Care and Feeding

by Innocent Culprit

Sam decides to make broth.

In a cabin in the middle of a freezing forest, his mind fuddled with exhaustion, Sam decides that broth is the thing.

Frankly he's not entirely sure what he's doing and there's not much to work with. The leftovers of a Winchester-style supermarket sweep don't offer up many raw materials.

Thinking fluid and electrolytes, he strips half a roast chicken from its sticky paper bag, drops it into a big pot of water on the blackened range, tips in some powder he found nestling in a squashed box with leaves and onions daubed on the side, and then discharges a bag of frozen mixed vegetables into the mess.

After an hour of boiling he adds more water, and after two he pours some of the liquid out of the pot through a sieve. Then, deciding it won't fly with lumps in it, not to mention scum, he mulches it through the sieve three more times.

The result is bland, clear and pale-yellow, with nothing - not so much as a speck of herb or sliver of dried onion - that might make his brother gag.

Because Sam knows that even if it tastes like pondspawn they have to get it down. If they don't get it down, Dean will die.

So far, everything he's tried has come right back at him, starting with the sugar-water he aimed with more hope than accuracy at the back of Dean's throat with a dropper. The couch Dean's propped on is awash. He's been crashed there like a dog-chewed ragdoll since they carried him back from the hunt, without being able to so much as lift his head.

Sam steps over the salt line, plumps down on the stool next to the couch, hefts the bowl on to his knee and dips in the spoon.

"Let's give this a try, Dean," he says.

The tip of the spoon touches the pale curve of Dean's bottom lip and Sam waits. For the longest time the only bit of Dean that Sam is sure he's seen moving has been his eyelids, cranking slowly up and down on rusty hinges from time to time, a sluggish, olivine blink the sole proof of life. His brother's breathing is so depressed it hardly seems to inflate his chest.

Dad's journal is unequivocal, and Sam's take on it even more so: if some freaking idiot isn't watching your back well enough and an arachulated spirit gets to you, it'll bite down on every firing neurone it can get hold of.

Dean had gone down like his legs had been sawn off.

"This is why we don't do hospitals!" John had yelled, shaking the open journal in Sam's dissenting face. "These fucking things will always come back for you!"

He'd told Sam he was going to head the sonofabitch off at the pass, that they couldn't risk bringing civilian help to Dean, and that even though it sucked they had to risk Dean instead. And then he'd told Sam to hold the line, slapped the journal in his arms and left.

The spiky phrases scrawled next to a cloud of tiny black dots haven't done Dean a bit of good so far.

Nor, really, did John's initial, brisk ministrations. Sam had been comforted at first by his father's confident manner, the use of a particular tone of voice that, historically at least, Dean would obey. When obedience turned out to not be the issue at hand John kind of threw in the towel. Flaked out a bit too damn quick as far as Sam's concerned.

Like he'd rather play Marines out in the forest than deal with Dean lolling about and chucking up.

"He's not drunk, Dad," Sam had said, hurting in his chest somewhere, "You don't need to get mad at him."

Now he moves the spoon slightly forward and metal taps on Dean's teeth.

"You can do it," says Sam, but Dean can't.

Sam rides the frustration, draws back the spoon.

"Listen, I have a whole pot of this stuff. I can keep it bubbling on the stove forever, man. And you never know, you may even like it. Although it really doesn't matter if you don't. I just need you to - "

Eat it, Dean! You're not even trying! For the love of God open your mouth and eat it!

John's bedside manner had made Dean's stumbling pulse race a little, but he hadn't obeyed.

Sam puts the spoon back in the bowl, stirs it around a bit, offers it up again.

"It's OK," he says. He clears his throat. "Look, I know this is hard, Dean. It's a bitch. But you've got to try, you've got to try and concentrate."

The spoon hovers between Dean's lips. Sam worms it further in, tips it and the liquid disappears.

"OK, you got it."

Sam's ecstatic, but relief lasts about three seconds before a yellow dribble brims up and trickles out both sides of Dean's mouth and down his chin.

"Fuck, Dean, come on!"

Sam slams the bowl down and rocks the table as he leaps up to get a cloth. The eyes, at half-mast, don't follow him. Fear prickles Sam's hairline. He dabs, sits down again, reaches for the bowl. He is breathing hard, pops of screaming frustration going off in his ears. For a while he rests the bowl back on his knees, until his hands are not shaking.

"OK," he says, stirring the spoon around until he is calmer. "Let's try that one again."

All the broth slides in this time, Sam tipping the spoon at the last second, easing it out across the underside of Dean's top lip. He keeps the spoon poised where it is, waiting. Dean takes an age to swallow, the muscles in his throat laboring.

"You gonna spit it up?" Sam says cautiously.

He puts one hand on Dean's forehead, then moves it to the side of his face, strokes along the rough jawline.

"That's good, bro. You did good. Ready to go again?" He shifts on the stool, leans a little nearer. "Try and remember what you did, Dean. We'll take it slow."

But when Sam finally gets the spoon in he is over-anxious, jerks it too quickly and then watches in despair as the dribble of yellow courses sneakily under Dean's chin and down his neck.

"What the hell are you doing!" he bursts out, appalled at how accusatory his tone is. "I can't ... you need a fucking intravenous drip, Dean!"

There's a pause as something occurs to Sam and his face creases in a worried-animal frown. Dean is capable of doing this on purpose. He is so capable.

Yeah, suck it up, Sammy.

Lying on a moldering couch with almost every drop of spirit crushed out of him, totally reliant on his idiot brother ... surely even Dean isn't up to ... Sam shakes his head.

"Would you not yank my chain on this, Dean," he says quietly. "Please."

He knows he's reeling, desperate for help.

Trouble is, they're six miles from the road, the crankshaft on the Impala is fucked, it's snowing and there hasn't been a signal on any of the phones since they got here.

Oh yeah. And Dad left.

Do what you can, Sam.

As if there's no penalty for failing.

"Shit, Dean. There's just me. This's all you got and I need you to try."

Sam knows that the only person Dad heard of who didn't end up PVS after an attack like this was saved by another hunter force-feeding him gruel using a rubber tube. He peers with dislike at the broth in the bowl, wanting to hurl it at the wall. When he looks up at Dean's face again he swears there's ... something.

"Hey," Sam says, eyeing the range of Beech-Nut jars at his elbow. "There's so much more to come, bro. Look. We got applesauce, butternut squash, peaches and banana. Mmmm, sounds good, huh? And you know, Dean, I can take it, whatever it is. However long it is. I will so beat you at this. You know I will." He waves a spoonful of broth back and forth in what he hopes is Dean's line of vision. "OK? One blink for yes, Dean, how about it?"

He's pretty sure his brother is cussing his ass off in there about the towering indignity of it all.

Twenty minutes later he lays the spoon and bowl aside and rolls his shoulders.

"Major job, dude," he says in a croaky voice.

Then he looks at Dean doubtfully. The guy's covered in yellow splashes. Looking closer he can see frown-lines begin to bunch between his brows.

"What is it, Dean? You in pain?" Sam asks, shifting on to the side of the couch with some urgency. Sheer instinct causes him to suddenly grab his brother clear of the pillows and into his chest. Hot liquid soaks Sam's collarbone through his t-shirt.

Pain flares in his head and his fingers close hard round the back of Dean's neck.

"No, no, no, stop it," he pleads, his voice torquing like a pubescent choirboy. "You have to keep this down. You have to, Dean, you ... " He scrunches his eyes shut as Dean's airless, squeaky retching vibrates against him. "God, Dean, you have to stop it ... this isn't fair, this is crap, this is ... just crap."

When he eases Dean off his chest, his brother lets out a frail huff. If Sam was to let go of him now he'd topple off the side of the couch.

"Easy, Dean, you're good," he breathes, holding on tight. "Come on, hit me with your best shot ... you got anymore?"

Dean seems to be holding his head up by himself somehow but it's waving about like a nodding dog in slow motion.

"OK then. Guess you're all done."

When Dean's back on the pillows again with his eyes almost shut, Sam stands up, a bit woozy himself, and picks grumpily at his splattered shirt. Then he reaches towards a jar of applesauce, taps the lid with one long finger, withdraws the hand.

"No way you're going to let me feed you a stage one weaning diet, is there? Right. Cheeseburger or nothing. You'd rather die than eat this. So what the hell then, Dean? What the hell am I going to do? How are we going to figure this out?" His voice is all snotty from unshed tears.

Dean's eyes creak open and look right at him.

God he's pissed.

Stop snuffling, Sammy. Stop crying like a baby all over me. Just get your sobbing ass in the kitchen and set up some more of that freaking awful crap so we can go again.

Fatigue is pushing Dean's eyelids back down. Sam can't bear that he's fighting and losing.

The backs of his fingers brush a cheekbone. It's far from the vigorous face pat he's been using to get Dean's attention or persuade him to try and open his eyes. Sam means this as a tender gesture, one he hopes he won't be allowed to repeat without having his lights punched out.

"You know, Dean, fuck the crappy chicken-soup. I'm going go see if I can find something you might actually like," he says with decision.

When he gets back Dean has listed to one side and Sam props him up a second while he sits on the side of the couch again. Dean's head lolls sideways and his cheek sticks to Sam's forearm.

"This is getting serious now, dude," Sam says, hoping his voice doesn't betray his terror. Dean's skin feels chilly to him and he slides his hand to a wrist. "We're way beyond ... Jesus, Dean, for once in your life would you please do what I say? Now is the time, Dean. Just give me a freaking break would you?"

He detaches Dean from his arm and rights him against the pillows, not very gently.

Then for the next hour Sam feeds his brother coffee. He learns that if Dean can keep one teaspoonful down for five minutes, he can try him with another one. But that if he can't, Sam has to wait ten or fifteen more before he's anywhere near ready to go again. In any case he has to keep pawing his face and talking crap to keep him in any semblance of consciousness at all.

Out loud he wonders by how many hours half a cup of coffee improves his brother's life expectancy.

Dean's teeth pull feebly at his lip.

"You want more," Sam says with conviction, and he suddenly knows this is the hardest Dean's ever had to fight in his life.

At this moment Sam thinks his Dad is an ass and his brother is awesome.

"Better wired than tired, huh?"

Dean expels what sounds like the beginnings of a cough. Or a very annoying laugh.

Nothing new under the sun, bro. Been telling you the same thing for months.

Coffee saves my freaking life every day.