uTitle/u: bWhich Bar the Way Out /b

uPrompt/Summary/u: From the lovely and talented de_nugis from mad_server's comment-fic meme Again, but With Colds: After being caged with Lucifer, Sam really, really doesn't deal well with being shut in confined spaces. Dean keeps having to pull over when they are driving to let Sam take a break from the car. He wakes up in the night to the sound of Sam slipping out of the motel room so he can breathe. Even when it is sleeting. Even when Sam's already getting sick. Even when he has bronchitis and the doctor had some things to say about "run down" and "bed rest." Original prompt can be found here

uCharacters/u: Sam, Dean

uRating/u: R for a bit of swearing

uWordcount/u: 4,288

uDisclaimer/u: If they were mine, they would be sicker more often and there would be way more cuddling.

uWarnings/u: language, general spoilers for Season 5.

uNeurotic Author's Note #1/u: This comment-fic meme is eating my brain!

uNeurotic Author's Note #2/u: Comment-fic, so no beta and very little revision. Just me inflicting more misery on Sam, for a change.

Two hours. Sam's tolerance level is about two hours, is the conclusion Dean comes to, after a whole lot of trial and error. Mostly disastrous error to begin with. After the initial overwhelming joy of getting his brother back, and even after he clocked Sam soundly for trying to stay away for so long, he's finally getting the hang of being around him again. He's not fooling himself: Sam isn't the same as before, not by a long shot. He's a lot quieter than he used to be, and given how quiet he'd gone by the end, that's pretty damned quiet. He's also a lot more anxious, watchful. He sleeps maybe a handful of hours a night, doesn't really eat unless Dean forces him, although he's getting better at remembering on his own every so often. It's like the first few months after they left Stanford all over again, except this time they have an apocalypse and a combined total of one hundred and forty years of hell under their belts, and Dean isn't really sure that this can be fixed anymore.

It's claustrophobia. Neither one of them ever say anything like that out loud, of course. That's not how Winchesters deal with things. Dean told Sam to take everything and bury it and carry on, and that's exactly what Sam is doing. Of all the times for his stubborn, contrary little brother to take something he says to the letter, he thinks with a derisive snort. Sam was trapped in the same cage as freaking Lucifer for a hundred years, and frankly Dean is amazed he's not a raving lunatic. On the whole, being uncomfortable in confined spaces is a pretty small price to pay. He also wishes Sam would just give in to the chick-flick moment that's long overdue, and get it out in the open. He's not such a hypocrite as to insist Sam talk about it, but he's pretty sure it would help. He'll never admit it, but it sort of helped when he told Sam about his own stint in hell. A little bit. At least, it made him feel less like he was losing his mind.

It's been an hour and a half since their last stop, and Sam is already shifting a bit in the front seat, drumming his fingers absentmindedly against his thigh. In another ten or fifteen minutes he'll be fidgeting, and if Dean insists that they keep going he'll be heading toward a full-fledged panic attack after two hours and fifteen minutes. Sometimes it's less, and some days he can tough it out a bit longer, but Dean doesn't like pushing it. He glances over at Sam, whose hands have closed into fists, clenched in his lap, eyes closed, and Dean can tell he's focused only on his breathing, on keeping it even, in time with the flip-flop of the windshield wipers.

"You want to stop?"

Sam doesn't answer right away, always reluctant to delay them on their hunts. Finally he shrugs and nods. "If you don't mind," he says softly, his voice strained.

Dean pulls over smoothly, and Sam is out of the car in a flash, stumbling blindly into the fine rain that's been falling all day. He staggers a few paces before he folds practically in half, hands on his knees, eyes closed. A bad day, then. Dean switches off the ignition, makes his way over slowly, makes sure Sam knows he's there before putting a hand on his back. Slowly Sam's breathing starts to return to normal, and after a while he straightens up, rubbing a hand over his face, smearing the rain water there.


Dean cups a hand behind Sam's neck. "Hey, it's fine." He frowns, realizing how warm Sam is. He's had a dry cough for a couple of days, but nothing major. Now, though, Sam looks pale —paler than usual, anyway, and the tip of his nose is turning pink in the cold. "You getting sick?"

Sam shrugs, and in one of those moments of timing that's so perfect it might as well have been scripted, he inhales sharply, and brings up his arm barely in time to stifle a sneeze against the back of his wrist.

"Gesundheit. So. Definitely sick, then."

Sam makes a face and wipes his nose on his sleeve, which is getting just as soaked as the rest of him. "I might be getting a cold," he concedes. He flinches when Dean reaches up and presses a hand to his forehead, trying to pull away, but Dean insists, and after a moment he holds himself still.

"Yeah, I think that ship has sailed. You think you can get back in the car? I'm going to find us a motel."

"Dean, it's three in the afternoon. We should keep going." The protest is half-hearted, and Sam casts a reluctant look at the car, as though the mere idea of getting back in is nigh unthinkable. Dean takes him by an elbow and nudges him forward anyway.

"Not negotiable, Sammy. You have a fever, that means we hole up somewhere until you're better."

"It's just a cold. The fever's not even that bad. The hunt—"

"I'll pass it on to Bobby. He knows other people who'll be in the area who can take it on. Look, I get it," he ducks his head to try to meet Sam's gaze when his brother balks at getting back in the car yet again. "I do, honest. If anyone gets it, I do. You want to keep going, and we will. The minute you're fever-free, we'll be back on the road, I promise."

He bullies Sam the rest of the way until he finds a motel that looks like it's a step above being flea-ridden. He books them a room, and doesn't regret his decision for a minute. By the time he comes back to the car Sam is already outside in the rain, leaning tiredly against the hood of the Impala, hair dripping onto his already-soaked hoodie. He stifles a couple more sneezes as Dean approaches, shivering, and the look of sheer misery on his face wipes any exasperated comments from Dean's lips.

"Ready to go in?" he holds up the key card to the room, and Sam gives him a noncommittal shrug. Not the most ringing endorsement, but he'll take what he can get.

The room is nicer than most of the ones they've had before, which is a nice bonus. The bathroom is clean and tiled all in white, making it seem bigger than it is. He all but shoves Sam into the shower, and pretends not to notice when his brother pretends to forget to close the bathroom door all the way. He can understand needing to feel like there's an escape route. Sam spends less than ten minutes in the shower, and by the time he's out and dressed in the sweats Dean left out for him, he's jumpy and anxious, looking around as though he expects something to jump out at him from the brightly-lit corners of the room.

"Did, uh, did we get everything out of the car?"

"Yeah, we're good. I made sure," Dean isn't giving him any wiggle room here. No way is Sam going back out in the pouring rain on his watch. "How about you take a nap, since we've got the beds and all?"

Sam shakes his head. "I wouldn't be able to sleep, anyway," he gives another of those anxious glances around the room, and Dean can practically hear his pulse speeding up. "I, uh. I'm going to check the vending machine, okay?"

"Sam, it's pouring rain. It can wait."

Another headshake, and when Sam looks up his look is pleading. "Five minutes. Please."

Dean sighs, rubs a hand over his mouth. Obviously being sick is doing nothing to help with Sam's other issues. If anything, he's worse than usual. "Wear a jacket if you're going out okay?"

Sam doesn't wait long enough to answer, just snatches up his jacket from the back of a chair and heads out into the downpour, and he stays out for the better part of an hour before slinking reluctantly back to the room. He strips out of his clothes, now just as wet as the first set, and at least this time lets Dean coax him into bed, where he burrows, shivering, under the blankets. He doesn't sleep, Dean can tell by the tension in his body, but at least he's making an attempt to rest, which is better than nothing.

"Can you stay put while I go out for some supplies? I won't be gone long."

He gets a nod, and he figures that's as good as he's likely to get. He tries to hurry as much a possible, manages to get back in what he's sure is record time. Sam still isn't asleep, but at least he's still in bed, eyes at half-mast, coughing painfully into his pillow. Dean half-expected him to be outside again. He shakes out a couple of cold pills into his hand, gives them to Sam with a glass of water, and tries not to worry about the flush on Sam's face, the glassy look in his eyes.

"How you feeling?"

Sam shifts under his blankets. "Kind of shitty. Tired, mostly."

"Think you can get some sleep?"

Sam nods, but doesn't close his eyes, and Dean sighs, sits on his own bed and switches on the television. If nothing else, it'll give Sam something else to focus on for a while.

He doesn't know why he's surprised when Sam's fever climbs over the next couple of days, when the cold morphs into something else. The cough worsens exponentially, until all Sam's energy is spent just trying to draw in enough air between bouts of coughing, shivering and still sneezing occasionally, the very picture of misery. In spite of it all, he still refuses to stay in bed, and Dean keeps catching him standing just outside the motel room door, hands jammed in his pockets for warmth, coughing in the chilly autumn air.

Finally, utterly fed up, Dean drags him to the nearest clinic. He forces him to stay put in the tiny doctor's office by sitting him in a chair and keeping both hands clamped tightly on his shoulders while Sam coughs and squirms, head twisting back and forth in a desperate search for the nearest exit. He's sweating and shivering by the time the doctor comes in, and Dean knows it's not all the fever. The verdict comes down like a hammer: acute bronchitis, exhaustion, borderline malnutrition.

"You been under a lot of stress lately?" the doctor asks, not unkindly, seeing as how Sam looks as though he's about to come out of his skin. Sam just shrugs, eyes darting toward the door again. They've been in here for over three hours, and he's about reached his breaking point.

Dean gives his shoulder one last reassuring squeeze. "You want to maybe go out for a minute?" he asks quietly, and Sam nods, pushes past him with a murmured apology. He shrugs at the doctor's questioning looks. "He's... not too good with enclosed spaces. Not since he's been back," he adds under his breath, but apparently not quietly enough for the doctor not to hear.

"He's military, then?"

Dean shrugs again, letting the doctor draw his own conclusions. "Not now, anyway."

The doctor nods. "Right. Well, normally I'd want to consult a bit more, but I think it would do your brother some good if he were able to get rid of some of that anxiety. Lack of proper rest is is his worst enemy right now. Can you tell me how he's been sleeping?"

Dean grimaces. "Uh, badly." Understatement.

"Right. Well, let's see if we can do something about that."

And that's how Dean finds himself shepherding his brother back to their motel room, armed with antibiotics and a fuchsia-coloured inhaler that he plans to tease Sam about mercilessly when he's better, as well as a full bottle of pills that are meant to help with the anxiety and make Sam sleep. Fat chance of that, Dean thinks, but it's worth a try. They have orders that Sam needs to be on bed rest for at least a few days, until the fever's gone, and Dean isn't fooling himself into thinking it's not going to be a fight the whole way. He settles Sam in the bed closest to the window, hoping that it'll at least help with the claustrophobia if he can see outside, prods him to take a puff off the inhaler, and drops the first handful of pills into his palm along with a small bottle of orange juice.

Sam sleeps like the dead for the better part of the afternoon, and is still groggy when Dean rouses him to feed him some chicken soup he cobbled together out of whatever he could microwave on short notice. He drops right back to sleep after taking another dose of meds, and Dean lets himself hope that, just maybe, he'll be able to sleep through the night for once. His hope is short-lived, though, as he wakes up to find Sam's bed empty in the dark of night. He's at least grateful that Sam lets himself be hauled back inside without too much fuss, at least the first few times. They reach an uncertain compromise, with Sam staying in bed for as long as he can stand it and only going outside for a few minutes at a time, but after two days Dean can tell it's not cutting it. Sam has stopped sleeping again, just tosses uncomfortably on his bed, the sheets tangling around his legs, eyes half-open. He doesn't say anything, just coughs so painfully it makes Dean's chest ache in sympathy.

Finally, the third night Dean awakens to find the other bed empty again. Sam is just outside, sitting on the asphalt, arms wrapped around his knees, coughing, the sleet clinging to his clothes and soaking through his hair. With a sigh, Dean sits on the ground next to him.

"I suppose I should be grateful you took your jacket."

"Sorry," Sam coughs, forehead resting on his arms. "I couldn't breathe."

"That's because you have bronchitis, genius," Dean says, but they both know it's not what Sam meant. "Sam... You can't keep doing this. You're going to make yourself really sick this way. Sicker. You've already made yourself sick." When Sam doesn't answer, he risks pressing. "You know, you can talk to me. I don't know what it was like for you, but... well, I might be the only person who can even hope to get it."

Sam shakes his head. "I'm sorry, I am. I just... I can't. I don't know how."

"All right," Dean concedes defeat, curls his hand over the back of Sam's neck, trying not to worry about the heat he can still feel radiating under his palm. "Can we go inside? I'm freezing here, dude."

"You go ahead."

"So much for trying to let you save face. Come inside, Sam. I'm not kidding."

Sam just starts coughing again, harder than before, and Dean rolls his eyes and rubs a hand between his shoulders, trying not to worry when the fit doesn't seem like it's about to pass. After a couple of minutes he gives up on not worrying, and the worry turns into something perilously close to panic when Sam starts fighting for air, choking and gasping.

There are a few things on the Winchester List of Injuries and Illnesses You Don't Mess With, and this qualifies. He makes a grab for his cell phone, and spends a terrifying few minutes rubbing his brother's back while they wait for an ambulance, praying that Sam will at least keep breathing until then.

By now Dean should be used to the surrealistic blur that tends to characterize every single emergency room visit they've ever had. Following the ambulance to the hospital, trying to get straight answers out of harried nurses, preoccupied doctors and overworked receptionists; answering nerve-wracking questions about what meds Sam is taking, whether he has allergies to any other health problems; whether there's anything that might explain Sam's 'resistance to treatment'; pacing in the waiting room until his name is called because they won't let him in to see his brother no matter how much of a fuss he makes and eventually threaten to remove him entirely if he doesn't cooperate. It's all familiar, always the same, and it never gets any easier.

They've drugged Sam into submission. Dean only half-listens when the doctor explains about using an antipsychotic drug on his Sammy, because they were worried about the regular tranquillizers having an adverse effect on his breathing, which is already compromised. Dean doesn't like the sound of 'compromised,' and seeing Sam strapped down with a tube in his nose only confirms his dislike for the term. It's pneumonia, was probably pneumonia from the start that was misdiagnosed, and now they're trying to figure out exactly why a young, otherwise healthy man Sam's age isn't able to fend it off. Dean just shakes his head, mumbles something vague about Sam having suffered from some sort of psychological trauma before and being stressed and run-down, and they take his word for it, and for now they don't press the issue when he insists on seeing his brother.

Sam's barely conscious, eyes half-open, but he keeps shifting in his bed, tugging uselessly at the leather restraints keeping him in place. When Dean takes his hand he stiffens, struggles harder, and Dean squeezes his fingers.

"Hey, Sammy, it's okay. It's just me."

"Dean?" Sam's voice has gone hoarse.

"That's right. Just me. I need you to relax, okay? Just let the drugs do their thing."

"Dean?" Sam isn't looking at him, just staring straight up at the ceiling. "Dean I can't get out..." Only a couple of words come out as actual sound, the rest breathless and painful-sounding. "I can't get out. Please come get me, please..."

Tears leak from the corners of Sam's eyes, and Dean is pretty sure that he's going to lose it, any second now, because Sam is gone, doesn't know he's there. He's trapped inside his own head, back in that terrible place he's been trying to escape from even after he got out.

"Fuck, Sammy..." he squeezes his fingers harder, trying to snap him out of it, but the drugs and the fever outclass him by a mile, and Sam's tears soak the pillow under his head until Dean finds a tissue and dabs at his face, feeling more than useless.

Every time Dean allows himself the luxury of thinking it can't possibly get worse, it does. Sam gets worse, fever spiking at random intervals, robbing him of whatever lucidity he had left. Then he stops breathing altogether, and Dean finds himself unceremoniously thrown out of Sam's room while a team of nurses and doctors streams past him with equipment he doesn't want to think about. The next thing he knows Sam is on a ventilator and isolated in ICU, and he can't stay with him for more than a few minutes at a time, and they're bandying about acronyms that mean Sam could die.

"But I just got him back," he tells the doctor, and finds he doesn't even care when the doctor pats his shoulder. "He's not supposed to die."

Sam does get better. Dean sneaks into his room and talks to him, even when he's not supposed to be there, and even though Sam can't hear him and doesn't respond even to being touched, he does get better. He starts breathing on his own again, a little bit at a time, although the doctors talk about scarring on his lungs and pulmonary rehabilitation and all sorts of shit Dean has never heard of before.

He spends every minute he's not with Sam researching, figuring Sam would totally be all over this if their positions were reversed. Sam's getting better, but it's agonizingly slow, and Dean is one hundred percent sure, even if the doctors don't agree, that the hospital is hurting him just as much as it's helping. Sure, there's not much choice while Sam still can't breathe without mechanical intervention, but the sooner Dean can get him away from a place that requires he be perpetually sedated to prevent him from freaking out, the better. He's tired of having to watch the nurses change bandages on the raw wounds on his wrists and ankles that even the padding on the restraints can't entirely prevent. Tired of listening to Sam's quiet pleas for him to come get him 'out' of wherever it is he thinks he's imprisoned.

So he stocks up on everything he thinks they'll need, makes a plan, and as soon as the doctors suggest that it might be possible for Sam to be released so long as he stays on complete bed rest —and that includes no one a.m. forays outside in the middle of November— he wraps Sam up against the chill of the year's first snowfall in every single blanket they own (and a few others bought specifically for this) and settles him as comfortably as he can in the back seat of the Impala, oxygen tank propped near his head for better access. It's going to take a while before they won't need it anymore, but Dean has taken that into account, too.

"Wh'r we goin'?" Sam rouses briefly in the back seat.

"Someplace nice," Dean promises. "I scouted it out, and it's a few hours away. You think you can sleep until we get there?"

"Sure," his brother's already letting his eyes close, under the effects of the last dose of lorazepam administered by the hospital. As far as Dean is concerned, he's going to be weaning Sam off the stuff as fast as they can manage.

To Dean's relief, Sam does manage to sleep the entire way there. He blinks groggily when Dean shakes him by the shoulder, wipes away the drool from his mouth with a grimace.

"You ready, Sammy?"

Sam nods, fumbles with the blankets, and finally just gives up and lets Dean all but lift him out of the car and set him on his feet. He looks around, expression puzzled. "'s that a pond?"

"I was sort of hoping you'd see the cabin first, but yeah."

Sam turns slowly, taking in the gentle slope leading toward the pond, the trees stripped bare by the November wind, and finally his gaze settles on the cabin. Dean grins as a smile spreads over Sam's face. "'s nice. We stayin' here?"

"Yeah. You like it?"

Sam nods, still smiling. Dean wraps an arm around his waist, and they perform a slightly awkward shuffle the rest of the way up the walk to the house, Sam increasingly leaning on his big brother for support, legs trembling with the strain even from just walking a few feet. Dean juggles the keys to the front door, lets them in, and helps Sam inside.

"The fifty-cent tour can wait until you've had a nap, but I figure you'll want to see the main attraction. Come on," he nudges Sam along past the tiny living room and even tinier kitchen, and opens the back door, revealing a glassed-in veranda with a good view of the pond, where he's set up a bed, piled high with blankets and pillows, and a small table and lamp. "It's insulated, so you can sleep in here and not freeze your gigantor ass right off."

Sam coughs, swallows painfully. "How—"

"Found the place online, asked Bobby if he knew anyone who could check it out, make sure it was legit. We're settled up through the winter, too, so you don't have to worry about that. You want to try the bed?"

He doesn't wait for an answer, just moves them forward again until he's able to ease Sam back on the pillows, fusses until he's sure Sam is completely wrapped up and comfortable again, then forces himself to walk calmly to the car to get Sam's oxygen tank and bring it back. Sam is staring through the glass at the frozen pond, and for a moment Dean stops, swallowing hard, because he's so damned thin, his skin practically translucent, circles like bruises under his eyes. But the same bemused smile is still hovering on Sam's lips, making him look more relaxed than he has in months. Dean hooks the canula over his head, makes sure it fits properly.

"You good?"

Sam nods, eyes bright. "Dean, I... thank you."

"Couldn't have you popping out of your bed like a jack-in-the-box every two hours," Dean dismisses the thanks, trying to pretend his voice hasn't suddenly gone rough. "You think you'll be okay here?"

Sam huffs a laugh. "Better than okay. You staying?"

He hesitates, then shrugs. Pulls up a chair and ever-so-casually lets his hand rest on Sam's forearm. "Sure thing. There's nothing that can't wait a while."

Neither of them say anything after that, but then, they've never had to. They watch the pond together, blanketed by the first snow, until Sam slowly drifts to sleep.