A/N: This is set pre-Pilot by a few years. Limp Sam is dedicated with love and affection to Faye (as are all the good things in my life).
Disclaimer: Nope, I don't own them, or else (as I always wish), there would be more hugging.
He enters the room cautiously and is halted by the stillness in the air, the too-quiet of sickness that permeates the half-light.
John hunches over the bed where Sam is curled into himself, unmoving. There is a shallow bowl of water on the nightstand and John dips-squeezes-shakes, running a wet cloth over Sam's slackened face like a waltz.
John meets his gaze only briefly, saying nothing, but the look alone tells the tale. Sam has not improved, and now the fever affects all three equally, one with frailty and two with fear.
Dean sinks behind his brother, hands in need of contact. He can feel the heat radiating as he draws lines of comfort over the ridges of Sam's spine – protection spells and ancient runes and please wake up, we're worried.
Sam does nothing by half-measures, infirmities included. He's determined instead to push push push, heedless of resistance. The paths he chooses are foreign and marred with impediments. He walks them without ever glancing back.
John is proud but scared for him, never confident unless the road followed is his own. Dean loves him for his courage but hates him for his willingness to leave his family behind. Except that he could never really hate Sam, and knows he's scared for him, too.
They will lose Sam, one day – it is a certainty the binds father and older son more closely than the loss of wife and mother. They don't speak of it, but it hovers between them, among them, and the more they fight against it, the faster he fades.
Not today, though. Not like this. These are the thoughts that hover now, as they anchor Sam between them.
He uncurls suddenly, moaning, head turning toward the ceiling. His eyes are bright, confused, unfocused.
"Sam?" John's voice is quiet and Dean holds his breath, waiting . . . waiting.
Sam doesn't answer, but his body relaxes again, this time toward his brother. His eyes slide shut with no awareness and Dean moves closer, pressing their foreheads together, willing the fire to leave his brother and find him instead.
John stands, dragging tired hands over tired features. He is old in that moment – lined and slack-shouldered and ground in. But he is not defeated.
"Stay with him. I'll be back."
Dean doesn't answer, but there's no need. Where else would he be?
Daylight spills into the room, momentarily blinding, and is gone. Sam shivers once, a solitary but intense tightening that stiffens his muscles and creases his brow. With an economy of movement, Dean pulls the blankets from the other bed, dragging them over them, cocooning Sam with him in the safety of warmth and darkness. He runs calloused hands over his brother's too-thin arms, gently rubbing.
Sam is tall now – taller than Dean, nearly taller than their father. The growth came all at once, as though life was pulling at him, stretching and straining him, making it harder for him to fit. Clothes hang around him, not enough flesh for them to cover snugly. His bones nearly protrude through his skin, making him look weak and malnourished, though he is neither. Dean can vouch for that.
The leanness does not suit him yet, and even less in illness. His is skeletal and pale, the hollows beneath his eyes deep and bruised. Dean backs away, brushing Sam's hair from his face.
"Sammy . . ."
A breath, a plea, a prayer. He's never sure who might be listening, and for Sam, he tries to cover all the bases.
He doesn't stir and Dean sighs. He lifts the blankets and swings away, reaching for the water.
Sam seems to note the temporary absence. He reaches toward the space where Dean had lain, seeking . . .
He whimpers once and Dean is near again. He holds Sam's searching hand, folding it into his own, and rests it against his heart.
The water is balanced on the bed between them. Dean imitates his father, drawing the cool cloth against Sam's skin as though in absolution, his touch light and sure. The dampness dries almost as soon as it touches him, the heat of his body leeching out the moisture.
Minutes go by, or maybe hours. Time has stopped having any real meaning. There is only Sam.
The water is nearly gone when John returns, his movements hurried, urgent. His eyes meet Dean's and note the fear still present.
"Get him up."
The blankets are tossed aside and he draws Sam high against his chest, catching the boy's head with his shoulder when it lolls. The heat consumes them both now and Dean wonders how Sam has held out so long against the encroaching flames. He was raised to have ice in his veins, and even he is melting.
John's intentions are kind but his hands aren't gentle, hardened by a concern he has never been comfortable with. He pulls at Sam's jaw, forcing it open while Sam twists weakly against the invasion. Dean whispers nonsense words against his temple, willing him to calm, to still, to acquiesce. As with most things now, Sam doesn't understand and so rebels. But as with most – though fewer – things, John's grip is stronger, Dean's alignment inflexible, and he is quietly overpowered.
The healing herbs are swallowed and Sam sags, weightless and soft as a baby bird. Dean catches him the way he always has and does and will, his arms around his brother just like that night so long ago.
He wants to ask how soon? and how will we know? and what if? But he already has the answers. Time alone will tell and when it comes, they will know . . . they will know.
For now, they wait – hunter and apprentice – practicing the only skill they have that does not come naturally.
John settles into a chair, journal balanced on his knees and pen in hand. He won't watch, trusting Dean to tell him when there is a change.
Dean holds him – so close – drawing more comfort from the contact now than Sam can. He settles them, low on the pillows, feeling the uneven thud of his brother's heart through his ribs, the heavy waft of his breath against his neck. Part of him wishes he could keep Sam like this forever, safe and protected, cradled in his arms like the baby that was entrusted to him when he was just a child.
The wish is fleeting. Dean is not one for flights of fancy or idle daydreams, and what he wants more than anything is for Sam to please wake up, even though it will pull him away.
Dean's eyes drift shut as the hours slip past, but his focus never wavers. There is only Sam.
The new day will bear a better message. He will be the one to measure as the fever slowly ebbs. His will be the first word on his brother's lips when Sam shifts to awareness, the first source of solace, of explanations. He will feel his father's gratitude – unnecessary, but with benevolence imparted.
And briefly, he will feel Sam lean – needing reassurance, in the aftermath, that he still has the power to stand.
But for now, he merely holds his brother to him, taking pain and giving comfort. To know that Sam is here and mine – for now, at least, that is enough.