Tender
K Hanna Korossy

He was going too fast again. He was a step in front of Sam, tugging his brother's sleeve impatiently, the ER doors in front of them threatening to close because they were taking so long.

Dean pulled in a breath, forced himself to slow down and fall back to pace Sam's shuffle. In Purgatory, life was motion and speed, or life wouldn't last long. It was hard not to compare everything in this slow, bright, luxurious world with the stripped-down reality of Purgatory.

Like having an ER to go to. Or being able to indulge injuries and illness. He felt almost weak, being there. Or like Sam was…

They were finally through the doors, which hadn't wasted time zipping shut behind them. The waiting room was fluorescent-lit, hard on Dean's eyes, and so…sterile. He pulled on Sam's sleeve again, aimed the hunched giant toward a bank of chairs along one wall. "Siddown. I'll talk to the nurse."

Sam didn't even try to nod, just hobbled forward and sank into the closest chair, pinched and gray.

Dean eyed him a moment, then turned to the front desk.

The nurse manning it was middle-aged but not unattractive, a MILF at least. Dean still had trouble shaping the charming grin that had once been second nature. From her expression, he was guessing it came out more wolfish than disarming. He wiped it away, rapped on the counter with his knuckles. "My brother's hurt. He was, uh…" The lies came harder since Purgatory, too, where there'd been no reason for them. "…he…fell down a hill. Hit a tree. With both parts that count." He waved at his own head, then down lower.

The nurse shoved a clipboard his way. "You need an emesis basin?" She arched an eyebrow. "Or an icepack?"

Dean glanced over his shoulder. Sam still had the chemical icepack from the first aid kit clenched between his legs. "No, we're good." He caught himself. "Okay, maybe the gag bag." Sam had spent a good five minutes retching into the dirt after he'd first hit, but maybe there was still something left in his stomach. Dean had threatened him against tossing his cookies in the car and Sam had kept it down, but he still looked sick.

The nurse plopped a kidney-shaped basin onto the clipboard. "It'll be about an hour." At Dean's frown, she looked honestly apologetic. "If he's not dying, that's the best we can do."

Dean grimaced but accepted it. He took the clipboard and basin, dropping the latter into Sam's lap as he folded himself into the vinyl seat beside him.

"Gonna be a while," he shared, not unsympathetically. Sam's whole body was curled with pain.

The guy blinked up at him, owl-like. "What?"

"The doc. ER? Gonna be about an hour before they can see you."

Another blink. "Why?"

"Uh, 'cause they're busy and you're not bleeding or puking enough to jump the line?"

"Oh." Sam gave the room a slow look. "Where're we?"

Dean sighed. Concussions were always fun. He'd done this before, answering the same questions over and over because his brother's eggs were too scrambled to hang on to information. Somehow, he remembered it being funnier than this. "ER. You hit your head."

"Oh, right." A wan nod that made him swallow. "But…wha's goin' on?"

Dean gave him a critical look: had Sam been slurring that much in the car? "Nothing, Sam, just gonna see the doctor. You wanna take a little nap until it's our turn?"

Sam took a few seconds to process that, then either in obedience or coincidence, his eyes fluttered shut, head lolling to the side. "Dunno wha's happening…Amelia."

Dean grimaced. "Shut up and go to sleep, Sam."

Sam's breath hitched on a moan, then evened out. Dean half expected him to drop his head onto his big brother's shoulder, but Sam stayed hunched into himself. He was Mister Independence now, Dean reminded himself bitterly, as used to being on his own as Dean had become. But Dean didn't want to be, had looked up Sam as soon as he was topside. He just wished he could say the same for his brother.

Clenching his jaw, Dean started to fill out the paperwork.

Sam's body began a slow slide off the chair.

Dean bit off a curse and dropped the clipboard to grab two handfuls of Sam's jacket. "Sam! Front and center, man."

"'M up, Dad," Sam muttered. He half-opened his eyes to squint at Dean. "Dean? Wha's goin' on?"

Dean sighed. "ER. You broke your head." He pushed Sam back up in his chair, twitching a little in automatic empathy as Sam groaned and curled a hand over his groin. "And your junk."

"What?" Sam managed to look sick, baffled, and determined at once. Vintage Sam.

The déjà vu was like a punch. "You hit a tree," Dean muttered, shutting down the memory.

"Oh. Yeah." Sam's nose wrinkled. "So what happened?"

Dean growled and yanked his jacket off, not caring if he turned the sleeves inside out. He wadded it up, stuffed it between their chairs and the wall, and guided Sam back against it. "Take a nap, dude. The doc'll fill you in."

"Mmm." Sam was already almost there. His eyes were shut again, brow creasing and smoothing, eyes pinching and relaxing as pain invaded sleep. His grip on the icepack relaxed, but Dean wasn't going there if he didn't need to. Face set, he returned to the paperwork.

By the time a nurse in scrubs finally came to call them in, Dean was ready to grab Sam and bolt. It wasn't Sam waking every five minutes, asking for the same explanations again, or that he was keeping his space as determinedly as Dean even though injury had always made Sam clingy. It was the room that smelled of blood and fear, small whimpers occasionally escaping one of those waiting with them, the light searing wherever Dean looked. This place made him itch and feel exposed and too hot, and he wanted to run.

Wasn't like they hadn't treated concussions in the Winchester motel-room clinic before. Sam hadn't even had a lot of concussions since he'd gotten a clean-slate meat suit after returning from Hell. But family jewels, you didn't mess with that. Dean didn't want to examine 'em, and Sam probably wanted little Sammys with that Amanda or Amelia or whatever her name was, so. There they were, Dean's hand clenched tight around the pen like it was a knife, on the edge of his seat as he crouched guard over Sam, who didn't even seem to know who he was half the time.

"Mister…Richardson?"

He had no idea from where Sam had gotten the name on his ID. Richardson, Texas, where they'd done that Tulpa hunt? The prank war they'd had then seemed like another life, another set of Winchester brothers.

Dean nudged Sam's arm with an elbow. "Dude. We're up."

Sam came awake slow, like he had for a while after Stanford, like he'd forgotten all his training. Or ditched it. "Wha'?"

Dean rolled his eyes at the nurse. "Concussion. Forgets everything before I'm done saying it." To Sam he said cheerfully, "Rise and shine, Sammy. The nurse wants to get in your pants."

That earned him one baffled and one unamused look.

Between the two of them, they managed to get a swaying Sam to his feet and moving, albeit in that same scuffing gait in which they'd arrived. The Leviathan—because, yes, they were still running across the sons of bitches over a year later—had done a number on him. Dean hadn't been lying about the hitting a tree part, just about how Sam had come to meet the tree.

The ER bay, curtained on either side, was a familiar sight. Dean took up a position out of the way in the back corner as the nurse did the also-well known vitals check. In deference to Sam's apparent inability to straighten out and his spastic clench on the icepack, she let him stay on his side, and Dean watched as hazy eyes scanned the bay, apparently not finding the setting as familiar as Dean did.

Dean chewed his lip, then moved over a foot so he was in Sam's range of sight.

Sam didn't reach for him, didn't say a word. But his brow smoothed out once his eyes lighted on Dean, and he didn't look away.

"Okay, the doctor will be right in." The nurse was rolling back the BP stand, winding up the cord.

"Uh, is the doc a he?" Dean thought to ask.

The nurse—this one far older than the one at the front desk but with a spark he still found it in him to admire—gave him an amused glance. "Does it matter?"

"He's, uh…shy." Dean waved vaguely at Sam, who was frowning in permanent befuddlement. Actually, Sam probably wasn't all that bashful anymore, between the way he'd screwed his way across the country when he was soulless, and the girl he'd shacked up with the last year. Come to think of it, Dean couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Sam blush. Still, it just seemed wrong, having some woman poke around down there when Sam wasn't with it enough to appreciate it.

"I'll send in Dr. Browning," the nurse said with a smile. Which didn't answer Dean's question at all, but he figured, whatever. He was probably more worried about this than Sam would be. Hadn't his girl been some kind of doctor, anyway?

Sam moaned, gagging on a little bile that trickled out of his mouth onto the paper covering the examining table.

Dean made a face and glanced around the cubicle. He snatched a tissue from the box on the counter and rubbed Sam's chin clean. "Stomach's still screwed up, huh?" Between the shock and the pain of the two hits he'd taken, Dean wasn't too surprised.

Sam just screwed his eyes shut tighter. Sweat glistened at his temples, streaked his hair. The long locks were half in his face, reminding Dean again of days past, except Sam's hair had never been this long.

"Annie couldn't give you a haircut?" Dean mused, pushing the strands back and blotting the sweat dry that had plastered them down. The light seemed to be bothering Sam, too—kind of a given with a concussion—but Dean couldn't turn the lights off in the ER. He glanced around once more, finally settling on a paper towel he wetted and laid over Sam's eyes.

He was pretty sure Sam mumbled a thanks.

Dr. Browning arrived. He was definitely male, almost as tall as Sam but with graying hair and a goatee. He was professional, clinical as he listened to Dean's lame story and did his own check of Sam's vitals. When he moved the towel to check Sam's eyes, Sam made a pained sound that made Dean's fists clench.

He wanted…he wanted to be there next to Sam. To put a hand on his shoulder, silently promise he wasn't alone. But Sam didn't seem to want that, or him, and Dean still gravitated between anger and hurt over that. He stood his ground, watching closely as the doctor poked and prodded and examined.

Then the doc moved down to Sam's jeans. "It'll hurt less if we cut these off," he said, to one or both of them, Dean wasn't sure. He moved Sam's hand and the icepack carefully but firmly away.

And Sam—tough, independent, I'm-gonna-go-my-own-way Sam—blurted Dean's name, eyes snapping open to search the room. For him.

Dean was moving before he knew it, no thought needed. His left hand spread wide across the span of Sam's broad chest, the same chest that had once been thin and fragile under Dean's then-tiny hands. "You're okay, Sam. Doc's just looking you over."

"No. Not… I got out." Sam's eyes slammed shut. "You're not real."

Dean's mind spun. Sam getting out of Hell, while Hell refused to get out of Sam. Dean returning from Hell, to a brother who didn't believe he was alive. Dean returning from Purgatory, to a brother who had…moved on, or given up? He didn't know. Right now, he didn't care. Sam was screwed up six ways to Sunday, and that was even before he'd been bitch-slapped by a tree. If he needed Dean—

And right now, Dean realized with a tightness in his own chest, Sam did need him.

He bent down, squarely in his brother's ashen face. "Sam. Open your eyes, dude. Look at me."

Sam's brow gathered; he was always over-thinking things. Dean wondered briefly what he'd thought when Dean had disappeared from SucraCorp.

His mouth twisted up. "Sammy." There'd been no gentleness in his life for over a year, but Dean tried hard to soften the edges of his tone. "Look at me."

The doctor had stopped, waiting on them.

Sam peeled his eyes open like it took a great act of will. Dean thought it probably did.

"I'm here, okay? The real deal. I have you."

Sam had been holding his breath, Dean realized as his brother finally let it gust out, then lay panting, watching him.

The doctor went back to work. Dean didn't look over to see what he was doing, kept his eyes glued to Sam.

"It's not Luci, okay?" he said in a voice low enough to stay between them. God knows Sam's mind had a lot of crappy places it could go, but Dean had an idea which memories were being dredged up right now. And it probably hadn't mattered what gender the doctor was; Lucifer had played Jessica just as easily as he had Dean or himself. "You're back, I'm back. It's just a doc checking you over, making sure everything still works. All right?" He rubbed a little, his other hand finding its way back to the top of Sam's head. "Nothing bad's gonna happen to you."

Sam's mouth quivered. "Long's you're…'round, right?"

Dean took a breath, closing his eyes for a second. God, what a thing to throw back at him. He'd meant every single word of that when he'd said it, and worked hard to keep his promise. But there'd been so many times when he hadn't been there, out of choice or not. And Sam, for all his pretending and wanting, hadn't been okay. Neither of them were, on their own, no matter how much they wanted to be or fooled themselves they were. And the replacements they found, Benny and Lisa and Alice—Anna?—and Cas, never really filled the hole.

He cleared his throat, met Sam's fuzzy gaze. "Even when I'm not here, I'm still your brother, you got that? You hear me? Nothing changes that."

Sam flinched—Dean was pretty sure it was from something the doc did, not Dean's words—and slowly blinked. "What 'appened?" he whispered. He moved his head, agitated. "Wha'…what's going on?"

The doc was pulling his gloves off and draping a sheet over Sam's lower body. "There's some swelling but nothing's ruptured or broken. It'll hurt for a few days to walk or urinate, he might pass some blood, and sexual activity should be avoided until there's no pain, but he'll heal. I'm going to send him for a scan for his head, though. He definitely has a concussion."

No kidding, Dean thought. He looked back at Sam, muscle memory sliding his right hand down the back of his brother's head until he was cradling Sam's skull. "Everything's fine, Sammy. Just got beat up a little, but you're okay."

For once, Sam took the answer and held on to it. His nose wrinkled again, but his eyes closed and he rolled toward Dean, trapping his left hand between Sam's chest and the table.

The doc probably left; Dean didn't hear him. He was mesmerized by Sam's face, remembering when he didn't think he'd see it again, all the occasions it had stared at him in shock and disbelief and surprise and delight. How many times could you say goodbye to someone before you couldn't do it anymore?

He was still mad. Betrayed. Couldn't find it in himself to ask Sam what exactly he'd been doing that last year, why exactly he hadn't looked for Dean. But Dean's one hand curled perfectly around his head, Sam's lungs laboring less against the other. He was still Dean's brother, and, God help him, Dean was still his.

He combed a little through the dirty hair, mouth twitching as Sam sighed in his sleep.

And that would just have to be Dean's stone number one.

The End