Title: Many Happy Returns
Summary: Written for the ohsam fic challenge for a prompt by the lovely and talented de_nugis. Fusion 'verse. It's Sam's first birthday since they've been reunited, and Dean wants to make it special. He doesn't count on it being a bad day.
Characters: Dean, Sam
Disclaimer: Sera told me I wouldn't be allowed to play with the CW's toys anymore if I keep insisting on breaking them.
Warnings: Mild swearing.
Neurotic Author's Note #1: The prompt was: Early May is the anniversary of so many horrible things - deaths and deals and hells and apocalypses - that it's always a bad time for Sam. Insomnia, depression, nightmares, hallucination relapses, tendency to get sick, whatever you want. Makes for some lousy birthdays. Dean figures out how to show he gets it about the bad memories, but he's still going to celebrate Sam's existence, damn it, and make Sam do so, too.
Neurotic Author's Note #2: I don't think I have anything else to say here. This is all standard Fusion fare. Angst and vague schmoop and cute dogs. IDK. All I know is that de_nugis's prompts are like crack for me.
Neurotic Author's Note #3: This is set shortly after The Fever Called Living
Sam's having a bad day. Dean can pretty much tell at a glance now, even before Sam has so much as looked at him. At least he's gotten up by himself. It's a start, even if it's not much. He's standing in the doorway to his bedroom, rubbing the thumb of his right hand over the knuckles of his left, blinking repeatedly, as though he's trying to see through a fog.
"Morning," Dean ventures, and is rewarded with a flinch. "It's just me, Sam. You doing okay?"
Sam shakes his head. "It's loud," he says, and that's all Dean needs to hear to confirm his suspicions. It means that everything in Sam's world has been reduced to the equivalent of white noise, with special Hell accents. It's all light and screaming inside his head, blurring out the outside world.
"You know it's not real, right? You got a fever again?"
Sam just shakes his head again, and doesn't move from where he's standing. When he gets like this Dean wonders if he can even see what's right in front of him. He reaches out, grasps him by the wrist, tightens his grip when Sam tries to pull away, and brushes a hand against his forehead. No fever, at least. Whatever that last flu was, it's definitely long since past. Sam's just having a bad day, no rhyme or reason to it, and he jerks away from Dean's touch like he's been electrocuted.
"Hey, hey. It's okay, it's me, you're fine. Come on, you want to get breakfast? We've got the whole day ahead of us."
For all that Sam tends to drift on his bad days, there are things he doesn't forget. "It's Wednesday. You don't... you don't have to stay. It's Wednesday. You work on Wednesdays. I'm okay, I'm not sick, you don't have to stay."
"Sam, it's fine. I got the day off, remember?" It's Sam's birthday, but by the looks of things Sam isn't even sure what year it is, or what month.
"But it's Wednesday. I counted. You work on Wednesdays."
"Brush your teeth." It's not worth arguing when Sam is like this.
Dean steers his brother to the bathroom, presses his toothbrush into his hand, watches closely as Sam obediently brushes his teeth without further prompting and even steps into the shower on his own while Dean brushes his own teeth and shaves, listening to the water patter against the tiles. He has to nudge Sam again to get him to remember to run a brush through his hair, but it doesn't take much more than that. Not that bad a day, then. Sam makes his bed —perfect hospital corners every time, just like Dad taught them when they were little— and gets dressed by himself (and Dean definitely does not hover outside his door while he does), goes ahead of him down the stairs so that Dean can always hang onto him if he loses his balance.
He stops short at the kitchen door, though. It's not unusual —sometimes Sam sees things that aren't there, or can't distinguish where the floor starts— so Dean gently pushes by him, pulls open the sliding cupboard where he keeps Perry's food and pours a spoonful of kibble into her bowl. Sam moves aside as the dog brushes past him in an excited click of nails on the tiled floor and buries her nose in the dish, filling the kitchen with crunching noises. Dean pats her on the rump.
He sets out the plastic container with Sam's meds on the table, deliberately doesn't stare to make sure that his brother takes them. If Sam needs reminding, then he'll do it later, after breakfast. For now he starts pulling the makings of breakfast out of the fridge.
"You going to make the coffee or what?" he asks casually.
It's Sam's job to make breakfast, even on bad days. Routine is the best thing to keep Sam balanced —even moreso than his meds, which are kind of hit and miss and sometimes stop working altogether— keeping everything as similar as possible. Most days it's all Sam can do to keep reality straight in his head, and he doesn't respond well to drastic changes in his everyday life. Hell, it's already taken them months to get back to a semblance of an even keel after the accident with the van. Sam didn't cope well being short one useful hand and all but stopped going out, preferring to stick close to home where he was sure it was safe until the cast came off. Then when they both came down with the flu last month it was like the straw that broke the camel's back. Sam hasn't been the same since his last fever-induced meltdown. Or, rather, he has been the same, but much closer to how he was when he first got back, tending to get locked away inside his own head sometimes for hours at a time. For Dean it's been two weeks of nothing but watching him struggle just to get through the day, of fussing with Sam's meds, trying to find the right balance that might miraculously make his brother function again. He doesn't know why he was expecting —hoping— that today would be different.
His brother starts a bit, looks over at him as though he has no idea what they're both doing here, but after a moment he moves a little mechanically over to the counter, carefully begins measuring out the coffee into the reusable filter for the coffee maker. It was Sam's idea to get a reusable one months ago, and Dean has to admit that he was right, that in the long run they have saved a fair bit of money by not buying paper filters. Sam's ideas are generally good ones, when it comes to practical day-to-day stuff.
"You want toast?" Dean takes advantage of the fact that Sam is focused on the coffee to quickly pull Sam's birthday present out from behind the bag of dog food and shift it to the table. "Or how about waffles?"
Sam pauses, finger poised to switch on the coffee maker. "Waffles?" He sounds uncertain.
"I thought you liked waffles."
His brother turns to look at him, expression pinched, as though he's afraid of what Dean might say next. "You want to go out?" Dean can't blame him for being confused —they don't have a waffle iron, so having waffles would normally mean going out for breakfast, and by the looks of things going out is the last thing his brother wants to do today. Sam's eyes flick to the table, and his expression turns questioning when he spots the parcel, carefully wrapped in blue wrapping paper with a big pink bow. It's slightly lopsided and there's way too much scotch tape on the paper, but hey, it's not like Dean has much practice in the present-wrapping department. "What is that?"
"Birthday present. And no, I wasn't planning on going out this morning. Not yet, anyway. You going to open it or leave me hanging here, bro?"
Sam shakes his head minutely, but Dean can see that the gesture isn't one of denial so much as incomprehension. "I don't —you shouldn't..."
"Sammy," he breaks in gently. He should have known better than to throw too many different ideas at him this morning. Sam was still processing whether or not they were going out, and now his whole train of thought has been derailed. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. "It's not every day you turn twenty-nine, dude. Go on, open it."
Sam doesn't move from where he's standing. "It's a bad day," he says instead, staring at the floor.
He's gone back to rubbing his knuckles with his thumb, gaze flitting around the kitchen, never landing on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. Sometimes it's enough to make Dean despair, the idea that even a good surprise, even a birthday present, can throw Sam off like this, wreck his routine and put him off-balance. Save the world, come back to a life where a birthday present can send you into a self-destructive tailspin. It's fucking unfair, is what it is.
"Yeah, I know. Doesn't mean you can't open your present, right?" Dean thinks he might sound a little desperate, because Perry comes over to nose at his hand with an anxious whine. He fondles her ears and she drops to her haunches by his side.
"I haven't finished making the coffee."
Sam turns away from the table, switches on the coffee maker. He's tense, shoulders hunched, and for the life of him Dean can't figure out what's going through his mind. Not that he ever could before, but it's days like this that serve to bring home just how much he's still shut out of Sam's world.
It's like a trick question. What isn't wrong would be more appropriate. Lucifer and Hell and flashbacks and the Cage. A fucking cornucopia of suffering, and he knows that Sam is deliberately keeping a lot of it away from him, deliberately not talking about it because they both know what Hell does to a man and Sam is trying to spare him. So when Sam isn't delirious with fever or completely losing it after a really bad episode, he keeps quiet, simply doesn't open his mouth, and the chickenshit part of Dean that doesn't want to remember Hell at all is grateful for it.
Sam doesn't answer his question, either, just pours out the coffee into mugs and sets them on the table. Dean picks up his mug and leans stiffly against the counter, sipping at the scalding liquid and watching as Sam carefully stirs a spoonful of sugar into his followed by a measure of half and half. It occurs to him that Sam hasn't bought any of the French vanilla crap he likes so much lately, and he wonders if it isn't another of his brother's little cost-cutting measures that he doesn't bother mentioning anymore. It's shitty, is what it is, Dean thinks, that even after he damned well saved the world Sam can't even have the flavour of coffee he wants in the morning. Fuck it. Budget or no budget, Dean's going to pick up a bottle of the stuff the next time he's at the store.
"You know, we can go out later, if you want," he offers. "Maybe go check out the birds? Stop at the bakery first, get some muffins. Or, you know, we can stay in, too. Whatever you want. It's your day, dude. What would you like?"
"I don't know." Sam chews on his lip, then swallows his pills, washing them down with a mouthful of coffee. "I'm not… I'm trying, I swear. I just, I don't think —not out. Not today. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize, it's fine. We don't have to go out. This isn't a test, you know."
"I know. I'm sorry." Sam seems to be making a conscious effort not to look at the blue-wrapped parcel on the table, the way he does when he's seeing stuff that isn't there at all. Maybe he thinks he's seeing things.
"It's a real present, Sammy. You can open it."
Sam shakes his head. "It's a bad day," he says again. "You shouldn't celebrate it."
Dean pushes himself off the counter, limps over to stand next to Sam at the table. "Come again?"
Sam won't meet his eyes. "I just... wish you wouldn't. Not today. I'm sorry."
Shit. There is way more to this than just a bad day, then. He probably should have seen this, but hey, even Dean Winchester is allowed his off days, okay? "You want to explain that to me?"
Sam shrugs. "Bad things happen today, that's all. We shouldn't celebrate the day you died."
Dean takes a breath, banishes the fleeting memory of fangs digging into his flesh. "Is that what this is about? Because, dude, that's not what we're celebrating." As far as Dean is concerned, they're celebrating the fact that Sam is here to have a birthday to celebrate. That's enough reason, just by itself.
"You made the deal that day, too."
"Okay, no fair making me remember having to kiss a demon, okay? That's just skanky and uncalled-for," Dean forces himself to keep his tone light, to nudge Sam's arm like they're joking around, as though he the taint of sulphur doesn't still linger sometimes on his tongue. "Come on, what are you saying? You don't want to have a birthday anymore just because we had a couple of bad years?"
Sam does look up at that, and stares flatly at Dean. "Name one year where that date turned out well."
And, well, fuck. There it is, right there. It's not that Sam's right, because he's not, except for how he is. Dad never took well to birthdays after Mom's death, preferring to ignore them whenever possible. He'd usually find a hunt right around the end of April, leave either an already-wrapped present for Sam with Dean, and later on just took to leaving Dean enough money to 'do something nice for your brother's birthday.' Sometimes it turned out okay, but mostly they'd spent Sam's birthday worried about Dad, about whether or not this was the time he wasn't going to come home. And then after high school it all seems to have gone downhill anyway.
"What about when you were at Stanford?"
Sam shrugs. "Exam season. Never really bothered to tell anyone my birthday anyway. Seemed like a waste of time."
"Not even Jess?"
Sam doesn't answer that, expression shuttered, and Dean doesn't press it. "Lucifer remembered," Sam says after a moment, and Dean very nearly throws up.
Alastair made a point of stripping everything away from him that made Dean who he was before, birthdays included, and at this very moment Dean is perfectly willing to view that as an awful sort of blessing. He eases himself into a chair, leg stretched out, feels Perry slide under his legs and curl up with a contented sigh, peacefully oblivious to the horror that just slipped casually from his brother's lips. He sips at his coffee, nudges the present toward Sam.
"Okay. So your birthdays have always been shitty. I vote we change that. I mean, last year was a good one for me —it's the day you came back, right?"
Sam shrugs. "I don't know."
Dean drains his coffee cup and wills himself not to be sick. "Right. New rule: from now on, you're going to have fun birthdays. With presents and cake and the whole nine yards. Get me a refill," he hands over his cup, "and then open your present, bitch."
Sam doesn't complain about being ordered around, just refills Dean's cup and warms up his own coffee. He pulls up a chair to prop up Dean's leg, too, before sitting down again and eyeing the present as though it might be booby-trapped. He glances at Dean, then gingerly begins picking at the scotch tape along one seam.
"I don't suppose I could convince you to tear the paper?" Dean uses his good foot to rub Perry's belly, smiles when she flops onto her back and thumps her tail enthusiastically against the floor.
"No. We should save it."
"Dude, it's wrapping paper. And if you wrap my birthday present in the same paper I used for yours, I will be offended at having such a cheapskate for a brother."
Sam ignores him, carefully peeling off each individual piece of tape, and Dean rolls his eyes and wonders not for the first time if his brother isn't some sort of changeling, because God knows neither he nor Dad raised the kid to be this OCD about anything. Wrapping paper is there to be ripped off, it's like a universal rule. A rule that Sam obviously never learned. Finally the paper comes off (next time, Dean is going to use way less scotch tape), and Sam pulls it away carefully and folds it neatly into a square. Dean kind of wants to smack him for being a contrary little brat, but from the tiny smile tugging at the corners of Sam's mouth, it looks like his little brother knows exactly what this is doing to him. Little bitch.
"Come on, Sam, I ain't got all day."
"Thought you had the day off?"
Dean grins. If Sam is messing with him, it means it's not going to be as bad a day as he thought. "Just open the damned box."
Sam is running his fingers along the edges of the box. It's obvious what it is —the packaging doesn't exactly make a secret of it— but Dean is still on tenterhooks, can't figure out what the hell is going through his brother's mind. Sam turns the box over, keeps feeling along the edges like he's trying to read Braille, and Dean makes himself take a breath, because this, this is just how Sam deals with things now. He feels his way through life, counts his steps, repeats his patterns, and if this is what it takes to keep him in the here and now, well, Dean figures it's a small enough price to pay.
"You got me a waffle iron."
"Happy birthday. That way you can make me waffles in the morning." Dean gives Sam his best shit-eating grin even while his heart performs some truly alarming flip-flops in his chest at the thought that Sam might not like it after all. "I thought, you know, since you've been doing all this cooking and whatever, that you might like… I don't know. I mean, we can get something you like better, if you don't—"
"It's great." Sam looks up at him with a smile that looks almost shy. "But, uh, can you —can we afford it? I, uh, I lost track, and… and you know that, already. Sorry. I just, it was —I'm not—"
"Sure we can afford it," Dean interrupts before Sam can apologize yet again for something that's out of his control, because Jesus Christ if he has to listen to him apologize one more time he's not going to be held responsible for his actions. "Got it on sale, it's fine. Besides, we'll get plenty of mileage out of it, and in the long run it'll be cheaper than going out for waffles. It'll have paid for itself within a few days, trust me."
Sam nods, fingers probing at the box, opening one flap, then the next, tugging at the cardboard inserts protecting the waffle iron inside, and pulls the appliance entirely out of its packaging onto his lap. "Okay. Uh… you want to try it out?"
Dean feels his grin widen. "Your call. You're in charge of breakfast around here, after all. But I did take the liberty of printing out a recipe for waffle batter at work." He pulls the paper he carefully folded in four out of his pocket and hands it over.
His brother fiddles with the paper for a moment, smooths it against the table top as he scans the list of ingredients and the instructions. "Okay."
Sam gets up, opens a cupboard and pulls out a mixing bowl and measuring cups before heading to the fridge. He's moving a little more purposefully than before, Dean notes with a smile, setting up his ingredients on the counter and clearing a spot by the toaster so he can plug in the waffle iron.
"So what do you want to do after breakfast?" Dean asks, watching him during his preparations.
Sam freezes in the midst of cracking an egg. "Um." He glances at Dean, then back at the bowl, then delicately pulls apart the eggshell to drop its contents into the bowl before throwing the shell into the garbage can under the sink. When he's done he turns very deliberately to face Dean. "I can't think about that now," he says. "I'm sorry, I am, but I can't. I just… I need to do one thing at a time today."
"One step at a time, huh?"
Sam nods and, okay, if that's all he can handle today, that's fine. That, Dean can do, even if maybe he thought they might do something a little more elaborate for Sam's birthday, just this once. They've got the whole day stretching out ahead of them, and it's not like either of them has anywhere they need to be or anything they need to do. There will be other birthdays, too. Hopefully a lot of birthdays. Today is supposed to be about Sam, and that makes this the easiest decision in the world.
"Okay, Sammy, you got it."