At least Sammy isn't here. He keeps thinking it, while he makes this endless circle around the room, Dean hot and damp and tense in his arms. At least Sammy won't catch this.
Dean drags another breath that sounds like ripping paper and coughs miserably, so hard John clasps him tighter, seeing him dropping him like a slippery bar of soap in the bath.
"He's BARKING," he remembers yelling into the phone, years ago. Dean a baby of maybe eight months, so bundled up in Mary's arms that he was just a blue cotton blob. Mary's face pale, imploring: John DO something, our son is maybe DYING, what is this.
And Rita, so calm, so insufferably right all the time: "John, sounds like croup. Take him to the doctor. He'll be all right. They bark like seals, don't they? Sounds godawful."
Croup liked Dean, croup came to visit every year, and now John is familiar with this ugly strangled-sounding cough, the first sounds Dean has made in more than a month now and they're THESE.
Dean rests his hot cheek on John's shoulder and starts to cry, a tired, congested weeping that hits John like a faceful of acid. PLEASE, please Jesus God stop crying, stop crying for your mother, I know she was the one you wanted back then and I was never enough for you, but I'm all you GOT right now, kid, this is it.
He makes another circuit of the motel room, hand rubbing Dean's rigid back, whispering, "It's okay, champ, let that Tylenol do its thing, okay? All right? Gonna be okay, we been through this before."
Dean shivers and barks, hoarse and loud, and John goes into the bathroom and turns on the shower, all hot water, until steam clouds the mirror over the sink. He kicks the door shut and sits on the closed crapper, whispering, "Breathe, Dean. Breathe."
"Sammy's okay, right?" he says, and hears the pause before Henry replies, "Yes."
"He's all right."
Reassure me, you stingy old fuck, John thinks, you lost a daughter and I lost my wife and Dean and Sammy lost their MOTHER, and just be a human goddamn being for once in your miserly old life and suck it up. Aloud he says, "Good, good. I'm taking Dean to the doctor."
A longer pause. "Probably oughta."
"Tell Rita. I'll call when we've seen them."
"All right then."
He doesn't say goodbye. On the bed Dean's lying in a cramped-looking comma, hair matted with fever-sweat and thumb pressing at his lips like he wants to suck it, and can't. He doesn't even twitch when John scoops him up, grabbing his binkie and wrapping it around him.
"Gonna see the doctor, sugar," he says, and wants to scream because that is MARY'S endearment for their children, not his. Dean's indrawn breaths sound like he's sucking them through a bent soda straw. His eyes are dull and tired, sweat plastering his hair to his skull.
"Let's go," John whispers, and closes his eyes when Dean's body jerks with another cough.
He's not as familiar with Topeka – Mary's hometown, not his – and he doesn't know where to park at the hospital, winds up pulling under the ER canopy and leaving the car running while he wraps Dean in the blue blanket and slides out. It's cold, windy, crisp with Christmas right around the corner, and a gust tugs at the blanket over Dean's head, licking back to reveal dark blond hair.
The girl at the front desk takes his insurance card and makes a photocopy, and winces when Dean barks.
John looks over Dean's head, and sees a uniformed guy looking tired and earnest. "That your vehicle outside?"
His nametag says security. John nods jerkily. "Had to get him inside. The wind."
"Mommy," Dean gasps. "Mommy."
The security guard nods. He's an older guy, face lined with laugh lines, and he looks sympathetic. "Tell you what. When your wife gets here you go on and move it then, all right?"
John stares at him, not feeling Dean's weight, not listening to his breathing. "She won't," he whispers.
"She won't. Be here."
"Mr. Winchester?" A nurse is standing behind him, a clipboard in her hands. "This is Dean?"
He swallows and nods. "Croup. He's having – trouble breathing."
"I can hear that. Let's go on back, okay?" She touches Dean's damp hair, smiles gently, and Dean moans against John's shoulder.
The security guard now looks intensely apologetic. "I'm real sorry, sir. Gotta move that vehicle. Blocking the drive, you know?"
"I can take him." The nurse has a pretty smile. "We'll be in room seventeen, okay?"
Dean shrinks back when she reaches for him, and at the touch of her hands he draws a whooping breath and gives a despairing, "Mommy."
He's screaming when the nurse pries him out of John's nerveless arms. Screaming for Mary, tears and snot smeared over his face, and then coughing, barking that croup cough.
"We'll be okay," the nurse says loudly. "Come on, sugar, let's go get you some medicine, okay? Your mommy'll be here just as quick as she can, all right?"
"No," John says. His arms hang limp at his sides. "She won't."
"She was murdered. A month ago."
The nurse and the security guard stare at him, identical expressions of shock and dawning pity on their kind faces, and Dean ignores all of them, John as much as the two strangers. Dean clenches his eyes shut and his chest draws in with the force of taking a breath, and screams "Mommy" with a kind of hopeless despair that draws John's balls up into a tight mass of agony in his crotch, makes him feel dizzy and weak and oh God, unWANTED. It isn't Daddy Dean wants, it's Mommy, Mommy who can make things better, but things are never gonna BE better, this is it, kiddo, I'm all you got, and I'm real sorry I'm not good enough.
"She can't come," he whispers, and doesn't know if he's telling the staff or his screaming son, who can't hear him anyway.
He flees through the outside door, welcoming the crisp slap of the wind, and even when the Impala's sturdy steel door slams shut behind him he thinks he hears Dean calling for his dead mother.
He finds a parking space finally, under the bright determined glare of a sodium lamp, and takes a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket. The lighter's flame bobs with the shaking of his hands: it's wrong to smoke in the car, Mary tolerates his cigarettes but not in their car, and it's old habit to think he needs to climb out, have his smoke outside.
It doesn't matter now, and he exhales smoke and frosty air, watching it curl around the steering wheel in slow elegant loops.
Sammy's never even been sick. Dean had prepared them for any number of common childhood ailments: frequent ear infections, colds, chicken pox when he was twenty-six months old. And croup, of course, an old, disliked friend come back annually like cursed swallows to Capistrano. But Sam's never gotten anything. Not a runny nose. Not croup.
"Steam," said Dean's doctor that first time. "Cool night air. That'll make the swelling ease up, get him breathing better. It's swelling, narrows his airway. He'll grow out of the tendency, I promise."
But Dean hasn't yet, and it's like Dean's taking all the sicknesses that perhaps Sammy ought to get and now doesn't, or at least not yet. Sammy's healthy and sunny, John has never even heard him sneeze before, and two days ago he left the baby with Mary's parents and hid in the motel room, nursing Dean the way he remembers and praying that the baby didn't pick up whatever bug Dean had gotten this time.
John smokes and wonders if he can go inside again. Has Dean given up, finally? Has he realized his mom is not coming? That she won't be there to give him sips of water, bring him a Popsicle and wipe his face with a cool wet washcloth? Dean hasn't spoken a word in a month, and John wishes suddenly, savagely, that he'd stayed mute. Don't call for her, Dean, she can't hear you anymore. And I think if I hear you again I'll go insane. More insane than I think I am already.
Ambulances come and go in the bay across the parking lot. Tiny flurries of motion, uniformed bodies and gurnies and patients swaddled against the cold. Gone again, searching for more people in need.
He smokes a second cigarette, his throat dry and irritated, wishing for coffee and out of nowhere, his own mother. Her unsmiling face, awkward stiff pats on the shoulder, Very good, John, now see to your chores, we'll have supper presently. Supper, the route to Velma Riley Winchester's soul: all the warmth that she could not bring herself to show, expressed in mountains of food, plentiful and hot and humbly tasty.
His mother's been dead for fourteen years, and he longs for her dry bird's touch with an ache in his throat that reminds him of Dean.
He tosses the second cigarette butt when he climbs out of the car, and hunches against the wind to walk back inside.
The receptionist smiles tentatively at him as he walks by. The ER isn't too full, mostly unseen coughing and murmured discussions behind drawn curtains. He walks heavily down the hallway, pauses in front of the silent room seventeen and then pulls the curtain back.
Dean's tiny on the bed, face tear-swollen and sleepy. Brightening when he sees John, his eyes brimming with tears. He holds out his arms, one dangling an IV line like some kind of ground tie, and John thinks, Call for ME, say "Daddy" just once, Dean, please just say it, but Dean's lips are tightly closed.
John swallows and doesn't look at the nurse, who's murmuring something about feeling better already and just needs a little antibiotics and some TLC. Dean's arms are hot and welcome around his neck. He's careful with the arm bearing the IV, slides onto the bed and half-rolls Dean onto his chest.
"Gonna be okay, champ," he whispers against Dean's hair. "We're gonna be okay. I promise."
Dean barks hoarsely, and then stills and sighs, arms clinging tight.
By morning Dean's breathing a little easier. John doesn't disagree when the doctor looks in to say that he'll keep him a couple of days in the hospital, do some more IV antibiotics and monitor the swelling in his throat, make sure he doesn't develop epiglottitis.
In the small, cheery room upstairs, John sits in a chair next to Dean's bed, slowly brushing his fingers through Dean's matted hair. "Better now?"
Dean nods slowly. His eyes rest trustfully on John's face, no smile. Watching. Not glancing at the door. He doesn't expect his mommy anymore.
John waits until Dean's eyes flutter closed, until his breathing, no longer strangled, evens out in sleep. He is quiet and still, finally resting.
John lays his cheek against the crisp sheet, places his hand on Dean's where it lies curled like a tired anemone on the mattress. "I'll fix this, honey," he whispers. "I'll get whatever did this. Don't you worry."
When he wakes up some hours later, Dean is sipping something through a straw, and the folds of the sheet have imprinted on John's face. Dean touches the dents and smiles silently.