A/N: This chapter is for Maxandkiz who wanted to read the last chapter before going on vacation as well as Faye Dartmouth and Gidgetgal9, the best betas, and friends, a girl could ask for.
Dean awoke to find himself in the same ER he had taken Sam to when sleep deprivation had done a number on his little brother's mind. He had an oxygen mask on his face and he felt a slight burn in his lungs. He struggled to sit up, calling out for his brother, "Sam?!"
"Easy Dean. They just took Sam up to surgery." Bobby was standing next to Dean, his left arm in a sling, and a nasty cut sporting stitches along his left check.
Dean knew there was a story behind Bobby's wounds but he was so worried about Sam he didn't have the energy to ask. Bobby seemed to understand this and pulled a plastic chair up next to Dean.
"You've got smoke inhalation but you'll be fine if you take it easy." Bobby looked down at the floor before lifting his chin to look Dean in the eye. "It doesn't look good. Sam's got a bleed in his brain." Bobby let out a harsh breath before continuing, "I'm sorry Dean."
Guilt spread through Dean. He had no way of knowing if the stress of his words had caused the bleed or if the demon had caused it but he felt awful that the last thing his brother might have thought was that Dean would have traded him to have Mary and John back.
Dean struggled to find hope. He looked at Bobby's face and found misery etched deeply in the grooves on his face. Bobby leaned forward and awkwardly patted Dean's hand. There were no words that would make Dean feel better. They could only wait for news of Sam.
Worried for Dean's condition, the ER doctor initially refused to release him. Dean finally wore him down and after five hours of wrangling Dean and Bobby found themselves in the surgical waiting room.
Dean jumped to his feet as a man in scrubs entered the room. Dean didn't hear the doctor say his name or Sam's prognosis – he only heard that Sam was alive. Dean sagged with relief and the doctor and Bobby both reached forward to prevent him from hitting the ground.
Only after a nurse took Dean's vitals and he assured the staff that he felt fine was he allowed in to see his brother. He took up his customary position, in a chair next to Sam, holding his brother's hand. Dean didn't cause a commotion and the staff took pity on him, allowing him to remain with his brother at all times. Hours went by as Dean looked for a sign that Sam would wake up soon.
Dean took in the vivid bruises on Sam's face and the pallor beneath. His right arm in cast, the ventilator swishing, the IV in Sam's left hand…it all looked familiar. But this time a portion of Sam's hair had been shaved off on the left side of his head and a drain emerged from the bandages that swathed his head.
Dean leaned forward and carefully touched the silky hair above the gauze. "Oh Poneyboy, your tuff, tuff hair." Dean knew it was such a little thing in the scheme of things but he hated that Sam's floppy hair had been shorn. It made him look so young and defenseless.
Dean startled when he saw Sam's eyes wide open and staring at him. Dean hit the call button on the side of Sam's bed, anxious for the doctor to evaluate Sam. Dean soon found himself cooling his heels outside the ICU. Bobby quickly walked up, afraid that Sam had taken a turn for the worse.
Dean was so emotional he could only grin and wipe the tears that made their way onto his cheeks. He finally pulled himself together enough to announce, "He's awake. The doctor's with him now."
Dean found himself pulled into a one armed hug by Bobby. Dean detected the glaze of tears in Bobby's eyes, too.
The surgeon who had operated on Sam came out of the room and directly came over to Dean. "It's really quite amazing. He's awake and coherent. I took him off the ventilator. We're going to keep him in this unit for the next twenty-four or so hours so we can keep a close eye on him but I think he's turned the corner." He shook Dean's hand before turning to go.
Before he disappeared around the corner he looked back and with a wink said, "By the way, he said he wanted to see Sodapop."
Dean left a bewildered Bobby behind in the waiting room as he returned to Sam's room. Bobby didn't understand the allusion to The Outsiders but Dean remembered it well.
When Dean was sixteen he'd broken his leg. Badly. It was summer and he was hot, bored, and stuck with his annoying younger brother for company. Sam had tried to amuse his older brother by reading books aloud. Dean was at the mercy of his younger brother, leg stuck in a thigh cast which made moving extremely difficult, yet surprising Dean found himself enjoying The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Violence and action. Nothing at all like he had expected from a story Sam had picked out. And there was something about the way the brothers interacted that intrigued him.
Dean struggled to cap the emotions that were bubbling up inside of him as he approached Sam's side. He needed to be strong. He leaned over and gently put his head against Sam's shoulder, trying not to hurt his brother, but needing the contact. Dean felt cool liquid spilling onto the back of his neck and stood up to see tears running down Sam's face, too.
Dean cupped Sam's face between his hands, "What's wrong Sammy? Are you in pain?" Sam had been through so much and Dean couldn't stand to see him distress.
Sam mouthed "no."
"What is it? Is it what I said to Asher? Because, dude, I would never, ever, trade you for anyone. You know that, right?" Dean was anxious to set the record straight.
Sam beckoned Dean to lean over. This time he was able to whisper loud enough to make himself heard without much effort "Stay gold."
Dean relaxed for the first time in what seemed like ages. Sam was quoting The Outsiders again. Despite his brain injury he remembered that long ago summer.
Stay gold was code for never change, never lose your innocence. Dean knew he'd lost his innocence as a child but appreciated Sam's words. He just wished he could have kept Sam 'gold.' Forever.
Sam had been discharged from the hospital without incident. He'd endured poking and prodding and multiple therapies but had finally been cleared. He was a free man again.
And for the first time in a long time he had the full use of his voice again. It was a little soft and husky from a month of disuse but it was working again. For some reason he chose not to use it very often and it was unnerving to Dean. In the past he had kidded that nothing could really shut Sam up – he was always yammering about a job or the need to talk through their feelings or something else that grabbed his attention. Now Dean had to work at pulling things out of Sam.
Dean decided to try again. "What's the matter…cat got your tongue?" He twisted on his side so he could see Sam in the dull light given off from the streetlight outside their room.
Dean saw the beginnings of a smile quirk the corner of Sam's mouth and felt relief. The other thing he was on guard against was depression. The doctors said that sometimes after a serious illness or injury someone was prone to clinical depression. At times it seemed that Sam was teetering that way but Dean was trying his hardest to keep Sam on an even keel. What he didn't realize was that Sam was having similar thoughts about Dean.
Sam was at loose ends. His whole life, except for the blissful years he'd spend at Stanford, with Jessica, had centered around the Yellow Eyed Demon. And now the creature was gone.
He wasn't sure how it had happened but his brain had activated, his potential "gifts" roaring to life. With Jess and his mom's guidance, and Dean's body shielding him from Asher, he'd managed to overpower the demon.
One moment Asher had been taunting his brother. The next he was crispy bacon.
Dean had told him radioactive power had blazed forth out of his body and demolished the demon but he didn't remember it. He didn't remember much about Asher taunting Dean either. The aneurysm had stolen away the most critical moments of his life.
But he had Dean and for that he was grateful. He knew his brother mourned the trade John Winchester had instigated on his behalf, thought he should have been the one to die. But somehow Sam knew he'd needed Dean to complete his mission. The one thing he'd been trained to do since he was baby – defeat the Yellow Eyed Demon.
And for all that he felt empty and unsure of himself now.
He shifted on his bed and cleared the phlegm from his throat. "Dean, I've been thinking…"
Dean stood up and started to pace before sinking back down on a bed. "What's up, geek boy?"
Sam shyly smiled at his brother. "It's funny you should say that. About me being a geek, I mean. I haven't made up my mind but I thought maybe I could look into going back to school."
When Dean greeted his news with stoic silence, Sam considered abandoning the conversation. Dean's face was set in stiff lines and he'd dropped his eyes to stare at the uninteresting carpet at his feet. But a little voice in the back of his head which sounded remarkably like Mary Winchester urged him on. "Not Stanford. Something small. Part time. My school schedule would have to be flexible. You know, so we could still hunt."
Dean's head jerked up and he stared back at Sam. Hard. It made him want to fidget but he couldn't back down now. He needed to know how Dean felt. Sam realized that he needed to be around his best friend and partner in crime.
Sam found himself babbling in an attempt to fill the void of silence created by the lack of response on Dean's part. "I always liked the Midwest. It seems like most of our jobs have been in the rust belt so maybe we could make our home base there. You liked Lake Manitoc in Wisconsin pretty well. Maybe we could check out that area."
Dean hadn't moved. Sam's heart sank. The timing was wrong. Dean wasn't ready to hear this. He'd put his life on hold while he'd cared for an ailing Sam and he probably thought he was being selfish again, as he'd been accused of many times in the past. Sam was interested in continuing his education but he wasn't driven to pursue it. Not like before when he'd had something to prove to their father. And to himself.
In fact every decision he'd ever made had been driven by his family – either in its quest to wipe up the Yellow Eyed Demon or to escape that legacy.
And then there was the whole depression angle. He didn't think Dean was dealing with the after affects of the showdown with Asher. He was bottling it up. Reticent. He didn't want to cause his brother further anxiety. "Never mind. It was a stupid idea."
Dean watched as the tension fled from Sam's body and he collapsed before his very eyes. One moment he was the educated college boy, arguing his points, and the next he was Sammy, insecure and in need of protection. Do I do that to him? Do I make him doubt himself?
He reached out and kicked Sam in the ankle. "It's not a stupid idea. I just haven't given much thought to it. In fact lately I've had a hard enough time deciding between paper and plastic so you'll forgive me if I think this putting down roots thing is a really big decision, for both of us."
Sam kept his head down. He looked beaten down and exhausted. Dean hadn't meant to snuff out his idea; he should have seen it coming but he'd been so busy just trying to get Sam healthy that it had taken him by surprise.
Dean tried to think of what the future would be like. He couldn't imagine being away from Sam, not now that he'd gotten him back. He wasn't ready to give up hunting evil but there was more to life than that. Watching Sam suffer had really driven home that fact.
Dean wasn't ready to settle down with the white picket fence but he thought maybe he was ready to give walking on the normal side of life a try.
A lop sided grin split his face. "Hey, Ponyboy, I think you might be on to something. I think it's time to stop and smell the coffee. But not in the Midwest. It's too freaking cold there in the winter."
A dimple danced at the corner of Sam's mouth before hiding again. "Sure Soda, just please, no green pancakes with the coffee."
Dean snorted at Sam's comeback. He'd always treasured that summer with Sam; the Outsiders had somehow helped him -- the older, more mature brother -- connect with the geeky little twerp.
Now he was ready to connect with his brother as an equal. Sam had earned it. They both had.
A/N 2: In the first draft of this story, Sam sacrificed his life to defeat YED but John was resurrected. Fortunately that draft was eaten by my PC when it crashed. You, and the brothers, stuck through 36 chapters of this saga so it only seems fair that there's somewhat of a happy ending. Thank you for reading!