Title: Change is Inevitable
Disclaimer: Not my characters. Not my world. No
Summary: Sam is just coming down with a cold when Dean picks him up in the Pilot.
Prompt: Sam is just coming down with a cold when Dean picks him up in the Pilot. As he gets sicker, it feels like the most natural thing in the world for Dean to just take charge and do what he needs to do to make sure that Sam feels okay. But the dynamic has changed and, not that he'd admit it, but maybe Dean's not entirely sure how to negotiate these things any more.
Change is Inevitable
“Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.”
~Robert C. Gallagher
Dean didn't even think twice about driving straight through the night. The one and only thought in his mind was: Dad. Somehow, if they got there sooner, it meant they'd find Dad. Somehow, if Sam was along, it meant they'd find Dad. Somehow, if everything went back to exactly the way it had been before Sam left for college, it meant they'd find Dad. But Dean was used to hunting on his own now. So he drove straight through the night without handing the wheel over to this brother. And when he got a little drowsy around six in the morning, he automatically pulled over at a gas station for coffee.
Dean hopped out, car keys jangling in his hand, and had already closed the driver's side door when Sam called out to him through the open window. “Three—” He stopped, his voice deep and scratchy. Sam cleared his throat and tried again. “Three sugars, two creams.”
Standing there in the vacant parking space next to his baby, the morning sub hitting his unshaven cheeks and shining right into his eyes, Dean squinted more than just from confusion. “What?”
“I take my coffee with cream and sugar now.” Dean just stared at him, not convinced this wasn't some sort of shifter pretending to be his brother. “There are other ways of enjoying coffee than just drinking black sludge straight from a gas station coffee pot, you know. Three sugars and two creams—with hazelnut flavoring, if they have it, actually.”
In a daze, Dean walked into the convenient store, hoping his coffee would wake him up enough to process what had happened to the brother he thought he knew.
Dean glanced over at Sam, who was trying—unsuccessfully—to stay awake. He'd slept a couple hours last night, but he'd been nodding off all morning as well. It made Dean chuckle a little; the kid wasn't used to life on the road. He was used to nine hours of sleep every night in bed next to... what was her name again?
A firm punch to Sam's upper arm woke him. “Hey, Sleeping Beauty, it's lunchtime.”
Sam rubbed his face as he sat up, using the door and the back of the seat to push himself upright and stretch as much as he could in the car. He rubbed at his nose and frowned as he saw the place Dean had chosen for lunch.
“You want a coke or a milkshake with your usual?”
“Neither. And I want a salad.”
“Lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions come on a burger already.”
Sam laughed. “I want an actual salad. No burger. No fries. They do sell salads at McDonald's.”
“Sure, but no one actually eats them.” Dean expected a laugh from his brother. This had to be a joke, right? But instead of laughter, he got something he had been happy living without for the past few years: Sam's bitchface. “You're serious?” Sam's expression didn't change, and Dean rolled his eyes. “I don't want you fainting with hunger while you're watching my back out there on a hunt.”
“Then get me a salad with chicken on it, but I want a salad.”
They were wasting time arguing. Dad was who knew where, maybe hurt, maybe dying, and they were sitting here talking about lunch. “Fine. I'll get you a salad.”
Dean blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Orange Hi-C to drink. No soda.”
Dean shook his head. “You're killing me here, Sam.” Flavoring in his coffee. Salad at McDonald's. What the hell had California done to Sam Winchester?
But Sam wasn't budging, so Dean found himself trying not to die with embarrassment as he placed the order with the bored teenage girl behind the register. When he got back to the car, Sam was once again sleeping, head pillowed on his arm where it rested, bent, against the window. Wuss. Dean hadn't even been gone fifteen minutes.
When Dean sat down in the driver's seat and pulled the car door closed after him, Sam sat up with a start. And a cough. Dean rolled his eyes as he thrust the kid's drink at his baby brother. “Here's your juice, Sammy.” Then he handed the giant salad cup to his giant, sleepy brother. “Here's your salad, Samantha.” Then, out of the bag, he pulled an apple pie. “And here's a pie.”
Dean pointed repeatedly at Sam for emphasis. “Oh no. You're going to eat it. And you're going to eat it while it's warm, Sam.”
With a smile, Sam relented and dug into the pie while Dean drove them back onto the highway.
Sam dug around in the white paper takeout bag. “Dean... did you grab me a fork?”
Dean tried but couldn't keep a sly smile off his face.
As Dean walked out of the drug store, he rooted around in the plastic bags so that the moment he sat back down in the driver's seat, he could park the box of tissues he's bought on Sam's lap.
Sam looked down at it with an expression of confusion, almost as if he'd never seen something like it before. Dean held his hand up as he started the car and headed back onto the highway. “Wait, let me guess: you're too good for tissues and you use yuppie, Californian, environmentally-friendly hankies or something now when you catch a cold?”
Sam shook his head slowly, still staring at the box resting in his lap and not reaching for it. “Why are you giving me this?”
It was Dean's turn to be confused, “Uh, because you're sick. And by the end of the day your nose is going to be red and running like a leaky faucet.”
“I'm not sick,” Sam said plainly, though Dean noticed he still wouldn't look away from the tissue box, wouldn't meet Dean's eyes, which was all Dean needed to keep from doubting himself. Because it had been years. It was possible Sam had changed. It was possible Dean had misread all the signs. Sam had never lied to him before about not feeling so hot, but there was a lot Sam didn't tell him—starting with Sam's decision to leave for college and ending with, oh, every day of the past few years of his life. But when Sam wouldn't meet his gaze, Dean knew.
He didn't understand, though, why Sam wouldn't just admit he was coming down with something. It wasn't like this was the first time he'd ever gotten sick before. Hell, Dean had spent four years of his life doing nothing but wiping Sam's nose, tucking him into bed, and watching over him. “Of course you're sick.” Dean gestured at Sam. “You're ghost white with pink in your cheeks, which means your temperature's just a couple degrees above normal. You've been sleeping all morning, which means your body's trying to fight something off.” He reached down for the plastic McDonald's cup of what used to be obnoxiously orange Hi-C and shook it; there was no sound. “You ate every ice cube that was in your drink, and you only do that when you have a bad sore throat. And you've been rubbing your nose all morning like you're trying to keep yourself from sneezing, which is only going to work for so long.”
Sam finally tore his gaze from the tissue box and shifted it, instead, out the window. “I'll be fine,” he said, so quietly that the music blaring through the car's tape deck almost drowned it out. “As soon as we find Dad, I'm going back to Stanford, back to Jess, back to my apartment.” He set the tissue box aside, between Sam and Dean on the Impala's front seat, but he scrubbed the side of his hand at his nose.
Dean took his eyes off the road to glance over at his brother. He sighed and placed the tissue box back in Sam's lap. “This cold's not going to wait that long. Look, I bought some non-drowsy cold medicine, some cough drops, and some nasal spray.” Dean gestured toward the plastic bags he'd tossed into the backseat of the car. “Help yourself, Sammy.”
Sam bristled at the nickname and rubbed his nose again. Dean knew the kid was fighting a losing battle here; it was only a matter of time before he started sneezing, before the cold hit with its full force. And Dean knew better than anyone alive—better than Dad, better than Jess, he was sure—what Sam needed when he was sick.
At least, he used to know. Because Sam used to want his care. Sam used to curl up in the backseat with his head on Dean's shoulder and Dean's arm protectively around his shoulders. Sam used to let Dean pour cupfuls of syrup for him every four-to-six hours, waking up in the middle of the night if they had to, just to keep Sam on a schedule and his symptoms at bay. Sam used to let him rub his back, stroke his hair, pet his arm. Sam used to let Dean hand over tissues, sometimes even catch sneezes for him. This Sam didn't want any of that, apparently.
Dean didn't know this Sam.
Dean missed his brother. After years, his brother was finally back at his side, on a hunt again, and it felt like he was miles away at college still.
When Sam picked up the tissue box a second time and moved it off his lap, onto the seat, Dean didn't touch it again.
That had to be something like a dozen sneezes now. A dozen in a little less than half an hour. Sam sniffled against the side of his hand, which he almost permanently held at his nose, either pressing or rubbing or sometimes both at once.
“heh-hih-INGTChhhhh! Uh... sniiiifffff!” Dean winced. He wanted to give Sam the tissue box again. Hell, he wanted to dig his hand into the box, pull out a whole wad of Kleenex, and thrust the whole thing right at Sam's nose. But apparently that wasn't how to deal with this Sam now.
Dean didn't know how to deal with this Sam now. All he knew was that they were going to reach Jericho in an hour and then everything was going to change. Was this Sam going to actually help him on the hunt?
Was this Sam going to want a separate motel room?
Was this Sam ever going to admit he was sick and blow his damn runny nose?
As they passed a sign that read JERICHO 50 MI, Dean decided he'd had enough of the uncertainty, of the tightrope walking, of the pretending to ignore the giant fucking cold-ridden elephant in the car. When Dean spoke, he tried not to sound as completely pissed off as he felt. “So why'd you agree to come with me if you knew you were coming down with a cold?”
“I didn't think hehh... it w-would... hehh-IHENGShhhhh! Sniff! I didn't think it would be this bad.”
“Damn it, Sam. Your colds are always this bad. You sleep for half a day and then you sneeze and cough nonstop for three, then it hangs on just enough to be distracting for a week and a half. Every single damn time.” His hands were tight as they gripped the steering wheel. His teeth were clenched. What was he going to do with Sam now? Dean really had no idea.
Apparently, Sam was just as clueless about him. “Sniff! Why are you so angry?”
Dean thought about lying; it would serve Sam right. But Dean was too angry and too ready to let his brother have it. So, instead, he blurted out, “Because you're obviously sick and won't let me do anything about it!”
Sam yelled back, “Because I don't need you taking care of me. I'm not a baby any more!”
“You're always going to be my baby brother!” With a violent jerk of the steering wheel, Dean directed them onto the shoulder of the road. Then he turned, eyes shooting daggers at Sam. “And I'm always going to want to look after you.”
“Sniff! And you're pissed off at me because I won't let you?”
“No, I'm pissed off because I'm worried about you.”
“I...” The sentence went nowhere, but the tension in Sam's body melted away. He looked over at Dean with the large, wet, sad puppy dog eyes Dean had never in his life been able to refuse.
“I know,” Dean said, softer, kinder. “I know I shouldn't worry because you'll be fine.” He ripped open the tissue box, took a couple out, and held them out to Sam. “But just prove to me you can take care of yourself, and I'll back off.”
After a second, Sam took the tissues and wiped at his nose, freeing Dean's hand to reach up, flip over, and feel Sam's forehead. When they were younger and Sam was running a bad fever, Dean would hold cold cloths there for hours. When Sam was running just a light fever, like this one, sometimes Dean would just press his hand there, warm and comforting, just enough of a touch to let Sam know Dean was there and wasn't going anywhere.
Dean pulled his hand away now. They weren't young any more. They were adults. Sam had his own life, a life without Dean and without Dean's help.
Sam still looked vulnerable and hurt as he snuffled into his tissues. His gaze finally met Dean's. “So... can you get me some of that medicine?” he asked, making Dean's face light up. Dean reached over the seat for what he'd bought at the drug store. Sam scooted closer and together they went through the bags.