Summary: Gambler 'verse – Pre-series, Sick Sam / Awesome Dean – Dean never ceased to be amazed at the cast of characters that could be found around a poker table...which tonight included a sick little brother.

Disclaimer: Not mine.

Warnings: Usual language

A/N: Written yesterday for Jane; hope you feel better soon!


You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. ~ Kenny Rogers


Whether in the shadowy, smoky backroom of a backwoods bar or on the floor of a bright, noisy Vegas casino – like the one he was currently sitting in – Dean never ceased to be amazed at the cast of characters that could be found around a poker table.

Like tonight...

There was the flashy, self-proclaimed professional who hid behind his dark sunglasses and the brim of his lowered hat; whose tell was to keep his cards face-down on the table but constantly lift their edges to peek at them like he thought they would magically change to a better hand when he wasn't looking; who liked to show off and mouth off...but rarely saw a payoff.

There was the skinny, balding old guy decked out in his tourist clothes – his khaki shorts pulled up over his waist and cinched with a belt; his Hawaiian-print shirt dating back to his honeymoon; his white socks and sensible loafers; who spoke around the fat, stubby cigar held out the side of his mouth with the growl of a smoker's voice; whose thick, black-rimmed glasses only seemed to magnify his tell – the rapid blink of his eyes whenever he held a bad hand, like he couldn't believe the cards he was seeing.

There was the newbie dressed like he was going to either a funeral or a school dance; his dark suit indicating he thought it was the '50s and people still dressed up to play poker; his crooked tie announcing his anxiety about actually playing the game and not just watching it in the hypnotizing smoothness of a black-and-white classic on the hotel's movie channel; whose tell was to continually shuffle his cards from front to back like he was searching for a clue among the diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades.

There was the dealer who looked bored and bitter; who dealt the cards in a rhythmic, almost robotic manner while her narrowed gaze tracked the paths of the cocktail waitresses who passed by; her expression communicating that she also used to fill drink orders on the casino's floor...until management deemed her "too old" to continue attracting business from male gamblers and thus relegated her to the poker table.

Dean gathered the cards freshly dealt to him – his calloused fingers gliding across the smooth green felt of the table – and glanced at the four queens staring back at him along with the three of diamonds.

Four of a Kind right out of the gate...and in Vegas, no less.

Dean made no outward reaction though inwardly he high-fived himself...and maybe even smacked himself on his ass for good measure; vaguely wondering if the others at the table knew how awesome he was – both in life and in poker; wondered if they had any clue that he was practically a poker whisperer, a pied piper who frequently called forth the best cards to assemble themselves in a nice little line so he could kick ass and clean house; wondered if the people surrounding him had any idea that he had played poker literally every day of his life since he was 16-years old.

Dean gripped his cards in his left hand and stared across the table at the one person he knew would know all of that and more – Sam.

It was hard to say who had been more surprised to see who when Dean had first sat down at the table.

After all, the last time Dean had seen Sam, the kid had been bound for Stanford; for a new life of normal that did not include Dean or John.

The night Sam had left had been a cluster fuck of harsh words – the kind of words that should never be said – along with hurt feelings, wounded pride, and the sense of overwhelming betrayal and abandonment.

That night two months ago, John had said everything...Dean had said nothing...and Sam had just left.

In the days that had followed, Dean had tried calling Sam's cell phone multiple times to check on the kid; had felt like shit for staying silent the one time Sam had needed him the most and had wanted to say everything he should've said before Sam had walked out.

But Sam's cell phone number had never connected on the opposite end; an automated voice always telling Dean to try his call again later. And Dean had tried...until two weeks went by with the same message and Dean had figured that maybe the reason he could never reach Sam was because Sam didn't want to be reached.

Not that Dean could blame his brother; not after what John had said with fire in his eyes and venom in his voice that night the kid had finally told them about the Stanford scholarship and had announced that he wanted to accept the college's offer; that he wanted to go to California and live and study and be normal.

Dean had felt a swell of pride at the news; quickly followed by paralyzing panic when he had realized that meant Sam would be out of his sight and away from his protection.

But John had only lashed out; had ranted about loyalty and family and then had yelled after Sam as the kid had crossed to the door of that cabin that night.

Don't ever come back.

Dean swallowed at the memory– John's four words making him want to throw up...even now, two months later – and tossed a few chips into the center of the poker table as the game continued...and as he continued to watch Sam.

Because while the hurt of Sam leaving was still raw, Dean knew Sam's hurt was just as fresh; had seen the surprise and alarm on the kid's face when Dean had appeared at the poker table tonight...but had also seen momentary relief quickly replaced by anger.

Sam had avoided eye contact with Dean ever since those first few moments, but Dean could still see the kid's clenched jaw and tense shoulders and knew his brother was still just as pissed and hurt as he had been when he had left them two months ago.

But what Dean didn't know was why Sam was in Vegas.

Because unlike Dean, Sam never played poker for pleasure; only for money and only because Dean would sometimes ask him. But if Sam was in Vegas, then that meant Sam needed to win big and fast...but why?

Dean silently sighed and raised the bet as it became his turn again at the table; still playing the game while analyzing whatever the hell was going on with his brother.

Because when he hadn't heard from Sam and hadn't been able to reach his brother himself, Dean had just assumed the kid was in sunny California happily living his dream of normalcy and safety; had missed talking to Sam every day and had worried about the kid but had assumed "no news was good news" and all that crap.

But that did not seem to be the case.

Because here Sam was at a poker table in a Vegas casino; about nine hours away from Palo Alto in the middle of the night and looking like shit.

In fact if Dean could bet money on Sam's condition, he would go double or nothing that the kid had strep throat.

Because it was October...and ever since he was nine-years old, Sam always got strep throat in October no matter where they were in the country; some doctor once explaining it was caused by weather changes associated with shifting seasons...or something.

But even if Dean didn't know that October was Strep Throat Month for Sam – which was why Dean was on this side of the country now...to swing by Stanford and covertly check on his brother after a quick pit stop in Vegas to earn some extra funds – he would have still been able to spot a sick, feverish kid brother.

Because while Sam was a kick-ass poker player – raised and trained by Dean, by the best at the game – with no tells to communicate the quality of his hand, the kid sucked at hiding just about everything else...especially from his big brother.

Within the first two minutes of sitting across from Sam at the poker table over half an hour ago, Dean had read at least half a dozen of his little brother's tells.

Sam's pale skin along with the dark circles smudged under his eyes indicating his level of exhaustion; the kind of fatigue that accompanied sickness.

The flush of color on Sam's cheeks having nothing to do with alcohol consumption or anxiety over the game but instead advertising the presence of a fever; a fever that had probably been around for a few days.

Sam's eyes were squinted and his forehead was wrinkled as he stared at the cards in his grasp. But Dean knew his brother wasn't confused or trying to figure out the best way to play his hand; knowing instead that the kid's head hurt...and the bright lights and loud noise of the casino was not helping.

Sam's beer bottle was still full – only a few sips missing – which had less to do with Sam keeping a clear head to focus on the game...and more to do with his throat being sore; the kind of sore that made him stubborn about drinking fluids.

Sam rubbed his neck; his hand starting at the side and then wrapping around the back; the gesture further announcing his sore throat and swollen lymph nodes...and also confirming the presence of fever, since Sam's hair always got damp when his temperature rose; the sweaty strands sticking to the back of his neck and driving the kid crazy.

And then there was the hoodie Sam was wearing; the charcoal gray one that had once belonged to Dean and had always been part of Sam's comfort measures; the kid usually retreating to that worn, faded fabric and wrapping himself in its soothing familiarity whenever he was sick or upset or scared.

And right now, Sam looked all three to the big brother who was watching him from across the poker table.

Inwardly, Dean's chest was tight with emotions; strangely touched that Sam had kept that stupid hoodie and was wearing it even now; pissed that the kid had not called him in two months; worried that the kid had not called him in two months; concerned by how the kid looked now; and consumed with a sense of urgency to finish the game and find out what the hell was going on with his brother.

Because Sam wasn't in Vegas for a thrill; he was there because he was desperate and was earning money the only way he had ever been taught – through poker.

Dean noiselessly sighed; outwardly remaining calm, cool, and collected – maintaining the proverbial poker face – as he continued to play his hand; checking and raising the bet all while wondering why Sam needed money...and how long Sam had been sick...and if his brother had been taking antibiotics...and why the hell the kid was in Vegas with a fever and not tucked in bed back in his dorm room at Stanford.

Speaking of Stanford, how did Sam even get to Vegas from there? Did he have a car now...or had he come with a friend?

Dean wasn't sure which possibility was more disturbing – that his teenage brother was out driving around by himself with no one to watch his back...or that Sam was friends with someone who Dean didn't even know.

Several minutes passed; crisp cards shuffling, stacks of plastic chips dwindling as they joined the pot in the middle of the table; and then the game ended – Dean's four of a kind beating Sam's full house...and the other players not even standing a chance with their crappy hands.

"This game fucking sucks!" the self-proclaimed professional yelled; his chair falling backwards as he pushed away from the table in disgust and stormed off; disappearing into the maze of slot machines.

The newbie stared with wide eyes at the disaster in front of him; all of his chips – and thus, thousands of dollars – gone with nothing left to show for the past several hours he had spent at the poker table.

The old guy chuckled at the newbie's shell-shocked expression. "That's life, kid," he commented; his cigar bobbing from the corner of his mouth as he spoke. "Sometimes luck's a lady...but usually she's just a bitch. Take it from an old man – you got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

The newbie blinked at the wisdom shared from a country song.

"Know when to walk away, know when to run..." the old guy continued and nodded his thanks to the dealer as he stood; pulling up his pants before shuffling off to a Blackjack table.

The newbie said nothing; still blinking like he thought everything that had just happened was a dream.

Two new players joined the table; a woman taking the old guy's chair while her friend settled into the self-proclaimed professional's seat.

"This is gonna be fun!" one woman said to the other.

The newbie snorted disgustedly. "That's what I thought..." he remarked – his shock morphing into bitterness and anger – and abruptly stood; muttering to himself about the corruption of Vegas as he snatched off his tie and disappeared into the moving crowd that covered the casino floor.

"Wow," the woman commented as the newbie left and then glanced at her friend. "Sore loser, I guess."

"I guess," her friend agreed distractedly and then flashed a blinding smile at Dean from across the table. "Congrats on your winnings. I was watching you play earlier. You were so intense yet smooth and totally in control. It was..." She paused, like maybe she wasn't going to finish her description of Dean...but then she did. "...sexy."

Sam rolled his eyes and then winced like doing so hurt his head.

Dean noticed – taking that as yet another sign of Sam's headache – and quirked a smile at the woman as he collected his chips; thinking that if he had a dollar for every time he was described as sexy when he played poker...then he wouldn't have to play because of the large amount of money he would already have from the frequency of that compliment alone.

"Are you gonna stick around for the next game?" the woman pressed. "Then maybe get some real action later..." she added suggestively.

Dean raked the last of his chips into the oversized plastic cup he held and arched an eyebrow at the woman's implication...which had nothing to do with poker.

The offer of an easy lay was tempting.

And if Dean was alone, he would probably accept.

But Dean wasn't alone.

Sam was there.

And even now, Dean was a big brother first...and was everything else second – including an opportunistic lover.

"What d'ya say?" the woman asked and batted her eyes while her friend laughed at her boldness with a stranger.

"I don't think so, sweetheart..." Dean smoothly rejected; smiling enough to soften the blow even as he wondered if the woman knew how little chance she stood of gaining and keeping his attention when Dean had a sick kid brother across the table.

As if on cue, Sam sighed – sounding as tired as he looked – and stood; his movements slow as he collected his remaining chips and stashed them in the center pocket of his hoodie before leaving the table.

Dean stood as well, preparing to follow his brother.

"If you change your mind, I'll be right here..." the woman called after Dean as he walked away.

But Dean didn't hear her; focused only on Sam as his brother moved through the crowd.

A few seconds later he was beside the kid; could now see up close everything he had suspected from across the poker table and knew without a doubt that Sam was definitely sick.

...which meant the kid should not be in Vegas playing poker.

Seriously.

"What are you doing here?" Dean demanded after several seconds of walking in silence; worry making his tone sharp and accusatory, like Sam didn't have the right to be wherever the hell he wanted to be.

Sam cut his eyes at Dean as they walked. "I could ask you the same thing," he returned; his voice as hoarse as Dean had expected.

Dean frowned at how horrible Sam sounded; like the kid had been gargling rocks. "You sound like shit."

Sam snorted. "Wow. Thanks. Two months apart and that's all you've gotta say to me?"

Dean scowled at as brother's tone. "Don't get bitchy with me, Sam. I've tried calling you, which is a hell of a lot more than you've done these past two months. Maybe you should answer your fucking phone sometimes..."

Sam blinked at Dean's response – seeming surprised that Dean had tried to call him – and then hesitated; saying nothing as they turned beside a row of Blackjack tables.

Dean arched an eyebrow at his brother's silence on the topic of phone calls. "Sam..." he prompted, knowing the kid would realize he wanted an explanation.

Sam sighed and swiped his sweaty bangs off his forehead; looking fevered and flushed. "I don't have a phone anymore," he quietly admitted. "I had to sell it when I got to California."

Dean blinked at the unexpected news. "What?"

Sam shrugged as if it wasn't a big deal. "I had to sell it," he repeated. "I used all the money I had saved to get to campus and then I had nothing left. So, I had to sell my phone." He paused. "The Pawn Shop gave a good price," he added, as if that made all the difference. "I was able to buy some sheets and a pillow...and then a blanket a couple weeks later after I won more money at a bar."

Dean abruptly stopped walking and grabbed Sam's arm to make his brother do the same. "What the hell are you talking about?" he demanded.

Because it sounded like Sam had been barely scraping by over the past two months, which was fine for Dean's way of life...but not for Sam; and certainly not for Sam to face alone.

Sam swallowed – scrunching his face as doing so obviously hurt his inflamed throat – and then sighed. "I had to have money, Dean," he replied; his tone a mix of embarrassment and acceptance of how his life was now.

Dean shook his head. "But you have that scholarship..."

"Well, yeah..." Sam agreed, glancing at the people who moved around them on the casino floor. "But it only pays for school stuff – like books and my dorm room and a meal plan. I have to buy everything else."

Dean shook his head again, feeling like he had been sucker punched by this revelation.

Sam sighed and shrugged at Dean's shocked expression. "It's not a big deal," he soothed his big brother. "I know how to get money, remember?" He tried to smile. "I learned from the best."

"Damn right you did," Dean agreed; having missed his little brother's praise. "But that's not the point, Sammy," he reminded seriously. "I had no idea, man. You should've let us know what was going on."

Sam snorted at the suggestion. "Yeah right...so Dad could just say 'I told you so'? No thanks."

"Forget Dad," Dean snapped; unexpectedly pissed at the mention of John. "You should've let me know, Sam. If I had known what kind of situation you were in out here, I would've come sooner."

Sam arched an eyebrow at Dean's implication; his mouth twitching in a smile. "Were you out here checking up on me?"

Dean chuckled. "Well, not here..." he responded, vaguely gesturing at the surrounding casino. "But yeah...I hadn't heard from you in two months, so..."

Sam nodded; not needing Dean to explain further and feeling touched that his big brother still cared enough about him to drive cross country to check on him.

There was a beat of silence between the brothers; slot machines blaring; people cheering and laughing around the craps tables.

"Thanks," Sam said simply; his eyes slightly misty and his tone genuine as he stared at Dean while they continued to stand in the middle of the casino's carpeted walkway.

"You're welcome," Dean returned; knowing now wasn't the time to tease or to dismiss; realizing how much was being said between the lines and feeling an unexplainable peace settle between him and Sam as a result; his little brother almost instantly dropping his defenses and looking at Dean like the sick, overwhelmed kid he was.

"I'm glad you came," Sam admitted; his voice quiet and hoarse. "Means a lot..."

"Means we're still family," Dean told his brother and smiled; holding the kid's gaze. "Nothing changes that, Sammy. Wherever I am, I've got your back. All you gotta do is call me, man. You know that."

Sam nodded. "I know."

"Good," Dean praised and then quirked a smile. "Don't forget it again, or I'll kick your ass."

Sam smiled at Dean's verbal show of brotherly affection and nodded once more.

Dean's smile widened. "It's damn good to see you," he told his kid brother and then paused. "Even if you do look like shit..."

Sam snorted.

"Not joking," Dean insisted dryly.

"I know," Sam agreed; swallowing carefully. "I kinda feel like shit."

Dean nodded at the expected response. "Strep throat is nothing to screw around with. You know that..."

Sam tilted his head questioningly. "How – "

" – dude...what month is it?" Dean interrupted and nodded when Sam laughed knowingly. "Exactly. I've never missed a year of Sammy's Strep Throat Appreciation Month, and I wasn't going to start now."

Sam's smile lingered; having missed his big brother and everything about him.

"...which is why we're cashing in and heading out, Strep Throat Boy," Dean continued. "You should be in bed, not at a poker table infecting other people, dude. Seriously."

Sam nodded. "I know. I just – "

" – needed money," Dean finished; still bothered by the fact that his brother had spent the past two months so desperate for cash.

Sam nodded again.

"Well, today's your lucky day, little bro. 'Cause I've got more than enough for both of us," Dean replied and rattled the chips in his oversized plastic cup.

Sam shook his head. "Dean, I have money," he informed and pulled his poker chips from the center pocket of his hoodie.

"Good for you," Dean praised dryly. "Now you'll have even more." He paused. "What's mine is yours, Sammy," he reminded; his tone ending the discussion. "C'mon..." he called and started walking again; heading in the direction of the casino's cashier.

Sam sighed and followed.

"Do you have your meds?" Dean asked over his shoulder. "Are you hungry? Where are you staying?"

Sam smiled faintly at Dean slipping so seamlessly back into his role of big brother...but knew Dean would not like any of the answers to his questions.

Because while Dean had always taken good care of Sam, it turned out Sam wasn't too good at taking care of himself; certainly not close enough to Dean's standards.

"Sammy..." Dean prompted as they walked.

Sam sighed and pushed his damp bangs from his forehead. "I don't have any meds."

Dean scowled; not liking that answer and suspecting he would like the answer to his next question even less. "Why not?"

"Because there hasn't been much poker action around campus lately, and nobody is hiring. So I was out of money and couldn't get the prescription filled," Sam replied quietly. "That's one of the reasons why I came here..."

Dean sighed harshly and shook his head. "Jesus, Sam..."

Sam swallowed painfully but said nothing.

Dean sighed again. "Fine. But you do at least have a prescription?"

Sam nodded. "I went to student health before I left campus."

"Good," Dean praised; glad that the stupid scholarship had apparently covered at least that expense. "We'll get it filled before we head back to the motel." He paused as they fell in line at the cashier's booth. "And then we'll go get your stuff. Where are you staying?"

Sam shook his head; feeling his sweaty hair stick to the back of his neck. "Nowhere."

Dean frowned. "Meaning?"

Sam shrugged. "Meaning I don't have a room, and I don't have anything with me. When I come out here, I usually just take a bus. It's only nine hours, so I ride all night...play poker most of the day...and then ride all night on the bus again to get back to campus in time for my afternoon classes." He paused, glancing at his watch. "In fact, I've got about an hour before – "

" – if you say you've got about an hour before that bus comes to get you, I'm gonna punch you in the face," Dean warned.

Sam blinked at his brother's threat.

"You're not going back to California on that bus tonight, Sam," Dean informed; his tone making it clear this decision was not open for discussion. "The last thing you need is to try to sleep on the road in a cramped seat and then push yourself to go to class when you get back to Stanford. No. Not happening. Not on my watch."

Sam arched an eyebrow; amused by Dean's ranting but also touched; truthfully having missed being taken care of...especially when he felt like crap.

"I'll take you back tomorrow," Dean told Sam as they moved up in line. "Or maybe the next day. We'll see how you feel after you start taking your meds tonight and get some rest."

"But Dean..." Sam began; his protest weak because staying with Dean for a few days actually sounded like just what he needed...maybe even what they both needed.

"You heard me, Sam," Dean responded and then glanced over his shoulder, lowering his voice. "And you better get that fake ID ready to show to the nice cashier, Mister I-Look-Young-For-My-Age."

Sam scowled his annoyance at Dean's repetition of what he had told the poker dealer earlier when she had double-checked his ID and had commented that Sam looked too young to be 21 and in a casino.

Dean chuckled – because he had taught Sam how to make realistic fake IDs, too – and crossed to the barred window; watching as Sam did the same at the neighboring window and waiting as the cashier counted his chips and then counted out the corresponding money.

Minutes later, both brothers were heading toward the casino's exit; crossing to the Impala in one of the parking decks and sliding into their respective seats.

Sam shivered in the draft of night air as he closed the passenger door and drew his hands into the sleeves of his hoodie before crossing his arms over his chest.

Dean cranked the engine and turned the heat vents toward his brother. "Better?"

Sam nodded.

"Good," Dean replied. "Prescription..." he then demanded and held out his hand expectantly.

Sam sighed at his pushy brother but dug the wrinkled paper from the pocket of his jeans and handed it over.

Dean scanned it – habit making him double-check that Sam wasn't allergic to what was written – and then nodded his approval that the prescription wasn't for penicillin before backing the Impala out of the parking space and heading down several levels to the street.

"Have you eaten today?" Dean asked his brother as he entered traffic on the Vegas strip.

Sam shrugged. "I'm not hungry."

"Not what I asked," Dean returned and waited for an answer to his question.

Sam sighed and coughed against his sore throat. "No."

Dean nodded; because that's what he had thought. "Are you drinking fluids?"

Sam swallowed as if just the idea made his throat hurt. "I'm trying."

Dean nodded again; remembering Sam's barely touched beer at the poker table and knowing how stubborn Sam could be about staying hydrated when the kid's throat was sore.

The brothers rode in silence; Sam lightly dozing against the passenger side window in the warmth of his hoodie and the Impala's heat vents while Dean made a mental shopping list; the older brother vaguely fascinated by how quickly his evening had changed course – from gambling and earning enough money to make it through the rest of the month...to unexpectedly crossing paths with Sam and making tentative amends...and then making plans to take care of the sick kid.

Dean smiled – strangely happy and more at peace than he had been in two months – and then glanced at the reason why: Sam in the passenger seat.

Dean's smile lingered as he pulled into a pharmacy's parking lot on the outskirts of Vegas; leaving a sleeping Sam locked in the safety of the Impala as he quickly completed his mission – getting Sam's antibiotic prescription filled while collecting a bottle of apple juice, a case of water, a few cans of soup, and an extra bottle of pain reliever and fever reducer.

Ten minutes later, the Impala was loaded up, Dean was behind the wheel, they were back on the road...and Sam was still asleep in the passenger seat.

Dean frowned slightly at how clearly exhausted Sam was and kept driving; the strip's lights glowing in his rearview as the motel's sign shined like a beacon on the horizon.

Dean parked the Impala in front of their room; thankful that years of habit still made him get rooms with double beds...and thankful that Sam was back with him to sleep in the one farthest from the door for at least a couple nights while the kid recovered from his latest bout of strep throat.

Not that Dean wished sickness on his brother. But he would be lying if he said it didn't feel good to be needed and to have Sam back beside him again.

Dean sighed; killing the Impala's ignition and reaching across the bench seat to nudge his brother's shoulder. "Sammy..."

Sam shifted under Dean's touch and blinked open his eyes; yawning as he sat up in the seat and stared out the windshield at the motel room.

"I know you're used to sleeping on a bus when you come to Vegas, but how about sleeping in a bed tonight?" Dean asked and nodded toward their room.

"Sounds good," Sam agreed; his hoarse voice almost nonexistent now.

Dean frowned but did not comment; exiting the driver's side and crossing to the trunk to retrieve the extra duffel he had kept these past two months with some of Sam's clothes still in it; clothes that had been in their laundry bag when Sam had left that night; clothes that Dean had washed and had folded anyway...and had kept.

Sam watched as Dean closed the trunk and approached on the passenger side of the Impala. "Mine?" he asked, nodding at the duffel.

"Yeah," Dean answered simply; not mentioning how he had kept the clothes because it was like keeping a part of Sam with him even after the kid had left...and how he had hoped for two months that Sam would one day come back.

Sam smiled. "Thanks," he had croaked and had swallowed.

Dean nodded and then steered his brother toward their room; guiding the kid with one hand on his back and maintaining the contact even while he unlocked the motel room door.

"Alright, Sammy..." Dean sighed, locking the door behind them and tossing the extra duffel to Sam's bed. "Shower, food, meds, bed..." he outlined for his brother. "In that order with no bitching allowed..."

Sam snorted, not in the mood to bitch – and not having any voice to spare for it even if he was.

"I'm gonna bring in the rest of the stuff from the store," Dean called to his brother as Sam grabbed his duffel and closed the bathroom door.

Fifteen minutes later, the Impala was unloaded, and the canned soup had been warmed in the mini microwave.

Dean carefully set both mugs of chicken noodle on the small table in the motel room's corner as the bathroom door opened in a billow of warm steam to reveal a freshly showered, wet-haired, barefooted Sam in sweatpants and a t-shirt.

Dean frowned. "You should dry your hair and put on some socks," he fussed.

Sam shrugged but ducked back into the bathroom to rub his head a little more thoroughly with his bath towel before returning to the main room and slipping on a pair of socks from the duffel he had tossed to the corner beside his bed.

"Happy?" Sam whispered as Dean watched him.

"Ecstatic," Dean responded and smiled cheekily.

Sam rolled his eyes – scrunching his face after he did so – and then crossed to the table; not hungry but knowing Dean would never let him get away with not eating.

Sam sat down and wrapped his hands around the mug; allowing the warmth to seep into his body and reminded of all the times throughout his childhood that he had eaten canned soup from a motel room's coffee mug.

"Water or apple juice?" Dean asked from across the room; holding up the bottles of each.

Sam nodded at the apple juice.

"Surprise, surprise..." Dean commented dryly – not surprised at all that even his college kid little brother still wanted apple juice when he was sick – and crossed to the table with Sam's drink and medication; both the antibiotic and the Tylenol.

Sam slurped the broth of his chicken noodle soup and glanced up at Dean as his brother stood patiently beside him offering him the juice and pills.

Sam took them without complaint and almost finished the apple juice in one gulp.

Dean frowned at how obviously thirsty Sam was. "Tomorrow it's gonna be mostly water for you, Juice Boy," he informed his brother as he sat across the table from the kid. "You hear me? You're not getting dehydrated over something as stupid as you being too damn stubborn to drink."

Sam nodded and resumed slurping his soup; not realizing how hungry he really was until he had started eating.

There was comfortable, companionable silence as both brothers ate.

And then Sam spoke. "It's not what I thought it would be," he quietly admitted; his voice hoarse and scratchy, but his tone and expression indicating he had waited two months to confess that to Dean – that college and normal had not turned out to be what he had expected.

Dean sighed and stared at his brother; hating how disappointed and wounded Sam looked. "It usually isn't," he replied; knowing all too well how it felt to be let down by something you so desperately wanted; to find out that often times reality was nowhere close to the dream.

Sam smiled sadly and nodded at that truth.

Dean sighed again. "Sammy..."

Sam glanced up; his eyes misty and wide and feverish beneath his damp fringe of bangs.

"Just because things aren't what you thought they would be at first doesn't mean they won't eventually turn out that way...or maybe even better," Dean encouraged his brother; hating when Sam looked so upset. "Maybe you just need to give it time."

"It's been two months."

"Then maybe it needs more time."

Sam nodded, though his expression was doubtful.

There was a pause.

"Or maybe I need to just come back home..." Sam suggested quietly; his voice raw with sickness and suppressed emotion.

Dean swallowed against the knot of twisted emotion that rose in his own throat; selfish excitement at the possibility of having Sam back with him...but also stubborn, tough love that wouldn't let his brother give up on his dream so easily.

"But I guess I can't even do that since Dad – "

" – fuck, Dad!" Dean interrupted sharply; hating that Sam seemed so haunted by John's parting words – Don't ever come back – that their dad had delivered in a fit of wounded rage two months ago. "He never should have said that to you, Sammy. Never. People don't say that kind of shit to their kids. I would never say that to you. You hear me?"

Sam nodded; his eyes still misty with unshed tears.

"Your home is with me, Sammy; not with Dad," Dean continued heatedly. "And if you want to leave Stanford and come home, then you come home...and Dad will just have to get the fuck over it. But..." He paused; making sure his brother was looking at him and listening. "Don't give up just because it's hard; just because it sucks right now. Some hands turn out better the longer you play them. But only you truly know what hand you've been dealt and if you can play the cards you're holding."

Sam nodded again at his brother's logic; always strangely comforted when Dean resorted to poker lingo to sort through problems unrelated to the game.

"Hold 'em or fold 'em," Sam whispered and then swallowed; trying to smile at the familiar phrase.

"Exactly," Dean agreed. "And only you can decide which is best. You know I've got your back either way, man." He paused and smiled encouragingly. "But I don't think you should make the decision tonight. Get some rest, get well...and then see how you feel in a few days."

Sam sighed shakily but nodded.

Dean nodded as well. "Good," he praised. "Now enough talking. You sound even shittier than before."

Sam glared weakly and flipped off his brother from across the table.

Dean laughed. "Such crude gestures..." he playfully admonished as he once again reached for his mug of soup. "Who raised you anyway?"

"A poker player," Sam answered hoarsely and then swallowed against his sore throat before smiling proudly.

Dean quirked a smile of his own; always feeling amused and uncharacteristically sappy when Sam said such simple things that made him want to cry like a freakin' girl. "Eat," he gruffly told his brother and waved toward the cooling mug of soup still in Sam's hand.

Sam nodded; his smile lingering as he ate; knowing Dean had heard his love and gratitude in what he had said.

Several minutes later, the brothers were finished with their meal; Dean taking the mug from Sam's hand and wordlessly pushing the exhausted kid toward the far bed.

Sam went – his obedience testifying to how tired he was – and crawled under the covers before sinking into the mattress and pillow; sighing as he closed his eyes and almost instantly dropped off to sleep.

Dean smiled – because Sam had always fallen asleep in record time whenever the kid was sick – and continued to stare down at his brother; making plans to go shopping tomorrow while Sam rested; to replace his brother's cell phone and to stock the kid up on whatever else he needed. He would have to casually ask Sam about that tomorrow over breakfast...

Dean sighed and then crossed back to the table; clearing their mugs and cups before taking his own duffel into the bathroom and preparing for bed.

When he returned to the main room, Sam was still sleeping, and Dean allowed himself the indulgence of checking the kid's fever for himself; quickly palming Sam's forehead beneath his damp bangs and assuring himself that while Sam's fever was high, his brother had certainly had higher.

Dean nodded – knowing the meds he had given Sam would kick in soon – and crossed to his own bed; situating himself under the covers and then reaching for the lamp on the bedside table.

"'Night, Sammy..." Dean called out of habit – even when the kid wasn't there to hear it – and felt so incredibly thankful that the bed next to his actually had his little brother in it tonight.


FIN