The rhythmic cadence of the monitors fills the room as Dean continues to stroke Sam's hair, reluctant to stop in case his kid should wake. The ventilator repeats its cycle of an artificial inhale followed by an exhale while Dean blows out a breath of his own.
"You're good with him."
It's an unnecessary compliment since she had already told Dean as much when he had first arrived, but Ellen can't stop herself. In all her years of nursing, she's never witnessed a bond as strong as these two brothers share.
She smiles when Dean glances over his shoulder. "I heard the monitors, but by the time I got here, you were already handling Sam better than I could, so..." She pauses, allowing him to assume the rest. "If you're this good with all patients, maybe we should hire you."
"I've got a job."
Ellen nods as Dean turns his attention back to Sam. She knows he's referring to his lifelong career of being this kid's big brother, and it makes her love them even more. She lingers in the doorway, watching Dean watch Sam.
"Don't you have other patients?"
She doesn't since the pediatric ICU is one-on-one, but Ellen can take a hint. She ducks out of the room, giving the brothers their privacy. When she returns hours later, Dean is still in the same position – seated beside the bed, focused on Sam. She wonders if he's even blinked.
"You're back," he says without turning to look.
"I am," she confirms, expecting the annoyance in his voice to double when she tells him why she's there. "I need you to leave."
Dean's tone is as sharp as his glare, but Ellen holds his gaze as she slips a yellow gown over her scrubs. "Just for a little while," she soothes, reaching for a mask. "We're changing shifts."
"Fine. Change." Dean shrugs like their schedule doesn't affect him. "I'll sit right here and stay out of the way."
Ellen has no doubt he would do just that but – "It's not that simple." She offers a shrug of her own, though hers is more apologetic. "This is one policy I must enforce. No visitors during shift change."
Ellen responds with a soft laugh as she stretches her hands into a pair of gloves and crosses to the opposite side of the bed. "I can understand why you would think that, but I assure you it's not. It's what's best for Sam."
Dean narrows his eyes like he suspects she knows what she's doing by playing that card...and he's right. Although she's only known him for a few hours, Ellen knows Dean will do whatever is best for his little brother with no questions and no pushback.
Dean sighs as he stands, keeping his eyes on her and his hand on Sam. "I'm trusting you."
What isn't said is just as clear – I'm trusting you with him.
Ellen nods, accepting the responsibility while also trying to reassure an anxious big brother. "He'll be fine. And this shouldn't take long. I've already made Sam's new nurse aware of our arrangement, so you'll be allowed back in."
"I better be," Dean grumbles, giving Sam a final once-over before squeezing the kid's fingers and heading to the door to strip his gown, mask, and gloves. He washes his hands, then takes his time drying them, reluctant to leave.
Ellen knows he's stalling, can feel him watching her check the various machines surrounding Sam's bed. "Almost there," she teases about Dean's proximity to the hallway and the waiting room beyond. She's had an easier time kicking parents out of rooms. The thought makes her glance at him with a hidden smile. "Go. Sam will be fine."
Dean wants to believe the repeated assurance, but his doubts are confirmed when he's two steps down the hall and hears Sam's monitors begin to elevate. He stops and turns, knowing his brother is reacting to his absence.
Dean's instincts draw him back to Sam, but he can see Ellen through the window waving him off as she leans over her patient, murmuring. He stares at the scene and wonders what she's saying. He hopes she's telling his kid that everything is okay, that his big brother will be right back, that –
"Go on now," an unfamiliar voice urges, kind yet stern. "Less gawking, more walking. The sooner we change shifts, the sooner you can be with your boy."
The logic makes sense, but Dean doesn't budge. He stares at the stranger decked out in protective gear and wonders if this is Sam's new nurse.
"You hear me? Or do I need to whack you with a spoon?" She laughs from behind her mask as Dean blinks at the odd threat. "Oh, honey. Don't worry. All my spoons are at home. Remember?" She winks like Dean is in on the joke, then disappears into Sam's room.
Dean tracks her movement as she crosses to his brother's bedside and speaks with Ellen. The nurses' attention shifts between their patient and the monitors, and although Dean can tell Sam's heart rate is higher than usual, the kid appears stable. No alarms are blaring, and the light beside his door is green.
"Hey, man. You still here?"
"Where else would I be?"
If Garth notices the irritation in Dean's tone, he doesn't react. He just shrugs as he saunters down the hall. "I don't know. Home?"
"Home isn't home without Sam," Dean says, more to himself than to the security guard standing beside him.
Garth nods anyway. "How's he doing?"
"Sammy's tough," Dean replies, sounding like the proud big brother he is as he continues to watch Ellen and the newcomer. "He'll pull through this."
"Damn right," Garth agrees as if he knew Sam prior to tonight. "C'mon." He bumps shoulders with Dean like they're old friends instead of acquaintances forced by the situation. "I'll walk you out."
Dean hesitates to follow, to turn his back on Sam and walk away. He's never been good at letting his little brother out of his sight, but the feat feels impossible now with Sam so fragile, so vulnerable. The kid can't even breathe for himself.
Garth hovers behind him, uncertain and waiting. "You coming?"
"Yeah," Dean replies when Ellen catches him staring through the window and tilts her head toward the exit. He takes the gesture for the warning it is and leaves the PICU while he's still in her good graces.
"See you later," Garth tells him as Dean squints in the brighter lights that greet them outside the ward. "Will you be here tonight?"
"Probably," Dean answers. If it was up to him, he wouldn't go home until Sam did...but he knows his dad and Bobby will have other ideas about that timeline. "Will you be here?"
"With bells on," Garth quips, jingling the keys attached to his belt. "Ellen, too," he adds as he walks toward the elevators. "Shifts run seven to seven."
Dean nods, wondering if that means Ellen will be assigned to Sam again. He hopes so.
"See you then," Garth calls, throwing a quick wave in Dean's direction.
Dean watches him board the elevator, then glances back at the locked PICU doors. He can see the nurses at the far end of the unit tending to Sam. The light outside Sam's door is still green, which means his kid is still stable; it's Dean who feels unstable. He rubs his hands over his face. He's exhausted – his thoughts scattered, his emotions raw – and if he's honest, he's not sure what to do with himself when he's separated from his little brother.
There's a small waiting room tucked around the corner with chairs and a TV, but neither are enticing. Dean doesn't want to sit, and he doesn't want to escape with mindless late-night programming; he wants to be with Sam.
The elevators ding as Dean walks a circle in front of the PICU, then comes face-to-face with –
John looks as haggard as Dean feels. They've both been up over 24 hours and have had one hell of a fucked-up night. "Have you been out here since we left?"
"No. I've been with Sam."
"How...or do I wanna know?"
John snorts at the smile Dean gives him. "Okay." He won't ask for details because it doesn't matter how his oldest managed to defy the rules posted outside the unit. Only one thing matters right now. "How's our kid?"
Dean feels the twinge of something that he always does whenever John refers to Sam that way – their kid. "All hell was breaking loose when I got up here earlier, but he's stable now."
"Breaking loose how?"
Dean shrugs. "You know Sammy likes to be dramatic."
John ghosts a smile, appreciating Dean's attempt to lighten the mood even though he knows humor is the go-to defense mechanism for his oldest.
Dean sighs and switches topics before his dad can push for more. "Where's Bobby?"
"Still at the track waiting for the investigators to finish up with the cars."
"Standard protocol when someone dies."
"They think we killed Nick?"
"No. Nothing like that. They're just going through the motions. Taking photos. Conducting interviews. I doubt it will last much longer, but Bobby said he would handle it so I could head back here."
Dean nods, then glances at the PICU doors as Ellen approaches.
John does the same. "We know her?"
"Yeah. That's Ellen. Sam's nurse."
"We like her?"
Dean huffs a laugh as his dad completes their usual two-part checklist – the same two questions always asked whenever they meet someone new. "Yeah. She's the one who let me stay after I broke in."
"After you what?"
Dean answers with another smile, then turns that smile toward Ellen as she steps through the sliding double doors. "So, you're really leaving us."
Ellen scoffs at the choice of words. "You make it sound like I'm abandoning you."
"Hardly," Ellen replies, digging her keys from her tote. "I'll be back at seven."
"Will you be assigned to Sam?"
"I better be," she says, echoing Dean's earlier words. She winks at him before smiling at John. "Hi there." She glances at the stranger's Winchester and Sons t-shirt, though she doesn't need the clue. She can see the resemblance between him and the two brothers. "I guess you're the dad?"
"I am," John confirms, feeling the burst of pride and love he always does whenever he gets to claim his boys.
Ellen maintains her smile, even as she wonders about their family situation. Where is the mom? It's unusual for her not to be front and center with a child's care, especially a hospitalized child, which must mean their mom is –
"Alright, I'm ready. Let's..." Jo's words trail off when she sees Dean standing where she first encountered him. "You've got to be kidding me. You're still here?"
"Jo..." Ellen warns, not in the mood to referee another confrontation. "Don't start."
"I didn't start it. He did."
John arches an eyebrow at the childish accusation, though it sounds plausible. His oldest is known for starting trouble, especially if someone is trying to keep him from Sam.
"Go wait downstairs. Now," Ellen adds when Jo doesn't move.
The young nurse scowls at the order but obeys, too tired to create a scene.
Ellen sighs, shaking her head in the awkward silence her daughter leaves behind before continuing like they weren't interrupted. "Anyway...shift change is over, so you can head back in."
The announcement is music to Dean's ears. "Is Sammy okay?"
Ellen smiles at the sweet nickname. "His fever is up and his numbers are elevated, but that's to be expected. I'm sure he'll settle as soon as you're with him again." She pats Dean's arm, then glances at John. "It was nice to meet you, Mr. Winchester."
John cringes at the formality and responds with just his first name.
Ellen nods, her gaze shifting between father and son. "I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of each other over the next few days." She swipes her ID badge to open the double doors and motions for Dean to follow before swiping entry for the second door. "Only one visitor at a time," she tells them when she realizes John also followed her into the PICU. "I'll let you two decide who goes first, but you should both try to get some rest at some point. You're no good to Sam if you end up sick yourselves."
John stares at his oldest as Ellen walks past them toward the elevators.
Dean returns the stare, knowing what his dad is going to say. "Forget it."
"I haven't said anything."
"You don't have to."
Dean rolls his eyes. "Dad. No. I'm not going home. Sam needs me."
"Sam needs you to stay healthy," John counters, trying to keep his voice down even as he feels his frustration building. His oldest can be so fucking stubborn.
Dean lifts his chin at the challenge as the hissed expletive attracts attention from the nurses' station. Everyone is aware of the special circumstances allowing visitors for the patient at the far end of the unit, but disturbances to other patients will not be tolerated.
"I'm fine," Dean repeats and attempts to sidestep John, glaring when his dad grabs his arm.
"Relax," John soothes, releasing his grip. "I'm not stopping you from seeing Sam. I just need you to wait."
"For me to see him first."
"Dad – "
"I'm not asking, Dean."
That's all John says before he walks forward, leaving his oldest in the PICU's entrance as he makes his way toward Sam's room – the one he saw Ellen emerge from earlier.
To be continued...