Characters: Dean, John, Sam
Category: Wee!chester, hurt/comfort
Rating: PG/K+ (for language)
Spoilers: Just the pilot.
Summary: When Dean was sick, everything went quiet. It reminded John far too much of how it was at the beginning of this unhappy journey.
Word Count: 3000
Disclaimer: I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy! :genuflects before Kripke and company:
Author's Note: And this fandom continues to seduce me into doing things I thought I wouldn't do. I used to think, "Oh, I'll watch the show, but I won't write fic." And then I got ideas and I thought, "I'll write fic, but they'll be short. About Dean." And then I wrote a short fic that was all about Sam. And then I thought, "Well, I've never made a vid, anyway." And then I made "I Have Lost My Fangs." And then I thought, "Oh, people write them as kids, that's cute, but I won't write it." And then I wrote this.
When Sam was sick, all was bustle and noise: Sam's fretful whining, John and Dean's anxious attempts to help, the blare of the TV or radio, one of the older two reading aloud, the fevered tossing of blankets, and harsh, demanding coughs. It was enough headaches for ten people, let alone three, a tornado of grape-flavored cough syrup and snot-filled tissues. John could never find a way to tame the beast that was a five-year-old with a cold—he could only ride the maelstrom until it wore itself out. Sam was never exactly what you might call "quiet," and never less so than when his body was rebelling against him. You always knew exactly what was going on with little Sammy. He told the world at the top of his lungs just how much his throat ached or his tummy jiggled, how sticky and sore his nose was from constant rubbing, how hot and tired and unhappy he felt all over.
When Dean was sick, everything went quiet. It was eerie, and reminded John far too much of how it was at the beginning of this unhappy journey, right after he lost Mary to something that shouldn't exist. Dean was nine, now, and talked to his father all the time about cars and rock music, the kids at school, how awesome dinosaurs were. He was a bright kid, vibrant with energy and curiosity, always volunteering to clean the guns, which John was happy to let him do under close supervision. John knew he could trust his older son with anything, and he loved listening to him talk, though he wasn't that great at joining in on the conversation himself.
When his little boy got sick, though, all that went away. Dean seemed to fold in on himself, as if he could hide from what his body was doing to him. If he was sniffly or coughing, he tried to stifle it, reduce it, pretend it was anything but what it was. He soldiered on with a stoicism that was frankly a bit disturbing. A few times, it had taken John far too long to realize that his son was ill—once, it had to be brought to his attention by a school nurse, and that meddling old lady had definitely had a note of accusation in her voice when she called him. He'd been irritated at her—what did this stranger know about him or his kids?—but not as much as he'd been at himself, because yes, it was his job to notice when something was wrong with his children. So now when Dean went quiet, John's neck hairs tingled. No way was a nine-year-old boy gonna pull anything over on John Winchester.
And so, on this lovely Friday morning in Who-the-hell-cares, Ohio, John found himself studying his older son with narrowed eyes for several moments before he realized why. Sam was chattering about what he wanted to do today, about the picture he'd drawn yesterday at kindergarten, gobbling sugary cereal and ignoring the orange juice John kept shoving at him. And Dean was sitting there silently across the table, poking his toast with the edge of his spoon, one hand on the top handle of his backpack setting on the floor beside him.
"Dean?" John asked quietly, but with great meaning. Sam shut his mouth abruptly, well-aware that something was up, and stared at him with wide eyes. Dean sat still for a moment, then let out a little sigh and raised his head to look at his father. John frowned at the fine webbing of red in the whites around Dean's green irises, the coon-like circles dark under his eyes. Dammit, the kid hadn't slept well.
"What's up, son?"
Dean shrugged listlessly and went back to poking his toast, long-cold and soggy with butter. Answer enough.
John heaved a grunt and moved around the table to kneel at the boy's side, hands automatically reaching up to cup his face, feel his hands, rest against his chest to check his breathing. Dean submitted to the handling without a word, and that as much as the slight temperature and congested breath told John all that he needed to know. "You're staying home today."
"Don't wanna," Dean mumbled. He seemed to be contradicting not his father so much as the circumstances, so John let it slide.
"You're sick, buddy. I'll send a note with Sam."
Dean glanced at his little brother, guilt and concern thick in the small gesture, and John understood. "He'll be fine without you for one day."
Sammy bobbed his head up and down. "S'okay, Dean," he chirped. "I'm not a baby anymore. You don't hafta take care of me at school."
Dean's slow, skeptical blink eloquently expressed just how reassuring he found this, but he seemed too weary to argue. And that, too, was an indication of just how under the weather he felt. "Yeah. Sure."
John winced at the raspiness in the boy's voice. "All right, so we're agreed," he said. "Back to bed. I'll clean up here and see Sam off."
Dean hauled himself out of his chair and through the doorway with all the insolence that he could manage while feeling like ten kinds of shit. And on that encouraging note, John's day began. He wrote the note, saw Sam off on the bus, and called in to the garage to take the day off. No big loss there—he'd been working there for three months and still hated it, so there wasn't much chance it was going to get any better.
After he'd finished the dishes and fiddled around in the living room for a while and finally couldn't think of anything else that needed done, he filled a glass with juice from the fridge and went to the boys' room to check on Dean. The kid had changed back into his sleep t-shirt and shorts and was sprawled out over the covers of his twin bed, just a step away from Sam's.
His eyes were shut, cheeks flushed, breath rasping in what might delicately be called an almost-snore. John shook his head and set the glass on the night table, then stood there for a moment longer just looking at him.
Damn, he missed Mary. She should have been here to soothe a fevered forehead, read Goodnight Moon, love, protect, bless, heal. His gut was empty, trying to grow around where she should have been, aching and stretched, unable to hold the weight of it. Five years later and he still felt that hollowness at moments when he least expected it. The missing was still a kick in the throat, even now, would be forever.
At last he heaved another sigh and went out. Later he would try to get some medicine and fluids into the boy, but for now it was good that he was sleeping.
John went to the room in the tiny rental house that might be called an office or a den by the more generously minded, though it was hardly bigger than a closet. Photos and news clips were layered over the folding table, maps and lists pinned to the walls, a box of guns tucked in the back corner. Ready for hunting trips in the near future.
He'd been planning one for this weekend, actually, and another day of preparation would not be amiss. Drawing in one deep breath before the plunge, John arranged his long frame in the wooden chair and bent to it. And there he remained buried, dates and names filling his head, places and monsters, methods of destruction.
He wasn't so far gone, though, that the nearly-silent scuff at the door couldn't rouse him immediately. John's head jerked up, body taut, already willing to kill if needs must. But this was Dean gripping the jamb with one hand, face tight with sleepy confusion, bare toes curling against the cold wooden floor. Reddened eyes widened at John's movement, fingers and toes tightening their grip, before the man deliberately relaxed.
"Da-ad." The boy's voice broke a little, sluggish with illness. "You're…you're still going on that trip?"
"Well…" Of course, Dean, John almost said, shocked into truthfulness. He stopped himself in time, though, and narrowed his focus, a knife planing down to a single point. Something was off. Dean had never questioned his plans before, not even the simplest ones: what they were having for dinner, which TV channels were allowed. Never mind why they were moving again, or where they were going to end up, or, God forbid, when the next hunting trip was. Dean just accepted and did everything he could to help, told Sammy everything was fine. This wasn't like his brave son, always the smart one, always obedient.
"I don't…I don't want you to go," Dean said softly, quietly, and John was shocked again. Never. Dean had never asked this before.
Then he saw it. The too-bright sheen of the eyes, the trembling of the hand not holding the door, the dark red flush on both cheeks. This was fever. Fever lowering defenses, confusing the mind.
Dean looked down at the floor and scrubbed a weary hand over his head, further disarranging hair already sticking up on the side and back. "Don't want you to go, Dad," he said again.
"You won't be alone, son." John deliberately gentled his voice. This kind of behavior would normally call for sternness, but the kid was sick, didn't know what he was saying. "Mrs. Grady from next door will stay with you and Sam."
"Not the same," Dean mumbled. Even through the morass of fever, though, he recognized the decision in John's words. It was tantamount to command, and Dean responded as he always did.
He turned back, pushing against the jamb to give himself momentum, wavering a bit before he found his footing on widespread feet. John watched him move slowly away, back down the hall, saw the slump of his shoulders. Damn, the boy looked so utterly defeated. Just completely and totally…crushed.
John felt something burst in his chest, just give way like water over a dam. God, had he done that? With just a few words? John Winchester, hunter of evil, savior of innocent lives, persecutor of sick little kids. What a hellish joke.
He rubbed a hand quickly over his face, and was on his feet almost before he knew what he was doing, was in the hall just as quickly. "Dean. Dean. Wait."
His son turned to face him, propped himself against the wall with one hand, looked up into his face. But there was no hope in those green eyes. Just readiness for the next order.
"Dean." John hesitated, barely, then went down on one knee, making Dean taller than himself. The boy blinked in confusion. "You're feeling that bad, huh? You want me to stay?"
Dean wavered, probably thinking this was some kind of test. "Th'hunt's important," he slurred, uncertainty in every syllable. "You gotta…gotta save people. Right?"
"I can ask someone else. I know some people." And why had that never occurred to him before? He didn't have to do it all. Caleb was three hours closer to this particular hunt, anyway, and he was only a phone call away from having all the information he needed. "I can stay. If you want me to."
"But…" Dean blinked once, slowly, trying to work it out, trying to fit this new information into the matrix of his life. "…Really?"
Watching his sons, their little two-person circle of arguments, play, comfort, love, seeming utterly complete with just the two of them, John had always pretty much figured he wasn't that necessary. Dean took care of Sam, Sam took care of Dean, and John just made sure that they had clothes and food and a place to sleep. Yeah, well, he was an idiot, wasn't he? Here was Dean, wanting him, aching with it, and scared to say anything after that stupid, thoughtless rebuff. Here was his son, his brave, beautiful son, sick and lonely, and John had pushed him away.
"I'll stay, Dean. I'll stay." This time he didn't have to think about making his voice gentle. This time it came as it should. He wrapped a hand around the back of his boy's too-warm neck, brushed a thumb along the line of his jaw. "It's okay. I won't go."
A moment more of helpless confusion, and then Dean smiled, that slow, wide smile so achingly like Mary's. This time the ache was good, though, it was right, and John smiled back.
Then he let out a startled uhnf as Dean fell on him, both arms wrapped tight around his neck. For a fraction of a second he wasn't sure what to do, hands hovering uncertainly in the air, but then he hugged the boy back, warm and tight. "It's okay, buddy. I gotcha."
They knelt there in the hall, just holding on, until John became painfully aware of just how hot Dean's cheek was against his. "All right. All right. Let's get you some medicine, okay?"
Dean nodded, but did not let go, merely shifting his grip to hold a little tighter. John huffed a little laugh, then gathered his feet under him and stood, lifting the boy with him. Dean hid his face against John's shoulder and wound both legs around his waist the way he hadn't done for at least four years, perhaps more—it was always Sammy being carried when he was tired from long hikes, never Dean, though of course Dean must have been just as exhausted, every single time. But Sam was at school right now, and Dean was entitled to a little coddling.
John laughed again, his breath puffing against Dean's dark, unruly hair, and carried him to the bathroom to fetch that medicine.
Home from school, Sam burst in the door trailing ribbons from some art project and calling for Dean to come admire what he'd made. John looked up from his position on the couch to give him a warning stare, and Sam immediately silenced himself with a finger to his mouth, grinning conspiratorially. "Hey, Daddy," he whispered loudly. "'S Dean feeling better?"
John looked down at his older son's head resting on his chest, heavy and warm in slumber. The noise had not wakened Dean, apparently, but at the movement he uttered a sleepy mumble and shifted a little closer. Though that seemed impossible, as he was already pretty much lounging all over his father, face pressed into his breastbone. John could feel a spreading stickiness through his shirt that told him Dean was drooling on him under there, but he didn't care even a little bit.
"I think he's feeling a little bit better," he said softly, smiling at the bouncing five-year-old. "But we should let him sleep, okay? He's had a rough day."
"'Kay." Sam tip-toed closer to the couch, staring at his brother, eyes wide open in fascination, taking it all in. Dean lay with arms and legs akimbo, his t-shirt rucked up to expose part of his stomach, and one of his hands was still fisted in John's sleeve. Under the scrutiny, he coughed in his sleep, harsh and rough. He was going to have a terribly sore throat when he woke.
Sam winced at the noise, drawing back a little. "That's an owie sound," he said, shaking his head. "Dean needs a popsicle. Can I get him a popsicle?"
"Maybe later, buddy."
"But that sound means popsicles." Sam was very firm, certain of this immutable fact of childhood sickness. "Dean always give me popsicles when I cough like that. I should give him one, too."
"Yes, but he's sleeping right now. As soon as he wakes up, you can get him a popsicle, all right?"
Sam scrunched his face up, staring at his father with narrowed eyes. "You mean it? As soon as he wakes up?"
John nodded seriously, understanding how important this was. "Yes, Sam, I promise. I know you want to take care of Dean the way he takes care of you. I want to take care of him, too. All right? We'll do it together."
Sam stared at him for a moment longer, making up his mind. Then he nodded, very solemnly and gravely, holding John's gaze the entire time, making a pact that held all the weight of a blood oath. "Okay. We do it together."
John smiled, and felt himself relax a little. God, his little son could work him over with just a look and a few words. That gaze was going to be a fearsome thing indeed by the time he was a teenager. John was going to have to work up a thick skin if he wanted to be able to resist it at all.
"Can I have a popsicle now?"
John laughed, forgetting to be quiet. "Yeah, sure. Go ahead."
Sammy scampered off to the kitchen, and John looked back to Dean, worried that he'd wakened him. But the boy slept on, boneless in repose, utterly trusting. John felt a sudden, blinding burst of gratitude for his moment of clarity back there, when he had realized what a gift this was, and what a fool he would be to squander it. Yes, Sam and Dean took care of each other, and he hoped that they always would. But he was their father, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that entailed, and he was glad of it.
"Sorry, Dean," he murmured, lowering his head to plant a kiss in the dark, soft hair. "I was an idiot. Won't do it again."
Dean sighed in his sleep and clutched John's sleeve a little harder. Sam returned from the kitchen with his popsicle, John rested his head back against the couch, and all was well in the Winchester world.
A/N the second: Apparently I have a thing for seemingly distant father/mentors with emotionally insecure son/mentees. It's my old Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fics all over again. Except, you know, not, because even Qui-Gon was never quite this stubborn. Writing this story was like shelling a walnut. Right off the tree. :sigh: