Ale, Crackers, and Dean
K Hanna Korossy
The first time he could remember being sick was when he was four, and he knew that from Dean's complaining in later years. "I got chicken pox at school and had it bad, and you barely got it at all. Freak." But that wasn't how Sam remembered it.
He recalled Dean's bout vaguely: the specialness of watching TV all day together, his fascination with the calamine dots all over Dean's body. Then Dean was just starting to get better when the first bumps appeared on Sam, and suddenly TV and oatmeal baths and popsicles were no consolation for how miserable he felt. It wasn't even so much the itch as the headaches and chills and feeling miserable.
And then Dean going from companion to comforter. His big brother still tried to distract him with TV, but when that didn't help, he sat next to Sam and read comic books to him, talked to him about school, and when Sam shivered with cold and said "Dean" in a small voice, slid down in the bed and let Sam curl against his chest. Daddy had gone away once his eldest was well, and Dean was the chicken pox expert now, anyway. He ran the baths for Sam and piled blankets on him when he was cold and put the pink stuff on his spots so he wouldn't itch.
Sam's clearest memory, though, was lying next to Dean, one arm clutched around his waist while his brother sat against the headboard and read for hours, one hand warm comfort on Sam's head. He figured that summed up pretty well both his bout with the pox and his brother during their childhood.
He lay balled under the covers trembling with fever and despair, and stared at the door. His eyes burned and his body ached, and his mind ran in numb little circles. I want Dean. I want my brother. I want…
He sniffled a breath, gaze going dull. Exhaustion pulled at him but he ignored it. It would be a betrayal if he slept, and things would never be the same when he woke again. He was nine and he felt old.Like Dad sometimes looked.
His gaze blurry and distant, he didn't see the two figures that appeared in the door. Or hear the soft exclamation. The first thing he was aware of was someone beside his bed, their hand cool as it cupped his chin and thumbed away his tears.
He turned slowly, uncomprehending, to stare at the thirteen-year-old leaning over him. Dean's face was scratched and bruised and pale, but it was Dean. There. Alive.
Sam's relief suddenly stuttered. Alive, right? Not a ghost or a revenant or something else evil? A glance at the door revealed Dad standing there, smiling sadly. He nodded, and that was enough. Eyes darted sharply back to his brother, and then Sam was lunging up, clutching at Dean like he was the last life preserver left on the boat.
"Dean. Dean. Dean." The chant had changed but the fierce want hadn't.
"It's okay, Sammy. I'm here. I'm here." Dean sounded a little breathless and pained, but his arms went willingly enough around Sam's shoulders and he finally felt warm.
He buried his face in the earthy, unpleasant-smelling flannel his brother wore, and didn't care about anything else except that Dean was there. "Dad said you were gone," Sam whispered.
"Well…I'm back now. I wouldn't leave you, dummy. So quit this 'making yourself sick worrying over me' bit, okay?"
"He said you were gone," Sam repeated, needing Dean to feel the weight of that as much as he had.
There was a long pause, long enough he wasn't sure Dean would answer, while fingers twined through his hair almost hard enough to hurt. Then, roughly. "I'm back now. I'm here and I'm not leaving."
And Sam nodded because, even though it would take him a while to lose that foreign smell, and Dean stayed in bed two days longer than Sam did, that was what mattered.
Sam hacked wetly into his fist, each cough feeling like it was yanked from his heavy lungs. Which it probably was, considering how breathing hurt between bouts. Pneumonia sucked.
It was also contagious, and Dean had been exiled from their room for the duration. A twelve-year-old didn't need the nursemaid, anyway, too old for the cuddling and being read to of his youth.
"She handles really sweet, Sammy. Purrs when I barely touch her, ready for anything…"
Still, when Dean had settled into the doorway, back propped against one door jamb, feet against the other in a position that looked very uncomfortable and completely Dean, Sam couldn't seem to mind. He was smiling as he shook his head. "Are you talking about the car or Michelle?" he asked hoarsely.
Dean's grin widened. "Both. Dude, sometimes she goes driving with me and, I'm telling you, thank God for bench seats, because she slides over next to me and—"
The grin became a laugh. "Oh, right. I forgot you still don't know what girls are for."
Sam felt himself flush under fever-warmed cheeks. "I know."
"Uh-huh." Even across the room, he could see the green eyes shine. "Or, wait, you holding out on me, Sammy?"
He was just about to correct Dean on his name when another coughing streak stole the thought, and the breath to do so. It went on and on, until all he could feel was the weight in his chest and then the hands leaning him forward and pressing a sweating glass to his mouth. He drank, sputtering as a few last coughs pushed their way out, before sinking back into the pillows.
When he could open his eyes again, Dean stood beside him, glass in one hand, frown in the place of his earlier grin.
"Quarantine, Dean," Sam whispered.
"Yeah, well. Dad said I was allowed to bring you stuff if you needed something."
Sam's mouth lifted at the corner, his eyes sagging shut. "Just wanna sleep."
"You do that. I'll be right outside." Or jammed inside the doorway, anyway. Sam had a feeling he'd be "needing" a lot of things the next few days.
He was a teenager, and Alice smiled at him at school whenever he caught her eye, and he went by Sam now instead of Sammy. But when Dean readThe Lord of the Rings to him that week from the doorway, doing different voices for the characters and keeping up a running commentary on their weaponry and battle tactics, Sam couldn't help but think being a little brother wasn't all bad.
He was never eating again. Ever.
His chin rested wearily on the cracked plastic toilet seat cover. He'd grown too tired to hold his head up some time back, and had ceased caring about the filth he was sitting in and leaning against. Now it was just him, one very ticked-off stomach, and his porcelain refuge.
"Sam." Another knock on the door. Sam had lost track of time, but the knocking didn't seem any less frequent than before. "Come on, unlock the door."
"Go away," he groaned, then again when his stomach lurched. The Chinese food was long purged, only the slimy stuff coming up now, clingy threads of saliva. It didn't stop the feeling that his whole stomach was going to turn itself inside out.
"C'mon, man. I got Gatorade, your favorite."
"No, Dean," he corrected tiredly. "That's your favorite."
"Oh. Right. Huh." Soft sounds of movement. "Still tastes good."
Sam rolled his eyes and bent over the toilet again, resting his forehead on the arm draped across the seat.
"I got some ginger ale, too."
Sam paused, contemplating that.
His brother, as always, could sense when the tide was turning. "Open the door, Sam," he coaxed.
Dean could pick a lock in ten seconds, less when it was an old one like the bathroom door's. It had been a stupid ploy, locking the door, but the real barrier was Sam's distance, not a piece of plywood and an old brass lock, and they both knew it.
He thought of earlier that week, the umpteenth fight with Dad, and Dean in the background, staying out of it. Of Dean's silence whenever Sam talked about going to college the next year. Of Dean's tacit obedience whenever John gave an order.
Sam's jaw hardened. He didn't want to hear what Dean had to say now. "Leave the stuff there. I'll get it later."
Silence outside, then a thump at the door, then more silence.
Sometimes he really hated silence.
His stomach knotted again, and Sam turned back to the toilet.
Neither he nor Dean said a word when he trudged out a few hours later to find Dean sitting and reading on the floor by the bathroom door, or about the ginger ale, saltines, and the new book lined up on the nightstand by Sam's bed.
His throat was on fire. The everlasting, hell-hound breath, unquenchable kind.
The school health center nurse had been unsympathetic, doing the test in about a minute, rattling off the diagnosis, writing him doctor's notes for all his classes, and sending him back to his room to rest. Strep throat. Prognosis: a week of misery.
His roommate judiciously decided to go stay with friends down the hall for a while. Sam wrote a note on the whiteboard on his room door for the few people who might have thought to come check on him, then changed into his sweatpants and a t-shirt and crawled under the covers.
School wasn't exactly what he'd thought it would be.
Okay, yeah, it was all the learning he wanted and no orders or hunting and being his own boss for the first time ever, and that was just what he'd hoped. But it was also days with no one to talk to and no food when he ran out of money and no one to make sure he stayed hydrated when he was sick, and he hadn't been prepared for that part. They said freshman year was an adjustment, but Sam figured for him maybe more than most.
Not that he told anyone that, ever, especially Dean.
Sam snaked a hand out from the warmth of the bed to snag his phone on the desk. He flicked it on, scrolled down the numbers, stared at the highlighted name. How many times he'd done this, he couldn't count, and sometimes he pushed "Call," but most of the time he didn't.
His finger hovered over the button. He pressed it before he could think it through, take it back.
Always no more than two rings, and always a warm welcome. Dean would've made fun of him if he'd known how that always lodged a lump in Sam's throat. Or maybe not. "Dean," he said, wincing at how rough his voice sounded.
Instant suspicion. "You okay?"
He could lie about many things to his brother, but never his well-being. "Strep throat," he croaked. Even if his voice wasn't determined to give him away.
"Ouch." He could see Dean's sympathetic wince. "So, you probably shouldn't be talking, huh?"
Sam didn't have an answer for that. He flushed a little, wondering what he'd been thinking, but also honest enough with himself to know exactly what.
"Actually, I was gonna call you, tell you about this hunt we're on now. It's kinda interesting—right up your geek alley."
He usually didn't want to hear about the hunts, but right now just hearing Dean talk was nice. Sam settled back into the pillow, phone wedged against his ear, and listened.
Dean rambled until the batteries ran low, then promised to call the next day, just to make sure Sam hadn't "flatlined in your sleep." Sam was smiling when he dozed off, the phone still clasped in his hand.
His throat hurt a whole different way when the plain brown box was dropped off at the front hall desk for him two days later, crammed with ginger ale, animal crackers, comic books, and an extra battery for his phone.
He swore, if he stared hard enough at the wallpaper, the swirls in the pattern started moving.
"The walls aren't moving, Sam," came the amused voice from behind him, and the steaming mug lowered before him broke his gaze. Sam reached out for it, wrapping grateful hands around the heated ceramic. Hot tea with a straw—only Dean.
He drank a few sips—yeah, okay, with the straw—letting the warmth course through him a little, before turning onto his back. From there, he could see the TV. He'd been the one to ask for it on, but his flu-aching body didn't let him rest and he'd tossed and turned away from it every few minutes. Dean, however, was propped up on the other bed, arms crossed, watching…
"What is this?" Sam squinted at the screen.
"Documentary on the making of The Princess Diaries," Dean said, frighteningly deadpan.
Sam blinked at the TV, then his brother. "And we're watching this…why?"
"Because you picked it, genius, remember? Ten minutes ago you almost bit my head off when I tried to change the channel."
"Oh." Honestly, he didn't remember. He ached and his head throbbed and his throat was sore, and everything was kind of blurry and wrong. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it, Sammy. Just try to get some sleep, huh?"
He tried, but nothing was comfortable. Everything was sore, and whichever way he turned he pressed against muscles that complained about the abuse.
Dean's sigh was the first sign his brother had noticed his plight. The bed dipped right next to Sam's chest. "I swear, dude, you're worse than when you were a kid." The cooling mug was plucked out of his hand, and then Sam was rolled onto his side, pillows stuffed behind his back. Another layer of blankets were pulled to his chin. "Seriously, did Jessica put up with your whining?"
Jess was no longer an off-limits subject, by Sam's own decree. Her name still sent a pang through him, but he didn't want to tiptoe around her memory any longer, nor force Dean to do the same. But right now, sick and depleted, Sam felt his eyes water at the reminder.
"Sammy, don't go there," came the kind warning. A cold compress settled across his brow, smoothed down with an unusually gentle touch. "Go to sleep, bro. Give the meds a chance to work—you'll feel better in the morning."
"Durrance," he murmured.
"Durrance can wait. We're not going anywhere until you can hold a gun without collapsing from the weight."
He made a face, pulled in a long, slow breath that burned his throat. "I miss Dad."
A pause. Dean tugged his blanket a little higher. "Yeah. Me, too."
"I'm glad you're here."
He kinda wished he could see the expression on Dean's face that went with the oddly calm, "Go to sleep, Sammy." But his eyelids weighed too much to lift.
One hand rested warm in the hair above his forehead, and Sam drifted off, feeling four again in all the good ways.