AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is a spin-off of my story Redefining Joy. However, I don't think you have to read it to understand what's going on in this story, although it would probably be better. The main thing you need to know is that Sam sustained an SCI (spinal cord injury) and has paraplegia.
This story is rated T for the F word and other bad language, along with sexual content and possible mentions of bodily functions. Otherwise, it's pretty tame. :)
Disclaimer: Anything you recognize I borrowed from the show created by Eric Kripke. I'm not making any money from this, and no copyright infringement is intended. My original characters are purely fictional and any similarity to real people is coincidental. Hope that covers it!
Dean watched Sam's jaw harden and felt a twinge of sympathy for his little brother, but he quickly buried it. "Come on, Sam. It's like a lunar vehicle. Pretend you're an astronaut, like Buzz Lightyear."
"It's Aldrin, Dean."
"Buzz Aldrin is a real astronaut. Buzz Lightyear is a character from Toy Story."
"'Buzz Lightyear is a character from Toy Story,'" said Dean in a mocking tone, swaying his head abruptly from side to side. "Thank you, Nancy Know-It-All, for clearing that up." As if he didn't know that. He was just trying to make light of the situation.
Sam exhaled with annoyance, jaw still tight.
They were at the Central Beach Lifeguard Tower on Coronado Beach, renting one of the free beach wheelchairs for Sam. The muscle-headed lifeguard in charge of doling them out—who looked a bit like Conan the Barbarian—was waiting for Sam to transfer to one of them from his own wheelchair. Once Sam transferred, the lifeguard would store Sam's regular wheelchair in a safe place, sort of as a deposit in order to ensure they brought the beach chair back.
They'd all been planning this trip to Coronado for weeks to celebrate Heather's birthday, which was in a couple of days. Heather, a native of San Diego, loved the beach, and she'd wanted a day in the sun with good friends and the beauty of the ocean instead of a party or a night out.
It was October, and they'd gotten there around ten that morning because Heather had said the earlier they got there, the better. She wasn't sure about the parking, since she'd only ever parked on the street and had always tried to get there early to find a spot. However, when they'd gotten there, they had found disabled parking near Isabella Avenue, so they'd had no problems.
Although it was a bright, sunny morning that promised more warmth later on, TJ and Heather had shorts and hoodie sweatshirts on over their bathing suits to protect them from the chilly breeze, and their ponytails were flapping in the wind. Sam and Dean were dressed similarly, only with swim trunks on instead of bikinis, of course, and Dean was wearing a plain, olive-green sweatshirt. He didn't do hoodies.
Heather and TJ were eyeing the water, TJ shading her eyes against the sun with her hand, since she and Sam had both forgotten their sunglasses. Heather had said the water was always kind of cold but that it was warmest in August, September, and October. Dean was skeptical. If the ocean felt anything like the breeze that was blowing, there could be some serious nut shrinkage going on, and he wasn't thrilled by that prospect.
He felt like a fish out of water. He didn't think his legs had ever seen the light of day, except for maybe an occasional jog with Heather; but, then again, none of them really had tans. Work and school and being adults hadn't left much time for such trivial things.
It was Sam's first trip to the beach as a wheelchair user, and he'd been quiet during the thirty-minute drive in the Impala to Coronado. Dean wondered if Sam's silence was because his legs were hurting or if it was something else, like the fact that he was remembering the last time he'd been on a beach walking, waiting for Yellow Eyes to make a move, hoping—as it turned out, futilely—that the demon was his ticket to healing his spinal cord injury. Maybe Sam's broodiness was the result of a little bit of both.
When Sam's legs were hurting—when he got the sometimes excruciating pain caused by fucked up nerves that Dean didn't really understand—he sort of withdrew into himself, used some of his yoga hoodoo to try to get through the pain. He'd gotten off all his medications—the antidepressant, the pain and antispasticity meds—and used yoga and other forms of pain management to deal with it.
His legs jiggled more often now than when he'd been on the baclofen, the medication that kept the uncontrollable spasms at bay and kept his muscles flexible. He kept his muscle tone from getting too stiff and spastic by doing yoga and range-of-motion exercises every day and keeping his body active in other ways, like using his leg braces and crutches to get around the apartment when he was at home.
For the most part, Sam was finally adjusting and moving on with his life. He had overcome the depression, anger, and self-pity of that first year after his injury and had moved on to acceptance. He'd only been back in college for about a month, but he was doing well and had already put in some applications at law schools in the state for the fall of next year, since his freakishly high LSAT score was still valid.
The rift between Dean and Sam had been healed, and they were as close as they'd always been. And, then, of course, there was TJ. Sam was completely and totally in love with her, and Dean was happy for him—for both of them, actually—because she was just as gaga over Sam. It was a little disgusting at times.
It had been a year and nine months since a poltergeist had severed Sam's spinal cord with a kitchen knife and paralyzed him, and he had learned to live and love again; but he still had his bad days, just like anyone else, and this, unfortunately, seemed to be one of them.
The beach wheelchair really did look like a lunar vehicle to Dean with its four, uniformly-sized, gray balloon wheels made of a soft plastic. They were obviously made to roll over powdery sand that a normal wheelchair would sink into. The frame was made of PVC pipe, and there was a comfortable-looking blue cushion for the back and seat. However, there were no large back wheels with hand rims like Sam's regular wheelchair, and there was no way for Sam to propel himself.
Although the looks of the thing weren't exactly what you'd call cool, the fact that someone else would have to push him was probably the main reason for the dour, bitchy look on Sam's face. He was fiercely independent to the point of stubbornness—no shock there. He was also probably ticked about the fact that he had to leave his own chair at the lifeguard tower as a deposit.
TJ turned to Sam, freckles and a grin of childlike enthusiasm lighting up her face, tendrils of her hair that had escaped its ponytail whipping around her cheeks in the ocean breeze. "Hurry up, Sam." When she said "Sam," her Kentucky accent slipped through, giving the one-syllable name about three more vowels than it was supposed to have. "That water looks awesome. I can't wait to get in."
Sam's jaw relaxed a little, and, with a sigh, he locked the brakes on his own chair, scooted himself forward on the seat cushion, and took his bare feet off the footplate with his hands. Then, he put one hand on the cushion of the beach chair and one on the frame of his own wheelchair and swiftly transferred himself to the beach cruiser, coming into it from the front, since the PVC armrests prevented him from doing a lateral transfer. Once in it, he put his feet on the footrest, which was high off the ground so it wouldn't drag in the sand, and then adjusted himself until he was comfortable. With resignation, he said, "So, who's gonna push me?"
TJ winked at Dean and then got behind Sam, putting her hands on the push handles of the chair and bending down close to Sam's ear. "Me," she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
He smiled, lowering his lids a little, like he'd just inhaled some illegal substance.
Dean rolled his eyes. It was the first time he'd seen his brother smile that day. TJ was like a hit of crack for Sam—he was high every time he was near her.
"Here," Dean said to Sam, piling beach bags onto Sam's lap. Then he eyed the lifeguard and nodded at Sam's sleek, compact, rigid-frame wheelchair. "See that nothing happens to that. Okay?"
Conan nodded back. "Sure thing. It'll be here when you get back. You're normally supposed to check in every hour to make sure there's not a waiting list for the beach cruiser, but it's not that crowded today, and we've still got chairs left. If it becomes an issue, I'll find you guys."
"All right. Thanks," said Dean, respecting Conan a little more. He liked anyone who broke the rules every now and then.
He lifted their ice chest full of water, soda, and food—beer wasn't allowed on the beach—and they all started walking toward the water. They were planning on building a fire in one of the metal fire rings later and cooking hot dogs for Dean and Heather and some kind of fake, vegetarian hot dogs for Sam and TJ.
Sam and TJ were both geeky health nuts, especially TJ, who was still dealing with her eating disorder. She'd channeled the destructive behavior of her bulimia and anorexia into an obsession for healthy eating and wouldn't get near a processed Oscar Mayer wiener. She and Sam were into whole foods and local produce and shit like that and mostly ate like vegetarians.
Like fake meat isn't processed, Dean thought cynically. Who even knew what was in it? At least a real frank was made out of beef—mostly.
A few months ago, Sam had confided to Dean that even he thought TJ's preoccupation with food was excessive, and he was a little worried about her. He'd tried to get her to open up to him or at least talk about it with her counselor, and judging by the fact that TJ had seemed to fill out more in the last few weeks, maybe she had listened. That didn't mean, however, that she was ready to run out and order a meat lover's pizza.
As soon as they'd found a good spot near a fire pit and spread out all their stuff, TJ pushed Sam up to the water's edge. He transferred himself from the beach chair to the wet sand in one easy motion, even though it was a difficult transfer from the high seat of the chair to the low ground.
That's my boy, Sammy, thought Dean. Sam had always been in shape and strong, but he had upper-body strength now that would give any world-class bodybuilder a run for his money. Sam swore it was more due to the yoga than the activities of daily living that required him to use his arms. Lately, Dean had almost been tempted to try yoga himself—almost.
TJ and Sam had ventured to where they were both sitting in the surf, and the water was up to Sam's chest and TJ's shoulders. She rose up and sat in his lap, facing him, and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing his mouth. A wave swelled and crashed over them, soaking them and plastering their almost identically-colored hair to their heads, although TJ's hair had a tinge of red in it that Sam's didn't have. They both sputtered and started laughing.
Heather was sitting next to Dean on the huge blanket they'd packed. She was leaning back, bracing herself with her arms, loose strands of her coppery, ponytailed hair blowing around her face, her perfect, pale skin glowing in the sun. She was a beautiful girl, and not only in looks. She was incredibly smart, not to mention compassionate and considerate—just an all-around really great person—and he'd thought many times that he didn't deserve her, that she was too good for him.
She'd told him more than once that she loved him, but he hadn't been able to say it back. It wasn't that he didn't feel the same, necessarily, but there were things she didn't know about him, things he was afraid to tell her. He'd spilled the beans once to another girl—Cassie—the first girl he'd ever thought he loved. She'd called him nuts, threatened him with a restraining order, and dumped him. He'd vowed never to break the cardinal family rule—don't talk about hunting to civilians—ever again, and he'd vowed never to put his heart on the line ever again, too.
Heather was different from Cassie in a lot of ways. For one thing, she was more sensitive to other people's feelings and had a sense of humor. However, in a few ways, she was a little like Cassie. She was practical and down-to-earth and relied on facts and what she could see with her own two eyes to draw conclusions.
Dean didn't think it would be easy to convince her that ghosts were real, even with Sam and TJ backing him up, and he didn't want to take the chance that she'd just write them all off as crazy. He'd gotten used to having Heather around, and he wasn't about to do something to ruin what he had with her, whatever it was. He also couldn't stand the thought of her thinking he was a wacko. Of course, he could take her on a hunt, but there was no way he'd ever willingly put her in danger.
Heather smiled wistfully, watching Sam give TJ a kiss. "They never get enough of each other."
Dean snorted. "You're tellin' me. It's like living with Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson."
"Who are they?"
He smiled, amused. "Never mind." It was one of the things he liked about her, the fact that she was classy and came from a completely different, normal, upper-class existence. She hadn't grown up with the seedy, darker side of life like he had. It was another reason he didn't want to shatter that illusion she had of a fugly-free world.
Of course, it wasn't like she hadn't seen horrible things in the last two years she'd worked to become a paramedic. It scared him that some of the stuff she'd seen could be the result of something supernatural, that she could be coming into contact with it—or the aftermath of it—through her job. He wanted to keep her innocent of it all, wanted to protect her.
He didn't know why he felt that way, exactly, because she was strong and competent. She had somehow managed to keep her waitress job at Shorty's, the sports bar and grill where they'd first met and worked together, and still do the grueling coursework and studying required to become a paramedic. That alone attested to the fact that she could take care of herself, and she sure as hell hadn't gotten any help from that snooty family of hers.
She cocked her head to the side, realization dawning on her face. "Oh. They're porn stars, aren't they?"
He grinned. "Yeah."
She gave him a saucy smirk. "My neighbors might say the same thing about us."
They were both wearing sunglasses, and he wanted to reach over and take hers off so he could see her eyes. They were a light blue fringed by dark, auburn lashes, and he never got tired of looking at them. Instead, he said, "You put enough sunscreen on?" He felt like her dad for saying that, but he couldn't stand the thought of that delicate skin of hers getting sunburned.
She smiled. "Yeah. Did you?"
They sat in a comfortable silence for a few moments, and then she said, "I'm surprised there's not that many people here. Coronado never seems as crowded as some of the other beaches around here, but, for a Sunday, it's really not crowded at all."
"No. It doesn't seem that bad."
"So what do you think of the Hotel del Coronado?"
Behind her was the huge, wooden, Victorian-era resort, built in 1888. White with an impressive red roof line that included large, pointed towers at various points, it provided an interesting backdrop for the beach. "It's...nice."
"Maybe we should go through it someday. I've never been in it, even though I grew up in San Diego and have been coming to Coronado ever since I can remember. They have tours of it, and I love old buildings like that. Did you know The Wizard of Oz was written there?"
"Yeah," said Dean absently, "I did. I stayed there once." He was distracted by her mouth, loving the way it was a little crooked when she talked, how it kind of quirked faintly to one side. It kept her delicate features from being too perfect, made her more real.
She looked surprised. "You did?"
Dammit. He shouldn't have let that slip. He always tried to steer clear of talking about his past. He cleared his throat. "Sam and I stayed there with our dad once. We learned a bit about the history of the hotel."
What he left out was that they'd ganked some lady ghost that was haunting one of the rooms.
Heather frowned a little. "Wow, doesn't seem like the kind of place I would picture you guys staying in, although I don't really know anything about your dad."
Dean arched a brow. "What—you don't think we'd fancy a game of croquet and a cup of tea on the north lawn?"
She laughed and nudged his shoulder playfully with her hand. "I can't even believe you just said the word 'croquet.'"
He hung his head for a second, smiling.
"So, why did you guys stay there?"
He gave a little half-shrug. "My dad had a job here. My brother and I had to tag along. We traveled around a lot with our dad after our mother died."
A flash of sympathy crossed her face, and then she looked at him intently. "I think that's the most you've ever said about your childhood."
"Huh," he said, trying to think of some way to change the subject.
One side of her mouth quirked wryly. "I take it that means you're not going to say any more?"
He felt uneasy. "Not much to say."
"What was your dad's job?"
"He was a, uh, private investigator. We had to travel around a lot to where the jobs were."
"You had to travel around California?"
"No. All over the country."
"Where was your home base?"
Now he was feeling really uncomfortable, could feel his neck muscles tensing. "Well, Sam and I were born in Lawrence, Kansas. That's where our parents were from and where we lived until our mom died. Her death was real hard on my dad. He never really wanted to stay in one place after that."
"I've never heard of a private investigator that had to move all over the country before."
He shrugged. "Now you have."
She was quiet for a moment and then said, "How did Sam get hurt, Dean? TJ told me he got stabbed, but what happened?"
"I don't wanna talk about it." It was his standard answer. She'd asked before, but she'd never pushed him on it.
"Dean," she said softly, "how long have we been going out? I hope you know that I'm here for you, that you can talk to me about anything."
Now she was pushing, if the sort of tentative, gentle way she'd spoken could be classified as pushing.
He grabbed a handful of sand next to the blanket and let it sift slowly through his fingers. "There's just not much to tell. We used to be in the same line of work as our dad. We took over the family business after he was killed in a car wreck. It was dangerous a lot of the time, and Sam got hurt on the job."
He was feeling cornered. "It's not something I like to talk about, Heather. Ask Sam or TJ."
Let her ask them. Let them come up with a reasonable explanation. Let them be the ones that lied to her or gave her half-truths. He was a coward, but he just didn't have it in himself to do it.
She sighed. "I'm asking you, Dean, because you're the one that's my boyfriend." She sat up straighter, clapping her hands together to shake off a little bit of sand that had blown onto the blanket. "Besides, I did ask TJ. She's as vague about it as you are, and I feel awkward asking Sam about it. I feel like there's this big secret everyone is in on except for me."
Dean felt a stab of guilt and rubbed his fingers over his mouth.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't mean to dredge up painful memories. It's just that I'm an open book to you, Dean. You know everything there is to know about me, and sometimes I feel like I know next to nothing about you."
"How does knowing how Sam got hurt tell you anything about me?"
"Because your life is intertwined with Sam's. If he's happy, you're happy. It's taken you both a long time to get over his injury."
Dean eyed the mammoth hotel in the background and decided to see what kind of reaction he'd get from her if he brought up the paranormal. "That hotel used to be haunted, you know."
She sighed. "You're changing the subject."
"I heard the story when we stayed there with my dad. There was a woman that supposedly killed herself and then haunted the room she stayed in. Some think she was murdered. I don't think anyone's seen anything in a while, though."
She looked surprised. "And you know this because...?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Sometimes I look it up on the Internet just to see. I guess I was kind of fascinated by it as a teenager when we stayed there."
"But you don't really think there was a ghost there, do you?"
He studied her. "Maybe."
She leaned toward him, took his face in her hands, and looked at him over the top of her sunglasses, her mouth curving into a faintly indulgent smile. "Dean, didn't anyone ever tell you there's no such thing as ghosts?"
"You don't think it's possible?"
"No. Ghosts don't exist," she said with certainty, and gave him a kiss on the lips.
The kiss, the softness of her lips, made his heartbeat quicken, but he wanted to see where this led. "How do you know?"
She leaned back a little and arched her brows, incredulous. "Are you serious?"
"I'm just curious how you can be so sure."
She scrunched her face in an expression that said he was being weird. "I can't believe I'm having this conversation with you." She shifted back to her spot on the blanket and braced herself with her hands again. "I mean, I'm a little surprised. You don't strike me as the type."
"What type is that?"
"You know, those geeky people that go into houses that are supposed to be haunted with their infrared cameras and electromagnetic readers and stuff, wasting their time looking for something that doesn't exist, and then act like the floor creaking is a ghost. It's so silly. I can't believe anyone actually watches that crap on TV."
Dean forced out a laugh. "Yeah. I guess that is pretty silly."
No way was he going to tell her that he'd taken a few easy hunts recently because there'd been no one else to take them, that he was one of those people.
TJ finished drying herself off and quickly dug in her beach bag for the hoodies. She and Sam had gotten used to the cold ocean water, but when they'd gotten out, being wet combined with the breeze had felt like they were in Antarctica.
Sam transferred himself from the beach chair to the blanket, and she handed him a large towel so he could dry off. When he was done, she handed him his black hoodie. The wind was blowing his shaggy, dark-brown hair dry, and the muscles in his shoulders and arms rippled as he pulled the hoodie over his head.
Mercy. The sight of him caused a tightening in her belly and a surge in her blood pressure, and she took a calming breath in an effort to tame her hormones.
Heather and Dean had gone for a walk, so TJ and Sam had the blanket to themselves. They sat in silence for a few moments, leaning back and bracing themselves with their arms, their legs out in front of them, soaking in the warmth of the sun. Sam's right leg had started to bounce up and down a little. It was something TJ had long since gotten used to, the occasional spasming of his legs, but she worried that his legs might get sunburned. He had been in the water with her for a while, and she was worried that the sunscreen he'd put on beforehand could have washed off.
Of course, his skin tone was a little darker than hers, and he tanned easily, but she was his girlfriend. She was entitled to a little fuss over him, knowing that, as a guy, it probably wouldn't even occur to him that he would need more sunblock.
She rummaged in her bag and found a bottle of SPF 30. She rubbed some on her own legs first, along with her face and neck. It smelled good, like summer and fun times, and she offered the bottle to him nonchalantly. "Here. Better put some on."
"I put some on earlier when we first got here."
"I know, but you're supposed to reapply after being in the water and excessive toweling."
He didn't move. In fact, he seemed a little rigid, his shoulders hunched, but when he spoke, his voice was a caress. "You do it for me, TJ," he said, holding her eyes for a moment.
Her stomach did a little flip. She would gladly do it for him. She would walk through hot coals for him if he asked her to do it in that velvety tone of voice.
She squirted some of the lotion onto her palm and began to spread it onto the lower part of his right leg, ignoring the way the leg spasmed under her hands. She was, however, shocked by how cold his skin was, but she should have known. The paralyzed part of his body didn't regulate temperature and usually took on the temperature of the environment around him. If his legs got cold, they didn't shiver, and if they got hot, they didn't sweat. His upper body would try to compensate for the change of temperature, but it was sometimes hard for him to warm up or cool down.
She quickly spread the lotion all over both of his legs and feet, feeling a slight grittiness on his skin from the salt and sand, and then sat in front of him between his thighs, her back to him, letting the skin of her legs touch his, sharing her body heat with him.
He leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her.
She could feel the upper part of his body shivering, but she didn't comment on it. It was just one of the things he had to deal with because of his spinal cord injury, one of the things they both dealt with as if it weren't a big deal because it wasn't. It was just a part of life.
He put his cool cheek next to hers, and she willed her warmth into it. His voice was a low vibration, a part of the wind. "I love you."
She shivered, too, but it wasn't because she was cold. Her heart was overflowing with him, and she brought his hand to her lips and kissed his thumb. "I love you too, Sam."
It was late afternoon, and the weather had gotten unexpectedly overcast. Heather was watching Dean grill hot dogs—or what resembled hot dogs, anyway, in Sam and TJ's case—over the fire ring, turning them over with a pair of tongs they'd brought with them from home. Dean had placed as many buns on the little grill part that covered part of the fire ring as would fit, along with the dogs.
The charcoal smell of the fire, the roar of the waves in the background, the wind, the sand—it all brought back memories of her childhood, and she felt a pang of regret that her relationship with her family had deteriorated to the point where she hardly ever spoke to them.
Her dad was an affluent businessman in San Diego, her mom a housewife involved in numerous charities and good causes, and her older brother Justin was finishing up his last year of a surgical residency in Los Angeles, well on his way to a promising career as an orthopedic surgeon.
She'd planned originally to major in business and follow in her dad's footsteps, but when she had just started her junior year at San Diego State, she'd had a fling with a guy who was a paramedic. Although things hadn't worked out with the guy, knowing him had changed the course of her life. He'd arranged as a "date" for her to do a ride-along with him in his ambulance one night, and she'd been hooked, had sort of found her calling. She'd never really liked college, anyway.
"Calling" sounded dramatic, but it was true. It was a calling because she sure as heck wasn't in it for the money. Paramedics were notoriously underpaid, and it was worse for her, since she was a rookie. She was barely scraping by making twelve dollars an hour, and, since she worked only two or three 24-hour shifts a week as a paramedic, she moonlighted at Shorty's a couple of her evenings off to supplement her income.
She worked hard, and it definitely wasn't the life she and her parents had first envisioned for her, but she was happy and doing something she loved. She wished they could accept that.
She watched Dean laughing about something Sam said, and she wondered what her parents would think of him. She'd been dating him for seven months and had never introduced him to them. Part of the reason was time. Both she and Dean worked so much that, when they did have time for each other, she didn't want to spend those precious hours enduring disapproving stares and snide remarks from her parents.
Then there was the fact that, to her parents, he would be blue-collar, a mechanic, a high-school dropout. She couldn't stomach the thought that they would look down on him, think that he wasn't good enough for her, that she was yet again not living up to her full potential.
Of course, maybe she was underestimating Dean. He had so much cocky self-confidence and charisma, he could probably charm the pants off of her Aunt Claire, who was a Methodist minister.
She watched him as he checked the hot dog buns on the grill, admired the faint cleft in his chin, his chiseled features. He sort of reminded her of James Dean, had that same air of toughness and mystery and heart-stopping good looks. He could be gruff and a smart-ass sometimes, but underneath all that, he could be compassionate and sensitive and loving.
The way he watched out for Sam was touching and endearing and might seem out of character to someone who didn't know him, but she sensed that when Dean loved someone, he gave it his all. He wasn't protective of Sam because of his disability because Sam could obviously take care of himself. No. It went a lot deeper than that.
Although she didn't know much about Dean and Sam's father, she had gleaned enough just from getting to know both of them and hanging out with them that Dean had been the one stable, constant figure in Sam's life, that he had always been there for Sam and looked out for him, even when they were young kids.
Sure, Dean took an older-brother delight in ribbing and teasing Sam often, but he was also proud of Sam like a parent would be, and God help anyone that was ever a threat to Sam. Dean had a dark undercurrent to him, and Heather sometimes got the vibe that he was sort of dangerous, although he'd never done anything to make her think that.
That intangible darkness she occasionally felt in him didn't scare her, though. She found it sort of exciting, and it was part of what attracted her to him, aside from the fact that he was funny, smart, a gentleman, and drop-dead gorgeous. His long eyelashes alone were enough to make any woman drool, both because any girl would kill to have them and also because they somehow added to his masculinity, made the contrast of the hard, symmetrical planes of his face more noticeable.
She studied him for a moment and smiled to herself. She'd gone with him the other day to Supercuts to get his hair cut—he always kept his dark-blond hair short and neat, the complete opposite of Sam—and the girl cutting his hair had actually asked him if he curled his eyelashes. Dean, of course, had been horrified.
He caught her looking at him and held her gaze, bringing her out of her reverie. He had taken off his sunglasses, and there were little crinkles at the corners of his hazel eyes. Eye color was the only physical feature that both he and Sam seemed to share.
"What are you smiling about, Heather?" he asked as he bent over the fire, taking off the buns and putting them on a paper plate and then adding a frank to each one. He put one on a plate by itself and handed it to TJ.
"Nothing," Heather answered with a faint smile, still remembering the look on his face after the hairdresser's comment.
He eyed her for a moment as if trying to figure out what she was thinking, and then he cut his gaze subtly over to TJ, who was putting mustard on the hot dog Dean had just handed to her.
TJ had been a little distracted, watching Sam closely. They were all in a sort of half-circle on the blanket, sitting near the fire. The sun had been covered by clouds, and it had gotten a little chilly. Sam couldn't feel the heat from the fire on his legs, and they all kind of helped him watch to make sure he didn't accidentally burn his skin, even though his legs weren't really that close. Heather knew from her paramedic training that a severe burn could easily happen because he couldn't sense the pain, and it could take months to heal.
Dean slipped a frank onto a bun for Heather, then one for Sam, and then made one for himself.
"Mm," said TJ, chewing. She looked at Sam and swallowed. "This is really good. Tastes like the real thing. Are these the same Tofu Pups you always buy?"
Sam furrowed his brow a little. "Yeah. As far as I know. I grabbed the same ones I always do."
"Does yours taste different?" she said, eyeing his bun.
"No. Same wet, mushy cardboard taste as always."
TJ narrowed her eyes and scrutinized her hot dog, pulling it out of the bun to get a better look. "Dean! You gave me one of the real weenies!"
"Oh?" said Dean with angelic innocence. "I'm so sorry, TJ. I didn't realize it."
She threw the wiener at him, but he dodged it.
A medium-sized stray dog that seemed to have materialized out of nowhere snagged the fallen wiener a little distance behind Dean and sucked it down in one big gulp before skulking off.
No one else seemed to notice it besides Heather, and she wondered if it was a dog that had escaped from the dog part of the beach, where dogs were allowed to run around freely. Dogs weren't allowed on this part of the beach until the evening, and then only on a leash.
"You're so full of it. You did it on purpose," TJ accused. She screwed up her face in a look of disgust and drawled, "Ew! I just ate lips and assholes from a cow and probably nine other types of farm animals!"
Sam and Heather both snickered, and Dean rolled his eyes. "TJ, you grew up on a farm. I can't believe a hot dog wiener freaks you out."
"Humans aren't meant to eat cows, Dean. Our bodies can't process beef properly."
Dean looked skeptical. "Are you kiddin' me? Human bodies weren't meant to process that fake shit that comes in a vegetarian hot dog, either. That stuff smells like lips and assholes and makes Sam's farts reek worse than they normally do."
"Dean!" yelled Sam in aggravation, forehead wrinkling.
Dean waggled his brows.
TJ rolled her eyes, but there was a faint curve to her mouth as if she were holding in a smirk. TJ and Dean sparred with each other all the time like this, and he loved teasing her almost as much as he loved teasing Sam. TJ, of course, gave as good as she got.
Heather envied TJ in that respect, the way she was so at ease with people, never seemed shy, the way all guys seemed completely comfortable with her. It wasn't just guys, though. Everyone loved TJ, including Heather, and she felt lucky to have TJ as a friend.
Heather had never had trouble getting boyfriends, but she'd always found it hard to get close to them. It always seemed like they were a little intimidated by her for some reason and couldn't quite be themselves around her. It always made her feel the same way in return, a little shy, a little nervous. It was like, once past the initial contact and flirt, she was at a loss as to how to proceed, and her relationships always stalled at some point.
Dean was the first guy she'd ever been close to, and, even with him, he was holding something back, wouldn't quite let her in. She watched scenes like this play out with Dean, Sam, and TJ all the time, and while she loved all three of them, she always felt a little like the outsider.
Dean looked at her. "How do your lips and assholes taste, Heather?"
She appreciated the fact that he was trying to include her, and she squirted some mustard on her hot dog and took a bite. "Mm. Best lips and assholes I've had in a long time. I think I'm getting just a hint of maybe some chicken feet, too," she said, as if she were a judge on Top Chef.
Everyone chuckled except TJ, who was feigning annoyance. "Dean, give me one of those tofu weenies this instant—and I want a new bun, too."
Dean shrugged and handed her a new bun and Tofu Pup. "Here you go, sweetheart. By the way, I love it when you say 'weenie.'"
"You're a weenie," she shot back.
Dean smirked. "I've been called worse."
Heather shared a look with Sam.
He sort of halfway rolled his eyes and gave her a crooked, dimpled smile. He was so different from Dean—more serious, more cerebral—but no less charming or handsome. Heather could see why TJ was head-over-heels for him. Heather felt a connection to him, like they had to stick together to put up with Dean and TJ's antics, had to be the grown-ups.
Once TJ finally had a hot dog to her liking, Dean settled down with his own. He held it up like he was in a TV commercial and waggled his brows. "Offal. It's what's for dinner."
TJ rolled her eyes again.
In the next instant, the stray dog that Heather had noticed earlier flew through the air like a bolt of lightening and snatched Dean's hot dog, bun and all, out of his hand.
"Ow!" said Dean, shaking his hand and then looking at it. "What the hell was that?"
"That," said TJ, "was poetic justice."
Sam was grinning and watching the mutt, which was a few feet in front of their beach blanket, out of reach of any humans. "I think it was a wiener-seeking missile."
Heather eyed the dog. It was medium in size and had the bearded muzzle and sort of stocky body of a terrier with smooth, floppy ears, pronounced brow, and coloring like a chocolate Labrador. There were some traits that reminded her of maybe an Australian Shepherd, too, like the "eyeliner" around its eyes and their light color.
Heather knew a lot about dog breeds because, as a child and even into her teens, she'd always dreamed of having a dog. She used to pore through books looking at the different kinds of breeds and reading about their various traits, trying to decide what kind she would get. Of course, it had never happened. Her parents said they didn't have time for a dog, that they were all gone too much of the time, and Heather had finally come to the realization that they were right. A dog needed a lot of attention and care.
The dog had run a safe distance away and was hunkered down eating its prize. It watched them warily, its mid-length, pointy tail wagging nervously, clearly ready to bolt if they pursued.
"It ate the frank TJ threw at Dean a second ago, too," said Heather.
"Well, it looks like it's definitely a Heinz 57 as far as breeds go," said TJ. "It's kind of cute, though."
"Yeah. Cute," said Dean. "It almost took my friggin' hand off."
"It makes me miss my hound dog Elliott back in Kentucky."
Dean rolled his eyes. "What kind of name is 'Elliott' for a dog? Is he gay?"
"No," said TJ with vexation. "I got him when he was a puppy, right after I saw that movie E.T. on cable." She stuck her index finger out, pointing it slowly and tentatively at Dean, and said in her best munchkin-alien voice, "El-li-ott."
Dean's face scrunched in a comical look, and Sam and Heather both laughed.
"There!" shouted a male voice in the distance.
They all turned to see the burly, blond lifeguard that had rented Sam the beach wheelchair and another man wearing a beige uniform, carrying a dogcatcher pole with a loop on the end for putting around an animal's neck. They were jogging toward the mutt, obviously intent on capturing it.
The man in the beige uniform, who had black hair, beady eyes, and a pock-marked face, said, "Don't worry, folks. I'm from the San Diego County Department of Animal Services. We've had reports this little bast—er, dog has been a nuisance for several days. I'll have him out of your way in just a minute."
"Good riddance," said Dean under his breath.
Sam frowned at him. "Dean, it was just hungry."
The dog, who had wolfed down the hot dog and bun, began to growl, rear end up in the air, tail wagging furiously. Its chest was low to the ground, and its paws were out in front. It was obviously ready to spring and make a run for it if the need arose.
The dogcatcher approached him cautiously, dog treat in hand, trying to entice him. "Nice puppy. It's okay. I'm not gonna hurt ya."
Sam's brow furrowed. "What's gonna happen to it?"
"It's a him," the lifeguard answered. "He escaped from Ronnie here," he said, indicating the dogcatcher, "like, a week ago when Ronnie caught him, and he's been lurking around the beach, stealing food from picnickers ever since. I guess he'll go to the county animal shelter, right?" He looked to Ronnie for confirmation.
Ronnie gave a curt nod.
"Hopefully, someone will adopt him," the lifeguard added.
Ronnie snorted. "Not likely. This one's a troublemaker. I can already tell he's got personality problems."
Sam glanced at the dog, his face unreadable. "I'll adopt him."
Dean's brows went up in surprise. "Excuse me? Roommate here," he said, pointing to himself. "Don't want a dog."
"Dean, they'll probably euthanize him," said Sam with soulful eyes.
Ronnie eyed the beach wheelchair and then Sam's legs. "It's a hassle to take care of a dog, especially if you're crippled. You'll have to register him with the county, get a license, take him to the vet and get him checked out, probably vaccinated and neutered, not to mention feed him. Plus, a hyper animal like this one, he'll need to be walked regularly." The cynical twist to the dogcatcher's mouth implied he obviously thought Sam wouldn't be able to do that.
Sam breathed out slowly and his jaw tightened a little, but he didn't say anything, as if he were used to people underestimating what he was capable of.
Heather couldn't believe how ignorant some people were. There was nothing about Sam's disability that would make him unable to take care of a dog. He could pour food and water into bowls, pet, love, play with, and take a dog for a walk just like any able-bodied person. He would just do it from his wheelchair.
Dean's eyes glinted with anger. "You know, Sam. Maybe you're right. Let's adopt it."
The dog had lifted his head a bit, tilting it to one side and then the other, like he was trying to figure out what the humans were talking about. Most of his wiry beard was tan in color, but there was a white patch under his nose that looked like a milk mustache.
Ronnie shook his head, skeptical. "Well, it's no skin off my back. It's up to you, but you gotta catch the little mongrel first."
Sam gave the dogcatcher a determined look and then scooted himself toward the front of the blanket, nearer to the dog.
Always the practical one, Heather felt a little uneasy. "Sam, you don't know anything about this dog. He could be sick or have rabies or something."
"He doesn't," Sam replied with certainty, focusing on the dog.
Heather looked at Dean. He shook his head, giving her a look that told her to let it go.
TJ looked tense, but she didn't say anything.
Eyes still on the dog, Sam reached his hand out in the general direction of TJ. "Somebody give me a frank—a real one," he added, shooting a look at TJ that held a trace of humor.
She poked her cheek with her tongue, making her mouth quirk, and did as he asked, handing him one of the wieners.
He tore off a piece of it and held his hand out to the dog, offering it to him. "Come here, boy. It's okay. Come here."
The dog looked at the piece of food and licked his chops. He took a step toward Sam, but then eyed the lifeguard and the dogcatcher warily and retreated.
"It's okay, boy," said Sam. "Come on. I won't hurt you."
Again, the dog took a step forward but then abruptly stopped and sat down in frustration. It was obvious he wanted the piece of meat but was still afraid. He gave a small whine and fidgeted a little where he sat, his anguish and indecision almost human-like.
He was so cute that Heather's earlier fears that he might be sick began to fade. He certainly didn't act like a vicious, rabid dog. On the contrary, he was sort of comical.
Sam smiled. "It's okay, boy. I promise I won't hurt you." His voice was gentle, and, although it was unlikely the dog understood what Sam was saying, it took a step forward.
The dogcatcher shifted on his feet and sighed, as if he were getting bored.
The dog was distracted by the man's movement and retreated again.
Sam looked at the two men. "He's afraid of you. Could you two stand farther away, please?" It was said politely, but there was no mistaking the command in his tone.
The lifeguard stepped several feet back willingly, but the dogcatcher's manner was more surly. However, he finally did as Sam requested.
"Thanks," said Sam, and he turned his attention back to the dog.
The dog had watched the humans with something like curiosity, and, to Heather, it almost looked like he relaxed a little after the lifeguard and dogcatcher moved farther away.
Sam made a show of holding out the food again, making sure the dog had a good view of it. "It's okay, boy. Come here."
Tentatively, the dog took a step toward Sam.
"That's it. Come on."
Another step forward.
"Come here, boy. Come here. It's okay."
Finally, the dog cautiously took the last few steps, closing the distance between himself and Sam, stuck his head out, sniffed, and took the piece of meat from Sam's fingers. He didn't stick around, though. He quickly trotted a few feet away and sat down.
"Good boy," said Sam. "That's a good boy." Sam tore off another piece of the frank and held it toward the dog. "Want some more?"
The dog turned in an agitated circle and then barked, clearly wanting more but still timid.
Sam laughed, and Heather found herself, along with TJ and Dean, laughing with him.
"Come here, boy. It's okay. You can have more."
This time, the dog seemed to make up his mind and approached Sam with more confidence. He took the proffered meat from Sam's fingers, and this time he sat down in front of Sam, waiting for more.
Sam fed him the rest of the frank, and once the dog was finished eating, Sam carefully held out his fist for the dog to smell.
The dog gave it a sniff, tail wagging intermittently.
Sam slowly began to scratch the dog's chest.
The dog's eyes suddenly looked heavy-lidded, like he was enjoying it, and then he lowered his head, offering it to Sam.
Sam was smiling, deep dimples in his cheeks, and he scratched the top of the dog's head and rubbed his ears. "Good boy. That's a good boy."
Heather felt a lump in her throat, and a little moisture welled in her eyes.
Dean saw her and rolled his eyes good-naturedly.
She laughed, knowing he felt the same but would never show it. She shrugged. "I cry when I watch the Olympics. What can I say?"
He reached over and gently squeezed the back of her neck affectionately, and she felt her body respond to his touch, to the weight and warmth of his hand.
TJ eased up behind Sam and put her arms around him, resting her chin on his shoulder, grinning. "You're like The Beastmaster."
"More like Heidi," muttered Dean.
"Looks like you've got yourself a dog," said the lifeguard.
The dog licked Sam's face, as if in agreement.
Sam laughed and petted the scruff on the back of the dog's neck.
TJ drew back from Sam's shoulder, making a face. "Ew, somebody needs a doggy breath mint and a bath."
The dogcatcher folded his arms and gave Sam a doubtful look. "You sure you wanna do this? They have dogs for cripples like you, and they teach 'em to do stuff for you, too."
Dean stood up. "Look, pal—"
"Is that so?" said TJ, interrupting Dean. She eyed the dogcatcher with contempt. "Then maybe you should check and see if they train dogs for morons. Or, better yet, maybe they could train a jackass for you. That'd probably be more appropriate."
The dogcatcher gave her a dirty look. "What's your problem? Am I not being PC enough for you?"
"TJ, don't," Sam said. "It's okay."
The look on her face said she disagreed, but she didn't say anything else.
Sam shifted his eyes to Dean and shook his head.
Dean clearly wanted to put his two cents in, but he folded his arms over his chest and settled for staring down the dogcatcher.
The lifeguard, who looked embarrassed, said, "Let's go, Ronnie. Looks like you're not needed here after all."
Ronnie looked reluctant to go and had to have the last word. He looked at Sam. "I need to see your driver's license and take down your name and address. I'm going to check in a few days, and if I don't see you registered as this dog's owner in the computer, I'm going to fine you for interfering with an officer of San Diego County in the line of duty."
Anger radiated from Dean. "You gotta be kiddin' me!"
Ronnie held out his hand toward Sam, wiggling his fingers. "Driver's license, or the dog comes with me."
The mutt growled a warning low in his throat.
Sam was calm. "I don't drive, yet."
Heather knew Sam was close to buying a car of his own, but he hadn't saved up quite enough money for it, and he stubbornly refused to let Dean or TJ modify their cars so he could drive them. Because of that, he hadn't really needed a driver's license since he'd moved to San Diego. He took the bus.
There was a scornful twist to the dogcatcher's thin lips. "Do you have a California ID card?"
"Yes." Sam looked at TJ, since she was nearest to the beach bags.
She found Sam's wallet in their bag and handed it to him.
He fished out his ID and reached up to hand it to Ronnie, who was looming over him.
Ronnie took out a cell phone and typed in Sam's info before handing the ID back to Sam. "Just make sure you get him registered. If I ever come across him again and he ain't tagged, I'll tranquilize his ass and put him on death row. Am I clear?"
Heather admired Sam's self-control. He was always so stoic about everything, and she'd never seen him lose his temper—no small feat with Dean as an older brother.
"Let's go," pressed the lifeguard, and he and the dogcatcher turned and left.
"What a dick," said Dean as he watched them walk away.
TJ bristled. "I can't believe he said that."
"Just let it go," said Sam quietly.
Trying to diffuse some of the tension, Heather said, "So, what are you going to name him, Sam?"
Dean's tone was sarcastic. "How about Cujo or Jaws?"
Sam ignored Dean and looked pensive for a moment, rubbing the dog's ears.
The dog sighed in contentment.
"I don't know. How about 'Rocket,' since he flew through the air like one and stole Dean's hot dog?"
TJ smiled with delight. "I love it. It's perfect." She reached over Sam's shoulder and petted the dog. "Hi, Rocket. Nice to meet you."
Rocket didn't seem to have a problem with the name, and he rolled on his back and sighed with ecstasy as TJ and Sam rubbed his belly.
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