A/N: This might be the longest piece I've ever written.
Sam is behind the wheel of his Ford Explorer, a bag of diapers in the passenger seat next to him, when his phone vibrates against his thigh. He sighs in frustration, turns down the music (AD/DC, Highway to Hell- a classic, despite what his wife might think) and digs into the pocket of his jeans for the flip phone.
An unknown number is displayed across the screen, but Sam answers it anyway. In his line of work, most of the people he works with are unknown. That is, until he manages to make a contact out of them.
"It's Sam." He corrects the nickname automatically, without considering that no one has called him Sammy in at least seven years. He doesn't immediately realize that the professional quality feminine voice saying it is all wrong. He hears the papers rustling suspiciously in the background, but doesn't make the connection.
"Sorry. Sam. My name is Catherine Smith. I'm calling from Sacred Mary Hospital in Atlanta. We've got a John Doe in our emergency room. He was brought in with no id, he hasn't told us anything about himself, but your number was the last called on his cell phone."
Sam forces himself to not react, to not get his hopes up. "Can you describe him?" He's proud of the steady tone in which he speaks that gives nothing of his suddenly shaking hands away.
"He's late thirties, tanned with dark blond, military style hair. Hazel eyes, about six feet, maybe one hundred eighty pounds. Really handsome, but in sore need of an attitude adjustment. He was involved in a car accident late yesterday."
Sam doesn't hear the subtle dig against his brother. He's had roughly twenty-two years of people conflicting with his brother's abrasive personality, and he's long since learned to ignore such comments.
"What kind of car was he driving?"
He almost doesn't want to learn the answer. It would be too perfect, too much of a coincidence even for a Winchester that after three years of hiring private investigators to track his brother down, this is how he finds him. The steady tone is gone, and he's twenty-two and unsure all over again.
"Uh, let me see." She's quiet for a minute, the sounds of papers rustling and scratching pens is transmitted through the link. "Looks like a 65 Chevy Impala. Black."
Sam's whole upper body jerks, and the SUV swerves briefly into the opposite lane before he gets it under control. It can't be him.
Yeah, and denial is a river in Egypt.
It very well could be. The 65 and 67 versions of the Impala are similar enough that one who didn't know better might make the mistake of inverting the two. Sam's heart knocks heavily against his chest; he wonders if the woman on the other end of the line can hear it. "What are his injuries?"
"His left leg is broken; left wrist fractured in three places. His hands are cut up fairly badly, both required stitches to fix them up. A couple of bruised ribs, and a concussion. I know it seems bad, but on the whole, he's pretty lucky."
Even as he's telling himself that it might not happen, that it might not be Dean, he's promising the nurse that he'll be there within the hour, because as luck would have it he lives in a suburb on the outskirts of Atlanta. He tosses his cell phone on the backseat as he pulls a highly illegal u-turn, telling himself that he'll call Kellie once he reaches the point of no return. As soon as it's too late for her to convince him to turn around.
Sam digs a homemade disc out of the glove compartment, and pushes it into the CD player. The heavy metal sounds of Metallica's Black album fill the Explorer, and he imagines old vinyl seats cracking beneath his weight as he shifts.
He in fact makes it into the city a great deal faster than 'within the hour.' Reminiscing in the past has brought back his old, less-than-conservative-more-like-reckless driving style, when there was nobody waiting up for him, and everything he cared about in the entire world was sitting in the seat next to him. The tires squeal on the asphalt, the transmission jumps in response to his heavy foot on the gas, the steering wheel gives easily beneath his strong and capable grip.
By the time he reaches Sacred Mary, a wide smile is plastered across his face, and his hair is wild and wind blown. The good mood doesn't last, however, when he steps through the doors to the front entrance and remembers why he's here. It might not be Dean, he tells himself again, though at this point it's a losing battle. Sam knows the man the hospital called him about is in fact his brother; he knows it in that inexplicable way he's known few things in his life. It is Dean, and while that knowledge should bring with it some sense of relief, Sam feels only a strange dread. Of all the ways he imagined reuniting with his older brother, this is the second to last worst scenario. The first involves a cold slab, or a drawer in a small town morgue somewhere.
He approaches the front desk slowly, noting the woman behind the counter has a nametag reading, 'Kimberly' pinned to the top of her bright pink medical scrubs. Not the same woman that Sam spoke to, then.
He steps up to the counter with his hands pushed deeply into his pockets to disguise their shaking, and waits patiently for her to notice him. She does, looking up through strangely old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses to stare owlishly at him.
"Can I help you?" Her tone suggests that she's on the tail end of a very long shift, and couldn't care less if Sam was hunched over and bleeding from several dozen places. He tries a smile on her, the same one he hasn't used in at least seven years, what Dean had once dubbed his 'convincing smile.' It doesn't have an effect.
"Um, I got a call about forty minutes ago. There's a guy here with my number on his phone."
"Oh. Great." She sounds inordinately relieved, like she's been waiting all night to hear those words. Sam thinks on it for a minute, then decides that with his brother's propensity to piss off anyone who spends an extended period of time near him, it's entirely likely that she has been waiting all night to hear those words.
"Fourth floor," she says, without checking the computer, or any of the seemingly random papers strewn about on the desktop before her. Sam thanks her quickly, then heads towards the bank of elevators at the far end of the hall. Kellie spent some time in this hospital a few years back; nothing serious, just a kidney stone, but it meant that Sam made enough trips between here and their home that he knows the route by heart.
He makes it to the fourth floor without incident, and even as he's wondering how he'll find Dean in this maze, the doors are opening and his concerns are rendered moot. He steps into the hallway, and winces at the sheer volume of the argument in progress.
"I'm telling you, it's the rules! You need a sponge bath!" A woman's voice, though the distinction is made not because of tone, or timber, but rather because Sam can't exactly picture a man trying convince someone to take a sponge bath.
"And I'm telling you, I don't give a fuck about the rules! You're not getting anywhere near me with that thing!"
And that voice is so familiar any doubts Sam might've cultivated during the elevator ride quickly vanish. His heart freezes in his chest, and though he has become quite used to his body in the fifteen years since he hit puberty, he finds himself stumbling and nearly falling on suddenly too-long legs.
"Your odour is becoming offensive to the other patients! You need a bath!"
Sam uses the shouting match as a compass, orientating himself with it as north and heading that way. His hands have begun to shake again, this time he crosses his arms tightly against his chest to hide the tremble.
"Oh, give me a break. I've only been here a day. I don't stink; you just want to get your warty hands on me!"
As he approaches the source, the volume decreases to a near tolerable level. He uses the averted gazes and embarrassed flushes of the hospital staff as a guide. Although Kellie stayed on a different floor, the architect clearly had enough sense of pattern to make all floors identical. Sam passes a waiting room with a poster of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger on the wall, and knows that there are eight more rooms on his right, nine more on his left, plus a nurse's station before the stairwell.
"Whether or not I will enjoy myself has nothing to do with it. Each patient gets a bath after his or her lunch, and being as you just ate, you now get a bath. I don't make the rules; I just enforce them."
Sam stops at the last door before the glowing emergency exit sign, and leans against the doorjamb. A curtain drawn around one of the two beds blocks his view inside the room, and he's suddenly unsure he wants to go through with it. Two years spent searching for his brother, and Sam is afraid to face him. He's afraid to see how the years have treated Dean, afraid to count how many scars are there now that weren't there before. He's afraid Dean might not want to see him.
"Well, I've always been the exception to the rule." And damn if Sam can't hear the smug smirk in his brother's voice. If the situation were different, he might feel bad for the nurse. Sam learned early on in life that no one, absolutely no one, could make Dean do something he doesn't want to do.
He takes a breath, wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans, and steps through the doorway. He sees the nurse standing over Dean before he sees Dean himself, and Sam can honestly say he doesn't blame his brother for not wanting her to touch him. She's Sam's height easily, but nearly twice as wide, with poorly dyed frizzy red hair and ill-fitting balloon print scrubs.
He takes a step further into the room, and though he has been expecting this moment since he arrived, he nevertheless finds himself speechless. Dean seems to be similarly affected when he turns his head to see Sam standing there; Dean's hazel eyes are as wide as dinner plates in his too pale face. He's reclined halfway to the horizontal on the narrow hospital bed; the leg encased to mid-thigh in fiberglass cast is propped up by a couple of pillows. Both hands are bandaged thickly in gauze and tape, the left wrist in another fiberglass cast that wraps around his thumb. His face is riddled with cuts and scrapes and bruises, and Sam wonders how bad the Impala must look if this is how Dean came out of it. The mint green of his hospital gown reacts with the dark bags under his eyes, making him seem older, and in great deal worse shape, than he must look naturally. Still, there are more lines around Dean's eyes than Sam remembers seeing.
"Sammy," Dean breathes, and he sounds genuinely surprised, like he didn't believe Sam would come, and didn't expect to see him. He tries to tighten his hands around the bed sheet draped over him, but winces with the resultant pain.
"Hi, Dean." Sam sounds just as insubstantial as Dean himself. His knees begin to tremble, and rather than embarrass himself thoroughly by collapsing to the tiled floor, he hooks his foot around a nearby chair and drags it over to Dean's bedside before dropping onto it. His hand comes up, wanting some contact with this man that a part of him believed he would never see again. He hovers for a moment, wondering where he can touch without causing pain. He settles for the upper arm, and squeezes gently. "How are you doing?"
Dean opens his mouth as if he's going to respond, but then his eyes narrow and his gaze shifts to the nurse still standing over his bed. "Can we have a minute please? We can pick this up later, can't we? I'm sure you have other patients to molest."
The nurse's features twist into a snarl Sam imagines serial killers wearing, but she turns and stalks away anyways. Dean watches her go, then smirks at Sam and looks away just as quickly.
"Can you believe her? Fucking crazy, like that chick from that Stephen King movie, you know, what's her name."
"Kathy Bates," Sam supplies, without commenting on how much better the book is, and how they don't really compare once you've read it.
"Yeah, that's the one. I swear she wants me. Always going on about changing my bandages, and those fucking sponge baths…like I need someone like her to-"
"Dean." Sam interrupts the rant with a gentle squeeze on his bicep. Dean turns reluctantly to meet his brother's gaze, before letting it drop back to his hands. "How are you?"
He lets out an explosive sigh, and manages not to wince when the movement pulls on fresh stitches and sore muscles. "I've been better. But, you know, it's nothing a little tequila and a few days in bed won't fix."
Sam eyes the cast suspiciously, and doesn't comment on how he thinks it might be a little more serious than just that. "What did the doctor say?"
"I don't listen to the doctors, Sammy. And you don't either. Remember that one that told you I only had a month to live? You sure proved him wrong, didn't you?"
As if he could ever forget. The sight of Dean in that hospital gown, nearly an identical shade to the one he'd worn years previous, had almost been enough to give Sam mental whiplash. Regardless of the direction of his thoughts, though, he's known his brother long enough to recognize an evasion tactic when he hears one.
"What did the doctor say, Dean?"
Dean sighs, looks towards the door like he thinks he can make a break for it. "You know how doctors are." He sighs again. "She said I'm lucky to be alive. If my luck continues, I'll walk with a limp rather than not walk at all."
"Jesus." Sam's hand slips from Dean's arm, and he falls back against the chair.
Dean smirks, but it lacks real emotion. His eyes look sad, too old for his face. "Yeah, tell me about it. Thirty fucking years of demon hunting, and it's a telephone pole that cripples me."
"Don't talk like that," Sam says, grabbing his brother's arm again. "You don't know that's how it's going to be. You've come back from pretty bad things before."
Dean's arm tenses beneath Sam's hand, and he's suddenly sure on the list of most wrong things to say at that moment, his little ditty would be number one.
"How would you fucking know that?" Dean's hazel eyes are narrowed into slits, making the glare he sent the nurse look like a gentle rebuke. His hands tighten into fists despite the stitches and Sam can see spots of blood blossoming on the bandages. "You weren't there. You think you can just swoop down after seven fucking years, and expect to reassure me? Fuck you, Sammy. I don't need this."
"Dean, I didn't mean to-"
"Nurse!" Dean's bellow is so loud Sam is sure he can hear the windows rattle in their frames. The hospital staff seems to be well versed in Dean's summoning, because a nurse appears in the doorway within seconds. She's not the same one as before, but the expression on her face suggests that they might share a viewpoint regarding Sam's only surviving family member.
"Yes, Mr. Ulrich?"
"Can you show my brother here to the door? We're done."
Sam stands, gripping the metal bed railing tightly in both hands. "Dean, don't do this. I want to help. You've gotta let me." He feels desperation bubbling up within him, making his motions jerky and quick, and tightening his voice despite his efforts to stay calm. He worries that if he leaves Dean this time, he will never see him again. "Please."
Dean meets his gaze, and for a minute, Sam thinks he might've changed his mind. But then his brother's lips are twisting into a sneer, and he shakes his head. "Same old Sammy. You don't have to save everyone, you know? I don't want your help. I don't need it. Now get the fuck out."
The petite nurse lays a hand on Sam's shoulder, and leads him out of the room. Sam feels like everything's falling away from him, like the one thing he's been waiting all this time to complete his life is just out of grasp and slipping farther away each second. He wants to add something, to come up with something that will change his brother's mind. But he knows that to push Dean will only lead to him closing himself off even further.
"I'm sure he didn't mean all that," the nurse says quietly. Her thumb is rubbing Sam's shoulder gently through the wool of his sweater. "We often see reactions like that from accident victims, and they always come around."
Sam can only shake his head. This woman is trying to reassure him, but she doesn't know anything about Dean. The cookie cutter condolence will not work on him. It doesn't change the anger and hurt Sam saw in his brother's eyes, or the guilt Sam feels nearly overcoming him, guilt that he left in the first place.
"You should hang around for a little while," she says, stopping him in the Winnie the Pooh waiting room. "Wait a little bit, and try again. I'm sure he'll calm down."
Sam wants to ask how the hell would she know that, after having knowing Dean for a little over twenty-four hours, but he knows she's only trying to help, and he doesn't want to hurt her. Instead he smiles softly, thanks her, and lowers himself into the hard plastic chair.
How dare he.
Dean is literally trembling with rage. His usual tactic to rid himself of that will no longer fly; there is nobody to pick a fight with, and he's pretty sure he'd be hard pressed to find a pool game in the hospital, even if he did manage to get out of bed.
So he lies in that goddamned hospital bed, fuming with indignation and fury, hands clenched into awkward fists despite the tearing pain he feels from ripping open stitches.
Dean doesn't even know how Sam found out he was here. He sure as hell didn't give anyone a name or number to contact, let alone permission to do so. And yet Sam shows up anyway, in that uncanny way he used to have of springing into action in the last possible second before Dean ends up flayed open or burned alive. Except this time the danger is all over, and Sam's still here. Still wants to help, pleading with that damned look in his eye, despite the fact that his assistance was neither asked for, nor expected. Of course, Sam wouldn't be Sam if he didn't stick his fucking nose in where it didn't belong.
And yet as angry as he is, there is a part of Dean that can't deny the swell of relief that rose up when he caught sight of Sam's face from around that mountain of a nurse. There's a part of him that wishes he could've told Sam exactly what he felt instead of hiding behind explosive anger. Seven years lost between them, and Dean couldn't tell his brother how relieved he was to see him well, how much pleasure it gave him to see the flash of a gold wedding band when Sam reached out to grab the bed rail. All he could say was he didn't need Sam's help, didn't want it, and though that may be true, it's not what Sam needed to here.
"Have you calmed down some, or should I come back with a couple of orderlies for body shields?"
Dean's fiery hazel gaze flickers to the open door, and he visibly calms himself. The only nurse he can stand in this place, the only one who doesn't make him feel like an invalid, is leaning against the doorjamb with her arms crossed against her chest, and he really doesn't want to alienate her too.
He sighs through his lips. "No, I'm all right. My brother, he just…he brings out the worst in me sometimes, you know?"
She nods, pushes away from the wall and moves closer. "That's family for you. Can't live with them, but why the hell would you want to live without them?"
Dean turns his head away, tucks his chin against his shoulder so she can't see the emotions playing openly across his face. "Yeah," he says thickly. "Something like that."
He takes a deep breath, brings himself back under control and turns to face his visitor. Her name is Mary, and hadn't that been the biggest coincidence Dean experienced in a long time? She's very pretty, he decided the first time he woke up to her face floating above his, but that's not the entire reason he likes her. She possesses a quiet confidence, not cocky like Dean himself, but more like certain of herself and her abilities. She remains to be the only member of the hospital personnel Dean can stand for extended periods of time.
She picks up Dean's right hand in her own, frowning and ticking at the spotting of blood on the bandages. "I do believe we told you not to use your hands. Maybe we should save you the trouble and hack them off right now? I'm sure there's someone in the hospital who could use a pair, and will actually listen to our instructions."
She peels off the tape, and begins unwinding the gauze to check the condition of the stitches.
Dean rolls his eyes. "Okay, consider me suitably chastised. I'm sorry, and it won't happen again."
"Damn right it won't," she says under her breath as she carefully peels back the squares of gauze. "Do have any idea how pissed off Dr. Svenson will be if he has to re-do these because you can't control your anger?"
She sets the bloody bandages down on the bed, and Dean sneaks a peak at his hand. It's doesn't look good, but he's had enough practice to know it's not exactly bad either. The stitches are still intact, but most of the wounds have begun bleeding again.
She's trying to be casual, as she lays out some clean bandages, but as far as Dean is concerned, nothing about his relationship with Sam has ever been casual. He shrugs, and manages to do so without further aggravating his injuries.
"Younger, if I even have to say it. He's got this annoying habit of putting himself where he doesn't belong. I don't even know how he found out I was here."
"They checked your cell phone," Mary replies, and begins wiping up the blood none too gently. "Reception called the last dialed number, and Sam answered."
Dean starts to close his hands again before a glare from Mary stops him cold. "Why the fuck would they do that? I told you guys my name. I told you there wasn't anyone to call."
She just raises her eyebrows incredulously. "Oh, please. Lars Ulrich? Next time you make up a name, try not to use one from one of the world's most popular metal bands."
"Hey, I would've come up with a better one, but I was a little out of my mind with pain. You know, from the horrendous car wreck I was in?" He frowns a little, thinking the pain medication must've affected him if he can't remember the last time he was this honest with anyone. And then something else occurs to him. "Wait a minute. Are you telling me everyone knows that the name is fake, and they still call me Mr. Ulrich?"
Mary grins, her blue eyes light up with obvious mischief. "They think it's cute. What can I say? It's not everyday someone like you gets admitted."
"Someone like me?" He tries to find some resentment at being labeled, or some embarrassment to hear that everyone is laughing at him behind his back, but he doesn't possess either. Unbelievably, he feels the corners of his mouth turning up into a smile.
"Don't change the subject." Mary presses a fresh square of gauze against the stitches, and begins wrapping carefully. "I want to hear about your brother, and why you told him you never want to see him again."
"It's a long story," he says, but Mary is unaccustomed to his pattern of behaviours. She mistakes the set jaw and tense shoulders as a sign of pain, and apologizes softly as she tapes the bandages in place.
"My rounds are all done. I don't have anywhere to be."
She sits down in the chair Sam reluctantly vacated, and rests her elbows on the edge of Dean's mattress. He wants to make some kind of remark about how the last time he checked, registered nurse was not a synonym for therapist, or psychologist. He wants to tell her to buzz off, and mind her own business. But remarkably, he takes a breath to do just that, and instead begins talking about how he and Sam parted ways so many years ago.
It takes twenty-five minutes for him to get the entire story out, and when he is finished, he feels more tired than he has in weeks. He's also reassured himself that he's doing the right thing by pushing Sam away before Dean remembers how nice it feels to have him there, and he leaves again.