A/N: And so here we are, on 18-July, my fic anniversary. I can't believe how the time and the words (more than a million) have flown by. You all have been part of my ups and downs, health issues and happy occasions. Your support has been here through it all and I want to say thank you to each and every one of you, those who review, and those why just enjoy reading. I know you are all out there, and it means the world to me. I have found a family here, one who accepts me for who I am, and has cheered me on the way through so much. I wish I could hug you all. Consider this a massive virtual hug to each and every one of you.
A/N II: I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate. Thank you all for your patience.
The snow was drifting down, sparkling in the streetlamps as they headed outside. Sam was bundled up, complete with a blanket on his lap. He'd protested but Dean said it was the blanket or no "snow walk". Even though he was in the wheelchair and his brother was pushing, it had the same magical quality that "snow walks" always brought, just the two of them surrounded by the hushed world of the falling snow and the air filled with the scent that belonged only to these special walks. They'd been taking them for as long as Sam could remember, just the two of them. When they were kids, depending on where they were staying, hot chocolate often awaited their return. It would this time too, they'd left enough to heat up again for after the walk.
Sam wasn't worried by Dean's silence. These walks were generally silent, the only conversation when one of them noticed something out of the ordinary. Somehow it seemed wrong to break the quiet around them. Dean stopped and pointed, a husky was out in his yard madly chasing snowflakes, then stopping and rolling in the fallen snow with glee, only to be up again a moment later chasing another snowflake. Sam held his breath for a moment, then laughed when he heard Dean start to laugh as well.
That's when it hit him.
As terrible as things had been—with the never-ending pain, the uncertainty hanging over their heads—Dean laughed more. Whether it was watching television or the antics of Fim, his brother laughed. It had been a long, long time since Dean had that carefree note in his laughter. Sam was beginning to wonder… No, he'd cross that bridge when they came to it, but a plan was beginning to form, and as soon as Dean came clean about what he and Alan had discussed, Sam wanted to be ready.
The pain was beginning to creep up his back. Dean must have sensed the change, because he turned the wheelchair towards home. The tire tracks were already filling as they headed down the sidewalk. The snow was starting to fall much thicker, and by the time they reached the porch, it was getting hard to see the houses around them. As soon as Dean opened the door, Fim flew past them like a gray streak, jumped off the porch and into the snow.
"Get back here!" Dean turned to chase after him. Fim didn't need the encouragement. After one bound, up to his nose in snow, he turned and in three large leaps, jumped onto the porch steps and raced back in the door. "Freaking monster! Shut up," he said, rounding on Sam, a grin on his face.
"I didn't say anything," Sam said, grinning back.
"I heard what you were thinking." Dean pushed him inside and stopped long enough to take off the ten layers he'd put on Sam when they left. He moved the wheelchair over to Sam's recliner, helped him in, then headed into the kitchen. "Hot chocolate?"
"Of course." Sam was tempted to ask Dean about Alan, but he was happy, Dean was happy and despite the pain crawling through him, he wanted to keep the mood. He didn't have to ask about meds, Dean had them in his hand when he came back in with the hot chocolate. Dean opened the curtains and turned off the living room light and they sat together in the quiet, drinking hot chocolate and watching it snow.
The snow let up early the next day, but Nate kept the garage closed for another full day, waiting for the snowplows to move the immense pile of snow they'd left in the driveway to his shop. He was upset about it, and when Dean invited Nate and Nancy to dinner, Nate had muttered off and on about the "damned snowplows" and Nancy would pat his hand and he'd stop—for a minute or two. Still, it had been a nice dinner, and Sam noticed that even though Dean watched him like a hawk, his brother was relaxed and joking around with Nate.
Everything would have been perfect, except that night Dean woke screaming, then brushed Sam's questions aside. Sam was a little too doped to keep a conversation going, and he knew Dean was avoiding the issue despite the promise to talk about it. Sam did manage to stay awake long enough to hear his brother turn on the TV, and he drifted back to sleep listening to Spinal Tap. His last thought before he was all the way asleep was that Dean must have a secret superpower that let him know when Spinal Tap was on, because he always seemed to know.
In the morning, Dean was up, looking like he'd never gone back to sleep. He had breakfast on the stove when he pushed Sam into the kitchen. His brother quickly flushed the port and hooked up the IV, then set a cup of coffee down in front of Sam.
"Where's Fim?" Sam asked.
"Devouring bacon and cream in the laundry room."
"Why is he in the laundry room?"
"Because that's where he took the bacon," Dean said, setting a plate of eggs and bacon in front of Sam. "I gave him the cream in hopes we could have a quiet breakfast."
Sam smiled. "Do you think you can get rid of him that…" He broke off when he saw the grimace of pain on Dean's face and a moment later Fim hopped onto the table. "…easily?"
The kitten looked expectantly at Dean until he had a small dish of eggs for himself. He started eating it, his tail lashing back and forth.
"Does he have to growl?" Dean asked in exasperation.
"Yes." Sam smiled. "I think it's required."
"Right." Dean sighed and sipped his coffee. "Do you want to come to work with me today?"
"I was planning on it, Jessie is expecting me."
"Are you going to tell me what the two of you are up to?" Dean asked.
"When I can."
"Fine," Sam replied with a smile.
They finished breakfast in silence. There was tension in Dean's shoulders as he gathered their things together, and the tension didn't ease on the way into the shop. Sam knew his brother was expecting him to talk about what was causing his nightmares and Dean wasn't ready, even though he'd promised. There was no reason to press it on the way to work, and Sam just sat back and enjoyed the drive, the way the world looked so changed under the blanket of white that glistened in an almost too bright sun.
Jessie was waiting at the door to help Sam out of the car. Once he was in the wheelchair, Sam was surprised when his brother backed out and then pulled into one of the shop bays.
"What's going on?" Sam asked Jessie.
"I've been sworn to secrecy, sorry, Sam." Jessie pushed the chair into Sam's office. "I was telling one of my friends about how much you've been helping me, especially with the Latin for the exam, and she told one of her friends, and well…" He started blushing.
"We were wondering if you would consider teaching a class for the continuing ed program at the college—you don't have to have a degree to teach, and the pay depends on how many students you have, and you would have at least 10 students, maybe more."
"Me?" Sam frowned, his throat tight. "Teach?"
"You're awesome at it! And patient, believe me. No one else has been able to help, and I paid a few tutors from the University to help and they weren't any good." Jessie sat down and smiled. "Just think about it for a day or two?"
"I will. I promise. Now, what are we working on today?"
Sam smiled and reached for the book. It was heavy, but Jessie, as always, let him drag it over, no matter how long it took. Sam was sweating by the time he had it in front of him, and they started work. The whole time Sam was turning over the idea of teaching at college. Even though it was just continuing education, it was teaching at a college—maybe he could finish his degree. He filed that away into "the Plan" as well.
Nate was waiting for Dean just inside the shop. They had planned the morning to get the car ready for Sam to drive once he was off the heavy duty pain meds—and no matter what else Alan said, he had assured Dean that the pain would lessen over time. Once the infection was gone, Sam should be able to function as normally as possible.
Of course it was that "as possible" that was haunting Dean. He was dreading the moment when he had to sit down and talk about it with Sam. It was not going to be easy, and even though Sam had seemed happier the last few days, Dean knew that depression still dogged his brother. It appeared every once in a while—he would notice Sam staring off in the distance, or when they were watching an old episode of Dragnet an Impala had been in one scene and tears trickled over Sam's face. No matter how many times Dean explained it, Sam still felt guilty over the loss of the car.
The nightmares were getting worse, Dean had no idea why. Things were looking up—mostly—and the nightmares were getting more and more horrific. He'd called and spoken with Alan late the night before, and Alan thought it was the reality of the shooting and everything else finally catching up with Dean. "It's called PTSD, Dean, and it happens. It doesn't mean you are weak," Alan said. That wasn't very comforting. He didn't want to spend the rest of his life reliving the shooting every night, and watching the blood splatter the walls or his brother's lifeless body beneath his hands.
"What's bothering you, Dean?" his fifteen-year-old brother asked.
"Nothing, Sammy," he answered a little too quickly.
"Oh, because I thought when you woke up screaming and spent the day jumping at every sound, it meant something was wrong." Sam gazed at him, his eyebrows curling up into a squinch. "Dean?"
"It's nothing! It's just sleeping in this chair!" Dean snapped, then stopped and took a breath. "I've been having nightmares."
"I guessed that."
"About the case, I should have done more."
Sam's frown deepened. "More? You saved ten people, including me."
"Yeah, but you're here," Dean said, gesturing at the hospital bed. Tears were burning in his eyes. This was not the conversation he wanted to be having right now.
"I am, but I'm alive." Sam shifted. "And I'll be out of here in a couple of days, that's what the doctor said."
"Three people died, Sam."
"Yeah, but more lived—because of you, Dean." His brother took his hand. "You need to listen to me."
Dean dragged his eyes away from the far wall and looked at Sam. "What?"
"Someone told me once that you can't always win. There are wins, but there are also losses. This one is a win," Sam said, then continued before Dean could finish. "Conditional, maybe, I did get chewed on a little, but in the end, you won, no one else stopped it, even though they tried. You saved them too and everyone that might have become a victim or tried to stop it later."
"No buts, Dean, this is a win and when I'm out of here, we'll celebrate."
"Fine, whatever," Dean said, trying to smile. It still felt like a loss, his brother was here, had been for three days since the creature attacked, and in those first dark hours he'd been sure he was going to lose Sam. His brother had proved the doctors wrong and survived.
"I mean it," Sam said.
Sam huffed. "What's the problem."
"I should have stopped it before it happened."
"Yeah, well, Dad and Bobby should have stopped it before we arrived. And wasn't the first account of the thing recorded by a missionary in the 1800s? He should have stopped it—but no one did, no one managed to do it until you," Sam said, his voice quiet—Dean recognized it, his brother was actually angry at him. "You stopped it, you saved me and a lot of other people, stop beating yourself up!"
Dean looked away from his brother for a long moment, letting the words drift through his consciousness. Maybe, just maybe his brother was right. He smiled. "Spinal Tap is on in ten minutes."
Sam sighed and punched him lightly in the arm. Dean shifted so he could lean against the bed, their shoulders in contact. Sometimes his brother was a little too insightful. Dean wondered if it would stay that way, with a deep breath he shook off his mood. Sam was mostly right, and that was enough.
"That's looking good," Nate said.
Dean smiled as he surveyed what they'd accomplished. It was all ready for Sam. A lump formed in his throat, the car symbolized something he didn't want to face. He should have… He stopped the thought. The plan was to give the car to Sam after their appointment with Alan the next day. Somehow between now and then, he needed to talk to Sam about what Alan had told him. As much as he hated it, he couldn't take Sam in to see the doctor not knowing.
"Are you boys done?" Nancy asked.
"Almost, just a few more things," Nate answered easily.
"Lunch is ready, come and sit down and finish after."
"Yes, ma'am," they said together and broke out laughing.
They had survived the Renaissance and were working their way through the Enlightenment when Nate tapped on the door. "Lunch is ready, Jessie, I want to speak with Sam. Tell them to go ahead and start without us."
"Sure, Dad." Jessie stood and smiled at Sam. "Thanks!"
"Sure." Sam smiled back, suddenly becoming aware of the pain.
"Here, I grabbed these," Nate said, dropping into the chair Jessie had just vacated and handing Sam two pills.
"Thank you, Nate."
"I wanted to talk with you about Dean," Nate said softly, as if he was worrying he would be overheard.
"He is the most stubborn man I have ever met." Nate shook his head. "Watching him fight for you, then having him here in the shop. While you were still in the hospital we got this car in, the guy wanted it fixed up to drive in classic car rallies and it was a mess. I almost refused, but accepted because I thought it might help Dean to have something like that to distract him. When he wasn't at the hospital, or working on the apartment, he was here fighting with that stupid car. It helped."
"I know," Sam said. Once Dean focused on something, he didn't let it go easily.
"He's stubborn in a lot of other ways too," Nate continued.
"When he first got that apartment and started fixing it up, I offered to help pay for the supplies—he said no. So I offered him a job here, that way I could help…"
"But it wasn't a handout," Sam finished for him.
"Exactly." Nate cleared his throat. "Look, even though Jessie hasn't said anything, we know what you're doing for him—and for us. It means a lot." He looked out the door and pushed it closed. "Which is what I wanted to talk to you about."
Sam ended up sleeping most of the afternoon. After lunch, Dean helped him get into the bed in the office and Sam was asleep within minutes. The food and pain meds mixed together to keep him asleep until Dean came to wake him to head home. Sam had never liked sleeping during the day, even when they were working a case all night. For some reason, waking up from a nap left him more disoriented than waking up from a night of sleep. He'd always wondered why. Maybe he'd ask Alan sometime.
When they got to the front door of the apartment, Dean opened it carefully. Fim didn't try to make an escape, so he pushed Sam into the entry way and stopped. "Son of a…."
"You left the bottom cupboard open, Dean," Sam said, trying very hard not to laugh. "He was just protecting us."
"From rabid paper towels?" Dean said, stalking into the kitchen where the "gutted" roll of paper towels was. "How can one cat, that small, do that much damage?
Sam wheeled himself over, and looked down at the mess. "Maybe it put up a fight? He probably left it for us as a gift."
"It's not funny." Dean was grinning as he grabbed the broom and started sweeping up the bits of paper.
"Which is why you are laughing."
Fim chose that moment to make his appearance, head and tail up. He looked at Dean and mewed, then looked at his "kill".
"Yes, thank you for the dead body, we appreciate you not wanting us to starve." After he'd swept up, Dean gave the cat a pat. "You were brave."
Sam burst out laughing.
Dean was chuckling when he opened the refrigerator. He put a package of hamburger on the counter and set an onion beside it.
"We need to get something to eat," Sam said.
"Where? There isn't anything in a million miles," his twenty-year-old brother answered. He was in a bad mood and had been growling off and on as they drove along back roads and an old highway. Their last hunt hadn't gone smoothly, and Dean had ended up with a broken rib and a slight concussion which was why Sam was driving. That made Dean's mood even worse.
Sam could see a sign in the distance and he hoped it would be something that involved food. An injured Dean was bad enough, a hungry injured Dean that couldn't even drive his car was close to impossible to deal with. In fact at one point, while going over a one lane bridge, with Dean directing him the whole way, Sam actually considered drugging his brother with nighttime cold medicine. As the sign got closer, Sam saw it was for a restaurant and small inn. The sign was faded by the weather, and he had no idea what to expect, but he decided that they were stopping at the "Wild Daisy" no matter what Dean had to say.
The building was almost as faded as the sign, an old ranch house turned into an inn. Sam pulled in, the paint was old, flaking in places, but the flower pots were all full of bright, well cared for flowers. He got out and walked around to help Dean, of course his brother had no intention of that happening. Dean forced himself out with a grunt of pain and stopped to lean against the car. As they stood there, a large dog wandered off the porch and came down to greet them. Dean smiled for the first time in two days.
"Howdy," a man said, stepping out of the house. "You boys here for food?"
"Yes," Sam answered, wondering what the inn had to offer.
They walked up the stairs and into the house, there was a small dining room to the right in what must have originally been the parlor.
"Have a seat, I'll get you some coffee and the menus. Unless you want the special," he said enthusiastically.
"Yeah, sure, whatever," Dean said, walking over and sitting at a table by the windows.
"Okay!" the man said, smiling. "I'm Lee, and my wife, Daisy, is the chef."
"Thanks," Sam said quickly before Dean could say anything.
"Chef?" Dean looked around suspiciously.
"You're being picky?" Sam grinned. "You ate a sandwich out of a machine at the gas station two days ago. You're lucky you didn't get food poisoning."
"It tasted fine."
"You said the onions tasted like soap."
"Well, other than that, it tasted good." Dean shifted, Sam saw him grimace. "No."
"Yes, we have the meds for a change and not using them is stupid." Sam pulled the bottle of pills out of his pocket and handed one to Dean.
Lee appeared with an old teapot, cream pitcher, sugar bowl and two mugs balanced on a tray. "Here's your coffee. Your food will be out in just a few moments."
Sam poured them both coffee. The pot might look old, but the coffee smelled wonderful. A few minutes later Lee and a smiling woman walked out of the back of the house. They each had a huge plate of food. Sam saw his brother's eyes light up when he spotted the giant hamburger steak on the plate. He took a bite while Lee and Daisy waited expectantly.
"Onions," Dean said his mouth full "Right in the meat. It's…" He swallowed and cut another piece. "Amazing."
"I'm glad you like it. I hope peach pie is okay for desert," Daisy said.
Dean nodded his mouth full again. Once he finished chewing he sighed. "This might be the best hamburger steak I have ever had, it might be the best one in existence."
Sam smiled. Food, it always worked its magic on his brother.
Dean sighed happily as they finished. "I know they aren't Daisy's…"
"They were good," Sam said. He'd managed to finish almost half of the small steak and potatoes Dean had given him.
"We have some of that cake Nancy brought over for dessert," Dean said, clearing the table. Sam noticed the tension returning to his brother's shoulders.
"I know, Sammy, it's time. Let's go into the living room," he said softly. Dean helped Sam into his recliner, then shifted his chair so he could see Sam.
"Your nightmares," Sam started after several long minutes of silence.
"They're getting worse."
"Want to tell me why?" Sam sighed. "It has something to do with that phone call from Alan the other night, and why we have an appointment at the hospital tomorrow, not his office."
Dean put his head into his hands. "Sammy…"
"My prognosis, Dean."
"Am I dying?"
"What?" Dean nearly shouted, looking up at him. "No!"
"Then what?" Sam waited, Dean didn't say anything and put his head back in his hands. "Dean?" Still nothing. "Dean!"
His brother finally looked up, tears in his eyes. "He said that the infection will go away, and the pain will get better."
"Oh, god, Sam, I'm so sorry." The tears were trickling over Dean's face. "He said…"
"That the rest of me isn't getting any better?" Sam offered.
"Sam…" The anguish in Dean's voice was painful to hear.
Even though he had half-expected this, it still hit him harder than he thought it would. That dark depression that had been gnawing at him, that, at one point, convinced him that he was better off dead was suddenly there hammering against his heart. Never to walk more than through the apartment, or a few steps leaning heavily on Dean—or someone else. To have one arm that sort of worked, the other that didn't. It meant the end of a lot of things. All of them swirled through his mind as he looked at Dean. The news hadn't been hard for him to hear, it had shattered him. Dean had been holding on to more hope than Sam, and it was a bigger blow.
"They told you I wasn't going to make it, didn't they?"
"Or if I did, I would be brain damaged."
"Why do you think they are right about this?" Sam asked gently.
"We won't be doing a lot of hunting," Dean said, the silent tears still flowing over his face.
"I'm sure there are some things around here, we've already dealt with one," Sam said.
"What about all the other people? All the other…"
"Why is it your responsibility? Ours?" Sam huffed. "Dean, Dad told me once that he never wanted that life for us, he wanted you to have a home."
"He did? When?" Dean asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.
"Remember the vampire nest?" Sam asked. "When you went to get the dead man's blood, Dad and I had a talk."
"He said that?"
"He did," Sam assured him. "This isn't a bad place to call home, at least until I am up and around."
"I know, Alan said I wouldn't, but I don't believe that." Sam smiled. "That's your fault. You made me walk at the lake. I made it into my wheelchair from the shower all by myself and I can stand for almost five minutes. They are wrong, and until then… You have a job you like?"
"Yeah, I love working at Nate's."
"I was going to wait to tell you, but I think you need to know this now. I have a job, too."
"It's a teaching job at the college," Sam said proudly.
"Jessie helped, there are a lot of students who need help with their Latin for grad school, and for the entrance exams at St. Fiacre University. I called today, and I start in a month."
"Teaching college?" Dean grinned, even as the tears continued down his face.
"Yeah, and if we can get this far…"
"Nothing is going to stop us," Dean finished and nodded. "You're right. They've been wrong all along, that means they are wrong now."
Dean actually managed to make it the whole night without nightmares. There had been one, a bad one, but it didn't linger the way they had been before. He should have just sat down and talked to Sam right after Alan called. Sam had been so depressed, though, he wasn't sure what the news would do. He never expected that his brother listened to him, never expected that the conversation with Sam would leave him feeling lighter than he had in years. Not even Fim's attempt to devour all of breakfast before Sam's IV was finished changed his mood. Even though they had an appointment at the hospital, Dean couldn't shake the happy feeling.
When they got into the car, Dean smiled at Sam. "I… uh…"
"What?" Sam asked as they pulled out, headed towards the espresso stand.
"Watch." Dean grinned as he tried out the hand controls. "This is acceleration, this one is the breaks. You still have to use the gear shift, but it's an automatic, so all you have to do is put it into drive."
"It's yours, Sam, as soon as Alan clears you to drive. You can use it to get to the college." Dean glanced over, there were tears in his brother's eyes. "Sammy?"
"Thank you, Dean… I…. Thank you," he said, tears in his eyes, but a small secret smile playing on his face.
They got coffee and day old muffins for the ducks and drove into the hospital. Dean handed his keys off to the valet and they headed in to Alan's office at the hospital. He was waiting for them, and hustled Sam off for a series of tests practically before Dean finished saying good morning. They were back an hour later, Sam looking tired and in pain, Alan looking grim.
"Well?" Dean asked.
"It's what we talked about, Dean," Alan said. "I'm so sorry."
"Yeah." Dean looked at his brother. "Sam?"
"I've got it, don't worry." Alan flushed the port on Sam's line and gave him something. A moment later, the tightness on his brother's face relaxed a little. "We've set up a physical therapy schedule, both for at home and once a week here, at least for a month or two. Sam said he's been getting around the house a little?"
"More than a little," Dean said quickly.
"Good." Alan was quiet for a long moment. "The odds are against you, the tests say that the diagnosis is correct." He smiled at both of them. "But I don't believe it, not after seeing you beat every single thing along the way. It will take time, but I know you will get better."
"Don't worry," Sam said quietly. "I already am better." Dean nudged him gently. "Really."
"Good!" Alan stood. "I'll be by Wednesday for dinner."
"Make sure you bring that cake with you," Sam said with a smile. "The death by chocolate one."
Dean stood as well, and pushed Sam out of the office. Some of the nurses waved, recognizing him from the days he'd spent here waiting to see if his brother would ever be able to leave.
"I've been tutoring Jessie," Sam said out of the blue.
"Yeah, it's how I heard about the job at the college." Sam was grinning. "Jessie wanted this scholarship, and he needed some help to pass."
"That's great!" Dean said, gently thumping Sam's chest with his hand.
"Nate insisted he pay me for it," Sam continued as they reached the door.
"Oh? How much?" Dean was distracted for a moment by one of the nurses walking by. He pushed Sam out into the valet waiting area.
A moment later his mouth went dry as he heard the very distinctive rumble… The large black car turned the corner and pulled up in front of them. "Sammy?"
"Nate took the other car back to our apartment," Sam said.
Dean was speechless, his throat tight and he knew there were tears in his eyes. "Sammy, you…"
"Yeah, I did. Thank you for never letting me give up, for being there, for everything, Dean."
Dean couldn't help walking over to the Impala and ran an affectionate hand over her roof. With a smile he turned back to his brother and helped him into the passenger seat, tucking the wheelchair easily into the huge trunk. He got into the car, reveling in the sound the door made as it closed. He revved the engine, hearing her purr and put her into gear.
He glanced over at Sam, his brother's eyes were wet as well. Dean put his hand over Sam's and gave it a squeeze. It felt like the missing piece of his life had been restored. Wiping the tears off his face, he pulled out of the hospital parking lot and headed back to the apartment.
For the first time in their lives, they were headed home.
A/N III: Many of you don't know that a lot of the emotions I tapped into in Gifts came from my own experience with illness. I was seriously ill when I started writing this, and was anticipating getting "all the way better". Well, life had something else in mind, and I find myself living with a serious chronic illness. On the positive side, I plan on returning to this verse and revisiting them in their new lives. Thank you all again for reading and reviewing and your patience with me!