Sam stops eating spring of his freshman year. Dean’s nineteen and, like he’s been threatening for years, has dropped out at last. Sam hates it, hates that his brother is throwing his future away for their dad’s stupid mission, hates that their dad is just letting him, but no one seems to listen to him these days, so Dean drops out anyway. It means that now Dad and Dean can leave together for long hunts, the ones that take weeks of tracking and research, without worrying about absences. It means that most of the time, Sam is alone.
It sucks. It totally, completely sucks. Dad never leaves enough money, he never has enough time to make friends, and there’s nothing to do after school besides homework and watch the shitty motel T.V. that cuts out more than it cuts in. At least when Dean was there, there was always something to do. Dean’s good like that — he always has fun stupid ideas, like the time they used their last ten bucks to buy ice cream from all the fast food places in town and have a bracket competition (Wendy’s won, for the record). When they land in Virginia, after Sam was left pretty much alone for a month and a half in Michigan, he tries to insist on Dean staying while Dad scopes out the next hunt.
It doesn’t go well.
“You know, I’m not asking much of you, here,” Dad says. “I mean, am I? At your age your brother was working at grocery stores in addition to school, taking care of you, going to school, and doing his training on top of it. All I’m askin’ you to do here is take care of yourself, for once.”
“I’m fourteen! It’s not supposed to be my job to run a household while I’m worrying about you guys out there—getting clawed up or tossed against tombstones or God knows what—”
“‘Running a household,’ for Christ’s sake boy, you’re not Betty Crocker—”
“That’s not the point! It’s not fair for me to always be left alone so long! It was one thing when it was just weekends but you guys go for weeks now!”
Dad makes a step towards him, face beet red like it always is when they really get going, when Dean steps into the living room with his duffle slung over his shoulder. “You two done?” He asks tiredly. “Or should we push back our start time ‘til tomorrow, Dad?”
“You watch it,” Dad snaps at him, but he’s already cooling down, his shoulders dropping a little. That’s how he always is with Dean, ‘bout a million times less irritable. Sam doesn’t think he’d resent the favoritism so much if Dad wasn’t so freakin’ obvious about it. “Head on out, son, I’ll be behind you. Take the car, I’ll bring my truck, might as well have both just in case.”
Dean nods. He spares a glance at Sam, gives him a nod. “See you soon, Sammy. I’ll call on Sundays, so you be here, yeah?”
“I’m never anywhere else,” Sam mumbles. Dean rolls his eyes, grabs his keys from the table, and heads out. For all Dean’s protecting, he never once argues to stay with Sam. And when Dad makes him, whenever the hunt’s too dangerous or whatever, it’s clear where he’d rather be.
Dad turns on him as soon as the door shuts. All the red-hot fury from earlier is gone, leaving Sam’s father stone-cold. Sam thinks maybe he hates him most like this.
“All I’m asking, Sammy, is that you get yourself to school and back, do your training, and feed yourself with the money I gave you. Alright? Think you can handle that, son?”
It’s not really a question, as Dad makes perfectly clear, letting the door slam behind him and revving the truck up. But still, Sam thinks: Fuck you, you can’t make me do it. And he likes school, and he knows not doing his training will just mean getting his ass kicked by Dean the next time they spar, but eating. Well. He’s never really liked eating, especially the cheap crap he has to get when Dad’s gone for a while, SpaghettiOs and chicken noodle soup. And he really, really doesn’t wanna just follow his dad’s orders. Just once, he wants to have something all his, something no one can take away from him.
Sam’s daily schedule goes like this: wake up at seven-thirty, shower, get dressed, brush teeth. Drink a glass of water, read a little if there’s time. Walk to school by class at eight-fifteen. Home by four, when he eats his one meal of the day. The good thing about not eating anything else is that money’s not so tight, so he normally gets something good, or at least better than SpaghettiOs—a croissant with jam from Publix or a chicken wrap from McDonald’s or something. Then half an hour of homework while it digests, then training while he’s got the energy, then the rest of his homework. Then just T.V., reading, listening to music, ‘til he drops off to sleep.
The thing about being hungry is that it really sucks for a while. After the first few hours, it fades off a little, makes you more airy than achy, more dizzy and distant. Sam doesn’t mind that bit so much, especially since there’s not exactly a ton for him to do in a motel room anyway, he might as well just put Nirvana on his Walkman and drift a little. But those first hunger cramps, that’s what gets him.
Sometimes, when it’s lunch time and he’s not eating but something in him really wants to, he likes to imagine Dean and Dad finding out. But not the way they really would. In his head, neither of them are angry and neither of them yell. They’re real calm, instead. Dad scoops him up like he used to when Sam was little, holds him close to his chest, and in this dream Sam is little, all skin and bones like a little kid. And Dad rocks him and Dean pets his hair and they say, it’s okay, I’m worried but I’m not mad. We’ll make this better, kiddo. And Dad promises to stop hunting for a while and Dean promises to stay with him, and they have lots of family dinners, just to make sure Sam’s eating. And they stop moving. And Sam gets better, but he stays small, but it’s a healthy small, now, somehow. And they keep taking care of him, just in case.
Thoughts like that, they make it really easy to skip dinner.
He loses weight faster than he thought he would. At first it’s a worry—what if Dean notices, what if Dad says something, what if they make me stop—but when no one but an over-eager English teacher says anything, it becomes a point of pride. Look at what I did. Look at what I got away with. You tried to make me a hunter and you try to make me do everything you say but I did this all on my own, so ha. I got myself all small like a civilian, a child, like someone who shouldn’t be out there killing things, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So there.
It’s childish. He knows that. Every time after he has thoughts like that, there’s a wave of self-hatred as he imagines himself saying it all with a sing-song voice like a little kid, tongue out. But he can’t make himself stop, either.
It’s three months later and Sam can circle his wrist with his thumb and index finger—and does, often, it’s become a nervous habit, much as he hates to admit it—when Dean starts noticing.
Dad’s off chasing down a maybe-demon with Caleb and Bobby, the only kind of hunt he still won’t let Dean come on, so it’s just the two of them. They’ve got a house in Kentucky, and it’s a shithole with moldy carpet and alarming ceiling stains, but it’s a house, so Sam doesn’t complain. Having Dean around makes it harder to skip meals, which kind of sucks but is kind of exciting as well. There’s something exhilarating about getting away with something. Everything Sam hates about his life, he can’t control. He can’t stop them from moving, can’t join the Quiz Bowl team instead of practicing with knives, can’t stop his family from risking their lives again and again. Can’t stop the nightmares where he’s a second too slow and Dean takes the fall and bleeds out, gasping and wide-eyed, right in front of him.
But what he can do is skip meals. He can make himself lighter, small like he was before he knew about monsters. Lunch is easy—he takes the lunch money Dean gives him and tucks it away and spends his lunch period in the library instead. Breakfast isn’t too bad either, he can grab a protein bar (or pretend to) and say he’ll eat on the way. It’s dinner that gets him. When Dean has a shift even remotely near evening he pretends to eat then, leaves a “dirty” plate in the sink, but too often Dean is home, cooking spaghetti or eggs or microwave dinners while he hums to himself.
And Dean really wants them to eat together. Sam doesn’t know if it’s all the times he complained about them not having family dinners, but if it is, he wishes he could go back and tell his younger self to shut up, because Dean is seriously insistent. He tries a load of excuses, oh I ate too much at lunch, stomach feels bad, I actually already ate Mexican for lunch so I’ll pass, but after day two that’s not enough for his brother.
He cuts out his normal after school meal-of-the-day so he can afford to eat a little with Dean, but he can feel his brother’s eyes on him as he messes with the food on his plate. It’s not his fault Dean gives such big servings, okay. He didn’t ask for this much.
He dumps food in the disposal every night, and hopes Dean doesn’t think much of it.
It all comes to a head on a Wednesday after school. Sam’s halfway to the sidewalk in front of the school, tired and drifting and dreading the mile walk home, when he hears the short-long-short blare of the Impala’s horn that Dad always tells them to do so they know it’s them. He turns and blinks for a second. Dean hasn’t picked him up once from this school, not when it’s so close to their place.
His brother’s staring at him though, one eyebrow raised, so he heads over and swings open the passenger door. He tosses his bag in the footwell. “Is Dad back?” He asks. “Are we leaving?”
“Nah,” Dean says. “Get in, c’mon.”
Sam does, letting the door fall shut behind him, but not without making a face at his brother. “Why are you getting me, then?”
“What, a guy’s not allowed to give his brother a ride?” The car peels away from the school, engine roaring. Sam watches his brother in the rearview mirror, his face cool and still, the way it is when he doesn’t want to give anything away.
“You haven’t,” he says. “Not here.”
Dean just shrugs. He makes a right at the corner store, when they should be going straight. If Sam was still wondering if they were going home, he’d know better now.
His brother sighs. “We’re going to the clinic, okay?”
Sam’s mind, for a split second, goes blank with fear, the way it always does when Dean and Dad are gone too long on a hunt without calling. “What? You’re hurt? Dean! Why the hell did you stop for me!”
“What? No, I’m not hurt. Jesus, I wouldn’t come by your school if I was hurt, give me some credit here.”
“Oh, you might. Don’t think I’ve forgotten that time with the black dog, man, you’re the worst about getting help!”
“Yeah, well,” Dean says. “I’m not the one who needs help.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Dean watches the road, clenching and unclenching his jaw. There’s a voice in Sam’s head going He knows he knows he knowsknowsknows, but he tells it to shut up. He worries Dean knows at least twice a day whenever his brother blinks wrong. Doesn’t mean he does.
“You’ve been losing weight, kid,” Dean says finally. “You’re never hungry anymore, and you’ve—well, you’ve just lost too much. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
Sam freezes. “It’s—I’m almost fifteen, Dean! I’m just growing weird!” He tries to make it sound natural, like he hasn’t had the excuse prepared for weeks.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought at first too. But you’ve lost too much and you’re not eating and that’s—that’s not normal for a growth spurt, not at all. Should be eating more than ever.” Dean parks in front of the strip mall where the clinic is. He’s staring straight ahead, not looking at Sam, like he’s got to focus on the road still. “I’m not trying to scare you, Sammy. Could be it’s nothing, real long stomach bug or something. But we’re getting some tests done in case.”
His breathing is speeding up. Goddammit goddammit goddammit. He wants to get out of the car and run, wants to keep running and never turn back, but he knows Dean’ll catch up to him in a second. “Tests?” He asks weakly.
“Blood tests and stuff. They might wanna look at your thyroid, too, I dunno. Looked at a couple books, but it could be a lot of stuff.”
“My thyroid,” Sam says. His voice is high and tight. He knows he can’t go in there, knows the doctor will weigh him and look at his blood and know nothing’s wrong besides Sam being fucked up and rebellious and bad and oh god, the doctor’s gonna tell Dean, he might even take Sam away, is this something he can take Sam away for? What exactly is the line for CPS, anyway? This isn’t Dean’s fault. It’s not even Dad’s, really, this one is all Sam. He should’ve eaten, should’ve stopped this. Oh, god.
“Sam,” he hears distantly in the background, and suddenly Dean’s turning him around so they’re face-to-face, hands on his shoulders, gripping him tightly. “Hey, stay with me, kiddo. It’s okay, this is nothing we can’t handle, I swear. They’ll give us meds—you’ll be fine, Sammy, c’mon—”
“It’s not my thyroid,” he hears himself say. “Dean, it isn’t my thyroid.”
“…Okay,” Dean says. He pulls him into a hug, and Sam buries his face in his brother’s shoulder. He’s being a little kid but he doesn’t care, he’s so desperately grateful not to have to show his face, he doesn’t wanna know what Dean’ll be able to read off of that. “Yeah, I mean, probably not. That was just a guess. Sam, whatever it is, it’s gonna be okay. Fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have told you, man, I didn’t wanna worry you like this.”
“Not your fault, I just. Dean—I don’t need a doctor, I promise, can we just go-”
“Not until we know how to fix this. Look, it might be an easy fix too, okay? A pill a day for a couple weeks and you’re all better!”
“I can fix it. I’ll eat better, I swear I will, please don’t make me go in there.” He’s whispering, now, secrets pressed into the shoulder of Dad’s old leather jacket. He doesn’t want to eat more, the thought of giving up all his rituals and plans around skipping meals makes him want to throw up, but he will if Dean doesn’t make him do this. He will. Or he’ll try, anyway, that’s got to be good enough.
Dean sighs. He runs a hand up and down Sam’s back, slow and as steady as always. “This isn’t something you can fix. You’re sick, Sam.”
Sam takes a deep, shuddery breath. Is he crying? He thinks he might be crying. Fuck. “I’m not,” he says.
“Yeah, you are, man. You’ve lost too much weight to be normal.”
“I’m not sick. I just fucked up.”
Dean’s hand stills on his back. “Fucked up?” He echoes, and then he’s pushing Sam back, his eyes wild, his hands tight on Sam’s shoulders. “Drugs, Sam? Is that what this is?”
He blinks widely, shaking in his brother’s grip. “What? No!”
“Don’t lie to me,” Dean says darkly. He grabs Sam’s arm and pushes up the sleeve (hand so close to being wrapped around his wrist, Dean could do it easy, shutupshutupshutup), before letting it fall. “What is it? You don’t have track marks, you takin’ pills instead?”
“No! Come on, no! I’m just—I just haven’t been eating, okay?”
“I’m not stupid, Sam, no matter what you might think. No one stops eating for no reason. What is it? You been smoking something?” Dean shakes him, not hard, but hard enough.
“No! It’s not anything like that, I did just stop eating!” Sam shouts, and if he wasn’t crying before, he is now, big sniffling tears that he doesn’t bother to wipe away. “I did! I just, I was just sick of being Dad’s stupid soldier and so I started skipping meals and then I couldn’t stop, okay, I didn’t mean it to get this far! I just stopped and then I couldn’t—I didn’t—I don’t want to eat! I don’t want to! Dad can make me move and train and live this stupid stupid fucking life but he can’t make me eat!”
Dean stares at him. There’s no sound in the car besides Sam’s ugly, gasping breaths, and he looks down at his lap, at his loose stained jeans pooled around his thighs. He can still feel his brother’s eyes on him. “I don’t want to,” he repeats.
A moment, and Dean removes his hands from Sam’s shoulders. He winces, afraid suddenly of what he’s gonna do, and then his arms are around him, loose and gentle. Neither of them say anything, but he curls in close, dips his head low to rest against his brother’s heartbeat. He can hear it, fast but steady, the same heartbeat Sam’s been hearing since he was the baby Dean rocked to sleep. “Okay,” Dean says quietly. His voice is shaky, but his arms around Sam stay sturdy. “‘s gonna be okay, Sammy.”
“It’s not,” he whispers. “You’re gonna make me eat.”
“And I don’t want to. I have to make myself sometimes, like with training and all, and I hate it, Dean, I really do.”
“Okay,” Dean says, voice still soft. One hand snakes up to firmly pat Sam’s hair down like he’s an anxious puppy or something. “I hear you.”
“You’re still gonna make me, though.”
“Yeah. I am.”
“I don’t wanna.”
Very, very gently, with one hand on his back and the other palming the back of his skull, Dean squeezes him. “I know,” he says. “I’m gonna—I’m gonna do research, okay? I’ll figure out why. I’ll fix this, Sammy. I’ll make you wanna eat again.”
“I don’t want to want to, though,” Sam whispers. He sounds like a baby, but with his face pressed against his brother’s chest, he feels like one too. He hasn’t been held like this in years. The only time Dean hugs him now is after a hard hunt, a scary one when one of them almost got hurt real bad, and even then it’s a brief thing. This is something more. He’s taking this seriously, and the thought makes Sam warm and terrified all at once. “I don’t wanna get big—Dean, I don’t wanna be a hunter, don’t make me, please—”
“Shh,” Dean says. “Shh, come on, it’s okay, little brother. Don’t worry about that, okay? You trust me, right?”
“Sam,” he says. He tugs gently on Sam’s hair. “Do you trust me?”
There’s a long moment of silence. Sam stares at the shirt he’s pressed against, the same faded blue Zeppelin tee Dean’s had forever. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “Yeah, always, Dean. You know I do.”
“Then trust me on this,” he says. “Okay? I’ll handle it. You just don’t worry.”
“I can’t not worry! It’s not about trust, I can’t just let you handle it, don’t you get it, this was supposed to be my thing. I don’t have anything all my own, I don’t get a say in anything—”
“—that’s not true—”
“—it is true! Dad chooses where we go and when we go and you two decide if I get to come on hunts, and if I get new school clothes, and if I have to go shooting instead of play soccer, and everything!”
“Then I’ll get you something,” Dean says firmly. “You hear me? Look at me, Sammy.”
Sam pulls back from his brother’s chest, uncurls reluctantly from his slump, but there’s no defying Dean when he sounds like that. His brother’s eyes are bright and, god, a little bit teary when they meet Sam’s, but they don’t waver.
“I will get you something, Sam. I’ll make Dad promise to stay somewhere for all your sophomore year, or let you join whatever clubs you want, or something, I swear to God I will. I swear to Mom. Do you hear me, Sam?”
And because Dean never, ever mentions Mom, Sam says softly, “I hear you.”
“Good.” Dean runs a hand, roughly, through his own hair. “Good. Okay. Listen, in three minutes, we’re gonna go in there, okay?” He jerks a thumb at the clinic.
“What? But you already know!”
“Yeah, but what I know on this comes from lifetime T.V., and that’s not gonna cut it on this one. We’re going in, no argument. But first, we’re gonna listen to something and calm down, okay?”
Sam thinks of the imaginary doctor in his head, all cold stethoscopes and sharp needles and furious judgment, look at what you did to your body, and he can’t, but—
Dean reaches into his old shoebox of cassettes, pulls out Sam’s treasured Nirvana tape that he knows was in his Walkman this morning. “What,” he starts to ask, but Dean just grins.
“Play me your favorite song,” he says, and slides the tape in. And Sam—
Sam closes his eyes, and thinks, and chooses.