let out a weary sigh. Sam remained silent, waiting, although he doubted his brother would agree to open up. That's why he was surprised when Dean spoke.
"It's not that."
Sam gulped. He hadn't noticed before but the truth was Dean didn't just look tired, he sounded absolutely worn-out. The younger sibling turned on his side to survey his brother's profile and took in the overwhelming air of misery that marred Dean's features.
"Then, what is it?" he pushed gently.
Dean chewed his lower lip without tearing his eyes from the safe blankness of the ceiling. He swallowed once, twice, before Sam's concerned eyes.
"Dean?" Sam started with a thin voice. "What-"
"You died, Sam."
Sam's words caught in his throat. For once, his brother had left him speechless.
"You died in my arms. You were dead for 24 hours, lying there, in that bed, with your eyes closed. You—" Dean trailed off and Sam heard the tears in his voice before he actually saw one rolling down his temple and onto the pillow. "You were cold, and your chest wasn't moving and your heart…your heart wasn't beating, and I was looking at you for a whole fucking day and now—" Dean swallowed, and his voice cracked. Sam had to look away, blinking furiously. "Now, I just can't—"
"No, Sam. I've tried, okay? Don't you think that I've tried?" Dean snorted self-derisively. "But it's just- Every time you close your eyes I… I can't close mine. I can't go to sleep and not make sure that you're alive. Sometimes it's like—"
"Like what?" Sam whispered.
"Like I can't breathe until I see you awake again."
Sam shook his head sadly.
"Dean." He sighed.
"Don't. You wanted to know. Well, now you know. Whatever you think you need to say to me, I've already said to myself, so save it." Dean said fiercely. "Just go back to sleep. You were pretty wiped out."
"I'll be fine."
Sam let out a dry chuckle. He knew Dean well enough to realize that as far as the older hunter was concerned, the conversation had ended. But of course, he wasn't naive enough to be fooled by his brother's words.
Sam gulped his fourth cup of coffee greedily and hoped it would kick in soon. He was sick of feeling like a sleep-deprived zombie. It wasn't surprising that he hadn't been able to get anymore sleep after the unexpected turn of his conversation with his brother under the cover of darkness.
Dean had barely talked to him all morning. Actually he had been avoiding him altogether. At the first ray of light, he had gone for breakfast and then busied himself with the car. For the last forty-five minutes he had been cleaning his weapons, which was the simplest way for him to communicate that he had secluded himself into his very own little bubble, and Sam wasn't allowed anywhere near for the time being.
Sam was forced to watch his brother's distress from his uncomfortable position on the sidelines. God, he fucking hated being put in this position! He had been forced to stay and watch from the edges way too often in his 24 years of life, and he still felt just as helpless as he had the first time it happened. Forced into inaction, he wasn't able to stop going through his brother's confession in his mind and reliving his words.
Basically, Sam was driving himself crazy.
He lifted his eyes to study Dean for any sign that he might be willing to discuss the situation. Considering Dean had yet to raise his gaze from the guns, it wasn't hard to take the hint and deduce that the other Winchester still wasn't in the mood for talking. Despite the real possibility that he may go nuts in the very near future if he didn't get to talk to his brother soon, Sam didn't have the heart to push again. He was conscious that the only reason Dean had talked to him the previous night was because Sam had taken advantage of him in a vulnerable moment. And to make matters even more complicated, Sam couldn't help but be aware that Dean was bitterly regretting that minute of openness that had caused his little brother to lose some needed hours of rest.
Leaning over the table, Sam pillowed his head in his hands and sighed. Trying to pretend he was engrossed in the search for their next gig, he clicked disheartenedly at the laptop. He used the reflection from the screen to covertly watch his brother and cringed inwardly when he saw Dean look up at him as soon as his back was turned. Sometimes, it really felt as if the only way they dared look at each other anymore was indirectly, just as they didn't interchange more than veiled half-words.
A few minutes later, a repetitive click tinged with impatience dragged Sam's attention back to Dean. He used the reflection on the screen again to see that Dean was struggling to put the clip of his .45 back in place. Sam frowned as he took in the subtle tremble in his brother's hands that was certainly making it hard for him to complete a task that Dean normally could have done in his sleep—if he actually would allow himself to sleep, that is.
"Shit," Dean said, huffing quietly when the clip slipped from his hand and clacked against the floor.
Sam turned in his chair and opened his mouth to speak. In the last moment though, he remained silent. Dean didn't try to pick up the clip but remained seated where he was with his head hanging low. Sam got up, picked up the part himself and held it out to Dean as he stood in front of him. Dean took a couple of seconds before reaching out for the clip with a tired gesture and after that, he left the gun and the clip aside, and kept his eyes glued to the floor.
Unconsciously mimicking Dean's position, Sam sat across from Dean and waited. They looked like specular reflections sitting there, the silence broken only by Sam's intermittent sighing. After a while, the silence became unbearable, even for Dean who often used it as a hiding place. The older sibling ended up reluctantly raising his eyes and fixing his little brother with a mortified look.
What? He seemed to be screaming at Sam.
"We need to talk," Sam stated.
Dean glowered at him for a split second before averting his eyes and fixing them on some well-defined point on the wall.
Okay, wrong approach.
"How long has this been going on?" Sam asked.
Dean shrugged noncommittally as he fingered the clip of the discarded gun. His body language was clearly telling Sam to back off, but Sam wasn't about to let Dean off the hook this time. When it came to his brother's wellbeing, he could be as stubborn as Dean was reserved.
The older hunter glared at Sam, although the heat in his gaze was tempered by the tired shadows that dulled his usually expressive eyes. Sam met his brother's eyes squarely although he feared that if he allowed it to become a stare contest between the two of them, his good intentions could backfire. Dean didn't react well when he felt pushed against the ropes.
"A while," Dean answered with a tone devoid of emotion.
Sam rolled his eyes, well aware that Dean's admission could mean days, weeks or months in his brother's language. To think about Dean watching over him in his sleep —terrified that he might stop breathing at any second— without getting any rest himself all that time, made Sam feel extremely guilty for not catching on earlier.
"Well, one thing's for sure: you look like crap," Sam said. He gave Dean a little smile in an attempt to keep his brother from feeling like a caged animal. His own efforts also helped Sam feel less like a vicious hunter toying with its prey. Hell, they were brothers. He shouldn't be feeling like he was inflicting the worst kind of torture on Dean when he was simply trying to get him to talk.
Dean was fidgeting and looked ready to bolt if Sam insisted on keeping up with the interrogation. Nevertheless, he acknowledged Sam's attempt to ease the stress, and his features softened marginally in recognition. At the subtle release of tension, Dean sagged a little. Sam took in his brother's ragged appearance with a bitter sensation in the pit of his stomach.
"You can't be up 24/7, Dean," he said softly.
Dean shook his head. Sam knew he would have rolled his eyes at the obvious remark if he had the strength to be snarky. The fact that he didn't was just more evidence to prove he wasn't really feeling so great.
"I'm not up 24/7, Sam," Dean replied, quoting his brother's words with an extra edge of irritation in his voice.
"Really? When was the last time you slept?"
"I don't mean taking a nap in the Impala," Sam huffed. "When was the last time you had a good night sleep? Or at least six straight hours?"
Dean set his jaw and remained silent.
"So?" Sam pushed.
"Dammit, Sam!" Dean growled and stood up, giving Sam his back, "What do you want from me?"
"How about the truth?" Sam stood up too, losing a good part of his self-control when Dean turned his back on him.
He hated when Dean refused to look at him.
"You already know the truth!" Dean bit back. "You just get a kick out of hearing me say it!"
"That's not-" Sam protested, horrified. "I just want to help you!"
"Then drop it already!" Dean yelled, swirling around to face him.
Sam stepped back and bit his lip before breaking eye contact and pacing the short distance that separated him from the bathroom door, with his hands entwined behind his neck. Calm down, he repeated to himself over and over again. This is about him, you don't want to fight, just calm down...
"Listen to me," Sam said, exhaling cautiously. He looked back at Dean, who was now stubbornly facing the wall in an act of resistance. It was a feeble act, but it got to Sam anyway, especially since the only sign that Dean acknowledged his little brother's presence was the nervous energy that caused his shoulders to tense. "Are you listening?"
It took a moment, but Sam held his ground and eventually Dean gave in.
"Yeah, Sam. I'm listening," Dean answered, his voice halfway between a grunt and a sigh. "I'm listening."
"Maybe we should try to get separate rooms for a while—"
Dean's head jerked up, and he turned around at the remark. Fear bordering on panic shined in his brother's gaze, and its uncharacteristic presence made Sam gulp and look away.
"Maybe it would be easier for you to catch some rest if I'm...well, not there," he hurriedly explained.
"Yeah?" Dean said coldly. "And how do you figure that?"
Sam bit his tongue at the callous edge to his brother's voice. Right, maybe it hadn't been the smartest idea he'd ever had. Dean couldn't sleep because he was afraid of something happening to Sam; it would hardly make it easier for him to have a wall between his protective self and his little brother.
"But there must be something that we can do," Sam said, feeling close to defeat. "If I hadn't-"
"Sam," Dean spoke sternly, "this is not your fault."
"But it is because of me, Dean," Sam stressed. "Damn, there must be something that I can do!"
"You just don't get it, do you?" Dean said and sighed as he sat back on the bed heavily. "You already do the one thing I want you to do," he added, meeting his brother's eyes. "You wake up every morning, Sam."
Sam's chest suddenly constricted, and he had to set his jaw hard to keep his chin from trembling.
"That's all I need, Sammy," Dean said, cutting him off. "That's all I ask."
The honesty of those words, along with the plea they contained hit Sam hard and stole his breath as effectively as a blow. Emotion overcome reason, the weak grip he had kept during the conversation vanished, and he found himself nodding without even realizing he was doing it. He was hurting Dean. He was hurting him with his insistence. And even if he rationally knew it was for Dean's own good, he couldn't bring himself to keep pressing once his brother openly begged him to stop.
At least as openly as Dean could possibly be. Openly enough for Sam to hear it loud and clear and give in to it.
The following night, Sam tossed and turned restlessly in his bed as sleep eluded him. He wasn't able to stop thinking about Dean, who was lying a few feet from him and was just as awake as Sam. Minutes turned into hours, and the younger hunter finally stilled in a conscious attempt to force his body to relax. The physical turmoil that had kept the Sandman away since Sam had turned in moved from his muscles to his mind. There, his thoughts wouldn't stop swirling and kept him just as wired as if he was continuously changing his physical position.
"So it's a competition now? To see who can stay awake the longest?" Weary and rough but also adorned with a note of amusement, Dean's voice suddenly drifted across the gap between their beds. "I thought you outgrew that phase a long time ago."
Lying on his stomach, Sam snorted against the pillow he had his head buried in.
"Very funny," he said, his voice muffled by the pillow's softness.
They remained silent for a minute, each of them breathing quietly into the dark. Then Dean spoke again.
"Dude, this is stupid. There's no reason for the two of us to be awake when at least one could be sleeping," he said, trying to sound reasonable.
Sighing deeply, Sam turned onto his back and blinked lazily at the crack in the paint on his side of the ceiling.
It's going to fall down. Any moment now.
"I've been thinking," Sam said softly, picturing his brother's rolling eyes even if he wasn't really looking at him. "If you don't w— If you can't…If you won't sleep when I do…Maybe you should sleep while I'm awake."
The older hunter didn't answer right away.
"What do you mean?" Dean asked cautiously after a beat.
"I mean that…you could…I dunno, try to get some rest during the day, while I drive or work on the laptop. Or you take the nights if you prefer…I really don't mind," Sam elaborated.
"You're talking about…like taking shifts?"
"Well…yeah. Something like that, I guess." Sam gave a weak shrug.
Dean remained silent for a long while after that. In the end, Sam rolled his head on the pillow to face his brother whose frown was furrowed with deep thought.
"No, Sam. It's not gonna happen."
"Haven't you considered the possibility that I might actually want to spend some time awake with you?" Dean said with a strained voice. "I've got less than a year. I'm not gonna spend it taking turns to sleep."
Sam sat up in the bed so fast that his back almost cracked.
"Don't say that," he ordered.
"It's the truth."
"No!" Sam exclaimed. "I told you it's not gonna come to that. I won't let it come to that!"
Dean took in a deep breath and looked away from the ceiling and away from Sam. The younger hunter felt a wave of heart-clenching anger rising inside him.
"When exactly did it happen, Dean?" he snarled. "When exactly did you stop fighting?"
Confronted with Dean's wall-like silence, Sam felt every nerve ending in his body tingle with fury and denial. Blinking back the frustrated tears born from these two emotions, he tossed back the covers and stood up with a huff.
"Well, you may have given up already," he said hoarsely, as in a single fluid movement he crossed the room, sat down at the desk, and turned on the computer, "but I haven't."
"It's three in the morning, Sam. What the hell are you doing?"
"Humour me. And try to get some sleep while you're at it. I'm gonna need you alert."
"Besides, there's no reason for the two of us to be awake when at least one could be sleeping, right?"
"It's all I need, Dean. It's all I ask," Sam said.
It was a low blow, tossing back his brother's words against him like that, but Sam was desperate enough to pull out his own pleading card if necessity called for it.
He heard an impatient sigh that was followed by the soft rustling of sheets. Swallowing hard around the desperation lodged in his throat, Sam held his breath in anticipation of Dean's next move.
Please, Dean. Fight. I can't do this alone. Just fight.
Sam's heart skipped a beat then immediately increased speed to make up for it. His eyes momentarily slipped closed in relief.
During the following days they tried, they really tried to make it work. Whenever they were working on a case, Sam took on all the research and forced Dean to get some sleep while he worked so he would be more or less rested and alert for the hunt. Whenever they were on the road, Sam took the wheel and Dean dozed off next to him.
It wasn't perfect, far from that, but Dean only seemed able to catch some sleep when he had the certainty of Sam being awake. From a practical point of view, finding a way not to sleep at the same time was tricky at best, and it was also emotionally eroding. At the end of the day neither of them got enough rest, and when they were awake they weren't in the mood for talking or doing much of anything else.
Despite all the inconvenience though, it was the best solution Sam's overworked brain had been able to come up with. Well, to be precise, it had been the only solution. It wasn't easy for Sam to close his eyes knowing the stress it caused Dean. But he also knew that he needed to sleep, even if it was only for a few hours a day, so that he would be more or less able to keep on researching in order to fulfill his promise. He trusted that with a bit of time, they would get used to the routine. It wasn't as if they weren't already used to going without much sleep, and even though he missed Dean's incessant chatter ―especially when he was driving―, Sam figured he could live without it as long as his brother stopped looking dead on his feet.
However, things were never that easy. One afternoon, in spite of all his promises to the contrary, Sam couldn't help it and fell asleep over the laptop while he waited for a webpage to load with the feeble wi-fi signal the motel they were staying at provided. Dean had been sleeping on top of the covers of his bed when Sam let his eyes slip closed. When he opened them, his brother was sitting on the floor with his back against the wall and was looking at him with a haunted expression.
"God… Dean." Sam shook his head to clear his sleep-laden thoughts as he struggled to get his bearings. "I… I'm s-"
Dean silenced him with a curt shake of his head and got up by using the wall to support himself. Sam bit his lip. He felt awful, utterly miserable. Of course, Dean didn't blame him for falling asleep, but Sam could read on his face the remnants of the panic that had surely taken hold of him the second he had woken up to find his little brother out cold on the table.
From that day on no matter how much Sam insisted, Dean abjectly refused to close his eyes even when Sam was up. His sleep time was reduced to the naps he took in the car, which were restless and fragmented. Soon enough it started to take its toll on him. The inevitable happened in the middle of a hunt. When Dean was sluggish. When he was too slow.