The final month in rehab is marked with new equipment and preparations for Dean's homecoming. They've told him all along that there isn't much they can do for him recovery-wise. He has pretty much hit the mark of what he will regain – movement and strength in his neck, ability to talk with the speaking valve, sitting up in the wheelchair for large chunks of the day.
Everything else – movement and independence and getting back to his old life – is all out of his reach.
Lanie keeps telling him not to give up hope, that anything and everything is possible in the future. But she means the scientific future, one in which spinal cords can regenerate and atrophied muscles can be brought back to life. In the foreseeable future, assuming medical knowledge remains the same, Dean has hit his limit.
Now it's not a factor of improvement but learning to live what he has left. Independence has taken on a new definition, one that isn't characterized by strength and capability, is now characterized by his ability to utilize technology and the amount of money they can spend on it. With the right resources he will be able to open doors and control the television, the stereo, the thermostat. He can use a computer and the phone, open blinds in his room and turn off the lights when he's ready for bed. As long as he's got his voice all of this is possible. But it's not ideal, and he can only be so excited about it.
The new wheelchair arrives on a Monday, and comes with a slew of representatives from the company to help adjust the settings to fit his needs. Sam is there, and Milla, Lanie and Chelsea and Stu and Justin. Everyone has an opinion, specifications go flying left and right around the room even as they are lifting him from the bed into the shiny black chair.
One of the representatives goes over the details, eagerly explaining the "revolutionary" gel cushion he's sitting on and the one at his back, designed to reduce pressure sores by sixty percent. The arm and hand rests have a similar design, and the wrist straps, he explains, are made of fleece and softened leather that won't irritate sensitive skin. Dean has never thought of himself as having sensitive skin before; he's familiar with the calluses and sun-toughened skin that were par for the course for his past life.
The battery is designed to run non-stop for twelve hours, which means that sitting idle will lengthen its life. And it can be recharged up to two hundred times before needing to be replaced. Although two hundred days seems like a lifetime to deal with, and Dean finds he can't imagine making it that long.
The sense of freedom Justin has assured Dean will come with the receipt of his new wheelchair isn't there. Instead he feels more trapped than ever as the permanence of his situation finally settles deep into the pit of his stomach. He forces himself to go through the motions of interest, though, for Sam's sake if no one else's. Because his brother has been nothing if not relentless these last few weeks, trying his damndest to make everything okay, to make life worth living. And he's got such a huge, goofy grin plastered onto his face, that isn't entirely fake, as he soaks up the information like the big nerd he is.
So Dean dutifully tries to pay attention, and he responds at all the appropriate questions. But he can't help but roll his eyes when the reps keep asking him if that "feels all right?" as they adjust the location of the arm and foot rests and the natural tilt of the chair. The only thing he's able to feel is the cool leather of the head rest as he turns to lay his temple against it, closing his eyes against the headache that's beginning to pound inside from all the fuss.
The adjustments take forever, and it's well past lunch when the group disbands to give Dean a break. That afternoon Justin plans to show Dean the ins and outs of the sip 'n puff controller on the new chair, but in the interim Sam pushes him down to the cafeteria to beg for some reheated lunch.
"Well, you've got yourself some wheels again," Sam says, more to make conversation than anything else.
Dean grunts a barely intelligible reply then stops and thinks.
"Where's my car?"
It's not the first time he's thought about the Impala, but it's certainly the first time it's occurred to him that Sam isn't driving it. He remembers the accident, fumbling to get out of the car only to have Lori Ann stick him with something and lug him up the hill to the top. All this time he'd figured the car had just needed to be towed off the hill, but he'd never really gotten a good look at it.
He's honestly got no idea what actually happened that day after Lori Ann got him into her van.
Dean is very aware of the fact that Sam is stalling as he quietly accepts the food he's handed and walks it to a nearby table before returning for him. Dean waits until the chair is settled beside the table and Sam is sitting facing him before he asks it again.
"Where's my car, Sam?" he demands.
Sam stuffs a mouthful of luke-warm baked ziti in his mouth before answering. "I didn't think you'd want it as a reminder."
Forced to chew the food and swallow it before he can safely talk, Dean has plenty of time to consider the implications of Sam's response.
"As a reminder of what?"
Sam shrugs, looks away. "Don't make me say it, Dean."
"You know you'll never drive it again, right?" Actual tears are glistening in the corner of Sam's eyes when he looks up, still unable to meet Dean's gaze. "Probably never even ride in it. I didn't think…"
"Do you know where my car is?" Dean asks, unable to confirm Sam's statement. It doesn't matter if he'll drive the car again – it's still his car.
"And can you get it back?"
Sam puts another forkful of ziti in Dean's mouth. "It needs work. I can't really drive it anywhere."
He's starting to notice a pattern here with the food, one that Dean really needs to put a stop to quickly. But right now he's got more important things to worry about, and as soon as he's swallowed Dean snaps. "What's wrong with the car?"
Shrugging, Sam looks away. "I don't know much about cars, Dean. Something with the engine block or something, I don't know. Guy just said the car can't be driven, and that it'll cost more to fix than it's worth."
"Oh." Dean bites his lip, once again feeling completely powerless. They don't have the money to fix the car, and he's never really trusted anyone else to touch it anyway.
"We could send it up to Bobby—"
"No!" Dean snaps with as much power as he can muster. "He'll ask too many questions." First of which is why Dean isn't he fixing it himself.
Sam's shoulders fall, and it's obvious that his little brother hasn't really put a whole lot of thought into the car at all these past few months. But it's just as obvious that this conversation is making him feel pretty awful about that fact.
Dean just doesn't really know what the answer is anymore, isn't really sure how to solve the problem of fixing a car that he'll never use again. Or for that matter, how to justify the necessity in it being fixed in the first place.
"I'll figure something out," Sam says, unwilling to give up now that Dean has brought it up. Clearly Dean's underestimated him, because Sam obviously understands just how much it is worth to Dean even when he, himself, doesn't.
Pursing his lips and nodding, Dean allows that to be the end of the discussion. He doesn't like to be helpless, doesn't like the constant reminders that he is. And just like with most other things in his life these days he finds that it's easier not to dwell on them when he is powerless to change the outcome. It does no good to argue with Sam when it's clear that his baby brother is already beating himself up about the oversight. Instead, Dean just opens his mouth again and accepts another bite of food.
He eats the rest of his lunch in silence, robotically accepting bite after bite from his brother who is seemingly lost in space himself.
When Justin comes to find them later the whole discussion is forgotten in lieu of more mindless topics, most importantly the picture of Miss July and her most notable features in the swimsuit calendar Sam had gotten him.
* * *
It has always amazed Sam at the genuine eagerness and enthusiasm the staff all seem to possess constantly, despite the depressing state of most of their patients. When Justin finds them that afternoon he's got a wide grin spread across his face and a sparkle in his eye.
"Dean, m'man," he says, rubbing his hands together. "We've got to get you mobile. 'bout time you learn to do it yourself. You ready?"
Sam is able to detect the slight hint of apprehension in his brother's reaction, but he is also pleased to see him nod his consent as Justin reaches for the handles on the wheelchair and pushes Dean out the door. Sam follows them to the therapy room.
He's got a pretty good idea of what is going to happen. Dean already uses a sip 'n puff on the bed to raise and lower the head and to call the nurses, so it's not really new. But he also knows that the controls on the wheelchair require more precision, and more breath control. Two reasons why they didn't start teaching this until now.
Justin shows Dean a chart with arrows and instructions on it and explains to him how a combination of sips and puffs on the straw can make his chair move in every direction and in a variety of speeds. They spend a good ten minutes going over the finer details of a light sip versus a heavy sip, and two puffs versus one, and then Justin stands back and lets Dean go at it.
Blowing into the straw too hard, Dean immediately starts with a jolt and ends up running into a wall. And Sam can't help but laugh as he realizes his brother's former natural grace apparently doesn't extend to wheelchairs.
"Yeah, laugh now," Dean grumbles as Justin manually turns the chair so that Dean is once again facing the center of the room. "But just wait until I get the hang of this. I'll be gunning for you." He smirks, a twinkle in his eye, and Sam can't help but let out a sigh of relief that he has somehow managed to come into this with a good mood. It's a rarity, and especially coming off their earlier conversation about the car.
"Bring it on, cowboy," Sam challenges. He crouches down, arms out and fingers gesturing in a 'come on' kind of way.
Dean rolls his eyes, looks back to Justin with an air of determination. "So gentler, huh?"
"Nice and easy. It's just like a gas pedal, the harder you blow the faster you go."
Dean rolls his eyes, waggles an eyebrow suggestively at Sam although he withholds the sexual comment that is clearly running through his mind. But at Sam's mock disgust Dean knows his little brother understands what he's getting at and he can't help but smirk at Sam's prudishness.
The next try is much more successful, has Dean moving forward in a gentle motion. And within minutes he's mastered a left turn and two rights, and is in the process of learning to back up. By the time the session is over he's got the commands mastered, and for the first time ever takes himself back to his room with Sam and Justin trailing behind.
Sam teases him because he's not exactly moving in a straight line, says he looks drunk and jokes about giving him a breathalyzer, threatens to turn him in for steering while under the influence. And Dean can't help the twinkle in his eye because he's missed this.
Yeah, he knows a lot of the tension is his fault. Or, maybe not his fault per se, but the fault of human nature and the depression that comes of devastating life-changing events.
And he knows the tough times are far from over, knows there will be days that he doesn't want to get out of bed. There will be days that he can't remember who he is, who he used to be, days when he can't remember why he hasn't checked out of this life completely.
But then he will remember today, and the little bit of a silver lining that has shown itself in this afternoon. The fact that good times are possible.
They haven't laughed in ages. Today they shared something special, something lighthearted.
And it can only improve in the future.
At this point, though, Dean has been awake for hours. He's been riding an emotional high, but as they arrive at the room he realizes just how exhausted he is. Sleep is definitely on the agenda for the next few hours. Who knows, he might just sleep through dinner – at least one good thing about the capability for tube feeding.
Not that anything about his situation is wonderful, but he does have to smile as he suddenly remembers a conversation he'd had years ago with Sam and their father.
It was one of their rare days of downtime. No one was sick or injured. They were just between jobs and hadn't found anything new that screamed supernatural yet.
The motel actually had a decent lineup of channels, and ESPN was showing back to back football games. And the three Winchester men were happily vegging out on the beds, eyes glazing over, as they moved into the third game of the day. Between him and his father (Sam was too young) they'd already gone through a 24 case of beer, another one halfway empty, and Dean was just returning from what seemed like his thousandth trip to relieve himself.
"Gawd," he'd sighed, flopping back down on the bed before popping another beer. It would be awesome if I could start an IV and a catheter – mainline the good stuff and never have to get out of bed to get rid of it. That would be the life."
He's not quite sure why he's smiling at the memory, as now the ramifications of that wish have most definitely fully sunk in. But for whatever reason he is – maybe just because of the simplicity of the day and the fact that it was a nice family memory, one of few that he possesses. It's a good memory – regardless of the prophecy it unknowingly declared.
Dean stays quiet as Justin talks Sam through the transfer back to the bed, hanging onto fond memories of the day and of the past. But as soon as his head hits the pillow the memories drift away, leaving him simply floating on the edge of sleep.
The sounds of Sam and Justin cleaning up in the room are hollow, disjointed. The fact that he gets so tired so quickly is still a new experience to him.
Suddenly Sam's voice is pulling him back to consciousness and Dean blinks blearily in the darkened room, the late afternoon sun trying to spill through the curtains.
"I'll get the car back. I'll fix it," Sam says. He's paused in the doorway, one hand on the molding as he turns and faces his brother.
It takes Dean a minute to figure out what Sam is talking about, their discussion of the fate of his car seeming so long ago. But the conversation has clearly been weighing on him.
"I don't know how…it'll be expensive and I'm gonna have to find someone to help. But I know how much she means to you. I'll get her back for you."
Dean is already half asleep, the events of the long day taking their toll on his exhausted mind, but he's awake enough to hear Sam's words and he musters up a tired smile and a small nod of thanks before drifting off.
In his dreams he's driving.
Sam goes with them the day of Dean's first outing. Not because Dean wants Sam there, but because neither of them can think of any way he can stay safe without Sam there to watch his back. There's too much evil in the world, both supernatural and human, yet it's pretty darn clear that Justin and the aides are all living in lala land – no clue of the dangers that surround them at every pass.
Dean would have preferred to find another solution. Any other solution. Quite honestly, he would just as soon not go in the first place. Because he knows how hard it's going to be for him out in the world, knows that things have drastically changed for him, and it's going to be hard enough to face those realities on his own without Sam there to witness them, too. But Justin is adamant that re-emerging into mainstream culture is the final step before being released from rehab, and he's made it pretty darn clear that he won't sign off on Dean's therapy until he's completed three trips.
And right now, Dean's fairly certain he's not going to even make it through trip one.
The transport van sits in front of the building all clunky and conspicuous…and ugly, much like the wheelchair. And Dean immediately thinks of his sleek, shiny, beauty of a car. The car that's in pieces in a junkyard somewhere. The car that he'll never drive again. He's looking at his new life, his new transportation. Just the thought of it has a pit growing in his stomach, a knot in his throat, and he knows he isn't ready to face the world when he can't even reconcile this van with his new form of transportation.
Beside him, Sam is standing just as still, just as petrified about the prospect of what awaits them this afternoon. They haven't discussed it, but Dean knows his brother well enough to know that the same fears are going through his mind, too. Instinct has Dean wanting to reach out and comfort his little brother, reassure him that they've been through worse and they'll get through this. But honestly, they haven't been through worse, he's not sure they can get through this, and Dean can't reach out – which, when all is said and done, is really the be all and the end all of this whole blasted problem. Because, if he could reach out then they wouldn't be here. They wouldn't be sitting in front of a van with folding doors and a ramp and empty space where there should be seats and a big freaking blue and white wheelchair pasted on the windows, strategizing the best way to make it through a day at the mall without succumbing to their insecurities.
Three other patients are going with them. There's George, a sixty-seven year old war veteran who made it through three tours of duty in Vietnam and Korea without so much as a scratch, only to lose both legs to adult-onset diabetes after retirement, and then there's Heidi, a twenty-one year old undergrad who broke her back after falling off the balcony of her sorority house while drunk on a weekend party binge. She's young and vibrant and gorgeous, and Dean's actually given some thought to what it would be like to invite her to his room one night. But he doesn't dare, can't even come close to figuring out the logistics on that one, and he just can't bear the disappointment that's bound to happen.
They're both already in the van, not exactly thrilled to be there, but nowhere near the anxiety that Dean's feeling. He's expected to go next, Justin and the driver waiting patiently for Dean to make his move, and not fully understanding why he's just sitting there. But as they wait, the fourth member of their group appears. And everything changes.
Claire is nine years old; the victim of a hit and run car crash that killed her thirteen year old brother and put her mother in a coma that she has yet to wake up from. Paralyzed from the mid-chest down, she's the lucky one from the crash. Her father has been with her every day in her recovery, pushing her to persevere through the pain and the trials and tribulations. And she does. She's happy, she's determined. She doesn't seem to realize or care what kinds of obstacles she's facing in her life, only that she's alive to face them.
And yeah, it's kinda hard to sit and mope while he watches a child outdo him in the soldiering through thing. Not that he'll readily admit it, but Dean has had his eye on her ever since the big blowup with the whole suicide doctor thing, ever since he grudgingly, but honestly, promised Sam that he would give everything he had to healing. Healing emotionally. And he's impressed by her attitude, amazed at her strength. Kids got her whole life ahead of her, got a whole future that has been turned upside-down, and still she wakes up every single damn day with a smile on her face.
Her father, Paul, gives Sam and Dean a friendly nod as they move past them and toward the van. And it gives Dean pause, because Paul is yet another reason why Dean feels so guilty about giving up on life. He's got it pretty darn bad, too, what with a dead son and a comatose wife and an injured daughter. And while Dean is still too self-absorbed to say the man's worse off than he is, he isn't so caught up in himself that he can't admit it's pretty darn heroic to face every day with the dignity and grace Paul has shown. If they can do it, Dean thinks, then he can sure as hell give it a shot, too.
He waits until Claire is in the van, wheelchair locked in place and ramp lowered down to the ground again before he moves forward, haltingly. It's been a week since his chair came in and he's only just beginning to get the hang of the sip and puff wheelchair, finding the right combination of inhales and exhales and pressure to get the damn thing to move in the direction he wants it to. The ramp to the van is a pretty ominous obstacle with such a small window of accuracy needed to ensure he's centered, and Dean finds he's got to come at it three times before all four wheels make it square onto the platform. Justin and Sam and Paul all burst out with laud and praises when he succeeds, making Dean blush and glare. But Claire is there two, with her dainty little smile encouraging him on as the ramp raises to the same level as the van floor, and Dean makes himself focus on her and drown the rest of the group out, thinking that's likely the only way he's going to get through this day.
When he's locked down, too, Sam hollers a 'see you soon,' through the doors and takes off with Paul to follow behind as Justin and the driver climb into the front of the van. They pull out of the parking lot as Dean mutters under his breath,"next stop, the circus."
The Winchester's have been different their whole lives. Dean is used to standing out in a crowd, even when he tries his best to fit in. So it's nothing unusual to be stared at, to be watched from across a room. But as their motley crew works its way through the crowd at the mall food court Dean can't help but think this is a whole new level of different.
Sam's walking beside him in that same way he used to walk through the halls on their first day at a new school – head held high, eyes straight ahead, shoulders back. But stiff, not confident. As though he's saying I know you're talking about me and I know you're curious, but I'm pretending I don't notice you. Dean has always wondered if he's singing a little song in his head, the kind petulant five year olds sing as they stick their fingers in their ears; lalalala, I can't hear you!
It's disheartening to Dean to realize that Sam is so uptight about being seen in public with him, kills him that he's got to put his little brother through the torment of being associated with different when he's worked his whole life to fit in. This is why Dean didn't want Sam coming with them on this outing. It's bad enough being put under the microscope without having to subject Sammy to the same embarrassment.
There is no denying the fact that human beings are drawn towards the unknown, that their curiosity has them seeking out things that are different and unusual, gawking and gaping to their little heart's content without any regard for the subject they're studying. And now, with the ginormous wheelchair and the ventilator and the inability to move a muscle below his neck Dean is the front runner for anomaly of the year.
He doesn't even notice a hint of apology as they catch group after group blatantly staring at the hardware as everyone rolls by, and Dean doesn't think it's only in his imagination that all conversations shift to focus on them.
He catches sound bit after sound bit discussing his vent, discussing George's missing legs, Claire's youth. Heidi is maybe the 'normal' one in their group because so far most conversation doesn't seem to revolve around her. He catches comments like 'so brave' and 'how awful' and 'I couldn't do it,' and with every single comment sees Sam stiffen more, lift his chin higher, shoulders farther back.
At some point, Dean catches sight of Sam as he reaches out and puts a hand on the back of his wheelchair, clearly claiming Dean as his and therefore claiming the disability as his. And Dean would be proud, grateful, if he also didn't see the minute quivering of his brother's chin, the shininess in his eyes, and the fact that he's swallowing convulsively like he's about to throw up. It makes Dean's heart sink even farther, as the thought comes once again that he's done this to Sam, that his decisions have created this situation.
In front of them, Claire pushes her tiny chair through the crowd with a determined air, lips pursed in concentration as her Daddy holds one handle of the wheelchair for support. His head is high, too, but he's more relaxed than Sam, actually falling into the appropriate emotion behind the stance. Dean focuses on them and drowns out everything else, simply forces himself to remember that a nine year old girl can do this, and that means so can he.
Relief comes briefly as they finally push out of the throng of people at the food court and find their way to a much less populated group of benches in front of a major department store. Sam takes the time he needs to compose himself, then plops himself down into a bench beside where Dean has just parked his wheelchair and smiles encouragingly at his brother as though Dean hasn't just seen him on the verge of breaking apart.
"One down," Dean says, pretending along with Sam.
Sam nods, agrees. "One down."
They turn their attention to Justin as the OT claps his hands dramatically. "We're here for three hours, folks. And the goal here is to make an effort at mingling with crowds and experiencing the retail market from your new vantage point." "That means actually shopping, moving, asking for help if you need it. You're not to find some dark corner and hide until it's time to go home. Got it?" He looks directly at Dean, putting an emphasis on the important words, and Dean finds himself shrinking a bit in his anxiety.
"I will be around if you need me for anything, but my expectation is that each of you work independently as much as is possible. Any questions?"
When everyone seems to be clear on what is to happen, Justin urges them off. Dean waits, watching as Claire and Paul take off through the entrance of the department store they're close to, and George and Heidi team up by default and head back to the food court for burgers. Justin stays, eyeing the brother's cautiously.
"I know things are a bit different with the vent, Dean. Obviously you can't be left alone, and we don't expect you to do everything by yourself. But you do still need to interact with people, ask questions and seek help." He looks to Sam. "Do you feel comfortable taking responsibility? Are you familiar enough with the ventilator needs in case something should happen?"
Sam's nod is more confident than his squeaked out 'yeah,' but it's enough to convince the OT to leave them alone, and he excuses himself to make his own rounds, checking up on each of his clients periodically throughout the afternoon.
Turns out the day isn't nearly as bad as Dean had expected. It isn't as good as he'd hoped, either. He'd gone in armed with a slew of stereotypes; expected people to talk to him as though he was mentally challenged, anticipated being ignored or avoided. And, of course, he isn't disappointed.
But there is also a very pleasant discovery of the fact that not everyone is like that. Not everyone treats him as an outcast, a pariah. In fact, in some cases he even discovers a general acceptance into mainstream society.
Sam decides, as long as they're here, that Dean should do some clothes shopping, should actually pick out some outfits that he likes as opposed to the stuff Sam and Milla purchased. He's been making snide comments about their choices, and yeah, the choices were practical and comfortable, weren't made because it was something Dean would like but rather because it was something he needed.
And who the hell knows if they will find anything that is both practical and in style – Dean style, that is – but Sam turns off toward the nearest department store and Dean has no choice but to follow.
The whole store is crammed tight, aisles too narrow for Dean to get his chair through anywhere but the main lanes, and he can see Sam's frustration increasing with every failed attempt. Doesn't mean Dean isn't annoyed either, but he's not all that thrilled to be on this little shopping trip to begin with so the fact that he's being barred from completing the task isn't terribly upsetting.
It's mostly other shoppers that Dean notices taking an extra step to avoid them, their eyes always directed just to the other side of where they're located as though trying to appear as if they aren't watching with morbid curiosity, that the array of neckties in the aisle behind them are the most interesting thing in the world. Dean knows that trick – he's used it many times himself when seeking out information for a hunt. And he tries with everything in himself to decide they're staring because of Sam's manic obsession with rearranging the racks, and not because of the chair, the vent. Nevertheless, Dean tries to make himself as small as possible and drown out the rest of the world.
They've been at it almost five minutes when the menswear clerk finally frees up at his register and approaches, hands clasped behind his back as he walks pointedly over, brushing a glance over Dean before locking onto Sam. "Can I help you guys find anything?"
His nametag says 'Colton,' and Sam takes full advantage of that as he reels on the man. "As a matter of fact you can, Colton," Sam snaps, drawing himself up to his full height, and practically tiptoes, in an effort to be as intimidating as possible. "My brother and I are trying to shop, but he can't seem to get near anything that isn't on the outside edge of your department."
The sales associate takes a step back, hands up in a defensive posture, but his face softens into apology. "Sir, I completely understand your frustration and I apologize. Corporate designs our floorplan, I don't really have any control over it. But I'd be happy to help you find anything you're looking for."
It's not the best apology Dean has ever heard, but it's more sincere than many he's heard in his time, and is backed by Colton's immediate action. The guy steps forward, between Dean and Sam, and starts to push two displays apart, creating more room and the beginning of a pathway for Dean to drive through.
Sam isn't satisfied with that, though. "I think it would be better if you contacted your corporate office and got them to comply with ADA standards."
"Sam—" Dean hisses, watches as the man's face reddens. "Enough, it's not his fault."
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean he can't do anything about it."
"He is. He's helping us find what we need. You need to—"
"To what?" Sam snaps. "To calm down? To let it go? To forget that you can't get around in here so that the next time we come shopping we run into the same problem again?"
"My god, Sam. Give the guy a break– he's trying to help. That's a whole— lot more than we can expect out of— most people. Right now, just let him help. –You wanna bitch about the layout in here then call— the corporate office later— and complain." It's a mouthful, and Dean is impressed that both Sam and the sales clerk stay quiet through the breath breaks while he has his say. But when he's finished Sam has clearly made a point of accepting the order for what it is and forces himself to back off.
"I'm sorry, dude," Sam tells Colton, sighs audibly and physically takes a step backwards. "This is all new to us. I just… I overreacted. I'm sorry."
"No harm, no foul," Colton replies good naturedly. He adjusts his tie and looks back to the clothing racks behind him. "I'm sure I'd be frustrated, too."
Dean can see the thinly veiled irritation in Sam's expression, the struggle to keep his temper under control. In a way he feels the same way as his brother, hates the fact that this guy is talking as though he comes from experience. But when he really stops to think about it, Dean realizes that it wasn't that long ago that he was just as uncomfortable in similar situations, that he never really knew what to say and most of the time found himself trying to place himself in the other guy's shoes.
So yeah, it's a different perspective when you're the one sitting in the chair, but that doesn't mean the rest of the world has changed. Just means they need to be educated, and that it's now up to Dean to be the teacher.
"You have no idea," Dean replies, good naturedly, before Sam can say anything he might regret later. "On top of that, try being forced to let this guy choose my clothes. Doesn't matter what I want, I can't fight him on it."
He winks at Sam at the same time he sees the clerk freeze, because that's not exactly the kind of comment he's probably prepared to answer. And it's one thing to empathize with the general situation, but another thing entirely to come face to face with the cold hard facts.
Dean laughs, tries to lighten the mood a little more, because Sam is giving him his bitch face and Colton looks like a fish out of water with his mouth gaping open and shut the way it is.
"Alright, boys, lets go play dress up. I need some clothes. Something that actually looks good on me." Something that doesn't make me look like I just came from a pep rally, is what he doesn't say.
Colton seems to make the decision that he's better off busying himself with clearing a path than actually trying to find an appropriate response, and without a word he immediately sets to that task. Within seconds the place is a complete mess of jumbled racks all mushed up together, but Dean is able to cross into the center of the area where the t-shirts are that Sam wants him to look at.
It's a collection of graphic tees, displaying a wide array of characters from multiple genres. Seems the 70's and 80's are coming back with a vengeance. There are screenprints of action heros, and the Smurfs, Scooby Doo, Peace signs, and Yo-yo's and Pac-man.
Sam goes immediately for the action figure shirts, pulls out one with a faded image of Chuck Norris doing a high kick and another of Shaft and the words 'Cut the Crap, Man" running across the chest.
Dean shakes his head, immediately vetoes the first shirt and is about to do the same with the Shaft one when he changes his mind and decides he likes the words. They just seem appropriate.
He also agrees on the Pac-man shirt, and one with a ghost-busters logo on it (just for shits and giggles), and finally an AC/DC shirt that looks faded enough to be an original. Sam drops them all in his lap, then turns to the sales clerk and requests pants, preferably with elastic waistbands.
Dean goes red. "Got enough of those, Sammy, how 'bout something a little— less high-school jockish. More me. Some jeans maybe?"
"Dean, you know it's not—"
"Yeah, yeah," Dean rolls his eyes. "I know. The seams— pressure sores, blah, blah, blah."
"Well?" Sam says, as though that says it all, that Dean should know better than to put something on that could put him in danger. And he does, sure, but that doesn't mean he has to like the fact that he's now limited even to the clothes he wears. It's stupid, and it sucks. And he hates having to even give it a second's thought.
Apparently, so does Colton. The poor kid is looking back and forth between Sam and Dean, following their cryptic conversation, but looking for all the world like he'd rather be having a root canal. Or spending time in a cave full of cobras.
And Dean can't exactly blame him, because honestly? He'd prefer a root canal or cobras over this, too.
But for some reason he feels for the guy, doesn't want to make this any more awkward than it has to be – for either of them. So he hisses Sam's name, a combination of irritation and warning, and somehow Sam manages to take the hint, stops talking about the medical issues Dean faces and breathes deep.
"OK, let's compromise. How about some khaki's."
Maybe because Dean Winchester doesn't do dress slacks, Dean thinks to himself before grudgingly remembering that Dean Winchester doesn't do a lot of things that he suddenly finds himself doing these days – like wheelchairs and trachs and catheters. He laughs sarcastically, glares a little bit at Sam, but then nods his approval.
"Let's take a look."
They leave with a stack of halfway suitable pants and shirts, stuff Dean can at least stomach when he's forced outside in public. And Colton seems relieved when they finally check out, but he remains ever polite, thanking them for their purchases and inviting them to return again soon.
Somehow, they've managed to kill over two hours of the allotted three, and Sam quickly agrees with Dean that they've spent enough time 'interacting' with the rest of the world. It's past lunchtime, and while Dean has at least had a mid-morning Ensure, they are both hungry.
Sam suggests hamburgers, fries, milkshakes. It sounds amazing, and Dean's mouth waters when he realizes it's been weeks – months even – since he's tasted the greasy, salty awesomeness of good old fast food.
They move in sync back to the food court, Sam naturally adjusting his stride to walk comfortably beside Dean's wheelchair, and when they arrive Sam waves his hands at the many different restaurants to choose from and allows Dean to lead the way. Dean dutifully ignores the stares and comments he hears as they pass, pretends not to notice the fact that the girl at the register fails to even look his way as they place their order, and then tries even harder to pretend that Sam isn't feeding him in the middle of a crowded shopping mall.
Really, when it's all said and done the day really hasn't been that bad all things considered. They haven't fallen into any life and death situations, people didn't stand there and mock and tease or bar them entrance into the stores, there was really no discrimination other than a clueless floor designer in a national department store.
But the funny thing is, riding back that day, Dean still can't help but feel as though the day was a failure. For some reason he's had this idea in the back of his head that his injury was exclusive only to the hospital, to rehab, and that the minute he went back out into the real world everything would just *poof* magically disappear and his life would be back to normal.
Dean can't help but feel disappointed, and apprehensive about the next trip. He's not ready for this to be his world.
Trip number two is another group visit, this time to the Aquarium. It's the same gang as before, plus Jake, a guy about Dean's age who'd suffered a brain injury snowboarding. He's mobile, but has the mental capacity of a three year old, and his mother was convinced he would be thrilled to see the fish up close.
Once again, Sam rides over with young Claire's father, Paul. He's become quite impressed by the world-weary father's devotion to his daughter and his ability to adapt, and Sam is hoping to take something away from his time with the man.
It's mid-morning on a Thursday which means a lighter crowd than one they would expect to find on a weekend. But it's also the middle of the summer, so it's not exactly dead. Sam's breath hitches at the line of parents and children waiting to buy their tickets, and Paul reaches across the car as Sam moves to get out, grips his shoulder, and squeezes.
"Just breathe, Sam. Relax. They're just people."
"People who aren't used to others who are different," Sam says, shudders. The whole world is so wrapped up in normal, anything new and different is merely an anomaly, something to be studied and prodded. But not necessarily accepted.
Oddly enough, he'd taken a different perspective away from their experience at the mall than Dean did. Where Dean experienced some frustration, Sam walked away feeling as though nothing in their world would ever be right or simple again. What his brother had apparently failed to notice was the sheer impossibility of remaining unremarkable while in public, the fact that everyone noticed, discussed, and likely went home remembering Dean and the wheelchair. Where other patrons managed to blend in with the crowd, Dean and Sam now stood no chance of that. And in a place where they are wanted men in both the natural world and the supernatural one, that fact holds far too many implications to be comfortable with.
And that doesn't even begin to cover the more immediate fact that the rest of the world is just plain careless. There were too many close calls, too many times that Sam had feared someone might bump the chair or knock into the ventilator, too many times that displays were set up in such a way that Dean had no choice but to dodge them. And he isn't that great of a driver yet, still has to think about how he utilizes the controls before he actually executes them. It's dangerous for there to be too many people around – not when so much could go so wrong.
That thought spurs Sam onward, meeting up with the transport van just as the last of the group glides off the lift. Dean is sitting in a small patch of shade off to one side of the walkway, and he grins when Sam approaches.
Sam tries to smile back, manages to meet it about halfway before a throng of noisy pre-schooler's with their parents draw his attention back to ticket line. He glares at Justin as the man hands him their two tickets.
"You sure this is a good idea? There are too many kids here."
Justin shrugs, smirks a little. "Can't hide from children all the time," he says. "You've got nothing to worry about. We'll all be fine."
The hell I don't, Sam mumbles under his breath, but shoots a pinched smile Justin's way to indicate he's not going to argue the point. Little good it would do him anyway. Instead he bends over and checks the leads on Dean's vent (his brother had experienced another pop-off two nights before, and Sam is dealing with it by becoming extra observant of the seals) and then stands back up with a nervous shrug when he's satisfied that everything is good.
Sam does notice the sweat on Dean's forehead though, and realizes he must be burning up in the hot sun. He wipes the sweat away, takes a minute to be disheartened by the fact that the rest of Dean's body is completely dry and without any tell-tale moisture at all, and then quickly encourages him to get inside. It never fails to surprise Sam, all these new things he has to remember, like the fact that Dean's body doesn't regulate temperature below the line of injury any more. It could be a hundred degrees and Dean wouldn't sweat, minus ten and he wouldn't have goosebumps, wouldn't shiver. That part of his regulatory system is now shot to hell and it now requires complete awareness to ensure Dean's body remains at a reasonable 98.6 degrees.
The group of children is gone when they enter the lobby, presumably already working on their tour, and Sam breathes a sigh of relief that they have waited just long enough to start out without much of a crowd.
He takes a look around, scanning for obstacles or barriers, taking note of exits and paths.
The building has multiple floors, but it flows neatly from one level to the next through a system of ramps that run seamlessly between the massive glass tanks that span three stories high and are filled with fresh and saltwater fish of every imaginable species. The floor space is wide, plenty of room, he decides grudgingly, to house the small crowd of people that are collected inside.
The tour begins on the ground floor and Sam grabs a map before he follows Dean and the rest of their group past the cafeteria and gift shop to the first exhibit where a shallow pool of stingrays floats around and a guide is encouraging visitors to come pet them.
Sam stays back with Dean as he watches Claire sidle her wheelchair up beside the tank and tentatively reach out a hand to touch the back of a nearby ray. Her father is crouched beside her, reaching his own hand in and grinning eagerly at his daughter, and the special moment is impossible to miss. Sam's own heart swells with joy at the genuine squeal of delight as she discovers the leathery skin against her fingertips, and looking over, Sam is pleased to see that Dean is smiling at the interaction, too.
As they move along the tank of stingrays becomes enclosed and they find themselves feeding into a glass encased hallway, water and creatures all around them. On the ceiling, more stingrays float along and Sam can see their mouths on their underbellies.
"It looks like they're grinning," Sam comments as Dean leans his head forward then drops it back, facing up so he can see what is above him.
"Smirking," Dean amends. "Like they have a secret or something."
Looking closer, Sam can see where Dean is getting his interpretation and he nods his agreement as he relishes in the normalcy of the conversation.
They move on, deeper down one hallway as the lights begin to dim. Here, colored fluorescents backlight the darkened rooms containing deep water fish that normally reside in the depths of the ocean. They have already lost the rest of their group, possibly to the other hallway or to moving through the exhibits at different speeds. Sam is almost certain Claire and Phil haven't even left the petting tank yet.
Another group walks through, commenting on the colors and pointing out a few fish, but quickly move on. Dean, Sam is surprised to note, is actually taking the time to read every single description of the creatures within the tank. He's never been the scholar, never really taken an interest in learning new things unless those things pertained to their newest hunt, but Sam happily moves slowly along the wall with his brother, responding to comments and helping to seek out each creature. They find most of them, and when they have exhausted all possibilities in the search they move on to the next room.
It's filled with Jellyfish, their graceful bodies floating along in the dark tank in an almost mesmerizing fashion. It is there that Sam first notices the little girl, maybe three years old at the most, hanging on shyly to the edge of her mother's sweater. She is absolutely enamored by the elegant fish, her wide eyes staring unblinkingly into the tank. Her brown curls are pulled up into short pigtails on the top of her head, and she's got on a little sear sucker sundress that barely reaches her knees.
Dean watches the jellyfish for a while, but soon his attention wanders to the girl as well, so when she finally breaks from her trance and notices Dean he's ready with one of his patented smiles. She smiles back shyly then quickly turns her face into her mother's leg and grabs on tight.
Mom has been busily ensconced in conversation with two other women, barely paying attention to her daughter to this point, but now she glances over her shoulder to see what has her daughter reacting like that and quickly turns away when she spies the boys, reaches out a hand and unconsciously strokes the little girls hair as she guides her on to the next exhibit, followed hurriedly by her friends. Sam barely even notices the response, though, as he quickly hones in on the smile his brother has just produced, because it's been a long time since he's seen something so genuine and uninhibited come out of Dean.
They sit in the jellyfish room for several moments longer, just enjoying the calm serenity that comes of watching the mystical creatures. And then finally Dean mouths the control straw and leads the way into the next room.
Once again Mom and her friends and daughter are already there, watching several larger fish glide through the underwater environment, and this time Sam feels Mom's watchful eyes on them as they enter the room. This one is quite long, with several podiums set up in the middle that offer more information in an audio format.
Dean quickly takes notice of the child, practically ignores the displays in deference to watching her animatedly point and talk in her childish sentences about the big fish and the pretty colors as her mother responds distractedly to every few comments. After a while she tires of the side she's watching and skips across the room to the other side, stopping at one of the podiums when she notices Dean and gives him another shy smile before hiding behind the structure.
It becomes a bit of a game, and each round she gets a little braver until, three rooms later, she actually dares to come close enough to touch. She reaches out a tiny little hand and pokes Dean's knee hesitantly, but doesn't say anything, and quickly retreats several steps back.
"Well hi there," Dean says. He's probably as surprised as she is at what she's just done, but despite the anxiety Sam feels at the situation, Dean seems to be calm and ok with what's happening.
"Hi," she practically whispers, rotating her hand at the wrist in a wave.
Her mother has managed to miss this entire exchange, fully engrossed in her conversation about what seems to be another acquaintance and her not-so-secret affair with the poolboy. Far too cliché, Sam thinks, and wishes Dean were more aware of that conversation and not his new little girlfriend because he would love to have a laugh at it once they're out of earshot.
Her mother finally looks up, though, at the contact and a stiffness envelopes her body as she turns to her daughter and admonishes her with a shake of the head and a stern look.
"Chloe, what are you doing? You don't just go around touching people like that." It comes out almost as a screech and the little girl shrinks back quickly.
Dean laughs. "It's fine, she's just curious. I can't blame her."
Sam stares at his brother in shock. Dean has always been a bit of a softie when it comes to kids, but considering the animosity he's been sharing with everyone else in his life Sam didn't expect this total one-eighty that he's seeing.
"Chloe?" Dean says, using the same name the mother used. "I'm Dean. It's alright, sweetheart. You can come closer."
"No, she can't," her mother snaps, although it comes out sounding uncertain. The other two women with her have fallen back, mouths agape as they stare dumbstruck at the scene before them, but either unable or unwilling to help.
Dean's eyes go soft, hiding maybe a hint of hurt feelings, but Sam is amazed at the calmness that surrounds his brother's words. "I'm not going to hurt her…I can't." The ventilator breathes for him, stopping him before he can finish his thought, and the mother takes the time to harrumph and grab at her little girl's arm, begins to pull her away.
"Please," Sam chimes in when he realizes Dean can't yet. "You don't want her to grow up afraid of wheelchairs, do you?"
The woman freezes midstride, her hand tightening on Chloe's shoulder, and for the longest of moments time seems to stand still. But finally she turns, her own features softer now, and she smiles apologetically.
"You're right, I'm sorry. I just didn't think…"
"That it was polite to be curious?" Sam asks, gently. He glances over at Dean who seems frustrated, but strangely ok with Sam taking the lead on this one. "It's better than being stared at and talked about. Or worse yet, ignored completely. My brother loves kids; it's alright, really. I'm Sam by the way."
"Marissa," the mother replies. She takes a step closer, pulling Chloe along with her. "Let's go say hi to the nice man, shall we sweetie?"
They move closer and Dean compliments the girl on her pretty dress and her beautiful curls, and she proudly smoothes her hands down the dress before picking up the skirt and twirling back and forth several times.
It's strange, really, because Sam can't think of a single time in their lives that would have made it acceptable to tell a parent how their children should or shouldn't react in the presence of strangers. And when you think about it, that's exactly what they are – first and foremost. Before becoming the man in the wheelchair, or that man's brother, before becoming Dean and Sam Winchester, to this little girl they are nothing but strange men who have struck up a conversation with her. It makes sense that her mother would be freaked out, and in any other situation Sam would have been just as eager to encourage the "never talk to strangers" speech.
So why then, he wonders, does the wheelchair trump the stranger card? Why is it not socially acceptable for the mother to react in light of her fears of the chair, despite the fact that he and Dean are also strange men. It doesn't make much sense, but then, not much does in their lives anymore. And Sam desperately wants Dean to feel as though he still fits in – at least as much as he ever did before.
"Do you come see the fish a lot?" Dean is asking when Sam focuses on the conversation again. He's got a smile on his face that could light up the room, happy to have a friend to talk with who doesn't seem concerned by the chair.
"I've never seen them before," Chloe intones, her pitch rising and falling in time with her ever widening eyes. "Mommy says sometimes you can even swim with them."
"The dolphin show," he mother supplies as Chloe asks, all serious, "Do you wanna swim with the fish, too? You can come with us."
She looks so hopeful, and it breaks Sam's heart to hear Dean tell her that, 'no, he can't swim with the fish with her.' There is no explaining to a three year old about paralysis and vents, no comprehension when all she has ever known in the world is ambulatory people.
Chloe's face falls immediately at his response, but Sam comes to the rescue as he kneels down to her level and puts a hand on Dean's wrist. "We could come watch you, though," he offers, glances to Dean for confirmation.
"I'd like that," Dean agrees. Sam relaxes, pleased at this contact with the first person who treats his brother like he isn't in a wheelchair. He's doesn't really have much experience with kids, has never really given much thought to them one way or another, but now he's finally realizing just how special they are. Kids seem to view the world with a special kind of glasses, overlooking the imperfections in everyone and only seeing what's inside.
Immediately, Chloe perks up again. She starts bouncing around, tugging on her mother's arm and pulling her away towards the next room. "Let's go!" she exclaims, looks back over her shoulder to make sure everyone is following. "Let's go see the dolphins."
A bit of a smile forms as Dean starts after the eager child, ignoring the wary glances the mother and her friends continue to throw back at them as they cover the distance to the auditorium. He'd be wary too, Sam tries to remind himself.
The entrance doors are at the top of a steep flight of stairs that bisect rows and rows of metal bleachers. People are already crowding into the seats, and they nudge and jostle past as Sam and Dean come to a dead stop in the aisle in front of the doorway.
There is no way Dean is getting down the stairs, but there's nowhere else for them to go either; not enough space in the aisle spanning the circumference of the arena to settle the wheelchair and not be in the way of traffic. They stand there for several minutes, pissed and confused, as Sam scans the area for another route. Chloe and her group are long gone, and he wonders if the little girl has even noticed that they're not with them anymore, wonders if her mother has settled into a sense of relief that she's rid of them. He can't help feelings of animosity towards the rest of the crowd as they breeze past without a care in the world as Sam searches desperately for a way to include his brother in this show.
Finally a woman in one of the Aquarium uniforms approaches them, wading through the throng of people trying to get through until she is nose to nose with Sam. "You're going to have to come in through the level two entrance," she explains abruptly, pointing back out the doors to indicate that they need to leave. "Accessible seating is one tier down."
She's clearly flustered, busy, but that doesn't stop the irritation noticeable as Sam snaps "and how exactly do we get there? I didn't see any signs."
The woman sighs, but lifts the walkie talkie she's carrying and calls to someone on the other end. "I gotta run some guys down to the second floor entrance. Keep an eye on the crowd for me will you?"
She's already leading the way back out the entrance doors before an answer comes through and Sam rolls his eyes as he pushes after her, trying to protect Dean from the crowd of people still trying to come in. He begins to regret the decision to attend this little show, debates on suggesting they just skip it altogether now that the object of Dean's attention is nowhere to be found anymore. But as the guide directs them onto the elevator Sam starts to suggest just that when Dean strikes up a conversation and he can't bring himself to interrupt.
"So you really let people swim-- with the dolphins?"
"It's not like a community swim or anything," she says, tone just a little nicer now that she's resigned herself to her new task. "But yeah, we call a few people up from the audience."
Dean nods, eyes lighting up. "Well, I don't know if you-- have any control over who they—pick. But there's a little girl—named Chloe that's dying to swim—with the dolphins."
She smirks a little, shrugs. "I'll see what I can do," the girl says. "I can't make any promises, but I can mention it to them."
"Good enough for me," Dean says.
By then, they've arrived on the second floor and Sam grudgingly decides they might as well continue this. As Dean was busy rigging the audience call outs Sam was busy calming himself down, trying not to think about just how much effort it takes just to enjoy a day out. And what's frustrating is that he doesn't even know whether or not Dean is enjoying himself or whether he's just putting on a happy face for show. He doesn't even know if all of this is worth the effort.
Sam follows Dean and the guide slowly out of the elevator and down the hallway to the second floor entrance, noticing bitterly that no one else is using it; it clearly serves the purpose of accessible entrance only and he can't stop himself from asking "how were we supposed to know this was here?"
"You have to arrange with the information desk – they're supposed to tell you about all the accessibility options." She says it with such a matter-of-fact tone, and Sam can almost hear the underlying hint of "you're the one traveling with the guy in the wheelchair, you should know these things."
It's about now that Sam finally concludes Dean's indifference towards the whole situation is carefully controlled emotion, a merging of shutting down completely and lashing out in agitation and outrage. Studying him more carefully, Sam can see the slight shake of his head, the bulging muscles in his neck, the grinding of his jaw. Dean isn't even close to being a happy camper – he's just a very good actor. And Sam sure as hell doesn't want to be out anymore.
"Do you really want to go in there?" Sam asks, catching up to his brother and leaning over him so that only Dean can hear what he's saying.
"We promised Chloe," Dean says. It's not really an answer, and Sam pushes further.
"They're long gone, Dean. She'll never know. "
Dean thrusts his chin forward in a gesture that has lately become the equivalent of a shrug as he continues to propel himself forward towards the door. He stops just before crossing through the threshold, mind made up. "We can't leave until everyone-- else is ready so we might as-- well take in the show."
Sam's shoulders slump, but in truth he knows Dean is right. It's not like they have anything better to do in the meantime. He looks up to see the guide holding the door open for them, looking somewhat impatient at their hesitation. She obviously has better things to do, and despite her softening when Dean brought up Chloe's desire to be 'chosen,' it seems pretty clear that she wants to duck and run fast.
She points them in the right direction and is gone as soon as the brother's turn in the right direction, not even waiting for a thank you. And Sam is just as happy not to have to acknowledge her less than willing assistance as they continue to their seats on their own.
The accessible seating is located halfway down the auditorium, tucked to one side of the circular structure on a large, flat landing. There is a glass barrier between it and the next row down, and the space accommodates what appears to be 6 wheelchairs and one family member per user. There is a bench seat, followed by a gap large enough for two chairs, a bench wide enough for two people, another two chair gap, another two person seat, two chair gap and finally another one seater bench against the wall.
"And what if you've got a big family?" Sam mutters bitterly as he follows Dean to one of the available spaces and takes his own seat beside him. No one hears him, and he wisely chooses not to press the issue at that moment.
Heidi is already there, sitting with another girl about her age who she introduces to the boys as her sister, Leslie.
"Did you guys have as much trouble finding this entrance as we did?" Sam asks almost immediately, finding that he can't hold in the frustration as well as he'd originally thought he could.
Heidi shrugs and says, "we had to ask at the front desk."
"You'd think they would make the accessible entrance more accessible."
"Sam, just drop it," Dean whispers at the same time as Leslie nods emphatically and adds, "it's like this everywhere you go. I never realized just how much trouble it is for someone in a wheelchair to get around until I started really looking."
For some reason this surprises Sam, and he quickly realizes it's not the fact of the statement so much as it is his lack of observation to the matter. It's not like he's been traipsing all over town in the time Dean's been in the hospital but he's been shopping, to the bank, picked up some fast food here and there. He has been inside enough places that he should have taken notice of their accessibility, especially since Dean's spacial needs are so much greater even than Heidi's. He can't help but feel guilt at how much he's missed that he should have been paying attention to.
He can't bring himself to admit to not noticing, though, so instead of answering Leslie he heeds Dean's request and tries to drop the topic altogether. "I guess we should just feel lucky we've got reserved seating," he says, forcing the bitterness and sarcasm from his voice.
"And out of the splash zone," Heidi adds, pointing to the first several rows and the signs written in red lettering that warn patrons they will get wet if they choose to sit there.
Sam lets out a little laugh at that, grunts a 'thank god,' and then takes a closer look at the brave souls eagerly inhabiting the splash zone.
Somehow he isn't surprised to see Chloe and her mother there, despite the tots desire to swim with the dolphins. But he does see Jake and his mother, and he can't help but watch for a while. Thanks to his brain injury the ex-snowboarder now acts more like a hyper child, eagerly pawing at his mother's shoulder to get her attention as he takes notice of something off in the wings. He's leaning over the rail, pointing wildly, his mother trying to pull him back into his seat before his eagerness gets him in trouble.
A while later, when the show starts, Sam's attention is again drawn to the duo as Jake lets out a high pitched shriek of delight at the sight of the dolphins, bouncing agitatedly in his seat while his mother holds him down with a determined expression on her face, mouth set in a tight line and eyebrows turned down in concentration.
Sam looks over at Dean, so still and unanimated but fully cognizant of his surroundings, and can't help the relief that overcomes him that he's still got his Dean despite the physical disabilities. Given a choice between the two, between a brother who can walk but doesn't know who he is anymore and a brother stuck inside his body but can still carry on an intelligent conversation and make decisions for himself he'll happily take what he's got.
He feels horrible for that realization, wonders what kind of person that makes him. Dean has made it pretty damn clear that he doesn't want to live as he is, that he's only making a go of it for Sam. But it's days like today, with the little girl, that Sam catches a glimpse of the old Dean, thinks his brother will someday learn to accept this whole thing. And he's glad for the fact that Dean can still think clearly to actually make that choice.
Later, when they're back at the rehab center and Jake is regaling the group in his stilted language about their adventures at the Aquarium, when Dean is sitting still as a statue listening to him and politely trying to fill in missing words and concepts, Sam reminds himself that things could be worse. He reminds himself that Dean is still Dean inside. He reminds himself that Dean could be dead, and he wouldn't even have the chance to go places and be stared at and inconvenienced. This might still be horrible for him. But from the caregiver's perspective, at least, Dean's injury isn't the worst thing that could have happened.
They will get through this, will face it just as they've faced every other bit of adversity thrown their way.
Justin's final requirement before releasing Dean is a trip to a restaurant. It's Dean's favorite kind of restaurant, fried and greasy comfort food with a southern emphasis, and just about all of his therapists are coming, and Chelsea and Mona, and of course Sam and Milla. They plan it for the week before Dean goes home, and in a way it's a celebration – or as much of one as there can be under the circumstances – of his completion of therapy. He'll be released at the end of the week, reduced to a three day a week outpatient, and the rest of his care will all be on Sam.
Sam and Milla arrive at New Beginnings about half an hour before Dean is set to be loaded into the transport van. The entire ride over Sam has been jumpy and nervous, trying hard to hear Milla's calm words of comfort and respond to them. But it's hard – the last two outings have been nothing if not disastrous examples of how much their lives have changed. Not that anything specifically horrible happened, just the common expectations of curious people reacting to the unknown, but for Dean – and consequently, Sam – it had been the greatest eye-opener to the reality of Dean's situation. For his no cares, recklessly-social brother, the idea of people being afraid to interact with him was hard to take. And the fact that now the first thing everyone sees is the wheelchair, the ventilator, the difference, and not Dean's roguish good looks and too-confident personality makes public interactions a painful experience. One Sam is not looking forward to witnessing once again.
So it is, admittedly, a little hard to process when he and Milla enter Dean's room and find him smiling, and seemingly calm. He is still in bed, but dressed, hair gelled and spiked, and Chelsea and Stu are just pulling his legs over the edge in preparation of transferring him to the wheelchair. They stop for a minute to allow Dean time to greet his guests, and he beams up at the two of them with a grin that has been noticeably absent for the last few months.
"Sammy! You made it. How do I look? I picked the clothes myself, but I gotta tell you – you haven't left me much to work with."
Sam falters for a minute, taken off guard by the question. Dean hasn't been concerned by his appearance much lately – at least not the clothes or hair. He worries about the hose sticking out of his neck, and the spastic muscles that refuse to allow his limbs to relax into normal positions. He worries about the g-tube that runs out of his stomach, the cath that he pees into, and the way the collection bag bulges around his calf if the pants are too tight. But in general, Dean hasn't worried about whether his clothes match, or how much sock shows between his shoes and the bottom of his pants, or any of what Sam has come to think of as the superficial aspects to Dean's life. And honestly, Sam hasn't either.
But he takes a second look now, and realizes that his brother has actually put some effort into his appearance this time. He's got on a pair of solid black pants – still the track style with an elastic waist, but probably the "dressiest" pair he's got in his wardrobe at rehab – and a red t-shirt underneath a red and black checked button up, the buttons done halfway up and open at the top. He only has the one pair of shoes now – not much chance of them wearing out – but the grey Nike's and black socks seem to blend reasonably well with the rest of the outfit. And the fact that he's allowed someone to take the time to actually cut and spike his hair says more for the ensemble than any other single factor.
"You look great, you handsome devil," Sam says, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice. Even the stuff they'd bought on their trip to the mall has been sent home with Sam, because by the end of the day Dean seemed frustrated by their purchases, and was complaining that the khaki's only served to take him out of the gym and into the standard jock school attire. Either way you put it, he was still dressing far too preppy for his liking; tie a sweater around his neck and the ensemble would be complete.
"Gotta say, little brother, I'm looking forward to-- getting some real food. I'm sick and tired-- of the healthy shit they keep trying to push on me. It's bad enough they've physically got to feed-- me, doesn't mean they have to change my diet, too."
"I've been trying to change your diet for years," Sam adds, then looks to Chelsea and Stu who are smirking at the conversation. "He's a heart attack waiting to happen with all the junk he puts into his body."
"Not my fault everything that tastes good isn't good-- for me, Sam. The taste buds know what they like – gotta deliver."
"Well then let's get you moving so that you can satisfy them," Chelsea teases, rolling her eyes good naturedly at her patient. If you want to give yourself a heart attack, I suppose you're entitled.
"Damn straight. Let's go."
Stu moves in to complete the transfer process, then stops, turns and addresses Sam. "Do you want some more practice since you're here?"
Sam hesitates, just for a second. He hates this part, mostly because of the symbolism of baby brother carrying his big brother, but in less than a week he will be Dean's primary care-giver and he knows it's important to feel confident in the tasks. "Yeah, I'll do it."
"Don't drop me, Sammy," Dean warns, his teasing lilt just a tad shaky – but only enough that Sam notices. He has to give his brother some credit – it must be hard having to rely on him so much, and for the most part Dean has been making efforts to repress the fears and frustrations that come of the situation.
"I'm not gonna drop you," Sam mutters, plastering a smile on his face as he approaches and making an effort to maintain the lines of levity between them. "Your brain is screwed up enough without me adding to the damage."
Sam's hands shake as he approaches, and he has to wipe his sweaty palms on the back of his pants. Despite their efforts to make jokes, dropping his brother is a real possibility. Dean is no lightweight, despite the nearly thirty pounds he's dropped since he got hurt. And there are a number of additional factors that play into the transfer process – he's got to be careful of the vent hosing, and of not trapping or bumping ankles and wrists. It's been nearly a month that Sam has been practicing transfers, if you count the practice dummy they actually taught him on. But, despite their similarities, a dummy really doesn't do justice to just how hard it is to actually transfer a real person, and it's one of the many factors that has Sam fearing the end of the week.
But he puts on a happy face for Dean and finishes his approach. Sam waits for Stu to start talking him through it, but this time the aide just nods encouragingly.
"You know what to do, Sam. I'm right here if you need anything."
And don't that just beat all…his first solo transfer, just when he's too afraid to ruin the good mood Dean is in.
They already have Dean's legs hanging off the bed, but he's propped up on his left side by pillows and the raised head of the bed, Chelsea, kneeling on the mattress, sitting right behind him for additional support. Sam pulls Dean upright, and notices that Chelsea backs off the minute his hands are on his brother. It amps up the nerves tenfold, but Sam takes a deep breath and tries to hide it.
"I'm not made of porcelain, Sam. You're fine," Dean whispers. So much for hiding it. But the words of encouragement help, and Sam finds himself relaxing as he slips his arms underneath Dean's armpits and wraps him up in a big bear hug, careful not to pinch the vent tubing in the process. He plants his legs wide, and eyes up the wheelchair once more before taking action.
"On three, Dean. One…two…on three he lifts with a big grunt and shifts in place before lowering Dean gently into the chair on the first try, missing the armrests which have gotten in the way in the past. His brother has a huge black bruise on his right hip to prove it, and Sam can't escape the guilt.
When that's done, he keeps one hand on Dean's chest as he steps back, expecting Stu or Chelsea to jump in and do the rest. And he's maybe just a little bit disappointed when Chelsea pushes, "you know what to do, Sam. We're here if you need us, but you're fine."
Milla comes forward, though, silently offers her help which Sam accepts with a slight nod of the head. They seem okay with that, since she will be helping at home, too. Together, they adjust Dean's clothing and strap him in and swap out the vents. And for a minute Dean's smile seems to falter, but by the time they're done he's plastered it right back up there for all to see as he puts his mouth around the sip 'n puff straw and propels himself out of the room to the main lobby.
For at least the first five minutes Dean is actually excited to be there, stoked at the prospect of eating something that isn't cooked in mass quantities and then freeze-dried for future consumption.
As much as he hates to think about it, Dean's become rather adept at maneuvering his wheelchair around, and he steers himself back through the crowded restaurant amidst the rest of the group without mishap. He's too focused on what he's going to order to really pay attention to everyone else in the room, and maybe that's a good thing because for the first time in months he feels almost normal again.
In fact, he manages to forget himself so well that he actually falls back into old Dean mode for all of those first five minutes, grinning devilishly at the hostess as she places menus on the table and gives her requisite spiel about the daily specials and tells them their waitress will be over for them soon.
He lets Sam read the menu to him, manages to forego a comment that it's his body, not his eyesight, that has failed him. And when the waitress, Lindsay, comes to take their drink orders, for just a few seconds, he forgets himself.
She is young and pretty, does her job well and without obvious prejudice. She is maybe the first 'outsider' Dean has encountered that doesn't look at him like something that should be put under a microscope. And she does look at him, which is a whole hell of a lot more than he's experienced in the first two field trips.
At some point as she made her way around the table taking orders someone must have told her why they're all gathered, because when she gets to Dean she leans a hip on the table so that she's facing him directly and says, "It's your big day, handsome, gotta order something good."
Dean beams, waggles an eyebrow suggestively at her as he leans his head forward. "What's your specialty, sweetheart?"
If he'd been watching, he would have seen Sam's eyes bug out of his head faster than a Loony Toons character. And maybe that would have toned him down just a tad. But as it is, Dean decides he's having too much fun to control himself. It's been too long since he's been able to let loose like this, too long since he's felt like himself.
"The raspberry lemonade is pretty good," Lindsay supplies. "And we make our vanilla coke's the old fashioned way…a lot of people like those."
"Well, that's all well and good, doll, but that's really not what I was talking about. I mean your specialty. After all, I am finally a free man. Got a lot of time to make up for."
She looks so bewildered by his suggestion, shocked at the implied sexual nature of it, that she stumbles back a couple steps in her haste to compose herself. It makes sense, the girl was just doing a nice deed, trying to make him feel special. She probably wasn't expecting his former prowess to be the laurels he chooses to rely on.
"I'm sorry," Dean apologizes quickly. "I didn't…I just." He looks away, feeling his cheeks flush as he mumbles, "a raspberry lemonade, please."
And that's that. Lindsay finishes taking orders and stumbles off towards the kitchen as Dean sinks into the familiar depression that has defined his last months. He feels like an idiot, mentally kicks himself for thinking that she might have actually been flirting with him. Because he can't think of a woman in her right mind who would want the problems that most certainly would accompany any kind of fling with him. Not when there are plenty of able bodied men out in the world.
"You can't possibly tell me those kinds of lines used to work for you," Stu chimes in, pulling Dean from his self-pity and making him come back to the present.
Dean shoots him an uncertain grin, raising his eyebrows in a way that hints at the possibility, but doesn't really confirm it. He drops his head back against the head rest, closes his eyes tightly, and tries to erase the last couple minutes from his memory. Stupid, he berates himself. You're not that guy anymore.
"He likes to think he's a regular Don Juan" Sam teases, apparently unaware at just how much Dean has been affected by what's just happened. "Poor girls didn't know what they were getting themselves into until it was too late."
"Yeah, well, now they do," Dean says bitterly. He doesn't open his eyes, just flares his nostrils as he focuses on the breaths being forced into his body.
And suddenly there is a hand on his cheek, soft and feminine, the thumb stroking the line of his jaw as he grinds his teeth together. "Dean, it was one girl, one reaction. Don't tell me you've never been turned down before."
Dean opens his eyes slowly, focuses on Milla's face, too near to him while she whispers the words in his ear. He tightens his lips over his teeth and rolls his eyes. It doesn't matter that Milla is right, doesn't matter that he's probably failed in as many plays as he's been successful, doesn't matter that the denials barely made an impact on him back in the day. Because now is different. Now, when his emotions are frayed and his self-esteem is about as thin as a razors edge, now he can't take the rejection. And he doesn't know what he was thinking even attempting to seduce the waitress into flirting him with him, doesn't know what he had expected to happen.
He knows for a fact that nothing would have happened beyond the restaurant, that it would have gone no further than a simple exchange of words and glances, and the end of the meal would have meant they both went their separate ways without a second glance. That it wouldn't have hurt the waitress to give him what he needs, because his expectations didn't extend further than dinner. That much he knows.
But he also knows that he desperately needed to feel wanted, desired. He knows that he actually let his guard down, that he forgot himself for long enough to think that the waitress was giving off more than just a simple desire to be friendly. And it hurts in a way that past rejections never did. It's more than just a bruised ego – it's a chest deep ache that goes right to the very core of who he is.
Milla is still massaging his jaw, his neck, his cheek, trying to relieve the tension that guarantees otherwise to give him a killer headache. It's another part of him now, the remaining muscles working triple time to try and compensate for what he has lost, and they're constantly tense and knotted from the stress.
"She's just a stupid girl," the woman whispers in his ear, and he closes his eyes tight then reopens them as he nods his agreement with only a small conviction. Looking around the group gathered at the table he can see the concern for him emanating from their stoic expressions, but they have the grace not to stare. All, that is, except for Sam who is wearing his worried puppy face and boring holes into Dean's forehead with his intense eyes.
"Just a stupid girl," Dean repeats, only loud enough that Milla and Sam, one on each side of him, can hear. Sam visibly relaxes, maybe needing the release despite the fact that Dean is only saying the words, doesn't really feel the impact of them.
"I won't let it ruin my meal," he says, more firmly this time. "Let's look at that menu again."
A hint of a smile crosses Sam's face, just a façade to mask his concern, as he picks up the laminated folder and holds it up so that Dean can read it himself this time. Dean knows he's spun a one-eighty on the group, knows that Sam is sure to see through him, but hopefully they can hold off on a discussion until after they've made it back to New Beginning's. Because it's one thing to be upset, but it's another thing entirely to pitch a fit right there in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Talk about unwanted attention.
Lindsay returns soon after, her head held low in sheepish remorse as she delivers the drinks. She is no longer smiling and joking, instead is completely serious as she takes orders one by one. And when she gets to Dean she can't look him in the eye despite his fervored attempts at capturing her attention. He's not about to let her get the best of him, and if it's one thing Dean Winchester is good at, it's putting on a poker face.
He orders steak, medium rare, and a loaded baked potato and country style green beans that are sure to be loaded in bacon grease, and his stomach rumbles just at the thought. It seems like years since he's had anything that might be deemed unhealthy, and he plans on enjoying every last bite of the meal.
There is a cup holder on the wheelchair that normally has a bottle of water in it, with a long bendable straw that can be velcroed to the sip and puff mechanism so that both are within easy reach. Sam reaches for that now, swaps out the water for the glass of lemonade and positions the straw where Dean can reach it. He's already taken a sip of his own. "It's really good," he says as Dean bends down for a drink. "You'll like it."
And he does. The lemonade is the perfect combination of sweet and sour; add that to the fact that he's had nothing but water and apple juice and the occasional cup of decaf coffee for the past several months, and the experience is practically orgasmic.
"Didn't realize just how much I've missed good food," Dean says to the table as a whole. "You people really need to do something about your kitchen staff – it's criminal what you make us eat."
Lanie laughs from across the table. "It's better than slapping you with a lawsuit when we throw out our backs from lifting your fat ass," she teases. "You eat like that all the time, you're bound to end up five hundred pounds before you know it."
"It's not my fault your metabolism is all out of whack," Dean throws back. But her comment has made him think, made him realize that maybe he does have to be careful now. He'll never be as active as he once was, and there is no doubt in his mind that the physicality of life as a hunter is the only reason his eating habits never got the better of him.
"Maybe I like vegetables," Lanie teases.
"And maybe Gary Coleman is the next president of the United States," Dean says sarcastically. "Nobody likes vegetables. Nobody likes healthy food period. Except maybe Sammy here, but I think he was dropped-- on his head a few times as a baby."
"Hey," Sam protests, "don't bring me into your fight just to prove a point. Vegetables are good for you – it would do you some good to get used to them."
"Or else what?" Dean asks. He's enjoying the banter, and by the looks of it the rest of the table is about to join in, too.
"No or else, Dean. I'm in charge of your meals from now on. I'll just have to withhold the bad stuff until you eat everything else. I have that power." He grins, winks, and just the way he looks at Dean says he has no intention of taking advantage of his position of power as he's threatening. His brother is a big ole softie when you really get down to it, and Dean expects that Sam would feed him peanut m&m's and beer day in and day out if that's all he was willing to eat.
Doesn't mean the truth of the statement doesn't make an impact. There is no way around it, no way to avoid simple comments and jokes and innocent statements that bring everything into the light. Everything they say, everything they do reminds Dean of his situation. There is no escaping the cold hard facts.
But he's also starting to realize that he can't dwell on the little things. Ignoring them doesn't really mask the pain, but putting so much energy into the emotional pain isn't helping either. So instead of letting an innocent comment affect him Dean forces a smile, and another jibe in return. "Yeah, we'll see how smug you are when I get the department of welfare on your ass for neglect."
"Oh yeah, I can see the headlines now," Sam smirks. "Man arrested for forcing his brother to eat salad. There's not a jury in the world that will convict me."
"They will when I play the sympathy card. I'm crippled, for god's sake."
Sam immediately gets quiet, reserved, as he snaps, "Don't say that. I don't like that word."
"Crippled, disabled, handicapped. They all mean the same thing," Dean says. "This is who I am now, Sam. This is what I am."
Dean can tell Sam is about to say more, to protest the less than glamorous description Dean is willingly giving himself, but their food arrives, and the conversation is soon lost as Dean's mouth starts watering in response to the beautiful meal sat in front of him. His sense of smell has come back slightly, not full force by any means but he can smell odors when they're nearby and the scent of the juicy steak fills his nose immediately.
"I'm starved," Dean hints, licking his lips and silently urging Sam to let it go, to instead hurry up and feed him already. It's his celebration lunch and he wants the first bite. He doesn't want to be worrying about the PC way to say he's paralyzed.
Sam obliges, both in dropping the topic and in pulling Dean's plate closer so that he can slice off a bite. While Dean chews that one, moaning loudly in pleasure, Sam quickly cuts up the rest of the steak and the potato. He feeds Dean another bite, then moves to his own plate and takes a bite of his rotisserie chicken, a forkful of rice, spears some salad. And then back to Dean.
It goes on like that for a while, a back and forth tradeoff of between Sam's plate and Dean's. And every once in a while Dean realizes just how unfamiliar the situation is when Sam starts digging into his own meal and forgets that he's feeding two people. Dean reminds himself to let it slide, just gently reminds his wayward brother that he's waiting for a bite, that he's relying on Sam to keep him fed.
He doesn't know how he's expected to be so accepting of such an impossible situation. For a man who has never relied on anyone but himself for everything in life, who has always been somebody else's rock, someone else's shoulder, there is nothing more devastating than having to depend on other people for absolutely everything.
The problem, though, is that feeling sorry for himself isn't fixing anything. What he can do is focus on his mood, focus on accepting the inevitable and ignoring what he can't change. He can't change the fact that Sam has to feed him, but he can choose how he receives the food. He can't change the fact that most people can't see far enough past the wheelchair and the ventilator to see the person inside, but he can change the way he responds back. It's all about mind over matter, choosing to feel only the emotions he allows himself to feel.
It's not the first time he's done that in his life. Just the hardest.
And his theory is soon to be tested.
Lunch winds down soon after. Most of the staff has purchased little parting gifts for Dean, and Sam piles them onto his lap as they pack up to go. There's a t-shirt from Stun that says "Half human, half machine. All Man," and a bluetooth for his phone and environmental control system from Justin. Lanie gives him a waterbottle with a bivalve straw to prevent leaks, and Chelsea has an i-pod purchased by the entire nursing and doctoral staff and loaded with Dean's favorite music – because it's easier than a tape player to set up for Dean to actually control.
Dean makes a crack about being a pack horse, asks Sam if there's anything else he'd like him to carry – a wallet, maybe or a purse?
"Sure, if you don't mind," Milla chimes in, inserting a rare bit of humor into her normally reserved demeanor as she sets her own purse into Dean's already filled lap with a smirk.
"Very funny," Dean snarks.
She grins, retrieves the purse as the group weaves their way through the restaurant. "I thought so."
Despite the shaky start, everyone is in a good mood as they leave. They pass tables full of people, ignore the multitude of stares pointed in their direction, the murmured comments. It's a fact of life now, something to either get used to or hide for the duration.
Unfortunately, there is only so much a person can take; especially when emotions are already running so high and unpredictable. So when they move past the hostess booth and Dean overhears the not-so-much muted comment Lindsey the waitress makes to the hostess he can't hold it back any longer.
"I can't believe he was hitting on me. Poor guy must be so lonely," she says, tone a combination of pity and, was that fear?
Something locks in his throat, a catch that shouldn't be possible when he doesn't control his own breath. He blinks back tears, hating his raw emotions, and forces himself to keep moving straight ahead, ignoring Sam's wary glance because he doesn't trust himself to speak.
He just can't do it, can't be as strong as he's been coaching himself to be. The stares and the whispers are one thing – those he can deal with. But the let down, the realization that people truly see him differently, don't see him at all, has come in the form of the waitress and the understanding that the ladies man no longer exists.
"I don't want to have to do that again, Sammy," he says quietly once he's secured inside the van. It's just Sam and him and the driver and he finally feels safe to make the request.
Sam looks at him for a long time. Dean can see the war inside his brother's head over the appropriate response – a pep talk or an agreement. "I won't make you do anything you're not ready for," Sam finally tells him, the fact that he's chosen his words very carefully pretty darn obvious to Dean.
But for now that's good enough. He's leaving rehab at the end of the week, he's fulfilled Justin's stupid three outing rule, and once it's just him and Sam he never has to put himself on display ever again if he doesn't want to. And Dean is just fine with that.
The calendar on the wall is marked off to August 16th. It's been nearly four months since he's been hurt, four months of rehab, of pain and numbness and torture. Four months living in the same town, with Sam hovering over him more than ever before, and trying to pretend that his past life never existed. Nearly four months of learning to adjust to an unrelenting body. And now they're setting him free.
In a way, rehab has been like a shelter, an escape. It's a wall of protection that Dean isn't sure he will find on the outside. And despite the fact that Sam has been taking charge of nearly all of his care for the past two weeks already, Dean isn't sure he's ready to entrust the same responsibility to his brother when the nurses aren't around for supervision.
He mouths the sip n' puff straw and turns himself around so that he can watch the rest of what is happening in the room. Sam and Milla are fluttering around him like busy little bees, packing stacks of clothes in one duffle bag and handfuls of pre-packaged medical supplies in another. In Kyle's old bed his new roommate is trying to watch out of the corner of his eye, head straining against the archaic halo brace that keeps his spine aligned. The sight of the contraption has not failed to turn Dean's stomach since the day Gary was brought in two days ago, memories of his own captivity being stirred up. It's maybe the one thing that makes the going home easier, because he's not sure that he could look at it for much longer without having nightmares.
Sam zips the last of Dean's luggage and adds it to the neat pile on his bed before sighing nervously and running a hand through his hair. "I think that's everything. Are you ready to go?"
Despite the fact that he's shouting 'no' in his mind, Dean plasters a grin to his face and adopts an air of confidence. "All set."
Milla grabs one of the bags and drapes it over the back of Dean's wheelchair, and throws another back into his lap before shouldering one herself. Sam takes the last two, the heavier ones, and grunts good naturedly. "Don't think you've ever had this much stuff in your life. You used to be a light packer."
Dean doesn't answer. He knows Sam means well, knows that the comment was meant to be a light-hearted attempt at a joke, but it's hard to smile when he knows the exact contents of the five bags they're leaving with. It's hand splints and foot booties, catheters, cans of Ensure, extra trachs, compression stockings and sweatsuits that he wouldn't wear otherwise, and a whole slew of other stuff that they've acquired since his injury.
Milla saves the awkwardness when she stops at Gary's bed and wishes him well, prompting the Winchesters to do the same and re-directing the conversation. And they they're out the door, traveling down the hall for the last time on the way to the lobby. Dean will return once a week for out-patient therapy, but otherwise he will be receiving all his therapy at home.
A crowd has gathered in the lobby, a mass gathering of staff and other patients there to see him off, and as they near closer Chelsea steps forward with a cake angled toward him that says GOOD LUCK DEAN in perfect green block letters.
"You guys didn't have to go – to all this trouble," Dean says, blushing, as he pulls himself to a halt just in front of the red-headed nurse.
"We're gonna miss you," Lanie replies, by way of explanation. She steps forward from behind Chelsea and leans over him, hands wrapping around his. "I think you're one of my favorite patients, ya big pain in the ass."
"Likewise," Dean grins. "Thanks for not giving up on me."
One by one everyone steps forward to say their good-byes, giving hugs and pats and kisses on the cheek, words of encouragement, some through teary eyes and others with broad smiles. The moment is bittersweet, as Dean realizes with a heave of emotion that this is probably the closest he's ever been to a group of people. It's hard to believe that something good can come out of something so bad. Hard to believe that it took such a tragedy to form actual bonds and friendships.
Someone starts passing out plates of cake, gives Sam two, which he balances precariously in one hand as he forks up a bite for himself followed immediately by a bite that he feeds to Dean. It's good cake, chocolate with a buttercream icing that is just on the shy side of too sweet, and Dean savors the first bite, letting it melt in his mouth for several seconds as Sam swallows two more bites.
"Want more?" Sam finally asks when it seems like Dean has finally swallowed. Dean licks his lips and nods.
They stay for another ten minutes or so, finishing the cake and having final good-bye conversations, and then the guy with the transport van comes in to tell them he's got another pickup in an hour and needs to get them on the road.
And that's it. Dean leaves through the opened door, flanked by Sam and Milla on either side of him, and enters the vast, scary world of the able-bodied. As he maneuvers himself onto the lift, Dean suddenly is overcome by the uncertainties of all the new situations he's about to encounter. He has to bite his lip to keep himself in the present, to not dwell on a bunch of what-if's that haven't even occurred yet, and tries to focus now just on being locked down to the floor of the van, Sam jumping into the passenger seat up front, and Milla leaving to follow in her own car.
The ride to her place is longer than he expected, taking them out of the city and into a suburb with perfectly manicured lawns and wide streets and large houses. They don't know houses like this, have only been in them on hunts and never in their wildest dreams had Dean ever expected to live in one. And like everything else, it's a bittersweet realization that the opportunity has only come because of his physical needs.
He's never been out here, and hadn't really paid that much attention when Sam tried to describe things, so it's like seeing everything with fresh eyes. Dean tries to pretend that everything is normal, that it's common for him to be riding through a neighborhood like this on his way home. But he can't help the faint squeal of surprise when they pull into Milla's driveway and he gets his first look at his new home.
The house isn't huge, but it's large for one person, and far bigger than anything Dean can remember living in growing up. They're in the top driveway, but he can see where it goes down the hill and around to the back of the house, and he wonders if there's another garage back there. The whole front face of the house is red brick, 2 stories, with 3 dormer windows jutting out above the roof of the large wraparound porch. Two round, white pillars frame the broad steps in the front, but Dean can see where the right side of the porch railing has been removed and a long ramp now leads up to it from the driveway. It's there that Sam now heads, motioning for Dean to follow him to the front door.
"The builders thought it would be simpler for you to just access the porch from the drive," Sam says. "And they made the door wider so you can fit through more easily. It's electronic – goes with your environmental controls once we get that operational."
Dean notices the slight waver to his brother's voice, and the fact that – despite the conversation – Sam hasn't actually turned around to look at him since they got out of the van. Dean follows Sam through the doorway, quietly thanking Milla, who is currently holding the door open for him, and finds himself in the middle of an octagonal shaped entry hall with tall ceilings and polished wood floors. He relaxes his head against the headrest just for a minute in order to better see the ceilings, and spies an intricate glass chandelier high overhead. There are two doorways in the entry hall that lead to rooms Dean doesn't see, a set of winding stairs from another direction leads upstairs to a place Dean knows he will never go, and the final doorway leads to a long hall and more of the house. Sam doesn't stop, isn't giving Dean much time to take in his surroundings as he heads down the widened hallway to the back of the house.
At the end of the hallway is another set of doorways, or arches since no doors grace the frames, and Sam does slow down and at least offer cursory descriptions of those. To the left is the living room, which curves around and joins with a breakfast nook, a dining room, and then the kitchen, which can also be accessed from the doorway at the very end of the hall. To the right is an entrance into another foyer like area, into which Sam leads Dean.
There are two entrances here, one like the others, without a door, leads to a small sunroom and a deck off the back of the house. The other has a door, the first Dean has seen on his limited tour of the house.
"You'll have control of this one, too," Sam says as he opens the door and secures it against the inside wall before stepping aside for Dean to enter. "This used to be Milla's bedroom, but we had it fixed up for you." Sam's eyes go somewhere over Dean's head, flicker for a second, and then he's all business again. It doesn't take long for Dean to realize that Milla has followed them in and is staring wistfully at the two boys now in her care.
""You really didn't have to go to all this trouble for me," Dean says, turning around and facing the older woman. "We could have—"
"No, Dean, you couldn't have," Milla interrupts. "And more importantly, I couldn't have let you. I wanted to do this."
"But your bedroom?" Dean protests.
"The other rooms are upstairs. This was more practical."
The look she gives tells him in no uncertain terms that the discussion is over, and Dean relents, realizing that he really can't argue the logistics. It's not like he can just stay in a motel or just any apartment anymore.
He goes back to his exploration of his new room, unlike anything he'd ever envisioned for himself before. He's always been neat, and never had much in the way of extra 'stuff,' but despite the obvious equipment and supplies lining shelves and drawers around the room the place is really immaculate. The room itself is more than twice the size of his room in rehab, and it seems even bigger than that with the noticeable lack of extras. It's a straight shot from the door to the bed, enough distance between the two to fit two or three of his wheelchairs and still have room to turn around. The bed itself, he recognizes as one of those high tech sand and air mattresses, the one that he'd ordered Sam not to get because it was way out of their price range. But he knows that Sam feels differently about Adam's "donation" than Dean does, and he's been spending if freely ever since the transfer came through. He chooses not to say anything right now as he continues to take in the surroundings.
In the space between the wall and the bed is a stationary ventilator and the suction system, and the biggest wall unit Dean has ever seen with at least half of the ten outlets already being used. There is a cart on the side of the bed near the door, half of its surface filled with more equipment, and Dean assumes the drawers are filled with tubes and sterile supplies.
On the other side of the bed is a large, fluffy looking lounge chair that looks way more comfortable than the one Sam had slept in at the hospital. But Dean immediately finds himself at war over feelings of dread at the implications of that chair and feeling pleased that Sam thought ahead to the many nights he would likely be sleeping in Dean's room.
There is a dresser along the far wall, the surface area there as well as the three levels of shelves on the wall above it covered in more medical supplies. And tucked away in a corner is a canvas hammock hanging from a giant metal frame on wheels that Dean remembers briefly from the medical supply catalogs as a Hoyer lift. He also distinctly remembers the feelings of dread that had come over him at the thought of it. For whatever reason that lift, above everything else, made him feel inadequate and useless. Just the thought of being lifted out of bed by a virtual crane takes away the last of his feelings of humanity and leaves him wallowing in a sense of nothingness – as though he's become just an object and nothing more.
"I thought we agreed you weren't getting that." He shudders, remembering the few times at rehab when they'd used it. He prefers just being lifted out of bed – something in that just seems less permanent.
"It's only in case of emergency," Sam assures him quickly, crossing the room to stand between Dean and the dreaded contraption as though his physical presence alone will somehow make the thing disappear. "I will be here most of the time, but Milla was afraid she wouldn't have the strength to lift you on her own if she had to. It's just a precaution, Dean. Promise."
"Then get it out of here," Dean snaps. I don't want to look at it if it's just precaution. You can store it in a closet somewhere."
He tries to ignore the shared look that is exchanged between Milla and Sam, tries to pretend that their bond hasn't grown to something Dean isn't prepared to deal with. Yeah, he'd wanted Sam to forgive her, but that doesn't mean he's looking for the two of them to team up against them. "Sure, fine," Sam finally says hastily. "Just…come look at the bathroom. This thing is insane!"
Just like that? Dean thinks as he grudgingly follows his brother to one of the two doors on the opposite side of the room. The other, he assumes is a closet. "Each door has a number," Sam explains as he pushes through to the bathroom. "So when the ECS is working all you have to do is say 'open door two' or something like that and the right one will open. We should have the company rep here by next week to get you all set up. I'm sorry it wasn't done before you got home."
"It's fine, Sam," Dean assures him. It's not like he's had all that much control over stuff at rehab – what difference will another week make? He takes a look around the bathroom, eyes widening as he realizes it's nearly as big as the motel rooms he's used to staying in.
"Milla asked them to enlarge it, so they added on to the space from the outside. What do you think?"
What he thinks is that it's too bad he will never truly enjoy it. The size, the luxury, it's something Dean has only dreamt of. A harem of buxom beauties, catering to his every whim as he relaxes in a bath full of rose petals and bath oils, feeding him chocolate covered strawberries and champagne and showering him with kisses and the gentle caress of soft hands massaging his tired muscles.
The bathroom is tiled floor to ceiling in a pale blue ceramic, the center of the floor sloping gently to a drain that can only mean the entire room is capable of getting wet. At the back side is a large, walk (roll) in space with a detachable shower head and hose, and a strange looking wheelchair made out of what looks like PVC piping sits within the boundaries. The space on the right wall is occupied by several cabinets and a sink, the space directly underneath completely open so he can drive the wheelchair right up under it. A large mirror fills the wall space between cabinets and several lights shower the area in soft, white lighting.
There is a toilet on the other side, and strangely enough, that's what chokes him up. It's actually been 4 months since he's seen a toilet, and the realization that he will never use one again, never experience that type of relief, is disheartening. It's a man's domain, his throne. Dean will never be king again.
"Looks great," Dean says, quickly steering himself back out into the bedroom as Sam follows, perplexed. Milla is there waiting for them, something akin to hesitant expectation sitting on her face as she waits for the verdict.
"Thanks for going to all this trouble for us," Dean tells her. It's a sincere statement, but still forced, bitter on the tongue and hard to express. His father raised them right, despite the man's many downfalls, and one thing he's taught his boys it to always be polite, always acknowledge those who have helped because you never know when you'll need them to come through for you again.
From the doorway, Sam nods his agreement as Milla's whole body relaxes. She smiles, relieved. "I know neither of you boys is willing to believe me, but you're honestly saving me as much as you think I'm helping you." There is no doubting the sincerity in her voice.
"Yeah, well, I think we all have a lot-- of healing to do. And many things to-- come to terms with." Dean crosses the room as he says that, making his way closer to the collection of supplies on the shelves. His voice is distant, more so than normal these days, as he continues to take notice of the changes in his life.
It helps that he doesn't have a before to compare the room to, that he doesn't have a past here to know what he's missing. All he knows is that his past is gone. Lost are the days of hotel rooms and carefree traipsing across the country, last minute changes in plans. In their place are schedules and meticulous procedures, a stasis in a town they have never called home with a woman they never would have known under different circumstances.
Adam's ruthless plan has changed everything, thrown him into a life he's never dreamed of in his craziest nightmares. The guy wants him to suffer, and Dean can't think of a better way to get back at the guy than to do exactly the opposite of what he wants. If Adam wants him miserable and devastated then Dean will just have to force the biggest smile he can possibly create and give the appearance of well-adjusted.
It's an improbable situation, will require a mindset he's not sure he possesses, means the best performance of his life. But Dean vows to do everything in his power to make it happen.
Adam will not win.
OK, so that's the end of Arc 1! Arc 2 will be called Reclamation, and will focus on Dean and Sam's healing at home and adapting to Daily life. It will also begin to explore ways for Dean to feel productive again! However, for you guys at I will continue to post under the Redemption page to make it easier (Because of the subject matter and the rating I just figured it would be easier not to make you guys search for a new story)
I'm going to take some time to work on the next two arcs and in the mean time will continue posting pictures to the "photo album" on a weekly basis. I'm also going to spend some time uploading my other fics onto LJ (sorry - no pics!).
Here's where I need your help... I have 3 options to posting the next portion of this story and I'm curious as to what people prefer. In case you couldn't tell, each of these chapters was made up of several smaller segments (I hate to call them drabbles because they weren't that short) that could potentially stand alone. They were essentially tied together to make a much longer chapter, but the individual segments is how I have them saved on my computer. So...
Option 1: I can post segment by segment as I write them as stand alone pieces. Most will be posted in order, but there is a chance I could post one piece for "November" and then go back and post something for "August." Although, I won't post any 'spoilers' within pieces until they have been covered by their specific story. These segments will go into the Master List based on a timeline and I won't post anything of the 3rd arc until all of the 2nd arc are posted. This option means at least something will be posted about every one to two weeks - sometimes more often.
Option 2: I can write a full "chapter" (about 5-6 segments) and post in order chapter by chapter as they are completed. This option means an average of one to three months between posts.
Option 3: I can complete the entire 2nd arc of the story before posting anything and then go back to my once a week postings as I did for arc 1. Based on my current schedule, I would expect about 9 months to a year before I complete an entire arc so I would probably be back to start posting some time in January of next year.
OK - give me your opinions on that. I, personally, don't mind posting WIP's - I just usually feel bad knowing people are waiting for me! If you can handle it, so can I. You can let me know through your reviews here or you can swing over to the LJ and actually click on your choice in the little poll at the end of the final part. Thanks for reading and have a great day!