A/N: This first chapter was originally written for a hoodie_time prompt last year. Sam just now told me the rest of the story.
The Life You Save
By San Antonio Rose
It started with little things. Joints that kept hurting long after an injury had healed. A catch in his hip, his back, his knee. An ache in his chest that lingered even longer than a nearly unshakeable cough. A rash that broke out on his arms when he was out in the sun for too long. A permanent sunburn on his nose and cheeks. Hands and feet that burned with fever even when the rest of him was cold. Fatigue that couldn't be explained by exertion. Blisters in his mouth that made John suspect he was using dip (that one took some getting out of).
But it only took one "I don't want to hear any excuses, son" and one "You're too young to be making those noises" for Dean to stifle any outward sign that he was less than perfectly well.
Sammy usually knew when Dean was having a bad day, and more often than not he did what he could to help if Dean would let him. Once in a while John would figure out that Dean really wasn't feeling well, but usually he would—hell, they all would—chalk it up to the flu or something. And if anyone noticed that he wore long sleeves in the middle of July or limped when he'd been sitting down (or standing up) for too long at a time, no one said anything.
Then he threw his back out having sex with Lisa Braeden.
Lisa wasn't just awesome about it. She was amazing, applying heat, giving him supplements and teas, massaging the muscles, finding just the right pressure points to send the pain packing. Dean hadn't felt so well in months, maybe years. And he wished with all his being that he could stay there.
But come Monday morning, his pager went off with coordinates for an urgent new hunt and Dad's be there or else code. Dean almost cried.
"Can I come back sometime?" he asked on his way out the door. "Seriously, you've helped... you don't know how much."
Lisa smiled. "Sure. Soon?"
"As soon as I can."
When Dean did finally make it back to Cicero, several months later, he was only exhausted and achy, but she was pregnant, and neither of them had any reason to think that Dean wasn't the father. He told her as much as he dared about the family business and about how unlikely it was that John would allow him to quit. And they talked for a long time about his health, her needs, what would be best for the baby. Finally, though she laughed at the notion of Dean's "making an honest woman of her," Lisa decided that a part-time father for her son was better than no father at all and agreed to make it official.
They were just leaving the JP's office when Dean's pager went off again.
Dean never told John that he was married, that he had a son, that he had some kind of joint disease that Lisa was helping him manage. He was too afraid that John would find some way to make him give up that dream like he'd dashed all the others. Instead, he hustled pool and poker extra hard and slipped away once every few months, sometimes with a contrived hunt, sometimes with a fake concert, sometimes with the nearly true excuse of looking up an old girlfriend. He tried not to let his other family interfere with his being there for Sammy, but he just... he couldn't give up this one thing he wanted for himself. The aches he felt when he was away weren't only emotional.
Then Sammy left for Stanford, and dealing with the stress of the argument left Dean in pretty rough shape physically as well as emotionally. Unfortunately, it also left John in pretty rough shape, which meant that Dean couldn't run off to let Lisa take care of him. She did what she could for him over the phone, but he had his hands full of drunken father and she had her hands full of terrible two-year-old, so it didn't help all that much. Dean finally had to break down and take a Vicodin to get the pain far enough under control that he could fend for himself until John crawled out of the bottle again.
But the next time it got that bad, when Sammy told Dean in no uncertain terms to leave him alone, Dean was able to drag himself to Cicero only to have Lisa drag him to the doctor. And Dean's lack of faith in family doctors proved justified when the doctor couldn't find anything off in Dean's blood work, diagnosed the pain as psychosomatic, and tried to put him on an anti-depressant.
Lisa found much better ways of cheering him up.
Over the next two years, Ben got cuter, Lisa got sweeter, and Dean got achier. It got harder and harder to keep all three from John, especially as Lisa started arguing that Dean needed to quit hunting, that the stress was taking too much of a toll on his health. They still didn't know what was wrong, but the flare-ups increased from once every few months to once every few weeks, and Lisa even had to buy him a cane. Dean tried to argue that killing evil critters was its own form of stress relief, but one particularly bad ghost hunt in September of 2005 made him start to think she was right. And now that Ben was starting to school, Dean wanted to be around to help him with homework and play baseball with him and... do all the dad stuff John had never been able to tear himself away from hunting to do with Dean or Sam. He just couldn't figure out how to tell John that he wanted to quit.
Then John, supposing him to be in New Orleans, left him a voice mail with a cryptic warning and disappeared from Jericho, California. And Dean had to tell Lisa the rest of the story.
Three weeks passed with no further word from John, and Dean was about to worry himself into another flare. Finally, Lisa suggested that Dean go to Palo Alto, check on Sam, and get his help in trying to find John. Dean agreed and warded the house as best he could before he left.
Breaking into Sam's apartment didn't go as smoothly as Dean had hoped; his back caught when he was halfway through the window, and his "Little help here, Sammy?" apparently didn't register until Sam had him on the floor about to punch his lights out. Sam didn't even apologize for hurting Dean until he realized that Dean was moving a lot slower than usual. The trip to Jericho was a complete bust, except for Sam's figuring out how to get rid of the Woman in White that John had been hunting, and at the end of it Dean was too tired and achy to take off after John, with or without Sam. So Sam insisted that Dean at least spend the night with him and Jess.
And moments after Dean had gotten comfortable on the couch, Sam started screaming from the bedroom, and Dean had to haul him out of one fire while another kind of fire kindled in his joints and a pain exploded in his chest that had nothing to do with his brother's heartache over seeing his future wife on the ceiling.
They got a motel room when the police finished with them, and for the next two or three days, Sam stayed in one bed in the throes of his grief while Dean stayed in the other in the throes of a flare. One of them usually managed to roust the other out for meals and showers, but they were both in a pretty bad way.
Then, the morning of Jess' funeral, Sam came out of the bathroom to find Dean still lying flat on his back.
"Dude. You gettin' up anytime soon?"
"Tryin'," Dean ground out. "Everything hurts."
Sam cursed at Dean for not telling Sam he needed help. Dean cursed at Sam for thinking Dean didn't understand his grief. Sam helped him to his feet. Dean cursed a blue streak as his joints refused to cooperate.
While Dean was in the shower, Sam rummaged through the trunk and found Dean's cane and brought it in to him. Dean managed a weak smile in thanks.
Then came getting dressed. Dean cursed at his shirt for having buttons. Sam buttoned it for him while he cursed at Dean for being a stubborn jerk and not asking for help again. Dean cursed at Sam for being a mother hen and for even tying his damn tie for him. At least his loafers didn't need to be tied.
"Dean... how long have you been having trouble like this?" Sam asked as he helped Dean into his suit jacket.
"This bad? Ow, damn—not for a couple of years. But it's gotten more constant. Lisa's been helping, though."
"'S... a girl I know."
Sam looked down at Dean's left hand resting on his cane and finally saw the wedding ring that Dean couldn't get off his hand anymore. "Wait, you're married?"
"How—was that what you kept sneaking off for?"
"When were you gonna tell us?"
Dean sighed. "I dunno. We were working up to it."
"Does... does she know?"
"Yeah. Had to tell her."
"Dude, can we not do this now?" Dean said, sounding more plaintive than he meant to. "Let's just get this funeral over with so we can both get some sleep."
Sam gave him another once over and nodded. "Okay. Okay, but I'm driving."
Dean was too tired to argue.
The funeral was agony for both of them, and by the end of the graveside service, Dean could barely walk. Sam had to help him hobble back to the Impala.
But rather than driving back to the motel, Sam took Dean to a clinic that would treat him under Sam's student insurance. The GP took one look at Dean and sent them to the rheumatologist, who ordered a zillion and one tests. They drew blood until Dean's vein collapsed. They took x-rays and EKGs and ultrasounds and samples of this and that, but apart from the heart tests showing what looked like pericarditis, it was going to be at least two weeks before they knew anything.
By the end of it, Dean was so exhausted that he slept for fifteen hours without so much as stirring.
When he finally woke up, Sam was on the phone with Lisa, filling her in on what had happened and what was happening with Dean. Dean's hands were too sore to hold the phone, so Sam put it on speaker so Dean could talk to her and promise to be home by Christmas, if not Thanksgiving. When the conversation ended, Sam explained that he'd checked out the coordinates John had left them in his journal and that it looked like a Wendigo was loose in Colorado.
"Call Bobby," Dean sighed.
Sam blinked. "B—you mean Uncle Bobby? Why?"
"Dad probably wants us to hunt the damn thing. But I gotta be honest, Sam, I can still hardly move. Bobby can either take care of it himself or send somebody else."
Sam bit his lip. "Okay. Okay, we need to be here for the test results anyway."
Dean barely managed to eat the breakfast Sam brought him in bed and take his new heart meds before he fell asleep again. The rest of the day was more or less the same, and the days that followed brought only slow improvement. Dean could only hope that Sam didn't resent taking care of him when they could be out looking for John or for whatever killed Jess and Mary, that it was giving him some kind of outlet for his grief.
When the results finally came back, though, the diagnosis shocked them both.
Systemic lupus erythematosus.
It explained everything, which was good, but there was no cure. They could hit it with prednisone to bring the current flare under control and Plaquenil to keep it from progressing, maybe even use chemotherapy drugs to really smack down the autoimmune response, and it might stay under control long enough for Dean to see Ben graduate from high school. But it had already damaged his heart, and there was a good chance it could damage other organs as well. He needed to lower his stress levels and take some time off to get back on his feet.
Sam thanked the rheumatologist, got copies of the test results and got the prescriptions filled, and bundled Dean into the Impala to take him back to Cicero. Dean was too tired to argue about much of anything, including Sam's choice of music; he just wanted to go home.
He did draw the line at eating health food, though—at least at first. Sam tried to warn him that prednisone and salt were a bad combination, but Dean defiantly ate his bacon cheeseburger anyway... and swelled up like a balloon. He gave in after that and ate the grilled chicken and chef's salads that Sam bought for him, but he made sure to complain about it every time.
Two months at home with Sam and Lisa and Ben and the new meds did Dean a world of good. His health improved dramatically, and he almost—almost—managed to convince himself to give up hunting for good, his father's wishes be damned. He and Sam even started talking about whether or not Sam should go back to school and whether Dean should get a job there in Cicero.
But then a shapeshifter framed one of Sam's college friends for murder.
After that, there were other hunts they couldn't refuse for one reason or another—not frequent, not enough to hurt Dean's recovery (or so he thought), but they kept coming. And Sam started having visions that seemed to be related to the thing that killed Mary and Jess, and Dean was not about to let Sam go haring off after it without backup. They stayed in Cicero as much as they could, but the hunts wouldn't leave them alone.
The final straw came in late May, when a demon used them to bait a trap for John in Chicago. They all got out alive, and the boys were beyond relieved to see their dad again... but no sooner had they escaped than Dean collapsed and John and Sam had to rush him to the hospital.
The medication hadn't stopped the lupus from damaging Dean's kidneys. And now both kidneys were failing, and the doctors weren't sure a transplant would work even if a donor could be found.
John and Sam agonized for hours over what to do. Finally, much to Sam's loudly-expressed dismay, John decided to leave town to ensure that the demons trailing him wouldn't attack Dean again, but he swore he'd come back at once if Dean took a turn for the worse. Dean just nodded and said goodbye and fell asleep again.
Sam lit into him when he woke up. "Dude, you can't just give up like this! You're 27! Hell, Flannery O'Connor lived to be 39, and medication's way better now."
"Sam. Just call Lisa, have her come up to say goodbye."
"No. You are not gonna die, Dean."
Dean was too weak to argue. But he almost didn't care anymore. He knew Lisa and Ben and Sam would miss him—he wasn't sure about John—but at least he'd stop hurting if he died.
Two days later, though, Sam surprised him by springing him from the hospital and surprised him further by driving west, away from Indiana.
"Sam? What's goin' on?"
"There's this faith healer in Nebraska..."