Betas: calamitycrow, sleepwalker1015, and Carlos (who still doesn't have an LJ)
Fandom/Genre: Supernatural, Gen, hurt/comfort, semi-AU
Spoilers: Everything up through 5.04 ("The End") is fair game; goes AU after that
Rating: R for language, and possibly disturbng medical immagery
Word Count 14,271 (in two parts, second part linked at end of first)
Prompt: #25:Sam, Dean, gen.
I've seen this one a few times now, but there can never be enough! Muhaha. Dean's rehymenated body doesn't have all the immunities his old body had built up and he gets sick over and over again. In the middle of a war with all the odds already stacked against them, it's kind of a problem. Prompted by hoodietime.
A/N 1: Written for the Dean-centric hurt-comfort challenge on hoodie_time
A/N 2: The title is a twist on the famous quote about the trojan horse from Book II of The Aeneid by Virgil. The original quote is "Timeō Danaōs et Dōna Ferentīs" or "I fear Greeks, even bearing gifts."
A/N 3: I am so sorry for the wait. Most stories I've seen that have interpreted the idea of Dean's "rehymenation" leaving him without immunities have picked up right after he got back from hell. But I got to thinking about how Cas lurking around and repeatedly healing Dean and the Angels being more or less happy with Dean's obedience might have influenced the onset of his symptoms... this fic is the result. I hope you like it.
When Dean had come back from hell with his all ‘new’ body, healed of all its scars and broken bones and imperfections, a part of Sam had been jealous. A tiny part that wasn’t occupied by the relief at having Dean back or the lingering anger that he’d sold his soul in the first place or the nearly all-consuming guilt that it had been some angel and not Sam who’d rescued Dean from Hell, but it had been there all the same… After all, who wouldn’t want to lose all those relics of past injuries and tragedies? Have the opportunity to lose their virginity all over again... It was the idea of starting fresh that made Sam’s belly curl with the tiniest green twinge of envy.
Why couldn’t Sam have that?
But that jealousy was short lived. Quickly lost in the realization that all the tangible relics and landmarks of their shared past, of Dean’s life were gone. It hurt in ways Sam couldn’t explain, and definitely hadn’t expected, to realize that that scar on Dean’s knee that he’d gotten teaching Sammy how to ride a bike when Sam was 4 and that dent in his collar bone Dean had acquired during Sam’s first poltergeist hunt weren’t there any more. It made Sam feel lost again—like he really hadn’t gotten his Dean back. And while it was nice that Dean no longer bore the evidence of the gunshot wound from Meg’s possession of Sam, it really didn’t make Sam feel any less guilty to have the visual evidence erased.
He was pretty sure, once the novelty wore off, Dean would miss the scars too.
But for a while, that’s all they were—missing scars and marks, reminders of a life hard-lived erased. Sure, Dean did get a few really bad colds that first winter, and a nasty case of the flu that started out looking like it was going to turn into something much worse, but it didn’t. Mostly, they were both drifting in their own worlds—Sam slowly losing himself to demon blood and Ruby’s whispered lies, and Dean acting like he was losing his soul all over again and trying not to care.
So, it wasn’t until after Lucifer was free that they figured out the Angels’ “gift” had come with a very heavy price.
They had just gotten back on the road together after Sam’s misguided attempt to stop ‘inflicting’ his presence on Dean and Dean’s equally misguided idea that they’d be better off on separate continents, and it was getting late. Dean had been clearly uncomfortable—shifting and changing position, giving the occasional grunt, turning down offers of food—the last few hours of their drive north from Salem, where they’d just finished dealing with an actual cursed object at a day care center, and Sam was starting to get a little concerned. At first, Dean wouldn’t say what was wrong, beyond offering to let Sam drive, and Sam was willing to chalk it up to Dean being his new usual—always in denial of any pain or distress and even more closed off than he used to be, at least to Sam. But by the time they’d crossed the Washington border, Dean was positively twitching in his seat. Sam asked if he wanted to stop, and was answered with a dismissive grunt. Only it kept getting worse, which was why Sam had steered them off the highway and into the parking lot of a clean-but-tired-looking motel just off the I-5 corridor about two hours south of Seattle.
Sam had wearily checked them in and collected the key from the front desk, not wanting to wake Dean, who had finally slipped into a fitful doze against the Impala’s passenger window. Once he had the room open and their duffels out of the trunk and into the room, he came back to collect Dean.
“Dean, come on, bed,” Sam said gently, leaning across the front seat and shaking his brother’s shoulder lightly.
Dean’s eyes cracked open one after the other, and he squinted up at Sam like he was in pain. “W’re’we?” he yawned, lifting his head off the door, and making an aborted stretch, wincing and then flinching as if in pain.
Sam’s eyes widened in concern, “We’re in Longview… uh, Washington,” he added when Dean shot him a confused, bleary look.
“Why we stopping?” he asked, voice a little clearer.
“Cause it’s late and uh…” Sam didn’t want Dean to protest and insist they continue, “I’m tired,” he hedged.
“‘Kay,” Dean murmured, sounding out-of-it again. Sam was very surprised that he didn’t even protest. Dean didn’t budge, though, so Sam wound up having to go around to the passenger side, open the door, and actually lead Dean into the room. He was shocked at how hot Dean’s hand felt. Sam convinced himself it must just be sleep-warm from the way Dean had been curled in on himself while he napped, hands tucked up inside his leather jacket and under his armpits, but Sam had a sinking suspicion he was wrong.
It wasn’t long before Dean started itching, scratching at his ears first, and then at just about everything else—arms, legs, neck, stomach—he was even using their hotel room’s bathroom doorframe as a scratching post to rub the ‘hard-to-reach’ places on his back.
“Dean, stop it! What are you doing?” Sam asked as he watched his brother’s bizarre behavior.
“It itches, Sammy,” Dean replied sounding far too innocent and affectionate for Sam’s liking. Dean hadn’t been that—unguarded—since before he went to hell. While it thrilled Sam to that some of the distance between them was melting away, he didn’t like how. Something was really wrong.
“What itches, Dean?” he prodded stepping a little closer as if approaching a wounded animal.
“Dunno, it just... everywhere,” Dean replied sounding a little dazed as he looked up and froze, his back pressed against the doorjamb as if he’d just realized what he’d been doing.
As Sam approached, he noticed a raised, red spot on Dean’s neck just above the collar of his leather jacket. The spot looked oddly familiar. And there! Another spot on the cartilage at the front of Dean’s ear. It looked like... chicken pox? But that didn’t make any sense. Ok, yes, now that he thought about it, one of the teachers they’d interviewed in Salem had mentioned something about an outbreak of chicken pox, so chances were they might have been exposed to contagious kids, but Dean had had chicken pox, Sam was sure of it. He distinctly remembered Dean catching it the same time he had... Sam had been six and Dean ten—probably not long after the Shtriga incident, come to think of it—and Dad had bundled them both up and stayed at Pastor Jim’s for two weeks until they recovered. They’d had oatmeal baths and calamine lotion, and Dad had put mittens on Dean’s hands ‘cause he wouldn’t stop scratching.
So how could Dean have chicken pox now?
Dean wriggled a little more against the doorjamb, and Sam dared to reach out and feel Dean’s forehead.
“Dude, what the hell are you doing?” Dean protested, reaching up a hand to swat at Sam’s offending gesture.
Only, the swat was more like a flop, and Dean’s words came out in more of a slurred whine than a biting retort.
As Sam had feared, Dean was burning up—the heat radiating so strongly, Sam was able to pick up on it with his hand still an inch or so from Dean’s body. Sam pressed forward, touching Dean’s skin, and flinched, hand jerking back because Dean’s skin almost burned.
Sam’s alarm must have shone on his face—or maybe Dean had picked up on how weak he sounded—because when Sam met Dean’s eyes he saw genuine concern reflected there.
“Wha’s’it?” Dean managed with a gulp, eyes tracking Sam’s hand—the hand he’d pulled away from Dean’s forehead, as if he feared Sam might be hurt. And wouldn’t that be just like Dean?
“Dean, you’re burning up man. Your fever’s gotta be at least 103. And—” Sam broke off not wanting to sound ridiculous. Because—
—Because it should be impossible. They’d both had chicken pox when Sam was a kid. Had it bad, not some wimpy case that might not have succeeded in creating immunity, but a scab-heavy, itchy, case. Why Dean had gotten permanent scars from it like the one on his collarbone and the little circle just underneath his left eyebr—
Sam caught himself staring up at the unblemished skin of Dean’s brow.
Only, it hadn’t. Because that Dean wasn’t this Dean, not exactly... maybe in all the ways that counted—memories, personality, love—but not in terms of body. And maybe not in terms of chicken pox immunity? After all, it was less than a year ago that Dean had been going on and on about being “rehymenated.” Maybe his immunities for some things had been left in hell, along with all the scars that had spelled out the reality of their childhoods, of their lives so far?
“What?” Dean’s squawk brought Sam’s attention back to the matter at hand.
“I think you have chicken pox,” he blurted.
“God, you had me worried there,” Dean said with a relieved sigh and a forced chuckle, twitching in a little, aborted shimmy against the cheap vinyl molding before pushing himself off.
“Dean, this is serious,” Sam half-whined. So typical. That was one aspect of Dean’s personality that hadn’t changed, the tendency to brush off injury and illness, while insisting he was all right and making jokes to deflect concern. “I mean it, you’ve got… spots… chicken pox spots on your neck, and ear, and you’re burning up!”
“I do?” Dean asked, his tone suggesting he might trust the visual proof even while rejecting Sam’s assertion.
“Yeah!” Sam said, reaching out to grab Dean’s shoulders and gently spinning him around so he was facing into the bathroom. Dean flinched a little at the touch. “Go take a look in the mirror if you don’t believe me.”
Dean obeyed moving in stiff, weary shuffle-steps until he was standing before the motel bathroom’s chipped, spotted mirror, squinting and leaning forward. “Are you sure?” he asked, poking and then rubbing and finally scratching at the exposed blister on his neck.
“Look at your ear,” Sam suggested, crossing his arms, and flopping against the door jamb with his shoulder.
“Huh.” Dean gave a little gusting snort. “It does look like chicken pox.” He stopped for a minute, eyes glassy and a little vacant with the fever, before turning to face Sam. “But I had chicken pox as a kid. How’s this possible?”
Sam shrugged, “Sometimes people get it twice, or it comes back as, uh,” what was the name of that disease “shingles—it’s when the virus goes dormant and hides along nerves. It’s supposed to be really painful. One of Pastor Jim’s friends had it, I remember.” Sam didn’t know what made him feel worse, that it still hurt to say their childhood friend and occasional guardian’s name after three plus years, or that it didn’t hurt more.
“Oh yeah,” Dean said absently, his body twitching, as his right hand traitorously snuck under his armpit and started scratching. “But I don’t think this is it. Doesn’t hurt just… itches. And I don’t feel good,” he added with a whine, “but it’s just chicken pox—”
“Which is really dangerous for adults. There’re lots of complications you can get—and your temperature’s way up.” Sam pointed out.
“How’d I get it?” Dean wondered aloud.
Good question, even beyond the immunity issue and the possible resurrection-related answer, how, or when, had Dean been exposed. Sam wracked his memories trying to figure out when that could have happened until finally it dawned on him. The pre-school. Their last job had taken a lot of prep and research because the cursed object had been particularly difficult to identify. They’d been in Salem for a little over two weeks, and the first time they’d actually come in contact with the students was just about two weeks ago.
“The kids. They were out sick,” Dean grumbled in dawning realization. “That’s why the director asked us if we were immune when we showed up,” he groaned. “But we were, so why the hell is this happening?”
“I don’t know Dean, but maybe…” Sam hedged.
“Maybe what?” Dean’s voice was suddenly gruff, dark, his eyes flicking to meet Sam’s in a defiant challenge as if he already knew he wasn’t going to like Sam’s answer.
“Maybe it has something to do with you uh, being—rehymenated, as you put it?” Sam said sheepishly. He hated, hated, hated the childish term his brother had invented, but then again, this was Dean and juvenile humor was a defense mechanism. Even Sam had figured that out.
Dean looked offended, then shrugged, “I dunno, I mean that was a while ago…” He didn’t finish the sentence and his face took on a distant, stony expression, one Sam was far too familiar with these days. Dean didn’t want to talk or think about everything that had happened, the mess their lives and relationship—and the world—had become since he’d made it back from hell. Instead he started walking forward with more energy in his step than Sam had seen all day. Dean pushed past Sam, actually knocking into him with his shoulder on his way by.
Sam let himself be bumped out of the way and watched Dean retreat to the relative comfort of the bed by the door. Flopping down on his belly without even bothering to remove his boots or jacket… which itself was cause for worry. Dean always took great care of that jacket, and he’d never been the type to sleep comfortably with shoes on.
“Come on, man, let me take your temperature at least. It felt really high; I wanna make sure we don’t need to go to the hospital,” Sam said, walking over to the bed, and sitting down alongside Dean, reaching down to loosen the laces on Dean’s boots.
An angry, tired swat was what Sam got for his efforts. “‘M fine,” came the pillow-muffled grumble. “‘Sides,” Dean said a little more clearly as he shimmied and rolled onto his back, left hand sneaking under his layered shirts to scratch at a spot just above his belly button, “‘m not going to the hospital over some kid disease.”
“But it’s not some ‘kid disease’; getting chickenpox as an adult is really dangerous. There are complications!” Sam exclaimed in exasperation.
Dean just narrowed his eyes at Sam, slipped his right hand under several layers of shirts, too, and scratched some more.
“Can I at least take your temp?” Sam asked.
Dean grunted, wiggled on his back, and then sighed. “Knock yourself out. Can you see if we’ve got some calamine lotion in the first aid kit while you’re at it?”
“Sure,” Sam said, standing and heading to the door. It was worth a trip to the car out to reassure himself that Dean wasn’t as sick as he looked.
Only when Sam stepped outside it was raining. Torrentially. He got soaked retrieving the kit, and the news it gave, did nothing to reassure. To the contrary, it painted a more alarming picture of Dean’s health.
The thermometer beeped: 104.8… Sam looked at the digital readout, blinked and looked at it again. Holy shit! That was considerably worse than Sam had thought. He’d half-convinced himself in the time since feeling Dean’s forehead that his brother wasn’t that sick. He was still stringing together coherent sentences after all.
Maybe the thermometer was wrong? Sam pressed the ‘reset’ button, grabbed another plastic sleeve (liberated from the store room of a free clinic in Reno last month) from the kit, slipped it over the thermometer, and jabbed it back under Dean’s tongue. “Come on, cooperate with me,” Sam coaxed.
Dean gave him a glassy, annoyed glare that screamed I just did this you idiot, but complied. That actually scared Sam. Compliant Dean was almost never a good sign.
The thermometer beeped again. Sam pulled it out, eyes immediately seeking out the digital readout, mentally crossed fingers hoping for a lower number. 105.0. Shit! Sam stared, jaw going a little slack. He took two breaths. Waited two beats to let the information register and then sprang into action, the familiar rush of adrenaline flowing through his system. He immediately grabbed the kit and Dean’s boots and his now-soaked jacket, and started shoving the shoes at Dean’s feet, with his right hand, while pulling his cell out of his pocket with his left. Quick dial to 411 and he was finding out the location of the nearest, best hospital. An ambulance would be nice, but given their circumstances, way more trouble than it was worth. No way in hell would Dean—while conscious—let an ambulance take him away.
“Wha?” Dean asked groggily, his body giving an involuntary shiver, as he tried to roll to a seated position, fingers fumbling with his boot laces.
“Yes, can you send that by text message, please,” Sam said to the operator, before slapping his phone closed. A few seconds later the telltale buzz of a new text confirmed the address and phone number for Providence Centralia Hospital had arrived.
“Sam?” Dean asked, his brow furrowing with concern.
“We’re going to the hospital,” Sam barked, a little too harshly, anticipating Dean’s refusal.
Dean shifted, jaw opening and closing like he was on the verge of an objection, but before he could say anything Sam interrupted him.
“Your fever’s 105. One hundred and five, Dean. It went up point two degrees between checks. Even… even Dad would have gone to the hospital,” Sam said quietly. It still wasn’t easy to talk about Dad, and probably never would be.
Dean blinked a few times. “Really? I mean, 105? I don’t feel that bad.” Dean sat up a little more, blinked, wavering where he sat. “Ok, maybe I do. Room’s spinnin’.”
After that, at least Dean cooperated. And an hour and a frantic drive on a rain-slick I-5 later, they were stuck in an isolation room off the E.R. The admitting nurse had taken one look at Dean’s blisters and rash and whisked them out of the waiting room faster than Sam could blink. They’d taken Dean’s temp, did their own little double take at his temp (now 105.3) and put him on a saline drip with IV fever reducers. Only now, they were still waiting for the doctor to return, and Dean … Dean was getting much worse. He’d started to get delirious in the last ten minutes, a sign Sam knew from too much personal experience, meant Dean’s temp was dangerously high.
When Sam was a kid, Dean had always seemed fine, even if he was deathly ill, right until his temperature hit the border of ‘scary high’ and ‘brain cooking.’ Then it was all a quick slide downhill. He’d seen Dean go from fine with chills to delirious to seizing in under ten minutes. Which meant, the doctor had better get here damn fast or the situation was going to be very unpleasant. Sam wasn’t going to sit by and watch his brother’s possibly angelically disturbed immune system fry his brain.
Sam was also alarmed because Dean hadn’t even flinched or complained when Sam whipped out their ‘Sam and Dean Singer’ IDs for the admitting nurse. They only used those when one was severely injured or sick—using their first names avoided the risk associated with disoriented, delirious or concussed Winchesters forgetting their cover, and using ‘Singer’ ensured Bobby would have no difficulty being accepted as their ‘uncle’ if the needed to call him.
So, Sam was panicking, and Dean was on the verge of seizing when the doctor finally walked in. Of course, Dean’s traitorous body picked that moment for his eyes to roll back in his head, and pretty much everything after that for the next two-and-a-half weeks was a blur.
They’d rushed into Dean’s room as alarms started blaring—instead of dropping, his temperature had spiked to 106.5. Sam tried to convey information about Dean’s medical history as they barked questions at him. He was pretty sure he got across the idea that Dean’d had chicken pox before, so the entire situation was baffling, before they rushed him out of the room.
He called Bobby, at a loss. Over the next 48 hours Dean got ice baths and intravenous fever-reducers, while he was set up in the ICU isolated from other patients because of the highly contagious nature of chicken pox.
Bobby arrived the next day with Castiel tagging along for the ride. Sam shared Bobby’s pained glance as Cas was unable to do anything to help Dean. Cas seemed just as broken up about it as they did—Sam actually felt some true sympathy for the angel, especially when Cas’s normally impassive features furrowed with frustration and regret.
The hospital had put Dean on antivirals, trying to give his body a boost in fighting the infection. And it worked. His temperature finally dropped to a stable 100.5 on the third day—at which point Bobby and Cas bid them adieu, hurrying back to fighting the apocalypse. After all, Dean was supposed to be ‘out of the woods.’
But Dean wasn’t so lucky, and by the next morning, he had developed pneumonia—one of the dreaded complications of adult chicken pox.
That led to another two weeks in the hospital before the chicken pox had finally run its course and Dean’s lungs were clear enough for him to be released.
“Do you know why this happened?” Sam asked Dean’s attending physician as she was going over aftercare and release instructions on the day of Dean’s release.
Dean shot Sam an annoyed glance, but spoke up anyway, his voice still hoarse and scratchy, “Yeah doc, I had chicken pox as a kid, shouldn’t I have been immune?”
“Well, are you absolutely sure you contracted chicken pox when you were younger?” the doctor asked, eyebrows raised as she peered over her glasses, her clipboard held almost defensively in front of her chest.
“Yeah,” Dean answered with a hint of confusion, eyes tracking to Sam, who gave an affirmative nod.
The doctor furrowed her brow, “Well, I’m not certain what happened in your case, Dean, because the blood tests we ran show no evidence of pre-existing antibodies to the varicella virus. Sometimes a person’s immunity will wane over time so re-infection is possible, and that seems to be what happened to you,” she paused again, her face suggesting something was bothering her, some aspect of Dean’s illness was nagging at her, but whatever her concerns, she didn’t voice her musings. “The good news is you should be immune from chicken pox in the future; however, there’s always the risk you’ll develop shingles. We’re not exactly sure what mechanism causes the dormant virus to reactivate, but we generally advise that patients at risk avoid stressful situations, especially if feeling run down or if around anyone with active chicken pox or shingles, as there’s some evidence to suggest those conditions could reactivate the virus and lead to a shingles outbreak.”
“Ok, avoid stress, got it,” Dean huffed.
He rolled his eyes at Sam, the ridiculousness of the concept made it hard for Sam to suppress a derisive snort. Winchester’s avoid stress? The angels would sooner make peace with the demons and sing ‘Kumbaya’ around a campfire.
“Trust me; you do not want to experience shingles,” the doctor insisted, apparently displeased with their reactions. “It can be incredibly painful, and the skin rash is often accompanied by nerve pain that can linger long after the rash clears up; the pain is very difficult to treat.”
“Ok, message received,” Dean replied grimly, voice a little more sober and a lot stronger. “So, can I blow this joint?” He put on his best innocent grin.
Sure enough, the doctor signed Dean’s release papers a few minutes later, and for a little while, at least, it was back to business as usual. If Sam tried to direct them to easier hunts for a few weeks or steer Dean away from anyone with the hint of a cold—at least for as long as Dean was still taking antibiotics for the pneumonia, Sam wanted to avoid complications with any other respiratory ailments—Dean either didn’t notice or didn’t object.
Their next indication that something just wasn’t quite right, happened about a month after Dean got out of the hospital. Dean started losing his appetite. First, he just didn’t want a snack at a convenience store just west of Moses Lake, Washington, even though it had been five hours since they’d eaten, and the store had a real deli/grill boasting fresh-made bacon cheeseburgers.
When Sam expressed his utter shock, Dean shrugged.
“I’m just not hungry,” he offered, fending off Sam’s incredulous question. “I’ll grab something later.”
Only when they checked into a Travelodge in Seattle later that night, Dean didn’t want dinner. He didn’t want to hit any bars or play any pool, either. “I’m tired, and we’re good on cash.”
Sam didn’t think Dean going to bed at ten pm qualified as ‘tired,’ but Dean was out like a light five minutes after his head hit the pillow, and Sam wasn’t about to wake him up to argue or prod. Still, it unsettled Sam. Dean had never quite gotten his energy back after the pneumonia, and the doctor’s hesitance, the hint there was something more going on that remained unsaid, nagged at Sam. He felt it too; he just couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong.
The next day Dean picked at his breakfast, and by noon he was complaining of a headache. Dean insisted it wasn’t bad, but his admission spoke volumes.
Sam couldn’t help the growing knot of dread as he took in Dean’s flushed cheeks and glassy eyes. Sure enough, by dinner time Dean had a fever.
Sam and Dean had come to Seattle to investigate a possible water spirit or oddly behaving grindylow responsible for a series of boating accidents in the shallower waters along the western shore of Lake Washington, just north of the floating bridges that interrupted the ripples and waves on the sprawling lake’s surface. They were supposed to follow up with an investigation of the shoreline near the cluster of mishaps, but Dean’s condition was rapidly deteriorating, and it was readily apparent he wasn’t up to it, so Sam went ahead as planned and snuck down to the water just beyond Husky Stadium’s massive complex of parking lots to do some recon, looking for any sign of the disturbance’s source. The attacks had happened during the day, so Sam was pretty confident he would be safe. But he just couldn’t shake the feeling he shouldn’t be leaving Dean alone.
Sure, the hunt was important—not apocalypse important, but then again, the raging war between heaven and hell hadn’t exactly stopped the ordinary evils and mischief makers of the supernatural world from wreaking havoc on the oblivious masses—but Dean was sick. Again. And his brother’s wellbeing was worth more to Sam than offing any errant water menace. After a distracted, fruitless search he packed it in and returned to the motel.
Dean’s slightly labored snores greeted him, and Sam slipped into bed quietly, wary of disturbing his ailing brother. He hoped some sleep would help Dean. Maybe a little break from the grind of hunting. Maybe everything would look better in the morning? Only Sam knew Winchester luck didn’t work that way. They were cursed, after all.
The next morning, Sam awoke to the sound of Dean moaning. He took a few deep breaths steeling himself against facing the day.
“Sam?” Dean called weakly.
Sam slowly pried open his eyes.
“Sam, I know you’re awake. Need y’r help here.” Dean grunted, swore, and grunted some more.
“What—” Sam began to ask, but as he sat up and turned to face Dean, the answer was obvious.
Dean’s jaw, neck, and chin were swollen to comical proportions, giving him a ridiculous appearance that was something like a jowly pundit and a chipmunk.
“I’ve got mumps,” he croaked, visibly wincing as he struggled to move his jaw, “and I think I’m losing my voice.”
Sam thought back. He was sure he and Dean had both received their mumps vaccine—the usual MMR shot in early childhood and then the booster later on, around the time epidemics of measles at colleges made it clear immunity could wear off. John Winchester might have forged and skimped on lots of things, but vaccinations were never one of them—skipping immunizations would have opened them up to needless risks and illness, a serious and unacceptable weakness for any hunter. So how the hell was Dean sick now? First the chicken pox, now this?
“I think,” Dean squeaked hesitantly, “I think, it’s the angels. When they brought me back in a new body, well…” His voice trailed off. “I think it was really new. Like factory fresh.”
“Dean, don’t—” Don’t what? Make jokes? Tempt fate? Voice the nagging suspicion that had been eating away at Sam ever since Dean started fidgeting in the Impala’s passenger seat on the way north from Salem.
“Sam, come on, you’ve been thinking it too,” Dean protested. “How else am I getting sick with shit I’ve already had or shouldn’t be able to get? Why am I getting sick and not you? The angels fixed everything else. They took away all my scars and broken bones… it’s like they undid everything that ever happened to me. Why not this too?” Dean’s voice was breaking up and he was half-panting, half-moaning by the time he was done.
“But why get sick now?” Sam wondered. “You’d been back for over nine months before you got chicken pox. I mean, ok, you did catch a lot of colds last year, but why not something,” his hands gesticulated wildly, “big sooner?” Sam tugged at his hair in frustration. “We’re in the Northwest again. Maybe it’s just cursed.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s just us that’s cursed,” Dean whispered. “Besides. Last year? I was playing along. Cas had his powers. He healed me a few times. The angels had us both wrapped around their fingers. Maybe they were… being nice?”
Sam glanced over at Dean, but didn’t dare catch his eye. It made sense. It made way too fucking much sense. The only question was, if the angels had wiped clean Dean’s immune system, what the hell could they do about it? Sam stared off into space losing himself in the what-ifs, until Dean’s agonized groan brought him back.
“Sam, I think I need t’go t’the hospital,” Dean whimpered. “My… my balls are swollen too, and my gut aches really bad.”
Sam finally noticed Dean was sitting up propped on the edge of the bed, legs splayed far apart, his left arm, wrapped protectively around his body, pressing against the upper part of his abdomen—not appendicitis then—he looked flushed and swollen, and dangerously fragile, all things Dean, strong, brave, big-brother, protector Dean should never be.
“Impala, or ambulance?” Sam asked.
“We’re close, t’hospital. Just don’t scratch my baby.”
When they arrived at the University of Washington Medical Center about ten minutes later, Sam experienced a nauseating sense of déjà vu. The admitting and triage nurses whisked them off to isolation faster than Sam could blink. The medical staff peppered Sam with questions as they hooked Dean up to an IV. Yes, they’d both been immunized. Yes, Sam was sure. No, Dean wasn’t on any immunosuppressive medications. No, Dean didn’t have HIV or any other condition that could make him particularly susceptible to infection. And oh yeah, a couple of months ago Dean was in the hospital down in Longview with chicken pox even though he’d had it as a kid. Sam didn’t even hesitate to use the Sam and Dean Singer IDs again. They needed the connection to Dean’s previous hospitalization, and they were sure as hell gonna need Bobby.
The medical staff grew increasingly concerned with Sam’s answers, especially after procuring and reviewing Dean’s records from the chicken pox/pneumonia incident. They were even more alarmed when they realized Dean had lost his voice and had orchitis, or the ‘swollen balls’ Dean had mentioned earlier. When they clued in to Dean’s complaints of severe stomach pain, he was whisked off for a contrast CT scan, which confirmed a preliminary diagnosis of pancreatitis, an incredibly nasty complication from the mumps virus. They started murmuring things about ‘severe case,’ and ‘possible additional complications,’ and ‘immunocompromised response.’
Before Sam could get his bearings, Dean had been checked into a room in the isolation ward, and Sam had to go through decontamination and wear protective clothing just to see him. Sam spent his time between visits calling first Bobby, then Cas, getting assurances both would be on their way to Seattle immediately. He hated to drag their allies away from the looming apocalypse, but Dean was too important. Chances were Dean’s illness was a part of the angels’ plan, and right now Sam and Dean both needed all the help and support they could get.
When Sam next got to visit, Dean was high as a kite on morphine. The doctors were pumping him full of IV fluids and more antivirals, but so far, Sam couldn’t see any effect. Dean looked just as miserable and swollen and weak as he had in their motel room. Meanwhile the phlebotomists collected more and more blood to run a seemingly endless series of tests. Sam felt sick. If this was the angels’ idea of a sick joke he wanted it to be over now.
Only he had a feeling he wasn’t that lucky. Dean wasn’t that lucky. The angels’ ‘gift’ had come back to bite them in the ass. Sam was just surprised he hadn’t seen it coming sooner.
“Idiopathic Immunodeficiency.” That’s what the doctors were calling it. In other words, Dean’s immune system didn’t work, and they had no idea why.
Sam did, and well Dean did too, but how did one explain to the doctors that one’s brother had an immune system weaker than a newborn infant’s because an angel pulled his soul out of hell and put it in a brand new body? And oh yeah, that had actually happened over a year ago, but the same angel was healing him, so no one noticed, and now that angel was cut off from heaven and couldn’t heal anymore. That was just it. Sam couldn’t explain.
On the third day of Dean’s hospitalization, his primary attending physician, Dr. Patel, took Sam aside to discuss the results of Dean’s tests. Sam had been secretly dreading the encounter, certain the doctor would tell him there was no hope. Dean was sick and just going to keep getting sick because it was the damn angels’ way of controlling him. To Sam’s surprise, the conversation didn’t go quite as he had anticipated.
“His immune system can develop antibodies. It’s not getting any worse; it’s not degenerative,” Dr. Patel explained as they stood outside the observation window of Dean’s isolation room. “It’s almost as if Dean’s immune system reformatted itself, kind of like a computer that’s had a very bad virus, sometimes there’s no way to get it to work unless you wipe it clean and reinstall all the software.”
Sam started to protest, but Dr. Patel cut him off.
“Look, Sam, I’m not equating your brother to a computer, but it is a good analogy for what’s happened. It’s like somehow his body restored itself to an infant-like state, only Dean now lacks even the antibodies newborns get from their mothers.” Dr. Patel sighed. “Sam, please if you won’t sit down will you at least take a walk with me?” The so we can avoid distressing the other patients’ families went unsaid.
“Okay,” Sam agreed, and Dr. Patel led him down the hall to the elevators, stepping into one heading down.
Neither spoke on the ride down, the car was too crowded, but Dr. Patel got out on the ground floor and motioned for Sam to follow.
Sam complied, not wanting to hear what the doctor had to say, not wanting to be so far from Dean, but also glad to be free of the claustrophobic beep and whoosh of hospital machinery.
“Come this way.” Dr. Patel guided Sam down a few brightly lit corridors towards the soft, bluish glow of natural light, and finally out a side entrance that led to a patio ringed by soothing plants and with a spectacular view of what Sam had learned was called the Montlake Cut.
“Sam, Dean’s body has almost no antibodies. He’s developing them for the mumps—”
Sam flinched at the thought of Dean so painfully swollen, at the mention of potential ‘testicular atrophy’ and possible sterility, and the constant fear of additional complications like meningitis and hearing loss to go along with the excruciating (and, if Sam was honest with himself, terrifying) case of pancreatitis Dean already had. Sam didn’t want Dean to have to endure any of that. He just wanted to fix it. Make it better. But, no, the apocalypse was coming, and Sam was Lucifer’s fucking vessel, and Dean was Michael’s and now the angels had one more way to try to get Dean to comply. They expected Sam’s brother to come crawling back to them begging to be healed, so they could condition healing him on Dean saying ‘yes.’ Sam shuddered at the thought—if they gave Dean something horrible enough and maybe he would do it. This wasn’t like the brief taste of Stage 4 Stomach Cancer, Zachariah had inflicted on Dean at their dad’s storage unit. No, they’d figured out Dean could endure almost anything after his time in Hell.
Instead, the angels had ensured Dean would be repeatedly incapacitated by life-threatening, potentially lethal, debilitating illnesses. The result was sickness and hospital stays that left Dean unable to defend himself—or Sam—and unable to hunt, while living in near constant fear of the next time, at least when he wasn’t drifting in a state of delirium either thanks to the sickness of the week or the drugs prescribed to treat it. Of course, Dean could always just say ‘no.’ No to medical intervention. No to ‘extraordinary lifesaving measures.’ He could sign a DNR and make out a living will, and just let himself die. Only Sam had no doubt if Dean did that, the angels would probably bring him back with his immune system once again wiped clean and reset to zero, so Dean could go through this same brutal, inhumane, torturous song and dance again, while Sam was forced to sit on the sidelines and do nothing.
He drifted back to himself, coming up out of the over-tired haze of anxiety and anger and frustration. Sam hadn’t noticed it, but he was hyperventilating; breath coming in rapid, shallow pants. He realized Dr. Patel had been talking, but Sam hadn’t heard the words; instead now spots popping up in front of his eyes, and the edges of his vision were darkening so he was looking down a long, unending, narrow tunnel, and what little he could see of the world was starting to spin into a blur of green and blue and brown.
The next thing he knew he was sitting on a cool, stone bench with a paper bag pressed over his nose and mouth and Dr. Patel’s warm brown eyes looking up at him with concern. The doctor was squatting in front of him holding the bag to Sam’s face.
“This is why I thought you should sit, Sam,” he said with an exasperated sigh once Sam’s breathing had calmed down. “I was saying, Dean has antibodies from the mumps and also from the varicella—chicken pox—and also a few strains of the common cold. But he doesn’t have any other antibodies.” The doctor paused to let the information sink in, checking to make sure Sam was doing ok and not hyperventilating again. Satisfied, he continued, “It’s bad, because there are all kinds of pathogens out there that wouldn’t cause you or I or even a small child to break a sweat that could be debilitating or life-threatening to Dean. But it’s also good, because we know Dean can develop immunities. With the chicken pox, well, he’ll have to be very careful about shingles because of how the dormant virus probably settled, but he’s not going to get mumps again.” Dr. Patel paused to take a breath and rose from his crouch to take a seat on the bench next to Sam.
Sam handed the paper bag back to him, regarding the doctor with wary regard. “What could cause something like that?” Sam asked, doing his best to play the part of the concerned family member and also genuinely curious what the doctors were thinking. After all, the working theory the medical community had concocted could determine whether he’d be able to get Dean out of the hospital, or if they left—escaped—if they could safely seek medical care again. If they couldn’t, Sam didn’t know what they’d do. It would probably be like being stuck in Broward County, Florida, watching Dean die over and over again, as the angels kept bringing him back just to let him die. Sam couldn’t suppress a shudder. He really didn’t think he could survive that again. That was the kind of—nightmare—that might make him say ‘yes.’ And come to think of it, that was probably part of the plan.
“We don’t know for sure,” Dr. Patel began after a long, contemplative pause, pulling Sam back from the brink, “We may never know. It’s possible some sort of retrovirus could have rewritten portions of your brother’s DNA, but there are no antibodies or any trace of viral DNA in Dean’s system beyond what I already mentioned. It could also be a spontaneous mutation, or perhaps more likely, an autoimmune disorder—but it’s not like anything we’ve seen before.”
Great. They thought it might be a virus or perhaps some fascinating new disease. Sam envisioned biohazard suits and CDC containment units in their futures, as scenes from E.T., Outbreak, and even Stephen King’s The Stand flashed by his mind’s eye. Pushing away the Technicolor nightmare, he managed to ask, “So, what, are you going to tell me that Dean needs to be locked up in a clean hospital ward or in some lab for—for r research?” Sam couldn’t keep the stammer out of his voice. He didn’t want to hear that Dean’s choices were reduced to being an imprisoned lab rat or giving in to the angels.
Sam’s head shot up in surprise, meeting Dr. Patel’s eyes for the possibly the first time since Dean had entered the hospital, as he pawed hastily at his suddenly moist eyes. “No?”
“Sam, whatever you’re thinking, we’re trying to help your brother, not make his life harder. His condition is,” Dr. Patel chose his words carefully, “intriguing and somewhat troubling to the medical community. But there is absolutely no evidence that he’s contagious. Since his immune system seems to be slowly reasserting itself, my colleagues and I believe the best course of action is to help Dean’s immune system along with an aggressive vaccination program.”
Sam blinked. Was this doctor for real? He’d thought for sure Dean would wind up—at best—as a government lab rat. “You mean, immunize him? Do you think that will work? Is his immune system strong enough?”
Dr. Patel nodded, leaning forward on the bench, turned at an angle towards Sam, his hands clasped between his knees. “Yes, to your first question, and we hope so to the second and third.” The doctor shook his head. “I can’t guarantee it will be without complications. We’re going to try to use vaccines that use inactivated viruses wherever possible. Even then, some people are allergic to vaccines, or otherwise have bad reactions. Given your brother’s unique situation, I can’t be sure how he’ll react. Some vaccines are based off of weakened viruses, and no, Dean’s immune system isn’t strong enough for those yet. They will have to wait.” Dr. Patel paused, and took a deep breath, glancing down at his clasped hands, before meeting Sam’s eyes again. “Because there are so many unknowns, and because Dean’s condition has been so fragile, he will need to stay here at the hospital while we administer the vaccinations. Certain diseases require a series of injections spread out over a matter of weeks or months before the body reaches full immunity. We can try to speed that up as much as possible,” he held up his hands in placation, warding off another interruption from Sam. “I would recommend Dean stay here until the series are finished, but we’ll see how it goes, and if it looks like Dean is at least minimally protected, I’ll try to give him the choice about whether to remain as an inpatient or follow up with the last few booster shots as an outpatient. Based on what I’ve seen regarding your brother’s dislike of hospitals, we don’t want to further hamper his immune system with avoidable stress.”
Sam was taking it all in, the options they were being given, the possibility of Dean having some say and control over what happened to him. Months. They could be out of the battle for months while Lucifer and the demons and Michael and Zachariah and the angels did who knows what. But at least they wouldn’t get Dean. And for as long as he was there, Sam would be staying by his side, so Lucifer would be out of luck for a vessel as well. Sam couldn’t fathom anything making him say “yes,” especially not when Dean actually had a chance at recovering that didn’t come with a supernatural price tag. Maybe Cas and Bobby could work out something with the other hunters… Sam could help, pitch in with research, intel, spell work… anything that didn’t take him from Dean’s side. “What about other infections—bacteria?” he asked.
“We’ll have to monitor Dean carefully for bacterial infections, and see if antibiotic intervention is needed,” the doctor explained calmly.
It was much better than Sam had expected or feared. It took him a few minutes to realize Dr. Patel had finished speaking. “So what do we do now?” he asked, looking out over the water, letting the low murmuring rush of the nearby freeway lull him into a state of near-peace.
“Now, we wait for Dean to recover from the mumps.” The words were mater-of-fact, blunt and systematic. “When he’s recovered, then we can talk to him about starting the immunizations, although, I think we’ll have a better chance of convincing him this is a good course of action if you back me up. Otherwise, I get the feeling he’ll try to sign himself out AMA.”
“Hah!” Sam scoffed. That was exactly what Dean would try to do. Probably thinking he was performing some sort of noble sacrifice. “You’d be right about that,” Sam admitted trying to ignore the sudden wetness in his eyes. He took a deep, shuddering breath and then another, the second more steady. Thinking. Weighing the options. There really wasn’t much of a choice. “Okay, I’m in. I’ll see if I can get Dean to… say ‘yes,’” he added, the corner of his mouth quirking in a half-smile at the irony of those words.
Dr. Patel didn’t get it, of course, but he enthusiastically thanked Sam for his support, and after a few more minutes of letting Sam take in some much-needed fresh air, led Sam back to Dean’s room and the isolation ward. To sit. And wait. And hope. The conversation had given Sam a glimmer of promise—finally, something to hold onto.
After Sam and Dr. Patel broke the news to him, Dean surprised Sam, responding only after several minutes of quiet reflection and mustering as much confidence and dignity as he could. “All right,” Dean croaked, his voice hoarse and whisper quiet. “Let’s do it.”
“Are you sure?” Sam couldn’t stop himself from asking. He thought it would be worse—for him, but especially for Dean—to start the intensive re-vaccination process and the prospect of months in the hospital only to get part way, and have Dean decide he couldn’t take it any more.
“I’m sure, Sam,” Dean whispered. “At least this way, maybe I’ve got a shot. A real shot.” The, that doesn’t involve me turning myself into an Archangel’s bitch, was conveyed in with a silent, pleading glance.
In the end, Dean was in the hospital for three months. The treatment was rough. Long and painful. There were times when Sam was convinced Dean would give up, throw in the towel, and beg to leave—taking his chances in the outside world, maybe even hoping for a strong cold to do him in, but he didn’t. During that time, Sam kept himself busy tracking demonic signs, revelations omens, and any indication of angelic activity. Bobby stayed in Seattle with Sam, keeping vigil at Dean’s bedside when he wasn’t taking the information Sam found and combining it with the fruits of his own research before dispatching assignments to the ever-dwindling network of hunters. Meanwhile Cas continued on his hunt for God and took on some more traditional, Winchester-style hunts, starting with the brothers’ unfinished hunt on Lake Washington (it was a transplanted grindylow that had decided upsetting boats was more fun than dragging swimmers to their deaths). Although his first efforts were promising, Sam wasn’t sure how Cas the Hunter was going to work out, but they needed all the help they could get.
“Sam, I may not be able to help Dean, but you are my friends, and I can still help you,” Cas had said, tucking the demon-killing blade—once Ruby’s—into the inner pocket of his trench coat. Sam didn’t know how to feel. He felt less protected without the knife. He felt more vulnerable without Cas nearby. He knew a single phone call would bring the fallen angel back to their sides, but Sam could also imagine a dozen scenarios how calling Cas on a hunt could get Cas captured by demons—or worse, angels—or tip heaven or hell off to the Winchesters’ whereabouts. But in the end, he let Cas fly off to spend a week tracking demonic omens in South Florida. It turned out one of Lucifer’s lackeys had been staging a mass demon possession in hopes of drawing Sam out of hiding. Cas was able to interrogate the ringleader before completing an exorcism. “They don’t know about Dean,” he reported upon his return. “Lucifer doesn’t know.”
For the first time in weeks, maybe months, Sam felt the glimmer of promise grow into a tiny glimmer of hope bubbling up inside him, a tiny golden flicker in his gut, glowing and warm.
After the first month, when Dean had recovered from both the mumps and an allergic reaction to a seasonal flu vaccine—a truly terrifying experience for both he and Sam that started with anaphylactic shock and added a week-long stint on a ventilator followed by another bout of pneumonia to Dean’s list of hospital woes, Dean finally convinced Sam to go on a hunt away from the hospital. Sam wasn’t hunting alone of course—neither Dean nor Sam was willing to take that kind of risk lest Lucifer’s minions somehow found Sam while he was hunting or he had another relapse with demon blood—Cas went with him. Bobby traded places, spending every moment the hospital would allow him to at Dean’s side, and never straying farther than the very-nice-for-a-hunter hotel a little under a mile from the hospital.
It wasn’t much—two demons interrogated and exorcized, an uncooperative demon killed with the knife—but it felt good, more balanced, grounding, for Sam to be back on the hunt. It gave him something physical and concrete and dangerous and exhausting to do, and he needed it. After months of worrying about Dean, first wondering why he was sick, then wondering if he could recover, Sam relished the feeling of control over their lives, over their destiny, that hunting provided. He just wished his brother was by his side.
Sam and Cas returned to Seattle from the hunt to find Dean doing much better. The swelling from the mumps was gone—all the swelling. Still it was another month and another few hunts (poltergeist, rusalka, close brush with angelic minions) before Dean had enough vaccinations for Dr. Patel and his team to let him out of isolation.
Around that time, the hospital finally got a shipment of the new vaccine for swine flu, and Dean was one of the first to get it, thanks to his unwanted priority status as someone both immunocompromised and with respiratory problems. It grated on Sam’s nerves that Dean was still so… vulnerable, just the symbolism of it rubbed him wrong, but Dean snapped him out of his bitter musings.
“Think of it this way, Sam. I may be in the special priority group, but every time they stick me with a needle, I get a little stronger, a little healthier, and we take back a little bit of the angels’ power.” Dean gave him a trademark smirk—the first Sam had seen in months, “I’m not gonna deny the situation sucks, but that? I’m pretty much ok with.”
Finally, at long last, after physical therapy to get Dean up to being up and about again, and with a list of places and activities to avoid, precautions to take, a ridiculous schedule of follow-up appointments and immunizations, and an obtrusive ‘medic-alert’ bracelet, the doctors decided it was safe for Dean to go.
As Sam walked along side the orderly that was pushing Dean’s wheelchair, Dean asked to be pushed outside before going down into the parking garage where the Impala was waiting to take him back. The orderly obliged, and as soon as the door closed behind them, Dean let out the deepest, longest sigh Sam had ever seen, as Dean closed his eyes, a blissful look of peace washing over his features.
To Sam it didn’t look like much. It was an overcast, dim fall afternoon, with a threat of misting rain and not a sunbreak in sight. He started to remark on the completely unspectacular weather, but a glance at Dean stopped him in his tracks.
“It’s so good Sam. The world, it’s still here. I was starting to think I’d never see it again,” Dean enthused.
Sam felt sick when he realized it was the first time Dean had been outside in three months. Ashamed of his forgetfulness, he just squeezed Dean’s shoulder. “Yeah,” he said, speaking around the lump in his throat. “You’re still here too, Dean.”
On to Part 2...