Thank you so much for all of your support. I lovelovelove this story, and I'm grateful that so many of you have stuck with it. Here we go, the last part. Believe it or not, I finished days before this week's amazing episode. Let me know what you think!


Chapter 7

Dean heard the click of high heels on tile before Dr. Nali bounded into the room, carry-on in tow. The normally buttoned-up surgeon was all bright eyes and disbelief. "He's conscious? Coherent?" She panted, her dark black hair askew, peeling off her snow-flecked coat and ridiculously girly mittens.

"Ask him yourself." Dean grinned.

Sam's head lulled in her direction and lifted three fingers of his right hand in weak wave. "Hi." His voice was frayed and barely carried.

Dr. Nali smiled. "Hello, Mr. Singer."

She grabbed his chart, flipping through the progress notes with impatience. She addressed Dean. "How's he doing? Any problems you've noticed?"

Dean was downright giddy and doing a horrible job of hiding it. "Sam, how many countries in the European Union?"

"Twenty-seven."

"Who's the President of the United States?"

"Barack Obama, second term."

"What were the three words I gave you to remember?"

Sam rolled his eyes, embarrassed.

"It's a neuro check, dude. What were the words?"

"Scrotum. Bazinga. Pie. Dr. Hayden gave me...less-crazy ones."

Dr. Nali observed him as it he had sprouted a second head. "And they were?"

"Basketball. Puppet. Marshmallow."

"I'll be damned," she whispered and began listening to his chest, checking his incisions. "I never...Sam, you are a bit miracle."

Dean leaned back in his chair with a laugh. "He's a freak of nature, ain't he?"

-SPN-

Sam's recovery would be a road longer than even Sam and Dean were used to traveling. His progress, while remarkable, was always marked with complications and strife, but neither of them cared. Sam was committed to do the work just as much as Dean was. And while his brother was different, hampered by the broken body and memories he never acknowledged having, Dean could see his Sammy in there beyond the suffering.

Dean's tongue dipped out of his mouth as he focused, moving his hand in intricate stripes of motion. He relaxed, dipping the razor in the basin of water on the tray table to rinse it clean before going in again. He swiped the blade in even strokes, ignoring the crimson spots of the skin below and the ears beside. Sam, ever the Winchester, was embarrassed. "Sam, cut it out."

"Just hurry up and finish," he grumbled.

When he was awake, the youngest Winchester idled between grumpy, sullen or anxious. Dean had taken it in stride, overjoyed that his brother was awake and taking and wasn't doomed to as existence as a stalk of broccoli. Dean sank a clean washcloth in a second basin of warm water, and wiped his chin and cheeks clean., handing Sam his aftershave. Pain had carved a good deal of Sam away, now that they were free of the scraggly beard that had grown in the last five days, his cheekbones stood out through his ashen skin, and deep lines of pain bracketed his dry lips.

"Push the button, Sam," Dean ordered fondly as he folded up the towel that was tucked beneath his chin.

With a broken pelvis, a crushed arm, a skewered lung and a body that was more battered than not, they had set Sam up with a pain pump to give him better control over it. Sam shook his head, eyes closing as he Dean tucked his nasal cannula behind his ears, adjusting it carefully. There was a lot that went unspoken between them, and as unimportant as Benny and manipulation had been when Sam was dying, now that he was better, it hung in the air like a dense fog. "Sam, um..."

"Stop," Sam snapped, low and lethal, sounding ever bit the hunter he was. "You're only sorry, because I got hurt. Just remember that what you felt while I was out...that's how you made me feel about the woman I loved, the woman who saved my life. Just remember how you felt, because that's what I had to push down every morning and every night, for a year when all I wanted to do was put a gun in my mouth and squeeze. Don't bring it up again."

He hesitated for half a second as Sam's heart monitor beep a little quicker, providing a soundtrack to his agitation. "I was just going to say that...while you were out I got a face-full of what you were dealin' with while I was gone. Ya know, Bobby's dead. Garth had no leads. Cas got whammied. The doctors were all tellin' me that you were..." Dean cut himself off and cleared his throat. "I couldn't deal for a few days, let alone a whole year. I get why you grabbed whatever happy you could find; I'm glad you did. And I am sorry, Sammy, I was comin' to find you to tell you that before I even knew about the hunt."

Sam's face softened a little. He hedged a quick glance. "You were?"

"Yeah. Look, I know I've been...a giant ass since I got back and you've put up with it."

"Dean," Sam interjected, "you've always been an ass." He smiled before his mouth flattened with pain.

And there he was, Dean's Sammy. The silly dork who could forgive Dean for almost anything. He laughed for the first time in what felt like months as he stealthily moved his hand to Sam's side. "I'm also your big brother, and I'm gonna protect you from everything." He depressed the button before Sam could complain and dimmed the lights so Sam could rest. "Including yourself."

The relief was instantaneous, smoothing his face free of pain and loosening the knotted tightness of his muscles. "Jerk," Sam mumbled as he drifted off.

-SPN-

Sam's eyes opened to a room with no entrance and no exit. It had been forged of smooth alabaster that he knew was bone and brimstone. The air hummed with an electric blue, pregnant with suffering and the promise of torture. It smelled the same, like eroded evil and the copper of his own blood. White-blue fire appeared and arched down, landing on his legs, singing and burning away flesh, exposing bone. Sam did more than scream, the sounds he made were feral and wild, even after the smokeless flames were smothered. A face emerged from the horrific light, a hand cupped Sam's cheek pulling his focus on from his smoldering legs to the square jaw, smooth skin and dark hair of Zadkiel.

"Our time was so short, Sam. I regret that, I do. There was so much more I wanted to tell you, I wanted to show you." His voice was lurid and mismatched from his lips, echoing in his head, the confines of the cage in disjointed static. "But who knew you had an angel in your backpocket," he sneered.

"...and that he killed you," Sam challenged.

Rage contorted his face, part of it melting off like wax to reveal the frightening flashes of the creature inside, part sulfur, part grace.

Zadkiel cursed, plunging his hand so deep inside Sam he felt the fingertips on the underside of his breastbone. Writhing, Sam moaned as Zad's face appeared above his. The hand was removed so it could stroke Sam's face, smearing blood on his forehead and cheeks. And then Zad kissed him, a chaste peck over Sam's trembling lips. "Who says he did?"

The Cage vanished in a ripple of time and Sam panted and flailed, screaming from the pain that lingered inside. He tore at the restraints on his chest and arm and turned on his side, giving in to every instinct that told him to run. Agony flared in his hip and the fire he felt before still burned.

Something touched his face and Sam threw a punch. Even if his body was broken, his spirit never would. It connected with a grunt and Sam slid back on the ground, that was softer than it had been before. The light wasn't the hellish white-blue but there was a figure hovering above, like Zad had done in the cabin and in the cage, and Sam prepared to fight again. Except this time, the face emerged from the darkness inside of folding from the light, and it was Dean, all scared eyes and bloody nose. Sam squinted and grabbed a hold of the only thing that made sense. "He's here, Dean, he's here."

He would have fallen, but Dean caught him securely with an arm around his shoulders. He nudged him back, catching his lolling head with another hand. "Shit, Sam, you're burning up."

There were alarms going off, and high-pitched droned that clamored in Sam's head. But there was still pain, especially when he breathed. "...'cause set me on fire."

"You're not making sense, Sam. No one's here. You're in the hospital, okay? I need you to stop moving around and just relax."

He saw it now-the mint green walls that he usually spent climbing. The television bolted in the corner that Dean always commandeered, like he did the motel rooms. It was annoying, but he liked that some things would never change. The monitors that bleeped and clicked. Sam frantically flung off the sheets so he could examine his legs, which weren't charred to the bone, but healthy and barely marred by the night in the cabin. He wiggled his toes, moving them the best he could. "Dean...he was here, I know he was here." he panted. The air was thick like molasses, like blood.

"Okay, okay. You gotta breathe, Sam. Eyes on me," Dean said. He turned over his shoulder and yelled, "CASEY! I NEED SOME HELP!" And then muttered to himself, "Blood...is that blood? Why is he bleeding?"

Sam was hyperventilating, his lungs puttering tiny little breaths. He wasn't getting enough air, and the sensation dragged him back into that house, into the pit and into his nightmares. "Dean, help me...please. I c-can't go back...can't ddo it again."

"I'm helpin', Sammy. I'm right here. You just got a rip-roarin' fever, that's all." His hand ghosted over his forehead, pushing back the sweaty hair, and it felt nothing like the malicious caress of an archdemon. He reached for something out of his line of sight but returned with a mask, pressing it over his mouth and nose. "You don't have to do anything but breathe for me, Sam, that's it."

People flooded the room, barking questions and reattaching leads. Sam knew he was out of his head, except he also knew what was real and that was the bulk of his brother holding him without hesitation or embarrassment, comforting him in full view of doctors and nurses and the Zadkiel's voice, breath hot on his neck, and lips on his mouth. He coughed beneath the mask, as his heart pumped by a freight train, beating nothing but pain through his body.

"They're going to sedate you, Sammy, but we're takin' care of you. I'm staying right here," he said loudly. He pressed his lips to his ear. "I'm armed to the teeth and the room's secure. Nothing's comin' for you. I'm here, Sam. I'm here."

-SPN-

No one knew the depths and strength of temptation and sin like Dean Winchester. He craved, lusted, and yearned for everything from a perfectly made, greasy cheeseburger to the behind-the-curtain talents of Vegas' best strippers to freedom from centuries of torture and months of non-stop combat.

At that very moment, Dean couldn't remember ever wanting to sit down in a quiet, empty room more in his life. He gripped the handrail on the skywalk as he headed to the coffee cart, wondering when the five-minute walk became the trek to Mordor, when his joints had locked up like a shy virgin on prom night.

After Sam's raging infection and minor surgery from the shard of glass that had worked its way out of right side, just above his hip, he was too fragile for Dean to think about leaving the hospital just to shower and recharge. His stomach still flipped when he thought of his brother pale and terrified, blood soaking through the sheets, a pristine triangle of glass poking its way through the skin. Dr. Nali had explained that it happened sometimes, mostly to car accident victims. Glass was embedded deep, and it was hard to see in scans, and the body had its own way of expelling it. Although the infection had set his release from the ICU back a few days, Sam was rebounding. He slept more than Dean liked, but it was when he was awake that was truly unsettling. His normally even-keeled brother was scared of what had happened in the house, of being dragged back to the cage, of every strange sound and shadow. To see his brother like that, the fierce warrior, the kid armed with facts and weapons, was far worse than any torture or unfulfilled need.

Dean stopped in the middle of the walkway and dropped until he was sitting, head pressed back against the frosted glass.

"Mr. Singer, are you all right?" Dr. Nali asked.

If Sam wasn't, he wasn't. But he offered a forced smile. "Jus' takin' a break."

"Open your eyes then," she responded.

Dean hadn't noticed they were closed. When he opened them, the overhead lighting stung, ramping up a headache he'd been ignoring for the greater part of a week. He was kind of slumped against the glass, legs sprawled out in front of him. He could see why she and the gawkers that slowed to look at him were concerned. "Can you stand?"

"Of course," Dean scoffed. Stubborn, he pushed himself up, wobbling a little as he got his knees beneath him. Before he got completely upright, his knees buckled.

Dr. Nali grabbed him by the elbow, another arm around his back. Between Dean's pride and her expertise, they both managed to keep him from falling. "Okay, Dean, nice and slow, you're gonna sit back down, okay?"

He landed on the cheap pine green carpeting that lined the walkway with little more than an uncomfortable thump. Dizziness made it hard to stay upright even with Dr. Nali's help.

"Are you lightheaded? And don't lie to me."

He liked Sam's doctor and Dean had stopped himself from connecting with common strangers as a teenager. She probably made a ridiculous chunk of change being a fancy surgeon from the city, but she managed to keep the God complex that most doctors had in check, and she genuinely cared about Sam. Dr. Nali was capable of fixing hearts and lungs and could also see through Dean's finessed bullshit. She wasn't all that bad to look at either. She was Indian, all rich brown skin and glossy black hair, which she kept cropped short. Her eyes were big and wide and Dean could tell even in the layers of baggy scrubs and oversized lab coat that she had more curves than a San Francisco street.

"A little bit, yeah."

She pressed two fingers to the base of his throat, checking his pulse, pupils and eyeing him when she noticed his hands were shaking. She dug into her pockets and pulled out a granola bar. "Despite what you may think, Dean, the human body can't survive on coffee and determination, no matter how much you want it to. You're dehydrated and your blood sugar's probably in the toilet. Eat that."

Dean stared at the jauntily packaged treat, so nauseous he tasted cooper in his mouth. Paling, he shook his head. "'M good."

The hand that folded over his forehead wasn't that of a skilled surgeon but a worried friend. "You have a fever."

The hands that palpated his glands decidedly were. "Dean, we have a problem."

"I just need a few minutes and I'll get up."

"Not, that's not it. I think you have the flu. I'm going to get a wheelchair and check you out."

That explained the ache his muscles, the chill even his new leather jacket couldn't quell and the nausea that had hampered his appetite. "Gimme some aspirin then." She sat back on her knees, dialing on her cell phone. Dean placed a hand over hers. "What aren't you saying?"

Dr. Nali sighed, her big eyes avoiding his the way they did when the only news she had was grim. "With Sam's infection, and the condition he's in...you can't see him while you're sick."

Dean's heart nearly stopped and he grappled for the railing to pull himself up out of sheer will. "I made a promise to him. I'm not leaving him in the ICU alone."

"I understand that you made a promise, but if you are sick, you could give it to him. Dean, we are in the middle of a flu epidemic, and it's killing people, healthy people. It's obvious how much you care for your brother, so I know you wouldn't want to jepoardize his recovery. More than that, you're dead on your feet, you've been running on fumes for days now, don't think we haven't noticed. You need to rest and eat and drink before I have to put you in a bed right beside him."

Dean stifled a cough and walked towards Sam's room. He'd survived hellfire and Purgatory and the death of two fathers. After years of decades of hunting half-hurt, Dean had a learned how to block out pain, how to muscle through a hunt just because it needed to be done. He'd learned to ignore his physical limits of his body with his mind. And he could do that now. The strange flutter, feathery flutter of his heart wasn't there. The neon chill of fever would disappear. The mind-numbing exhaustion could vanish.

He made it as far as the elevator before he flagged against the wall. Dr. Nali was waiting with a wheelchair. "I hate you." He said heatlessly.

She patted his shoulder as he sat down.

By the time he made it back to Sam's room, he was hooked up to an IV with Saul flanking his side like he was an escaped convict. He stood outside the glass, watching his brother through the parted curtains. The nasal cannula was back as was the sharp, painful way he breathed. He knocked on the glass and winced when Sam started violently, head jerking towards the door. He smiled and pointed to the phone as he dialed on his cell. A nurse in the room handed him the receiver. Sam frowned and pressed it to his ear. "Dean, what's going on? You can come in."

"Uh, shit, Sammy," Dean rubbed his forehead. In the darkened glass, he could see just how awful he looked, from the the sunken eyes to his mussed hair. "You wanna know somethin' funny? I got sick in the place that's supposed to make you better."

Sam's eyebrows climbed. "You okay?"

"I don't have a broken pelvis or anything so don't worry about me stealing your thunder, dude. I caught the flu...and with your immune system...they won't let me see you 'til I'm better."

His brother scooted up further in the bed and squinted towards the window. His expression washed out, and Dean knew that it was Sam knitting himself together because he had too. "It's okay, Dean, I'll be fine for a few days. I jus' sleep anyways."

"We don't exactly have the best track record when we split up, man. I made a promise to you that I'd stay and after everything, Sammy, I can't break it."

"I'm okay if you're okay." Sam smiled just a bit and his eyes flickered off to his right to the empty space just beyond the bed. "Well maybe there's an angel on my shoulder," he said pointedly.

The air rippled in the space and gleamed were Sam had been looking and Dean nearly leapt with joy. And he instantly recognized it as Cas' mojo. "This angel you speak off...what's he look like?"

"Wings are a little frayed, but he's good."

-SPN-

Living on the road, Dean lived an economical life. He also lived one that was free of sentimentality for both practical and personal reasons. There was only so much room in the trunk of the Impala, and keepsakes only meant attachments that their nomadic, violent life didn't have room for. It was one of Dean's first survival mechanisms, and after decades of heartache, Sam's last.

But now, more than ever, Dean wished he had a camera, so he could relive this moment again and again, maybe even make his new screen saver.

Because Sam was walking. It was more of a slow, arduous shuffle with Dean taking more of Sam's considerably lessened weight, but he was grateful to be dwarfed by his beanpole of a brother again.

Casey, Sam and Dean's favorite nurse, approached them both her trademark bubbly laugh and snapped a picture with her iPhone. "We guessed you were tall, but we didn't know you were this tall, Sam."

He grinned, a little sweaty from the twelve steps out the door, basking in the attention for once now that it was based in positivity and not due to another setback. "Dean hates that I'm taller than him."

Dean smiled reflexively at the flash of Sam's dimples. "You're not that much taller than me, Sasquatch. And be nice to your crutch."

Sam ignored him, and shot Casey a patented puppy-eyed expression that had her melting like butter on hot bread. "When do you think I can get out of here?"

Casey backpedaled, literally, steering a tiring Sam back towards his room. "I think we're looking at another few days. You're making great process, though. We're just being annoyingly cautious with our miracle patient."

Dean didn't miss the slump of Sam's shoulders as he headed back to his room.

-SPN-

Dean idled on being sneaky, it was when he was being forthcoming and honest that he felt truly naked and vulnerable. So when he slipped by the nurse's desk, plying the night nurse with a dozen donuts to distract her from the wheelchair he snagged from the orderlies' station. Sam was sleeping when he entered the room, and Dean was hit with how few monitors he wore now that he was in a regular room. There was only an IV for medications now, and the leads for the heart monitor that hadn't been reattached after his thrice daily walks. Sam woke up slowly, parting from dreams like a civilian, not snapping alert like a hunter, and it only reassured Dean of the decision he'd spent the past month mulling and agonizing over.

"What's goin' on?"

Dean dug some warm clothes of the bag, and put them on Sam's bed. "Put those on, we're..."

Sam scrambled for the clothes, oozing relief. "Finally, I was wondering when you were going to break me out. Have there been any leads on the Archdemons?"

Dean shook his head. "We are leavin', because I half-expect you find you on the ceiling you've been climbin' the walls so bad, but we're comin' back."

"I'll take it," Sam said, awkwardly pulling off his hospital gown one-handedly.

It was a beautiful night, warm enough that Sam wouldn't be cold or his breathing hampered, but one where the sky was clear, the stars gleamed and the snow sparkled. Dean just drove, contented that his brother was beside him, his pain more than controlled, with no doctors or nurses popping in every five minutes to prod and poke.

They didn't speak but the silence was companionable and comfortable. Dean thought of the past few days, the medical bills piling up so high that even the chunk of change Bobby had left them wouldn't cover. The thought of stiffing the doctors who fought against nature and science to save his brother made him a little ill, and for once Dean was determined to do the right thing, no matter how much it cost.

He parked at the top of a hill just off of the small town's main street. "I've been doin' a lot of thinkin' while you were in the hospital, while I was racing to get to you from Californina," Dean began, "about what's next for me and for you, and..."

"What do you mean?" Sam interrupted. "Dean, I'm gonna get better and then we're going to hunt like we always do."

Dean clenched his jaw. "Just let me get this out."

"Yeah, go for it."

"I feel like...I've been torn my whole life-between what's best for you and what's best for other people. Ya know, it's always been 'look out for Sammy' and 'nothing is more important for the hunt', and those two things have been at war for as long as I can remember. There are some battles I'm willing to lose, Sam, and the one for you isn't one of them." Dean ticked the heat up higher when Sam shivered and looked out at the strangely modern building a few feet away. "I don't want to hunt anymore. I don't think I can, actually."

Sam sputtered beside him so badly Dean thought he'd need oxygen again. "Dean, come on, I'm going to be fine."

"No, Dr. Nali say your left lung is at 93% capacity and you could need a lobectomy before you're 40. I heard your ortho say you need at least two more surgeries on your arm."

"That was last week, my lung is better," he took a deep breath to prove his point.

"I don't care if you grow an extra lung and gills. How close you came, all that pain that you went through, I don't care." Dean paused and blinked to clear his eyes. "I get why you stopped when you thought I was gone. I understand it now more than ever. I...I thought I lost you...and for what? We're not the only hunters in the world...and we've racked up a lot of saves, somewhere around seven billion mark. Jordan knew when to hang it up, and I do too."

"If you think I'm not going to get better, I will...Dean..."

"I don't think you're weak, Sammy, you're the strongest person I know. I just...I'm done risking my life for evil that's determined to put our heads on a spit, that's all. You see that building over there? The one with the blue door?"

"Yeah..."

"I rented it, today. It's ours for the next two years. We're going to get you better and then we're going to see the Grand Canyon, and we're going to a Stones concert, and we're gonna go to a baseball game and beer festivals, and there's a university thirty miles away, a good one, maybe you can enroll."

"Dean, what about the tablet, what about closing the gates of hell forever?"

Dean shrugged. "Garth's on it. He put some good hunters on the case and we're gonna help, but we're staying out of it."

"And what if the evil comes to us?"

He gripped the steering wheel tighter. "Then we'll make those evil sons-a-bitches regret even darkening our doorstep." He paused for a moment, "I need you, Sammy. I need you to be my brother, my wingman, and I need you to show me how to live without the hunt," Dean confessed. "Because I don't know how."

"If that's what you really want, of course I can. At least until I get better."

"Sam..."

"I know you don't believe me, but Dean, I know what I saw, I know what I felt. Zad's not dead. And I'm not sure I can just...stop knowing that thing is out there."

"Cas said he smoked him."

Sam huffed, affronted. "Cas got whammied himself. Stranger things have happened."

Dean turned to look at his brother, knowing that Sammy, the great dissembler, couldn't really lie to Dean anymore. "Do you want to keep going? After all of this? After hitting the finishline only to have the damn marathon start all over again? Do you really want to do this?"

Sam went still, head swiveling to gaze at the squat brick building with a blue door. It hadn't been plowed, and the steps were covered in dirty, brown snow. His eyes filled, and he shook his head. "No, I don't."

EPILOGUE

Life went on, in some maddeningly strange way. Sam's ribs and lung healed, and he busied himself with fixing up their home that used to be an old firehouse. Li got Dean a job at a local bar. They paid their bills, made friends and lived regular. And when they couldn't stand it anymore, they drove, far and fast and free.

"Sammy, don't forget, we're having dinner with Saul tonight at the bar!" Dean barked as he stuttered down the stairs, late as usual. "And take your medication!"

"You're worse than a wife; GO TO WORK!"

Dean chuckled, happy to hear Sammy's hysterical, booming voice rattle the bricks of their little home. He stumbled out into the slush and fog of March, putting his keys in his mouth so he could awkwardly shrug into his jacket. He stopped at the theshold, keys plummeting from his mouth that slackened in shock. On their humorous "Go Away" mat, in the middle of their unshoveled porch laid an twisted black metal bar, the once-dried blood that stained it painting the gray snow.