Relief
K Hanna Korossy

Sam Winchester woke to semi-darkness, a headache, and the certain feeling he wasn't alone.

He turned his head on the pillow, wincing a little as the knot behind one ear brushed fabric, and met his brother's eyes. There was no surprise in finding Dean sitting backwards on a chair beside his bed, his knife idly bobbing up and down in one hand as he watched Sam sleep. The curve of a smile softened the sharp corners and planes of Dean's face.

"'Bout time, Sammy."

"Dean," he murmured, and remembered in sketchy flashes a very long walk through trees and steep, rocky ground, feeling woozy and weak. Dean's hand at his elbow and back, his voice a constant in Sam's ear. "When'd we—?"

"Last night. How's the head? Double vision, nausea, hallucinating strippers?"

He snorted despite himself, raising a hand to rub wearily at his forehead. "No, that would be you. I'm okay, just a little headache."

Dean stirred softly in his chair. "Why don't you grab a few more hours, then we can go pick up some food if you're up for it."

It was tempting; he was still tired and his body ached distantly as if it knew it should be unhappy about something but wasn't sure what. The bed was soft, for once, the blanket warm and heavy, and as Sam's eyes sank shut, he realized even his shoes and jacket had been removed. He had no memory of going to bed the night before, but apparently Dean had taken care of it.

He opened his eyes and looked at Dean again.

His brother grinned at him, cheerful but clearly relieved. Stubble was dark on his face, there were lines of fatigue and strain around his eyes, and a darkness that was just lightening in the hazel. Sam took it in along with the knife that still slid easily, absently, through Dean's hand, deceptively casual, just like Dean's posture.

The surge of memory caught Sam's breath.

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"Dean could really use you right now, Samuel," the soft voice had said over the phone, and followed it with an address a few hours away.

Pastor Jim had been the last person Sam had expected to hear from three months after he'd arrived at Stanford. He wondered, just for a second, when he heard the speaker, how the man had gotten his number, but the answer was obvious. Sam had only given it to Dean, but that meant their dad and several of their closest friends and contacts had it, too. Which was, come to think of it, the way Sam would have wanted it anyway; Dad may not have wanted him back, but that didn't mean Sam was ready to write his family off for good, especially not Dean. And especially if there was trouble. He just hadn't expected a call. Not so soon, anyway.

Sam was halfway there in a friend's borrowed car before he realized he didn't know what John would think of his showing up.

Turned out it didn't matter. The address was a hospital, and "John Cunningham" was in the ICU and oblivious to the world.

Sam had stood at the edge of the doorway for a few long minutes, just out of sight, taking in the scene. Dad unconscious and on a few different monitors, face pale and a large bandage high on his forehead but otherwise looking okay. And Dean…Sam swallowed as the sight of his brother. Dean sat in a stiff padded chair beside the bed, just rubbing a hand over his face and hair. Seeing him again, all Sam felt for a moment was the intense wave of homesickness of his first few weeks at Stanford. He'd never been apart from Dean that long before. It was the one aspect of school Sam hated.

But, he breathed in, he wasn't here just to visit. First reaction past, Sam studied Dean's appearance. Unshaven, uneasy, one hand buried in his jacket where Sam knew it would be curled around some weapon, his brother was on guard duty and looked like he had been for some time. With no relief in sight.

Maybe it was the three months of separation, or maybe it was just fatigue, but it took Dean a while to sense Sam's presence. But then hooded eyes had risen, first puzzled, then narrowing, to stare at the open door and the shadows beyond. Sam could see him tense even from across the room. "You get your kicks just watching?" There was no sign of fatigue in his voice, just growled challenge.

Sam stepped inside, finding it both easier and harder than he'd expected, and offered his brother a wan smile. "Hey, Dean."

The same mix of emotion he'd felt, flashed through his brother's face: surprise, gladness, relief, wariness. The last lingered, and Sam felt the stab of something already broken between them. "Sam," Dean finally said. "What're you doing here?"

"You know, just in the neighborhood…" The joke fell flat, eliciting nothing but a flat look from his brother. Sam noticed Dean had made no move to close the distance between them, his hand still in his pocket. Sam took a breath. "Pastor Jim called me."

He couldn't quite catch the flicker in the hazel, let alone interpret it, and that bothered him more than anything. "He shouldn't have," Dean said bluntly. "Dad's gonna be okay, he just cracked that thick skull of his so they've had him under for a few days until he heals." A glance at the sleeper, and now it was sorrow and, oh, man, a scatter of fear Sam saw in his brother. Dean had been sitting there alone, facing the loss of the one person he had left, for days.

Sam's eyes blurred. "What about you?" he asked softly.

Dean's attention flicked back to him, and he shook his head. "It didn't get me. I'm fine."

Not what he was asking.

Dean shifted. "Don't you have some homework or cute co-eds or something to get back to?"

Sam couldn't help the flash of irritation; he loved Dean like no other, but his brother also pushed his buttons like no other. "Nice, Dean. I just got here."

"Well, we're fine, Sam—Jim shouldn't've bothered you."

"It wasn't a bother," he said automatically. "I wanted to come."

Dean wasn't meeting his eyes anymore. Belligerence he could do, but the kindness was hurting him. He had to be exhausted, it was just sinking into Sam, barely keeping it together. It was like seeing his brother through new eyes.

Sam made his decision abruptly, swinging his hastily-packed duffel off his shoulder and setting it behind the door. "I don't have to be back until tomorrow night. Go get cleaned up and find us some food. Then I want to hear what happened."

Dean looked up at him like he was seeing him for the first time, too, bewildered and at loose ends over a little brother who was not only suddenly back, but also taking charge. "Sammy—"

"I haven't eaten since last night and I know you haven't, either." Sam stopped, switched gears when Dean still hadn't moved. "Dean, please. Just let me do this, all right? You said the door would always be open, didn't you?"

It was like he'd dredged up a long-awaited password. Tension suddenly flowed out of Dean's body, his hand slipping out of his pocket. If there wasn't welcome in his eyes, there was at least careful acceptance…and maybe relief and longing and ten other things Sam had never quite believed he'd see in his brother. But Dean just nodded, standing, offering Sam the chair. Changing of the guard. His hand brushed Sam's sleeve on the way, and the homesickness came back full force. The family prodigal sat down with a tightening throat, and watched the good older son hover uncertainly between chair and bed, brother and father. "Tomorrow night," Dean finally repeated roughly.

Sam nodded. School wasn't very tempting at the moment, but Rob needed his car back and Sam had assignments due, and it should be enough time to make sure his brother got at least a night's sleep and that their dad was going to be okay. Hopefully not enough for John to wake and get mad at him for being there, or for Dean's tangible loneliness to give Sam second or third or two-hundredth thoughts about going back to Stanford.

"Okay," Dean finally said, nodding. He glanced over at the bed. "Try not to fight while I'm gone."

Sam's mouth curled up a little. "No promises."

Dean mirrored him, then hesitated like he wanted to say something. He finally dropped it and walked out the door, leaving Sam on duty.

The banter over sandwiches and coffee was a little stilted, but it still felt good, and softened Dean's face almost to how Sam remembered him. They talked together with the doctor, who seemed surprised John had two sons, and who reassured them the patient would be fine. It took surprisingly little coaxing to get Deanto leave for a few hours after that, going back to their motel for a shower and some sleep. He still trusted Sam to watch their backs, even after three months, even though it was Dad.

Sam hugged Dean before he left to go back to school, catching the older man off guard, and side-stepped with ease the automatic, almost inaudibly murmured jibe about being a girl. "Call me if you need me," Sam said earnestly.

The wry twist of Dean's lips, the dead-sober gaze answered what his brother never would: if he did that, Sam would never make it back of Stanford. "Stay sharp, geek boy," was all Dean had said. He was on his own again, and they both knew it.

Sam was halfway back to school before his throat stopped burning. It started again when he unpacked that night and found the handful of hundreds tucked into the side pocket of his duffel.

Time, drift, and silence from his family hardened his heart over the next three years. It was Dean's quiet admission when he returned, "I don't want to" —do this alone, stand alone, be alone—that had finally gotten through.

Sam remembered then a pair of burnt hazel eyes in a hospital room and, swallowing, gave in. For the first time in nearly three years, he relieved his brother.

And himself.

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Dean was watching him steadily, like he knew Sam had gone away for a minute and was just waiting for him to come back. Sam blinked, separating past from present, haunted features from the relaxing but tired ones before him. And sat up gingerly, avoiding Dean's hand as it rose to discourage him. "I'm all right. I'm up to going for food now."

"Right. So green is just your natural color."

"I'm all right," he said more certainly, taking a deep breath. He did feel okay, sore but capable. Sam glanced at his brother, gave him a small smile. "You mentioned food?"

Dean shook his head, standing, but his eyes gleamed with the simple joy that Sam was fine. "I'm supposed to be the one who's always hungry, remember?" he grumbled good-naturedly. The knife disappeared under his pillow, the move offhanded and almost imperceptible, but Sam had been watching for it. Dean was standing down, brother and partner again instead of guardian. But Sam had every intention of switching roles for a while and making sure Dean ate a big meal and then got some sleep himself.

It was his watch, and Sam was glad to take it.

The End