Title: Long Before the Sky Would Open
Summary: John is off on a hunt, leaving the boys to their own devices for a few days. It's a pretty typical June, all heat and end-of-school frustration, until Dean gets sick.
Spoilers/Warnings: Pre-series, teen!chester stuff. Includes a very sick kid (Dean is 14).
Disclaimer: They've changed hands, but alas, those hands were never mine and are unlikely to be. Please apply to Sera Gamble in future, and thank you for your interest!
Neurotic Authorial Disclaimer #1: This is a prequel of sorts to my story Silent Night (.net/s/5607821/1/Silent_Night) in which I explain how Dean went deaf. This kind of means it's turning into a 'verse. I had a version of the pilot mostly written in which Dean was deaf, and this was originally a flashback in that story, except I couldn't make it work that way. So I surgically removed this and decided to post it on its own.
Neurotic Authorial Disclaimer #2: Entirely unbeta'd. Read at your own risk. All spelling mistakes, typos, wacky syntax and unhappy grammar are my own doing.
It's the middle of a heat wave in Jefferson City. Sam's been home from school for less than two hours and Dean is climbing the walls. Again. He always does, especially when Dad's been gone for more than a few days at the time, and Sam's tired of it. Not that there's much he can do about it. Dad is off doing something that's obviously more important than them, more important to him than his family, and if anyone were to ask him right now he would draw himself up to his full height of four feet eleven inches and declare as loud as he can that it's fine, that they don't need stupid John Winchester, that he's already eleven years old, that he and Dean have it covered anyway. It's a lie, and Sam hates lying, so maybe it's a good thing that there's no one there to ask.
He sits in a t-shirt and shorts that are clinging to him with the heat, his hair plastered to his forehead, feet wrapped around the rungs of his chair, scowling at his math homework. Long division sucks. He scrubs at the last problem with an eraser, starts over, but he can still see the wrong answer written faintly on the paper. He scrubs at the paper again, and then his hand sticks to it and the whole paper crumples, and he tosses the eraser in frustration, pulls out a fresh sheet of paper and recopies his problems, realizes he got two of them wrong and heaves a sigh of frustration. Starts over. Maybe if they hadn't arrived in this place five days after the teacher had explained long division this wouldn't be as hard.
Dean is sitting across from him at the kitchen table, papers spread out in front of him as well, except he's not doing homework (although he should be). He's carefully counting out dollar bills, writing into a small ledger, and scowling just as hard at the numbers as Sam is at his own work, tip of his tongue held between his teeth as he concentrates. The only thing that betrays just how much he wants to be out of there is his leg, bouncing under the table as though it's entirely independent of the rest of him, but Sam knows all his brother's tells now. Dean is itching to get out, to go away, anywhere rather than be cooped up here, with Sam, without Dad. Especially without Dad. A moment later Sam realizes he's been mirroring Dean's expression, pulls his tongue back into his mouth, closes his lips.
"Need help with your math?" he smirks.
"Shut up." Dean rubs at his temple with his thumb, forehead creasing as he tries to focus.
"You've been staring at the same five lines for the past half hour. I'm good at math." Except long division, apparently. That's a bitch.
"It's not the math that's the problem," the reply is morose.
"Never mind." Dean goes back to looking between the bills he's pulled out of his wallet, and the ledger.
"Did Dad call?"
"Not since yesterday."
"When's he coming back?"
"I don't know, okay? Shut up and stop asking stupid questions!" Dean snaps.
Sam scowls at him, homework forgotten. "It's not a stupid question to want to know when Dad's coming home."
Dean sighs, scrubs at his eyes with the heels of both hands. "Look, I said I don't know. He said maybe another few days."
"What's a few days?"
"God, do you ever stop asking questions? Just do your goddamned homework, shut up and let me concentrate!"
"Is it the weekend, a week? Two weeks? What?"
"Quit being a whiny bitch, Sammy. I said I don't know, and asking me a million times isn't going to make the answer magically appear in my mind, okay? All you're doing is giving me a headache." As if to illustrate his point, Dean shoves his chair back, goes to rummage in one of the cupboards and pulls out the family-sized bottle of aspirin their father keeps around for when he gets those really bad headaches, the ones that make him retreat to a dark room for hours, sometimes up to a day. He dry-swallows two of them, checks the clock. "You good with sandwiches tonight? It's too damned hot to cook."
Sam nods. "Yeah, fine." He doesn't want Dean turning on the stove any more than his brother. "Do we have salami?"
"Just tuna, but there's Cheez Whiz left."
"Okay." Cheez Whiz and tuna is a pretty acceptable substitute. "Do we have popsicles?"
Dean rolls his eyes. "You're a freaking junkie, that's what."
"Dude, I'm not the one sneaking cigarettes at recess. When Dad finds out, he'll make you run so many miles your legs'll fall off."
"Shut the hell up, twerp. You tell Dad and I will end you." Dean pulls open the freezer. "There's one left. I'll split it with you," he offers.
Fair's fair, so Sam nods. "Sure. I'm not telling, but Dad'll find out anyway."
The matter of the cigarettes is dropped. If Dean wants to get mouth cancer, it's his problem. Sam goes back to his homework. He has three pages of problems left for tomorrow, and he's decided that he hates long division forever. Dean starts making sandwiches behind him, moving silently, in that graceful, effortless way he's had for as long as Sam can remember. Sam knows he wants to be with Dad, hunting, resents every single minute he has to spend here babysitting his kid brother and fidgeting his way through algebra and English classes. Except Dad has insisted Dean finish high school, and he won't take Dean with him except on occasion, just forces him to train for every waking second of every day when he's not at school or sleeping. Him and Sam, of course, except that Sam has learned that if he pitches a big enough fit at his father he'll usually leave him alone to do his homework, to have something approaching a life with the friends he makes —all too briefly— at school.
Dean shoves a plate with a sandwich in front of him, followed by a glass of milk, already sweating in the heat. The smell of tuna is pungent in the sweltering kitchen, is going to linger for days at this rate. "Eat up."
For a moment Sam's stomach flip-flops at the idea of eating food. It's hot and gross, and the fishy smell is making him nauseous. He looks at the sandwich, then takes a swig of milk, which helps. He washes down the whole sandwich with a few gulps of milk, is surprised to find himself still hungry. Dean hasn't touched his food. "You going to eat that?"
Dean glances up, then slides the plate over to him. "Go ahead. You cost more to feed than a goddamned army, you know that? What're you going to be like when you start growing?"
Sam shrugs, unconcerned, reaches for the sandwich and takes a bite. He hesitates, mouth full, knowing it's a bit late to worry about this now. "Is there enough for you to have another one?"
"I'm not hungry anyway."
He puts down the sandwich. "You want half, maybe?"
"You can have the whole popsicle," he offers, knowing it's not much.
"It's fine, Sammy," Dean's propped up his head on his hand, doodling absently on a piece of paper with the other. He doesn't look all that good, Sam thinks, kind of pale. Dad's taught them how to look out for each other, make sure everyone's in good fighting condition, and this isn't it.
"Headache." Dean pinches the bridge of his nose, squinting as though the fading light in the kitchen hurts his eyes. Maybe Dean's getting the same headaches as Dad, Sam thinks.
"You want more aspirin?"
"Nah. Gonna go lie down, sleep it off. Finish your homework."
Sam fidgets once Dean is gone, although once the sun has set it starts getting cooler, and it's easier to concentrate after that. He finishes his homework, sacks out on the sofa in front of the television, enjoying the fact that Dean isn't there to tell him it's past his bedtime, to take a bath, brush his teeth, whatever. He stays up until 9:30, fidgets some more, sighs. Even sleeping off a headache, it seems Dean can guilt him into going to bed on time. He skips the bath, just to prove he can, can't quite bring himself not to brush his teeth. He steals quietly into the room, doesn't bother turning on the lights. He can find his way in the dark. Dean doesn't get sick much, and he knows it would be really shitty of him to bug him the few times he's under the weather. Dean's out like a light, sleeping curled up instead of sprawled over the bed the way he usually is. With a last glance in his direction, Sam lies down on top of his sheets —too hot any other way— and falls fast asleep.
In the morning he finds Dean in the kitchen, carefully measuring out cereal into bowls. It's Rice Krispies, because they found a huge box on sale (or Dean did, which amounts to the same thing), and even though Sam would have preferred Froot Loops, he's not the one in charge of the money. Dean shoves a bowl at him with a grunt, which is kind of weird. Usually, of the two of them, Dean's the morning person, singing AC/DC at the top of his lungs, being as obnoxious as he can while dragging Sam's ass out of bed. Sam tucks into his cereal after scooping a couple of heaping spoonfuls of sugar into the bowl, looks up at Dean through his bangs.
"You don't look good."
Dean shrugs. "Head still hurts." He sits, toys with his spoon, doesn't touch his cereal.
"Maybe we should call Dad."
"It's fine, Sam! Don't bug Dad about this, okay? It's just a headache," Dean snaps.
"Fine." Sam sulks. "See if I try to help you anymore."
"You're a sulky bitch, and I don't need your help. Get going or you'll miss the bus."
"Dad'll kill you if you don't go to school."
"Then Dad had better not find out. Keep your stupid yammering girly mouth shut and it'll be fine. Did you finish your homework?"
"Shut your smart mouth and go catch the bus. You better have done your homework, because Dad is going to be pissed if you draw attention to yourself."
Sam just rolls his eyes, grabs his bad, stomps off to school. It's always Dad-Dad-Dad with Dean, anyway. It doesn't matter what Sam wants, it's only what Dad wants. Dad says this, Dad told us to do that. Dad's off hunting. Dad's doing important work elsewhere. Dad says we have to leave, again. This school year alone Sam has been to ten different schools. That's more than one school a month, and he's tired of trying to make new friends each time, although he always does, and he's tired of trying to figure out what part of the curriculum he's missed, either trying to catch up with whole entire modules that he's missed or else spending whole weeks being bored out of his skull because it's stuff he's already covered three times. He hates it, has hated it ever since the Christmas before he turned eight when Dean finally told him all about their Dad the supposed hero, who showed him how to use a .45 instead of telling him the monsters in his closet weren't real.
Somewhere in the last year he's figured out that none of this is normal, that no one else lives like this, that kids aren't supposed to live like this. He has to lie all the time, now, to his friends, his teachers, the occasional visitors from Child Services. Up until two years ago, Dad taught him that lying is wrong, and now it turns out Dad has been lying to him his whole life. He's terrified of the dark, now that he knows the salt-the-threshold game isn't really a game. Every time Dad goes away, he wonders if something's going to crawl in through a window, through a chink in the supposedly impenetrable defenses Dad and Dean put up in every single crappy motel room, in every apartment that they rent when Dad's on a longer job. He's terrified and it gives him nightmares and he's tired of waking up whimpering every night, with nothing there except shadows to see him through the rest of the night. Sometimes Dean is awake too, and ruffles his hair and tells him not to worry, that Dad won't let anything happen to them, but it's all lies. Besides, Dean wasn't awake last night, he was curled up on his side, breathing hard in his sleep like he was in pain. Sam's tired of it all, and he thinks that at eleven years old he shouldn't even be thinking things like this instead of paying attention in math class (and maybe that's why he sucks at long division), and if Dad were here he'd pitch a fit at him for it, because it's easy to do that. He can bug Dean, push his buttons as much as he wants because Dean is a pain in the ass, but Dean is sick and what he really wants to do is yell at Dad.
Dad isn't here, but it's easier to sit there and not pay attention in math class and be mad at Dad than to worry about Dean.
Sam all but ignores his friends on the bus, sulks his way through the school day. Everything's off, for the whole day, and he tells himself it's because of the heat, because it's been ten days since Dad left and he's never been gone this long and he thinks maybe the reason Dean is stressed out is because there isn't enough money left to buy food and pay for the apartment before he gets back. Sam isn't stupid, he can figure things out on his own. It's still way too hot, and it's not like public schools can afford air conditioning, so everyone's tempers are frayed, and fights break out more than usual, though he keeps to the Winchester code and keeps his head down and stays out of trouble. Eventually most of the teachers relent and just turn the kids loose into the school yard to blow off steam. Sam takes it as an excuse to take off and walk home, although by the time he gets there he's regretting the decision, sweating and dying of thirst. He lets himself in, makes a beeline for the fridge, finds that they've pretty much run out of everything. He contents himself with sticking his head right under the tap in the sink, letting the water run first into his mouth, then over his hair. Looking up, he realizes that he hasn't heard anything, and didn't Dean say he was staying home today?
He pads into the living room, where the TV is showing some stupid daytime talk show, the volume turned almost all the way down.
"Dean?" He finds him on the sofa, arm over his face, still in the t-shirt and boxers in which he went to bed the night before. Reaches down tentatively, puts a hand on his knee and shakes him gently. "Dean, I'm home."
Dean stirs a bit, pulls down his arm, blinks painfully. "Sam? Time is it?"
"It's three. They let us out early 'cause of the heat. You okay?"
"Fine. You got homework?"
"Not today. Finished it at lunch."
"Shut up, jerk."
"Look, just... go find something to do, wouldja?" Dean turns to face the back of the sofa, eyes closing, and Sam feels his stomach twist again. Dean's pale, sweating, and Sam's pretty sure it isn't because of the heat.
"Uh... you need anything?"
"I need you to shut up and lemme sleep."
"Fine. You're such a jerk."
But he can't quite escape the worry clenching inside him, and he hovers uncertainly, finally settles in a chair next to the sofa and pretends to read. Dean shifts uncomfortably on the sofa, resists all of Sam's attempts to get him to go to bed, fends him off irritably every time he tries, until finally he seems to fall asleep. He sweats through his t-shirt, then stops moving altogether, and when, after waiting for what feels like forever, Sam cautiously creeps up and places a careful hand on his forehead, he doesn't so much as flinch. Heat is coming off him in waves, and Sam bites his lip so hard he thinks he might actually draw blood.
Okay. Dean's definitely really, really sick. That means Sam's in charge (oh, God). He can't call Dad, Dean said so, so that means he needs a plan. He goes to the kitchen, pulls out the bottle of aspirin and a pitcher that Dean sometimes uses to make lemonade, fills it with water and all the ice from one of the trays in the freezer. He refills the tray, because his brother will kill him if he doesn't, then grabs a glass and brings all of it back to the living room.
"Dean..." he shakes him by the shoulder. "I brought aspirin and water. Wake up!"
"Lemme 'lone, Sammy..."
"Please, you've got a fever. Come on, Dean. Do it or I'll call Dad and tell."
It's not playing fair, but it does get Dean to push himself up with a groan of pain. He swallows the pills and the water, lies back down and buries his head in his arms, shaking.
"You have to tell me what's wrong. Dean, you're scaring me, come on!" he can hear something close to a whine creeping into his voice, but Dean's pretty out of it, doesn't call him on it. "Dean..."
"What? What hurts?"
"Head. My neck. God, Sammy... it hurts so much..." his voice is barely above a whisper, his breath hitching with each word, and for an awful moment Sam thinks his brother might be crying, thinks he might start crying right along with him even though they're both way too old for it. He goes to the bathroom, wets a facecloth, comes back with it, starts wiping at his brother's face, remembering Dad doing this for him years ago when he had a bad case of flu.
"You want more aspirin?"
"No," Dean presses both hands to his face, blocking Sam's access. "Turn off the light. Please."
It's not like he can turn off the sun, but he pulls all the curtains, tapes a garbage bag over the one window that doesn't have curtains. He goes back to sit next to Dean, feeling very very small. Dean isn't supposed to get this sick. He's supposed to take care of Sam, not the other way around, and Sam doesn't know how to do this. He tries to remember what Dad taught him about first aid, tries to remember all the stuff he read about or saw on TV, wishes he wasn't quite so useless, watches Dean get sicker as the sun sets. By the time it's dark the fever's so high that he's whimpering, doesn't recognize Sam or respond to his voice. He asks for Dad, except that he's asking for "Daddy," and Sam doesn't remember Dean ever calling Dad "Daddy" except maybe a few times years and years ago. Sam switches on the light, figuring his brother's past caring about that, and Dean starts violently, twisting on himself. His t-shirt, still soaked with sweat, rides up his ribcage, and for the first time Sam catches sight of an angry-looking, blotchy rash on his stomach.
"Dean, what is that?"
There's no answer, not that he was really expecting one. Then suddenly Dean's whole body goes rigid, back arching, and he makes a horrible sound like he's choking, eyes rolled so far back in his head that Sam can see the whites like crescent moons behind his fluttering lids.
"Dean! Oh God... Dean!"
For a few seconds there's nothing in Sam's head except white-hot panic, his heart skidding and lurching in his chest and blood roaring in his ears because Dean is convulsing and that's not supposed to happen no-no-no-no-NO and he can't think and God why isn't Dad here Dad is the one who takes care of Dean when he's sick and he doesn't know what to do oh God Dad please come back please come back right now. Then he's stumbling toward the phone in the kitchen, the new cordless one that came with the apartment, fumbling with the number pad as he runs back to the living room, where Dean is lying, limp, chest heaving with each indrawn breath, eyes still rolled back in his head. There are strict rules about when to call 9-1-1, but Sam is sure this definitely falls into that category, and his heart recedes from his throat as the cool, competent voice of a woman comes onto the line.
"9-1-1 what's your emergency?"
He swallows hard. No crying. He has to tell them what's happening, where to go. That's what you do when you call 9-1-1. "My name is Sam and I'm at 175 Boleyn Place. Uh..." his brain is short-circuiting, and this isn't how it's supposed to go. Dad even took him on a hunt once, and he's supposed to be able to handle this. The woman speaks smoothly, interrupting him.
"Okay, Sam, I'm here to help. What's going on?"
"Uh... my brother. He's sick —really sick. I —I don't know —he's having a seizure, I don't know what to do!" He's going to cry, in spite of himself.
"Don't worry, Sam, I'm sending someone right now. They'll be there in a few minutes. I need you to stay on the phone with me until then, okay?"
"O-okay." He hangs onto Dean's hand,
"Take a deep breath for me, honey. How old are you?"
"Good job. How old is your brother?"
"Good. How long has he been convulsing?"
"He's stopped. I dunno how long. Maybe thirty seconds?"
"Right. Does he have a fever?"
He jumps as someone hammers on the door. "Someone's here."
"That's the EMTs, honey, I have them on the radio. Put the phone down and go let them in."
He drops the phone as though it's white-hot, runs back through the kitchen, skidding on the floor, and flings open the door. The EMTs barge right past the line of salt across the threshold, carrying a stretcher. "Where is he?"
"Living room," he leads them in. "Hurry up!"
"It's fine, kid. What's your name?" One of them takes him aside, kneels next to him. "I need you to tell me exactly what happened. Did he fall? Hit his head?"
"N-no. He was sick, said his head hurt, and his neck, and he's got this rash..." he's babbling, can't stop himself, it's all he can do not to burst into tears like a sissy. "You have to help him!"
The other EMT is checking Dean's vital signs, hooking up all sorts of equipment Sam doesn't recognize, and then the living room is a flurry of activity, and then Sam is trotting to keep up with them as they're wheeling the stretcher out the front door. They let him ride in the ambulance, holding tightly to Dean's hand, while they monitor what's going on and say incomprehensible things to each other involving numbers and words he's never heard of, and he wishes he could make his mouth work to ask what they're talking about, or to say something to make Dean feel better, but it feels like his tongue has stuck to the roof of his mouth, like that time Dean bet him he couldn't swallow four tablespoons of peanut butter at the same time (Dean was right, he couldn't). It feels like an eternity before they get to the hospital, the siren wailing above his head, and then they tumble out of the ambulance in a rush, and there's more commotion, another flurry of people around him barking orders, and he's left stranded, alone in the waiting room.
He finds a chair, sits in it and kicks his heels against its legs, willing himself not to cry. Dean is gone, Dad isn't here, and he doesn't know how he's going to get home, or even if he should go home. He feels bad even for thinking about it. He pulls his legs up, hugs his knees, rests his forehead on them, waits for the world to stop ending. A voice startles him.
"Are you Sam Winchester?"
He looks up, eyes wide, finds a woman standing next to him. She's old, has to be thirty at least, but she looks nice. Kind of like a teacher, only not. Teachers don't dress like that. This has to be a social worker, or maybe someone from the hospital staff who isn't a doctor. He nods.
"Hi, Sam. My name's Wendy," she reaches out with one hand and he shakes it automatically. John Winchester didn't raise his boys to be impolite with a lady. "Are you here by yourself?"
He shakes his head. "My brother's here. Somewhere. Do you know where they took him?"
"You mean Dean?" He nods. "They're running tests right now, trying to see what's wrong with him. Is anyone else here with you?"
"Where are your parents?"
The question almost doesn't make sense, and Sam blinks at her a minute before answering. "Dad's on a business trip in Lynchburg."
"A business trip."
"Who's taking care of you?"
"I see. Do you have an emergency number for your Dad?"
He shakes his head, knows how bad this looks, but he's fresh out of lies. "Dad has a cell phone but his number's back at the apartment. Dean knows it." Except of course that Dean is unconscious. "We're supposed to call Pastor Jim if there's an emergency and can't get hold of Dad."
"Does Pastor Jim have a last name?"
"Do you know his number?"
He nods, reaches up for the pen and paper she's holding, carefully scrawls down the number, a bit embarrassed by his cramped handwriting. He hands it back, and she smiles at him in that way that teachers and social workers do when they think Dad's been neglecting them.
"Is Dean going to be okay?"
"He'll be fine," she says reassuringly, but it's the tone grown-ups use when they're lying because they think it's for your own good. Sam figures she doesn't know, and so he goes back to hugging his knees. She pats him on the shoulder, and it's all he can do not to slap her hand away. She disappears in a clicking of heels on cheap linoleum, and then he's all alone again, staring at the floor. No one looks at him, no one talks to him, he's just another nameless face in the waiting room. Eventually he curls up as best he can, his eyes slip closed, and he lets himself drift into an uneasy sleep.
Sam dreams for a while. He dreams about fire, about Dad, about things crawling through the windows. He dreams about the yellow linoleum of the hospital and about shadows creeping along the floor and coming into the bedroom. He dreams that Dean is choking, convulsing, heels drumming against the floor. In his dreams the fire spreads, and it catches Dean in its embrace because he's lying curled on the floor, head in his arms, begging Sam to make the pain stop, and Sam can't move. He's stuck on the yellow linoleum floor, glued in place, and the fire creeps closer, and he can't see Dean anymore above the leaping flames, and it's going to be his turn next. He can hear Dean telling him not to be scared, but he doesn't know how to manage that. After a while, the dreams simply fade into darkness. He doesn't know how much later it is when a rough hand on his shoulder wakes him up.
"Sammy! Wake up!"
He jerks, nearly falls off his chair, but before he face-plants into the linoleum someone catches him, and he's enveloped in a familiar smell of leather, sweat and gunpowder. He flings both arms around his father, buries his nose in his shirt, hangs on for all he's worth. His father gathers him into his lap, holds him tightly while he sobs so hard he thinks he might choke.
"Shh, Sammy, it's okay. I gotcha. It's okay," Dad is murmuring, still rocking him, plants a kiss on the top of his head while Sam babbles apologies and explanations in-between sobs, smearing tears and snot on his father's clean shirt. "It's okay, you did good. You did good, Sammy," his father smooths his hair with one hand. Finally, when Sam is all cried out and feels like there's not a drop of moisture left in him (which his brain reminds him is impossible: he learned about that in science class), his father gives him an affectionate little shake, ruffles his hair. "I have to go talk with the doctors some more. Can you wait for me?"
Sam nods, scrubs at his eyes with his fists like a little kid. "Where's Dean?"
Dad's face goes sombre. "They're still taking care of him, kiddo, and they're not letting anyone in to see him yet."
"What's wrong with him?"
Dad sighs, rubs the back of his neck. "He has meningitis. It's an infection in his brain."
"Is he going to die?" he feels his heart flutter uncertainly in his ribcage, is reminded of the wasp he trapped in between the two panes of the guillotine-style window in the boys' bathroom at school a few weeks ago that beat itself against the glass until it just tumbled down onto the windowsill and died.
"No, he's not going to die." Dad's voice is firm, and Sam nods. Dad knows about this sort of thing, always has.
"When can we see him? They wouldn't tell me anything. Not even Wendy."
"Don't you worry about Wendy. We'll go as soon as they say we can, okay?"
It's not okay, but there's nothing else to say. Dad leaves him behind, and Sam hears him talking, then arguing with some of the doctors. He doesn't listen, doesn't want to hear all the terrible things the doctor might be saying. He can't get rid of the image of Dean convulsing, still hears the terrible choking sound ringing in his ears, and he's really afraid he's going to start to cry again when finally Dad comes back and takes him down the hall and into an elevator, and tells him that Dean is in intensive care, and that they're not allowed to stay long.
Dean is hooked up to a whole bunch of machines, all flashing monitors and quiet beeping noises, like a chorus of angry crickets. He looks very small and very pale, the freckles on his face standing out as though they've been painted on with a sharpie marker. There's a tube thicker than Sam's thumb in his mouth, held there with tape, and the machine it's attached to is making a clattering, whooshing sound, feeding him oxygen. Dad pulls up a chair by the bed, takes Dean's small hand in both of his great paws, holds it, talks softly to him, telling him that it's going to be fine, that everything's going to be taken care of. For a moment Sam believes him, expects Dean to just get up, pull that stupid tube out of his mouth and give them that awful grin that makes girls giggle at him in school, take Sam outside while he sneaks a cigarette that Dad has forbidden him to smoke.
Except that Dean just lies there, doesn't so much as twitch, and Sam hovers in the doorway, afraid to go in and afraid to leave. The room is in semi-darkness, because Dean is going to be sensitive to the light when he wakes up, or so the nurse who finds him loitering in the doorway tells him. She gives him a bottle of orange juice that she whispers confidingly that she swiped from the nurses' lounge, but that he's not allowed to tell because he'll get her in trouble, and the head nurse is like a big dragon with fangs, which earns her a shy smile. She tells him her name is Becky, and that they're probably going to see a lot of each other while Dean is in the hospital, and she hands him a small plastic cup with a pill in it.
"Your brother is very sick, and what he has is catching, so we're going to make sure you don't get sick too, okay?"
He nods, clutches the little plastic cup so hard it cracks, and she mistakes his anxiety.
"Don't worry, sweetie. It's just in case, but you're going to be fine."
He doesn't know what to say. It feels like his throat has closed up, like he doesn't remember how to speak at all. He puts the pill in his mouth, swallows it with a mouthful of orange juice, doesn't budge from the doorway, and Becky puts a hand on his shoulder, nudges him forward. "Go on in, Sam. Your brother's going to want to know you're there too. Go keep him company a few minutes. It's okay."
He glances up at her uncertainly, but she nods encouragingly, nudges him again, and he shuffles forward, still holding the bottle of orange juice in both hands. It's sweating in his grip, numbing his fingers, the occasional drop of moisture falling noiselessly to the floor. He finds himself next to his father's shoulder, staring at Dean, who hasn't given any sign he knows they're there. Dad takes one hand away from Dean's, places it at the back of Sam's neck, its weight reassuring.
He nods, even though it's a lie. They stay for too short a time, although it feels like forever, but eventually the doctors insist that they have to go, and Dad picks Sam up in his arms the way he did when he was only a little kid, and for once Sam doesn't make a fuss about being treated as if he was a baby. It's a lot later than he thought, and the air outside is heavy with a humid heat— full of a false promise of rain that will never come. Dad puts him in the front seat of the Impala, buckles him in, and he falls asleep after a few minutes, lulled by the familiar scent of the car, of his father, and doesn't even awaken when Dad stops the car, picks him up again and carries him to bed.
The next few days Dad doesn't make Sam go to school. Sam isn't sure why, because Dean's been in the hospital before, once, when he needed his tonsils out, and there was no question then that Sam had to go to school no matter how worried he was. This time, though, Dad takes him along every day, calls the school to tell them he won't be there. He spends a long time on the phone with the people from the school, and Sam overhears words like "vaccination" and "quarantine," but neither of those things happens, as far as he can tell. Dad does force Sam to take the antibiotics the hospital gave him, watches him like a hawk for symptoms anything like what Dean had, but it doesn't look like Sam is getting sick at all.
Dean doesn't wake up for four days, and when he finally does he doesn't recognize anyone, not even Sam, and he goes back to sleep after only a few seconds. They've unhooked him from all the machines, moved him to a different room: one with a window and walls painted a horrible cheerful yellow. It isn't right for a room in a hospital to be that colour, Sam thinks the first time he sees it. It's the kind of colour that belongs in a kitchen in a house, one with a fridge with pictures and straight-A report cards pinned to it with magnets. It doesn't belong in this room with its metal bed and too-white sheets, its ugly mass-made furniture. He sits in a chair next to Dean's bed, hands clenched between his knees, utterly wretched.
When Dad leaves him behind to go alone to the hospital, Sam retreats to the library. He pulls out all the medical textbooks he can find, sits with them for hours, spread out on a table. He has to kneel on the chair, because it's all still just a bit too big. He has to ask the nurse to spell "meningococcal meningitis" for him, and he drags out the Oxford English Dictionary too, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, Ma to Mn. He buries himself in the books, because he's figured out by now that only things he doesn't know about are scary. So if he looks it all up and understands it, he figures it'll be like poltergeists and werewolves and wendigos: dangerous but not scary. People come and go, give him strange looks. The librarian gives him dirty looks the first day when she sees him pulling out books from her shelves, but Sam has always known how to deal with librarians, and by the end of the second day she's helping him look things up, and every now and then he catches her looking at him with an expression that he'll later realize is compassion but which he mistakes for pity. She helps him with the harder words, gets a man who she says is studying to be a doctor to explain the parts of the text that look like they should be in English but that he still can't understand. The man's name is Eric. He's nice enough, and the best part is that he doesn't treat Sam like a little kid. Just provides the explanations, no questions asked, which is good because Sam doesn't feel like talking much.
It turns out that meningitis is nothing like poltergeists or wendigos. Sam spends three days learning about it, and he's still scared. Dad and Dean know what to do about monsters: Dad fights them all the time, and he's been taking Dean on hunts for years now, and there's nothing Dean doesn't know how to do anyway. Except there's nothing Dad and Dean can do about meningitis. It's a bacteria, which Sam already knew about (except sometimes it's a virus, only not this time), and it's not supernatural and it's not a monster and it's not a spirit. It's nothing that they can fix with rock salt or silver bullets or fire, and Sam doesn't know how to fix it either.
The first night that Dad is back from his trip and Dean is still in the hospital, Sam can't sleep, because his head is full of things he doesn't understand and Dean isn't there and he's never slept in a room without Dean, without listening to his steady breathing, the occasional soft snore. He thinks that maybe he'll be able to sleep if he can listen to Dad for a while, but Dad's awake, sitting in the dark in his room, hands clasped between his knees, staring at the floor, and Sam almost runs back to his own room. He pulls the sheet over his head, even though it's still really hot out (he wishes it would just rain, already), and he curls up into a ball and tries very very hard to be brave.
When Dean wakes up for the second time, something's wrong, and Sam stands with his hand clenching the handle of the door so hard that his knuckles turn white and his fingers cramp up. Dad is hunched over the bed, trying to soothe Dean who's crying, curled up against Dad, and Becky comes and takes Sam away and brings him to the nurses' lounge as a treat and tries to distract him from the fact that his indomitable, indestructible older brother is sobbing in his Dad's arms. Sam has read all the things that can go wrong, and he starts running down the list in his head, ignoring all of Becky's attempts to make him feel better. He doesn't deserve to feel better, not when everything is all messed up. He just waits, sticks the side of his thumb in his mouth and worries at it with his teeth, waiting for Dad to come and find him, to tell him how he's going to fix things again.
When Dad does come, though, nothing's fixed, and he can see in Dad's eyes that things are never going to be all right, ever again.