Author Notes: Hey there. Me again. With another fic that only exists because of a prompt from the uber-talented (and kind of mean) Nova42. I actually lost a bet because I didn't have this story finished earlier. I don't want to spoil any of what is to come in this four-part story, so I will hang onto the list of prompts (there were TEN) until the end.
This story takes place early S4, after "Monster Movie." Warning for some strong language.
A Spoonful of Sugar
Sam had a bicycle once when he was a kid, but only because Dean stole it from a nicer neighborhood farther from the center of town and only for a few days, until Dad got back and made him return it. At the time, Sam had been okay with the nefarious manner in which it had come to be his, back when he was young enough to believe his big brother when he said that if you were stupid enough to leave something nice within easy reach of a stranger then you deserved to have it stolen. It didn't take long for Sam to realize that, in actuality, the bike hadn't been within easy reach, that Dean had probably picked a lock or thrown a rock through a window in the garage to lift it, and that type of intrusion isn't anything the family "had coming" to them.
It was the first time Sam thought, Dean doesn't think about consequences. Not for himself, because surely if he'd taken just a moment to think, what is DAD gonna say, he'd have been able to foresee the stinging backside that would leave him precariously perched on the edge of every seat for nearly a week. And not for anyone else involved, either, stealing from another child and damaging property along the way. Maybe Sam didn't quite have the vocabulary or capacity to form such layered thoughts at the time, but he got the idea of right and wrong and being punished for wrong, even at six. So, it was more the thought, Dean doesn't think about punishment.
Not Dean. Never Dean.
For Dean it's always been about making Sam happy, with very little thought of what comes after. Always been some form of, make Sammy happy, and everything else will work itself out.
And, as they've grown older, into men in their own right and chasing after the things in the dark, keep Sammy alive, and everything else will work itself out.
He's been stupid lucky, and that hasn't done much in the way of changing this frame of mind. Close call after close call, but somehow Dean always steps in a pile of shit and ends up smelling like roses.
Until Dad died.
But then, even that only became justification for Dean's future actions, cemented the utterly backwards notion that human lives are bartering chips of varying levels of value. The idea that the things in the dark have placed a much higher value on his own life than he ever has.
This deal, the one for his soul? It was one close call too many, and Dean really should have thought about the consequences. For himself, and for everyone else involved.
How Dean doesn't consider himself responsible for everything that's transpired since is well beyond Sam's capacity for understanding.
John Winchester had perfect 20/20 vision.
His sons have hindsight.
As with any affliction that befalls only one sibling, like a hangnail or a cold sore, it's amusing at first. They're brothers, damn it, and if you can't laugh at your big brother when he's puking a bite of Belgian waffle all down the front of himself immediately after swallowing it, what good is it to even have him back from the dead?
"Told you, should've stopped before that last round," Sam chides, passing a stack of folded napkins across the table with a grimace.
It's Oktoberfest in every pub and bar across the states, and Dean, admittedly, is unmatched in his ability to hold his liquor. But somewhere in the previous night's pattern of shot-beer-beer-big pretzel-shot-shot-beer-repeat, physics and biology were bound to take over, and no one looks cool with his head in a toilet.
"Shut you face, Sam," Dean growls, but it's not all that threatening when his ears are such a shade of red they're practically glowing. He wipes the mess from his shirtfront, takes a sip from his water glass to clean his mouth. That, too, is immediately dribbling down his chin and into his lap. "Son of a bitch."
Sam laughs in a manner too big and too loud for their tight surroundings, and he's no longer the only one. A scrawny busboy with a face full of zits and a mouthful of pink bubble gum chuckles along as he clears empty dishes from the booth behind Dean. With so little else to laugh at lately, Sam's encouraged by the company. He lets loose another good-natured guffaw before he digests the expression on his brother's face, the way Dean's already moved on from merely annoyed and embarrassed to genuinely alarmed.
"Okay," Sam says, pushing his plate aside with the scrape of cheap china on a cheaper table. "You're not hungover. Probably. What's up with you?"
Dean's eyes widen and shift all over, evidence of a mind working on overdrive. Because he's Dean, and he sure as shit needs to be able to answer that question for himself before he throws an answer Sam's way. "I dunno," he settles on, expression giving away exactly how lame he knows his words are even as he's saying them.
"You sick? And you'd better be straight with me, man, because we keep pretty close quarters, and I don't wanna be catching anything that's gonna have me puking up my breakfast when I'm still at the table."
Dean swallows, gags a little at the action. He sniffs and absently rubs his stomach, which, in the jackass's mind, is comparable to visiting a doctor. "I don't think so."
"Okay." Sam crosses his arms on the tabletop and raises his eyebrows. He doesn't give a shit about Dean's nearly inhuman tolerance for alcohol, and he'sgetting REAL close to changing his best guess back to hangover, "What, then?" Third time's a charm, he thinks, and jerks his chin at the water glass sweating next to Dean's hand.
Dean glares daggers of apprehension at the glass, curls his lip as he pulls it toward himself and brings it up for a tentative sip.
Sam narrows his eyes and gives it a good five-count, then feels the tension in his shoulders bleed away. "Good?" Relatively speaking, of course, because good means hangover, which translates into moody jackass.
Dean nods slowly, then gags in a manner that has Sam's own throat tightening in sympathy, and proceeds to cough the mouthful of ice water into a cupped hand.
"Dude." Sam leans back, searching the tabletop for more napkins.
Dean stares at the water dripping from between his fingers for a moment before wiping his wet palm along the leg of his jeans.
"Dude," Sam reiterates with a wrinkled nose. "You're sick."
"No, I'm not," Dean whisper-yells, like none of their fellow diner patrons noticed him throwing up on himself but a little lively conversation, THAT'S sure to disrupt their meals. The busboy chortles again as he moves his tub loaded with dishes behind the counter.
"Even setting aside the fact that you're hurling everything you're putting in your mouth, you see how you're going back and forth with me like a five-year-old?" Sam raises his eyebrows. "That's classic sick Winchester." Dad-patented, Dean-perfected.
"Whatever," Dean grumbles. He gazes down at the heap of perfectly-browned waffles cooling on his plate, syrup oozing into crevices and pooling onto the pile of crisp bacon nestled next to the stack. "I'm not sick," he argues again, but seems to be talking to more to himself, or maybe his breakfast, than he is to Sam.
The waffles win the staring contest as Dean gives up with a grimace and pushes the plate aside.
On their way out of the restaurant Dean almost runs smack into the back of a street performer strumming a half-hearted version of "Brown Sugar." Decked out in mirrored aviators and a concerning number of infinity scarves, he's parked himself and his open, stickered guitar case right by the diner entrance.
Sam sidesteps the case with ease but, already irritated to the point of distraction, Dean trips on the corner and almost adds injury to the morning's insult by taking out his groin on a paper box.
They're in the perpetual flats of Ohio, just passing through, but Sam convinces Dean to stop for the remainder of the day. His brother is more cantankerous than usual – which is really saying something – and still appears vaguely nauseated. Be it the result of illness or hangover, a few hours of rest will do a world of good. He's not quite at his best, still relatively freshly undead, and despite bragging recently about unmarred skin and straight fingers, he's far from the robust and sturdy Dean Winchester that Sam was forced to bury and grieve six months ago.
They get a room at the Hilltop View Hotel, a slouching, bricked row of a dozen rooms the size of storage lockers nestled atop a mound of dirt that only constitutes a "hill" when the surrounding landscape is so damn flat you can see clearly for miles. So damn flat Sam thinks he might actually be gazing at the Indianapolis skyline in the distance. The advertised view they're afforded is that of the crowded, loud, oil-stained parking lot of the truck stop next door.
Dean bumps Sam with an elbow on his way into the room. "Dude. Check out the lot lizards."
"What…" Sam turns, sees a pair of hard-rode women chatting up a mustachioed driver leaning on his rig. The intent of the group is as clear as the lettering of the towering interstate billboard advertising Slushees across the interchange. He turns back to Dean, who is wide-eyed and waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
"They're not lookin' so bad, man," he says around the wide grin cutting across his face. "I mean, if you're feelin' lonely, I'm sure they'll do in a pinch." Can't be worse than a demon, Dean doesn't say, because he doesn't have to.
Sam frowns and shoves Dean over the threshold. "Shut up." He is feeling lonely, though, even having his brother back in the passenger seat. Or, more accurately, driver's seat. But it's not the companionship he's craving, and he can't stop his thoughts from drifting to Ruby and how long it's been since they've been together. Long enough that he can feel his body weakening without her. Probably wouldn't even be able to appropriately sneer at a demon right now.
Dean can see the hunger in his face, wrinkles his nose in patented disgust. "Whatever you're thinking about, Sam? Stop. Now, before I throw up again." He drops the green cooler to the foot of the first bed and chucks his bag to bounce atop the flowered, plastic-y duvet. He shrugs out of his navy cargo jacket and tosses it on top of the duffel without breaking stride across the room to disappear into the bathroom. Splashing water on his face, cooling off, trying to feel better. Dean's way to take a moment to pause and reset, a moment where he doesn't have to talk or, maybe more importantly, be talked to.
Sam shuts the door and moves to the second bed, drops his own bag there. He sighs and runs his hands through his hair, smoothing it unnecessarily. They're able to put up a good front for a short amount of time, but something is broken here, and it will require more than dental floss and improvisation to stitch this rift of mostly his own making.
Dean emerges, rolls his eyes, then pulls up the hem of his charcoal cotton t-shirt to pat his face dry. "You know, if you don't stop giving me the stink eye, your face is gonna freeze that way." He stoops to flip open the cooler lid and narrows his eyes up at Sam as he roots under the ice for a beer. "Or maybe it already has."
Sam doesn't give Dean the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him, mostly because he knows the reason he's being such a colossal ass is that he's not feeling particularly well. A Dean without breakfast is one of the less appealing variations. He watches his brother twist the cap off of a bottle while kicking the cooler closed with his boot heel. "Dean," Sam warns in what is, admittedly, a somewhat motherly tone.
"What?" Dean flicks the bottle cap across the room, sinking it directly into the center of the trash can next to the door. "This right here is the best medicine there is."
Sam settles his hands pissily against his hips before he catches himself and drops them to slap limply against his thighs. "No, that's laughter."
Dean kind of grins to himself, like Sam took an unfortunate misstep right into his argumentative mousetrap, and shrugs as he straightens, bringing the frosty bottle to his lips. "Close enough."
And then he does a genuine, internet-worthy spit-take.
A frothy spray of beer erupts from his mouth as though from a firehose, foam fountaining over the contours of the bottle and his hand as Dean jerks where he stands, the cold brew dripping to the carpet and the toes of his boots in fat drops. He blinks dumbly for a moment, not looking in the least bit amused or unsurprised by what has just transpired.
Sam doesn't laugh this time, because he knows when it's time to follow the lead of the pit in his gut. He swallows and points at the bedspread at Dean's back. "Sit down a minute."
When Dean doesn't immediate acquiesce to his demands Sam reaches out and grabs his brother around the wrist. Dean stumbles and spills even more beer as Sam yanks him forward and forces him to sit on the edge of the bed.
While he's still gaping a protestation Sam clamps his hand over Dean's admittedly cool forehead, and frowns. "I don't get it, man. You feel fine."
"I feel hungry," Dean argues, shaking away from Sam's hand.
"You're always hungry."
"What's your point?" Dean glares at the bottle of beer in hand, much like he would an animal that had just stung or bit him, and holds it away from himself.
Sam sighs and takes the drink from him, setting it aside on the nearest flat surface. "That there might be something more important happening here than the fact you're hungry."
"I didn't get breakfast, Sam," Dean says, shaking drops of beer from his hand. "I'm not hungry. I'm STARVING."
"You're not gonna die because you skipped breakfast," Sam says with forced patience and just the faintest trace of alarm. "You'll be fine for a few hours while I figure this out."
Dean frowns up at him. "While you figure what out? Dude, I'm fine."
"Dean." Sam shakes his head. "You haven't been to get anything down all morning, and you're not sick. Something's going on with you."
Dean makes a face, once again moves to rub his stomach. "Like what?"
He looks much too like a petulant child when he gets this way. It takes some work for concern to outweigh annoyance, but Sam gets there. Or at least strikes some sort of healthy balance. He shrugs, pacing the room. "Curse, charm, spell…I don't know. What makes sense?"
Dean gazes longingly at the heady beer going to waste on the tabletop. He swallows, coughs a little into his fist. "Why in the hell would I be cursed?"
Sam fights the eye roll as he squares himself in front of his brother. "Why wouldn't you be?"
Without the current possibility of food and drink to occupy his time and constant need to DO SOMETHING, Dean, his pent-up energy and his twitchy hands scour the motel room for some other acceptable form of busywork, while Sam attempts to sit quietly with the laptop and figure this out. He would suggest to his brother to do some of the laundry, because he's pretty sure he can smell the ripening clothing in their bags across the room, but he's trying to make Dean feel better here.
After about twenty minutes of pacing, Dean finally settles down to clean the guns – every damn one, too – and fills the small room with the slightly nauseating, extremely nostalgia-inducing tang of oil. Throw in the stinging scent of disappointment and stale cigarettes and John Winchester might as well be in the room with them.
Sam's just about to get up and open the window when Dean throws the rod and stained cloth aside, leaving a smudge on the duvet. "This is bullshit, Sam."
Elbow propped on the table, chin planted in his hand, Sam shifts his eyes across the room. "I know. I get it."
"No, I don't think you do."
Sam sighs patiently, knowing he has to stay calm and non-antagonistic here, to strike a rather important and fragile emotional balance. If he starts to freak out, it will only send his brother over the edge. "Dean, this kind of thing doesn't just happen. This is something that was done to you."
Irritated, Dean scrubs his eyes roughly. He squints around an obvious headache, not to mention the smear of gun oil he's just inadvertently swiped high on his cheek. "Then fix it, brainiac."
Sam leans back and sweeps an arm in an arc over the computer, notebook and journal spread out on the table. "What do you think I'm doing?" He sighs. "Just…sit tight. Okay?"
Dean sniffs and shakes his head. "Nah, you know what? Screw this." He leans down and rips a beer from the cooler by his boots.
If he's aiming to do some experimenting, Sam would prefer he do so with water, but the look in Dean's eyes as he twists off the bottle cap isn't inviting much critique of his actions at the moment.
He throws his head back and takes a pull from the bottle, throat working around an unnatural, and probably dangerously-sized, mouthful of beer. Dean drains nearly half the bottle, then runs the pad of his thumb along his bottom lip, wiping away a drip, and raises his eyebrows smugly. "Yeah? Looks like I showed that curse who's – "
And then he drops to the floor on his hands and knees, half-full bottle tumbling next to him, spilling its contents to join the puddle of what Dean is currently violently expelling onto the already stained carpeting.
"Okay, stop doing that," Sam finally orders as he jumps up from his chair and rushes to his brother's side. Dean shoots him a red-eyed glare and Sam pulls away, moves instead to straighten the overturned bottle, but more than enough mess has been made. "The more you…do that, the more fluids you're losing, and until we figure something out, there's no way to get those back."
"English," Dean rasps, pounding a frustrated fist against the carpet.
"You're going to get dehydrated." Sam thinks a moment about how aggravated Dean is, the headache he's squinting around. "If you aren't already." All jokes about perpetual hunger pains aside, that's the real, more immediate problem they're facing here.
Sam pats his brother uselessly on the back and glances at his watch. Six hours in, and he's got no freaking clue where this is coming from, or where to go from here. "That's it. I'm calling in reinforcements."
Dean is slouched on the bench, arms crossed and sunglasses preventing the afternoon glare from exacerbating the headache that's followed him into the Impala. Sam can throw his weight around when he needs to, and the result is an incredibly sulky, pissed big brother. Pissed that he's hungry, pissed that he's thirsty, pissed that he's been plopped into the passenger seat of his own car.
Dehydration, Sam thinks again, trying not to fall into the trap of home-diagnosing when this might just be typical Dean moodiness, trying not to work himself into a frenzy of worry and panic just yet, but he knows that dehydration is nothing to fuck around with. He's seen it, he's BEEN there; it's a hazard of the job, long days and longer nights and sometimes simple necessities like drinking enough water or eating more than candy for dinner have a tendency to slip your mind. His fingers tighten around the steering wheel. "You all right, man?"
Dean swivels his head, and he doesn't need to remove the shades for Sam to feel the burn of his gaze.
"Yeah," Sam concedes. "Okay. That was a stupid question."
Dean doesn't respond, just returns his aggravated stare to the passing tree line.
Music is there in the background, but the radio is turned low and tuned to a station that's sure to be cutting away to static within minutes and miles as the Impala rapidly devours westbound two-lane asphalt. She's nowhere near her top speed, but the longer this ordeal goes on, the more Sam's foot is twitching to make Dean proud and lay the pedal down.
They're yet to come out of the other side of Indiana, not even close to Bobby, not to mention his seemingly endless supply of books and random knowledge. Sam shifts his hands around the steering wheel and glances down at his watch, wincing at the seconds that are too quickly turning into minutes as they tick past. He wrestles his larger, arguably more relevant and advanced cell phone from his jacket pocket and tosses it into Dean's lap.
"What am I supposed to do with this?"
"Research…something." Sam waves his hand. "We've got a long drive, and it's not like you're getting better."
Dean rolls the device around in his hands. "I'm just gonna Google 'why is my brother such a pretentious ass.'"
Under better circumstances, Sam might jump at the chance to call Dean's bluff and force him to spell the word pretentious, but as it stands, he just jerks his head to the left, eliciting a crack that is only mildly satisfying. "Whatever, man."
Dean snorts. "This is MY ass on the line, Sam. Not yours. I don't know why you're being all…you know, THIS, about it."
Sam's immediate inherent response of indignation has him pulling his hands from the wheel to gesture emphatically but he catches himself, replacing them to soft, worn leather before the car drifts from the lane. "What is THIS, Dean?" he snaps, instead. "Driving your ass across the country to the one guy who might have an answer as to why you can't even take a damn drink of water?"
Dean is quiet a moment, staring down at Sam's dark cell phone in his hands. "Sorry," he mumbles, barely audible.
Pre-Hell Dean wouldn't have apologized, and it throws Sam. "What?"
That's a little better, slightly more in character, and Sam feels his fingers relax around the leather.
The sunglasses stay perched firmly atop his nose, but Dean brings up the phone's web browser, licking dry lips.
Sam shoots his brother a sideways glance, taking in Dean's relatively pale complexion and the lines of tension pulling at his temple and the corner of his eye, from a raging headache that's showing no signs of surrender. He swallows, feeling a tug of thirst himself, but he'll be damned before he throws that small, overlooked luxury in Dean's face right now. "You know, with all of your spit takes this morning…"
"Yeah," Dean prods, with obvious reluctance.
"You're kinda lucky you didn't go for the coffee first." Sam lifts a shoulder and offers a small smile, because he has nothing in the way of actual comfort to offer at the moment. "Just a thought."
The music is gone now, given way to the high-pitched whine of between-frequency white noise. Dean notices and reaches toward the radio, but instead of manipulating the dial until he finds a recognizable song on a new station, he simply flicks the knob to bring the car to complete silence.
"Headache?" Sam asks needlessly, to fill the sound void.
"S'not too bad."
Yet. "You know," Sam ventures again, knowing there isn't much to lose here. At least, nothing he hasn't already lost once this calendar year. Like Dean dying all over again wouldn't sting worse than a paper cut. This is the best performance he's ever given. "You need to say something when it does get bad."
Not if. They've moved this party well beyond the territory of if.
Even so, Dean should be slapping the back of his head and calling him a girl. A princess. Not sighing dejectedly. Not bobbing his head in a manner much too like defeat and saying, "Yeah, I know."
But this isn't Pre-Hell Dean, and they may very well be in trouble here.
To be continued...