They're three hours into the midnight-to-eight shift, and, true to form for a Wednesday night, nothing's happening: They've had one call, an older guy with chest pains who's now under observation. There are a few people waiting in Triage, but not many, and nothing very serious; Dean guesses that half of them aren't actual emergencies, but people without insurance who come to the ER for things like bronchitis because they don't have anywhere else they can go.
It wasn't so long ago that he and Sam were worse off even than those people—if they got sick or injured in any way that wasn't obviously going to kill them, they toughed it out. The whole ID problem, as well as how to pay for it—even before he worked for one, Dean felt bad bilking hospitals. Sam can tell him left, right, and sideways how fucked-up and corrupt the health-care industry is, but it's still always seemed to Dean like something you shouldn't do, like stealing from a school.
That doesn't, of course, mean that they never did it. Just that he felt bad about it.
Anna yawns. "You wanna go get us some coffee?"
She glares at him. It's almost as fun to needle her as it is to needle Sam.
She volleys back, "I have to go change my tampon. When I get back, there better be some coffee."
"Jesus, Anna! Why did you think I needed to know that?"
She stands up and pats him on the head. "You can deal with sucking chest wounds, but a little menstrual blood's got you all offended?"
"Of course it is. There's not a gaping hole in my ribcage. Now go find us some coffee. If I don't have any, I'm gonna be really cranky, and you know how women get."
"If I ever said that to you—about how women get—you'd kick my ass."
"Damn right. You're not a woman."
She heads off in the direction of the bathroom. Dean mutters to himself for a minute or two, then decides that he probably looks like a crazy person and gets up to search for coffee.
The cafeteria's closed at this hour, so that leaves the coffee machine as his only option. He opens the door to the staff lounge, quiet so as not to disturb whatever resident is probably asleep in there. Sure enough, somebody dressed in scrubs is out cold at the table, head on arms—but the hair, blond and neatly pulled back, serves as a dead giveaway.
It's not weird to come upon sleeping residents—it's expected that they'll zonk out in random and often public places—but for some reason it feels too intimate, seeing Chris Nicholson like this. Also, what the hell is Chris doing asleep in the lounge? He's high enough on the food chain that he can actually go home.
Dean's caught in a dilemma: go in (and potentially wake Chris Nicholson up), or find coffee elsewhere. Except he'd probably have to go over to Pediatrics, and they get weird about that. And returning without coffee is not an option, because Dean is not about to get in the way of female issues. He crosses the room as quietly as he can—
Which isn't quietly enough. Chris startles, looks at Dean, and says, "What time is it?"
"About three in the morning. Sorry. I just came in to get coffee."
"Oh." Chris rubs his eyes. "Nobody looking for me?"
"No. You're safe." Dean adds, "I thought you were a resident at first. How long have you been here?"
"Since, uh, midnight? Yesterday, not today."
"Dude, go home. Seriously. If you're not OK to drive—or bike—have somebody get you a cab. I'd take you myself, but Anna and I are on shift."
Chris shakes his head. "Can't. I'm on until eight."
"I thought they stopped doing that shit to you when you became a big-shot doctor."
"Yeah, look at me leading the big-shot life. We're really short-staffed right now, but it shouldn't last too much longer."
"I knew that a lot of people were out, but I didn't realize it was that many."
Chris nods. "Mercer's in Tahiti for the rest of the month; you probably heard about Williams's father"—he's in the last stages of bone cancer, and Williams is back home in Atlanta until further notice—"Elspeth's down with the flu; Morris broke his leg playing touch footfall with his kids; you probably heard about Porter's jury duty, too"—she got picked for a drug-related murder trial and they wound up sequestered—"so basically half the trauma and general surgery departments are out."
"That really sucks," Dean says. "But it's three a.m. on a Wednesday. Nothing ever happens at three a.m. on a Wednesday. You can't just be on call or whatever?"
"We have to have a full trauma team on site twenty-four/seven. It's part of Level I accreditation. So right now the surgeon part of that is me."
"Can you get badass points for it? The same way 'how many gang fights have you driven into?' is for EMTs: 'How many hours have you been on?'"
He gets a smile, still tired, but genuine. "It's only been, what, a little more than a day? That's nothing, for a resident. Though it seems to be a lot easier to do in your twenties than in your thirties." Chris yawns, like punctuation.
"Look, I'm just gonna get coffee, then I'll get out of here so that you can get some sleep."
"It's not a big deal," Chris says, but he puts his head back down. "One talent I did retain from residency was the ability to sleep anywhere in nearly any conditions."
Chris's eyes fall closed. Dean means for the next words out of his mouth to be in a normal tone of voice, except that they're somehow inexplicably low. "I'll hit the lights when I leave."
Chris sounds about half asleep when he says, "OK. Thanks. For the lights, I mean. Not for leaving." And he apparently wasn't lying about that sleep thing, because his breathing changes about fifteen seconds later—he's back out again.
Dean mixes creamer into his coffee; there's no shame in it, he tells himself, when the coffee is as nasty as this stuff is. Anna takes hers with a lot of cream and a lot of sugar: She claims this is called "regular" back in New York, which seems aberrant and wrong to Dean.
On his way out, just for a moment, he balances both the cups in one hand and puts the other one, not for very long, just for a few seconds, on Chris Nicholson's shoulder.
Which is obviously a completely normal thing to do. Chris is tired and will probably have to sew somebody's intestines back in their body before they'll let him go home. It's reassuring. People reassure each other.
His palm feels like it's burning from the warmth of Chris's skin through the rough cloth of the scrubs.
As Dean closes the door behind him, his eyes fall on the janitor's closet. No one's around. He puts the cups down, then jimmies the lock on the closet and takes out a "Closed for Cleaning" sign. They're only used for the bathrooms, but Dean doesn't think anyone pays enough attention for that to register. Carefully, he unfolds the sign in front of the lounge door.
He's not exactly sure why he just did that.
Dean picks up the cups of coffee and goes to find Anna. Sometimes, he decides, it's best not to examine one's own motivations too closely.