The Pancake Test
K Hanna Korossy
The scent had Dean's nose twitching before he was even awake. Sulfur, gunpowder, the rotted smell of the undead: those were the smells he was used to waking to. Not this warm, fresh-baked sweetness that stirred memories further back than he could consciously reach. Dean sniffed, puzzled, and rolled over on his side to divine the source.
Sam. With pancakes.
His brother stood authoritatively over the hot plate in the little kitchenette. He was humming almost subvocally to himself as he slid one golden pancake out of the skillet and onto a plate already piled high with other perfect, steaming circles. A flip of the wrist poured more batter into the pan with a sizzle and pop. Sam waited for it, brandishing some kitchen utensil Dean didn't know the name of with the same light, sure grip he used with weapons. Martha Stewart, Winchester-style.
He noticed Dean's bleary gaze then, and smiled. "I made breakfast, in case you plan to get up sometime today."
"What time 's it?" Dean mumbled, peering unsuccessfully at the analog bedside clock.
Dean groaned, burying his head in his pillow. Early-morning Sam with pancakes was only fractionally better than early-morning Sam alone.
"Come on," his brother wheedled behind him. "They're best when they're fresh."
"So am I," Dean groused into the bedding. But Sam's cheer was contagious as well as obnoxious, and the put-upon sigh Dean heaved as he pushed himself upright was pure show. He yawned, rubbed a hand through his hair, and tried not to drool at the warm aroma that filled the room. It also cleared his head, and he soon looked suspiciously at Sam. "When did you get up?"
"'Bout an hour ago." A new pancake joined its cousins on the plate. "I went out and picked up some fruit and syrup and pancake mix."
Dean wasn't so easy to distract. "Nightmares?" he prodded.
"Nope. Slept like a baby."
Which made Dean wince to himself, considering babies were exactly what the shtriga they'd killed the night before had thrived on.
Sam had paused to look at him, and was wearing that soft smile that made Dean want to both roll his eyes and smile back, earnestly. "You can stop worrying now, okay? I'm fine. Better than fine, actually—I feel great."
And considering said shtriga had also snacked on Sam before it died, that was no small comfort. But Dean just shrugged and rose to go to the bathroom. "I wasn't worried. The last time you made pancakes though was, uh, let me see…oh, yeah, never. So excuse me if I'm a little suspicious about waking up to Little Mary Sunshine."
Sam's amused snort followed him. Only in the bathroom did Dean let himself grin at the mirror. He was really pretty fond of his kid brother sometimes.
And the pancakes were as good as they smelled.
Their next job was over almost as soon as it started. The ugly, shaggy thing hadn't been hard to find and was even easier to kill. They'd shrugged at each other over the body—sometimes it really was that easy—and burned it just in case. Dean stubbed his toe on the way back to the car, but for an on-the-job injury, it was one they could both live with.
They headed back to town with the sun still just starting its downward course. Dean glanced around the main street as he drove, noting bars, music stores, an arcade. "You wanna get a couple of beers?" he offered absently, already knowing the answer. A book had been sitting forlornly on the nightstand of the last few motels they'd stayed in, waiting until Sam had a free evening to read. They also had yet to track down their next case.
"Sure," Sam said, gaze on the street on his side of the car. He sounded like he meant it, and Dean gave him a surprised glance. Which, of course, his brother noticed. "What? I like to kick back and relax sometimes, too."
"Coulda fooled me," Dean said under his breath.
"Listen, if you don't want company…"
"No!" It came out a little fast. Nothing to do with how much he perhaps enjoyed hanging out with his little brother, of course. "No, it's cool. I'm just surprised, is all. Your idea of kicking back usually involves kicking me out so you can have some peace and quiet."
"That's not true," Sam protested with a frown.
"'Course it's true. I don't mind," Dean quickly added, because Sam's bangs were starting to drift down into his eyes as his face drew together. "You always were happiest with your nose stuck in a book, even as a kid."
Sam digested that in silence until they pulled into the motel parking lot, where his earnest gaze stopped Dean from reaching for the door handle. "I used to go out. With Jess and friends. We had some favorite hangouts. Just after…" He rubbed at his temple.
Dean nodded. "I know," he said quietly. And he did, and had never pushed.
Sam took a breath. "A couple of beers sounds good. Give me a minute to clean up."
"Yeah, good luck with that," Dean called after him as Sam got out, and the long body folded down to give him a good-natured glare before he retreated into their room, leaving the door open for Dean.
Huh. Dean sat there a moment longer, staring after his little brother. He wasn't completely sure what that was about, but he wasn't complaining.
Dean was whistling when he got out and went inside.
Wonders didn't cease there. Dean was pretty sure he caught Sam checking out a few of the girls in the bar, even having a conversation with one that ended in a cordial handshake. Dean groaned but couldn't help but be amused. Sam was still Sam, even this new more outgoing version.
They turned in relatively early, Dean shaking his head to hide his laugh at finding his bed short-sheeted. He promised retribution, and Sam cheerfully brushed off the threat as he flicked off the light. No sharp breathing or ragged gasp heralded a nightmare during the night. Nothing woke Dean, in fact, until morning light tickled his eyelids. And silence his ears.
His head snapped up, to stare at the neatly made bed next to him.
Sam had been in it when Dean had fallen asleep, so he hadn't been AWOL all night. And things that pulled you out of bed and carried or dragged or compelled you away didn't usually let you tidy up first. Dean's heart rate slowed a notch as he cast a leery and wide-awake eye over the room. "Sam?"
No answer. No Sam, no pancakes.
Dean sat up. "Sam?" he called again, and pushed himself to his feet to go check the bathroom when he didn't receive an immediate response. No big deal, right? Sam could have gone out for breakfast, or a jog, or even to just sit on the front step like he did sometimes when Dean suspected the room became too confining. He was probably just…
Washing the car.
Dean's path to the bathroom took him in front of the window, and he jerked to a halt mid-stride to stare outside.
Yep, his Impala, his Sam. Both wet, both looking better than Dean had seen them in a while. Well, sure, what else would Sam be doing at…6:30 in the morning than washing the car?
Dean blinked, stared, and tried to remember what they'd been doing when Sam had first started acting…what, happy? Well-rested? Was he seriously going to complain about this? A Sam who smiled, slept through nights, let himself have a little fun sometimes…
Yeah, okay, maybe it wouldn't hurt to check for pods under the bed.
Their last hunt had been the beast…thing. It had smelled and its eyes had glowed green, but that seemed the extent of its mojo. Besides, the pancakes had been before that. So, what, Fitchburg? The shtriga? But it took life forces, not…
Dean's blood seemed to drain into his feet, and he stumbled back to collapse onto the edge of the bed. His chest was tight, his hands cold. Could it be? All this time? Because of him?
A child's memory was less than perfect, but Dean searched his. Had the shtriga had a chance to feed on five-year-old Sam, even a little, before John had rushed in and blasted it out the window? Had Sammy been different before the attack? Happier, more full of life? Dean wasn't sure but…maybe. Maybe. Dad would've known, and Dad had never looked at him the same again.
Dean's hands were shaking as he buried his face in them, shoved them back through his hair. Oh, God, what had he done, what had he allowed to be done to Sam? All those years of vitality and joy lost because of him? He'd always known he was to blame for that night, but had the comfort of thinking Sam was okay despite him. But apparently he wasn't, never had been, until the shtriga had died and let go what it had stolen sixteen years before.
Sam, I am so sorry.
"Sorry for what?"
The soft voice yanked Dean back to the here-and-now with an almost physical jolt. He looked up, and recoiled from the face inches from his. Sam was crouched in front of him, one hand just settling on Dean's knee, and he hadn't even heard his brother come in.
"Dean's, what's wrong?" A little more insistently now, because Sam tended to worry about him nearly as much as the reverse, despite Dean's best efforts. Which this wasn't, and he sat gaping silently at his little brother.
Tell him or not? Risk Sam's rejection—possibly even his departure—or lie?
Dean would've liked to think it was his trust in Sam's forgiveness that decided him rather than his fatalistic streak waiting for due punishment, but he wasn't an idealist. Why should Sam forgive him any more than he could himself?
Dean cleared his throat and squared his shoulders, meeting Sam's eyes only briefly before his own slid away. "Still feel good this morning?" It came out hoarse.
He could feel Sam's puzzlement. "Yeah, actually. It's beautiful out there. So what happened in here?" The fingers tightened on Dean's leg. "Did someone call? Dad?"
"No." He shook his head. "No, uh…I was just thinking."
"Sam, I'm serious," Dean said gruffly, and felt Sam's palm slide over his skin in apology. He swallowed. "The shtriga…" Dean glanced up briefly at concerned hazel eyes and lost his courage again. "What if it…fed off you a little in Fort Douglas before Dad scared it off?"
"What? But, Dean, I'm—"
"Just a little," he insisted. "Just to…I don't know, dampen you somehow. Make you more tired, slower."
"Why would you think that?" Sam asked. So far Dean heard only bafflement and curiosity.
He finally looked up at his brother. "Think about it, Sam. We kill the shtriga, it lets all the energy or whatever it stole loose to go back to the people he took it from who are still alive. That includes you, and next thing you know, you're going all Stepford on me, making pancakes and going to bars and washing the car. I mean, what if it hasn't been really you all this time?"
He pushed himself to his feet, surging past Sam in his need to move.His brother rocked back on his heels to give him room. "It makes sense. When I got back to the room, it was already bent over you. We just figured it hadn't had a chance to feed, but what if it had a chance to start?"
"I don't feel any different," Sam started.
"Yeah, because you're always washing my car and cooking us breakfast."
Sam stood, too, gaining the advantage of height on Dean once more. "I used to, at Stanford. I made pancakes for Jess every weekend. I also helped friends move, played soccer on the quad, and went out dancing. I did a lot of things I haven't done in a while."
Dean shook his head. "You got sick a lot when you were kid. And you were always quiet. I remember one time it took us two days to figure out you had a fever."
"We spent a lot of time outside and at night—of course I was gonna get sick sometimes. And anyone would've seemed quiet next to you. Dean, that doesn't mean anything. I don't feel any—"
"You do," Dean cut him off, even though he said it quietly. "You feel different to me, okay? The last couple of days, it's been like you…"
"What?" A soft huff of air, and when Dean dared a glance at his brother's face, Sam's eyes made him hurt. "Started living again? Finally took all those talks of yours to heart and tried to move on? Only, in our jacked view of things, that must mean I'm supernaturally influenced." Sam shook his head, mouth twisted in an unamused smile. "For God's sake, Dean, did it ever occur to you if I'm any different it's because of you?"
For the first time, Dean's certainty waned, diluted with confusion.
Sam took a step toward him, bridging gaps. "Dude, all that talk about responsibility and doing anything for me, and you still don't get it. It took a while before I was ready to listen, but I heard you all along I know you were worried about me and that you were right about the anger. If it wasn't about Jess, it was about Dad, or hunting, as far back as I can remember. That wasn't the shtriga, Dean, that was me."
Dean watched him with narrowed eyes, unconvinced. "And so now all of a sudden, what, you're better? Suddenly you started listening?"
"No." Sam's mouth softened, rueful, fond. "You're not listening—I always heard you. I just didn't always get it."
Dean had half-turned from him, physical defense because no other kind seemed to be working. "I'm not gonna like the answer to this, am I? Fine, what didn't you get?"
Sam's smile grew. "How much I still have. Sometimes I forget I didn't lose everything in that fire. I've still got a dad who cares about me and a job that helps people even if the pay is lousy and a big brother who'd do anything for me. Whose car I am never washing again if it means I'm gonna have to prove each time I'm not possessed or influenced or some opposite version of a dark double."
Dean took a breath; the first, it felt, in a long time. "So, the pancakes…"
A laugh. "Sometimes pancakes are just pancakes, man. I knew you liked 'em."
"And you really don't feel any different?" Dean persisted, although even he wasn't dense enough to miss connecting those dots: his car, pancakes he liked, an evening out with him. Sam had apparently heard a lot more this time than Dean had wanted him to, but he couldn't bring himself to mind that much.
Sam canted his head. "You did just hear this whole conversation we had, right?"
"After the shtriga," Dean growled.
"No, okay? If anything, I was beat afterward, and cleaning up Michael's room at three a.m. didn't help. And you know what? Even if I had, this still wouldn't be your fault, Dean."
He sank on the edge of his bed, newly weary. "Don't start that again, Sam."
"I mean it." Sam sat opposite him. "You were, what, about ten then?"
"Nine. When I was nine, I was still two years away from even going on my first hunt with Dad."
"One year," Dean said distractedly. "You were ten when Dad took you out for the first time."
"Okay, fine. I barely knew how to shoot a gun, Dean—you didn't start teaching me until I was eight."
"Seven. You started bow-hunting when you were eight. We were tracking that pack of werewolves and you kept missing all that time from third grade, remember? Mrs. Shope even tried to talk to Dad about it."
A pause, Sam's gaze a weight on him. "You remember all that?"
Dean smiled briefly at the carpet. "You were a kid, Sam. I wasn't." Which he hoped to God didn't say as much as he had a suspicion it did.
Sam took a breath, body hitching with an unspoken huh. "And you think the shtriga took something away from me?"
Dean stood abruptly. "What did you use for soap? A lot of junk they sell can hurt a nice finish."
After a moment, Sam stood, too. "The stuff you keep in the trunk. Dean…" he said softly, "are we okay here?"
He looked up at Sam, met his gaze steadily, forcing down a flush. It was from a kinder source than shame, though. "Yeah. We're good."
"So…is it safe for me to make something for breakfast?"
Dean was grinning before he realized it. "Pancakes?"
Sam's mouth twitched, but his eyes were really alive. And if he tried, Dean could remember seeing them that way often over the years. Usually directed at him. "Actually, I was thinking omelets this time."
He gasped a laugh, Sam's joy almost always impossible for him to resist. It wasn't the only thing he got from his brother. Dean nodded. "Sounds good."