"So, have you decided where you want it yet?"
The question draws Sam out of the kitchen where he finds Dean standing in the entryway with a six foot spruce tree resting on one shoulder.
"Uh, the living room? I've moved the bookcase."
"So where's the bookcase now?"
"Oh, sorry. It's upstairs. D'you want a hand?"
"Nah, I'm good."
Dean nods and resettles the tree, so that his left hand is free. Sam watches him go, fingers lightly grazing the wall so that he can find his way. Some days he barely gives Dean's lack of sight a second thought - so much so that he forgets that he needs to make sure Dean knows if anything's different, like the bookcase being moved. He follows Dean into the living room and watches as his brother places the potted tree down carefully in the corner of the room. Once he's done, Dean straightens up and wipes the dirt off his hands.
"I'll have to take your word for it that it looks okay there."
"It looks great."
Evidently pleased by this, Dean claps his hands together and grins. "Well, it's over to you now."
That was the deal - Dean would find them a Christmas tree, but Sam would have to decorate it since, as Dean had pointed out, it would look like a blind guy had decorated it if it was down to him, even if his eyes had still worked.
So Sam spends the next couple of hours arranging and rearranging the decorations until it resembles something that he's satisfied with. When he stands back to admire it, it brings a smile to his lips. It's not going to win any awards for style with its mix of old and new, bought and handcrafted, but it's theirs - a first for two brothers who only acquired a forever home late in their lives. In short, it's very 'them'.
"It's very you," Charlie says with a chuckle when she comes by for their usual Friday night dinner later on.
"Should we be insulted?" Dean grins, "because you know, if it looks like shit, it's totally Sam's fault."
Sam makes a face as he whacks Dean on the leg. "I think she's probably referring to your additions."
"Hey, it wouldn't be Christmas without my beer can decorations."
Sam laughs, even though it's true. When they were kids, he didn't really appreciate Dean's attempts to make Christmas totally not suck; if anything, Dean's efforts just served to highlight how much their lives differed to other kids their ages. Now, it's yet another thing he's indebted to Dean for, grateful that he had a brother who loved and cared for him enough to try to make the best of a crappy situation.
”Did you get a tree for the bunker?" Dean asks Charlie.
She shrugs and for the first time her smile fades a little. "I probably would have if Dorothy had been here."
"She's definitely not going to make it back in time?" Sam enquires.
"No. We always knew it would be unlikely so I'm okay. Maybe next year."
"That settles it then," Dean says firmly. "You're coming here for Christmas."
Sam's already nodding. "We won't take no for an answer. We missed you at Thanksgiving so this will make up for it."
Charlie’s smile returns. "You're sure? I mean, it's your first proper Christmas here, together..."
"Yeah, and Christmas is for family," Dean points out, "and you're family, so no arguments, okay?"
Charlie raises her hands in placation before looking at Sam, but he simply shrugs and says, "you heard the man."
"Thanks, guys," she answers, pleased. "So will Castiel be coming too?"
"Dunno," Dean says. "I hope so; I mean, how many other families can say they've got an actually bone fide angel coming to Christmas dinner?"
"Excellent point," she laughs.
Satisfied that the conversation is done, Sam snatches up his empty beer bottle and stands up.
"Charlie, you want another?"
He doesn't even bother asking Dean, just waits patiently while Dean drains the last of his own beer and holds out the empty bottle.
"Thanks," she answers and does the same.
When Sam has left the room, Dean tilts his head to listen. Losing almost all of his sight hasn't given him superpowers in his other senses like comic books would have led him to believe, but it's definitely made him a more careful listener. He knows all the sounds this old house makes, including the tell-tale squeak of the floorboard in the entry hall that tells him Sam has now passed into the kitchen. Once he's sure Sam's out of earshot, he turns to Charlie.
"I wanted to ask you something while you were here," he says, his voice a conspiratorial whisper. "I want to get Sam something special for Christmas so I was hoping you'd come and help me choose a gift."
"Sure I will. Have you had any ideas what to get?"
Dean shakes his head. "No, but I'm working on it."
"So when do you want to go?"
"Well, Sam's out of town for a couple days next week on a work thing, so if you're free then?"
"I'm all yours," Charlie replies with a smile.
"Thanks. I want this Christmas to be perfect, you know?" Dean smiles too, like he's slightly abashed at the admission. "Even when we had the bunker, we never really celebrated Christmas; something always came up that needed our attention. This will be the first year we're out of The Life so it feels right that we should enjoy it properly."
"Then perfect it will be," Charlie asserts, determined to help in any way she can. She realises that Sam's on his way back so she taps Dean's leg and says quickly, "So, how are things going at the shop?"
"Good," Dean answers, without missing a beat. "Plenty jobs coming in. Lots of wives going for an easy Christmas present and letting their husbands get some work done on their pride and joys." He grins. "You ain't gonna hear me complaining."
Sam enters the room at that point carrying their drinks. "Did you tell Charlie about the guy who wanted to buy the Impala?"
Dean snorts. "Dude came into the shop asking; he was seriously determined - I mean, he kept upping his figure to the point where me and Sam could've been set for life."
"You weren't tempted?" Charlie asks, even though she knows the answer already.
Dean seems to consider it for a moment, his expression melancholy. "I couldn't. Even though I can't drive her anymore, I couldn't let her go."
This is the only painful aspect of their new lives, and the only thing Sam would change in a heartbeat if he could. Dean belongs behind the wheel of a car - that car - and it hurts that his brother is denied that vital piece of himself now. Occasionally, Dean will take her out on the vast empty land surrounding their house, where neither the car nor other people can come to any harm, but it'll never be a substitute for the open road, hundreds of miles before them, music blasting from the speakers as the old girl lays waste to the asphalt. It hurts Sam like a physical injury, so god only knows what it does to Dean.
Evidently Dean realises he's pulled the conversation into unhappy territory, so he flashes a quick grin.
"So I offered to sell him Sam, but a thirty-something lawyer with girlie hair obviously didn't have the same appeal."
Charlie laughs and Sam does too and the mood lifts once more.
Sam leaves to catch his flight first thing the following Wednesday morning. They've got better at this as time has gone on, but it's fair to say it's taken a while. At first, Sam refused all work trips that meant he couldn't make it home by evening. Naturally they'd fought about it - Sam had argued that Dean's abduction by Abaddon lay at the heart of his reluctance for them to be separated, whereas Dean had taken it as a slight; an indication that Sam thought couldn't manage on his own.
The first time had, naturally, been a disaster. Dean had decided to carry on with the renovations in the house and proceeded to slice his arm open. Unable to see the damage he'd done, but aware of the signs of blood loss he was experiencing, he'd had no choice but to call 911. His intention had been to get treatment and discharge himself so he could be back home by the time Sam returned and dismiss any of his brother's enquiries about why his arm was bandaged if he couldn't keep it covered by clothing.
The reality was someone who knew them had seen the ambulance heading to their place and, concerned, had called Sam. Sam had then driven like the devil himself and arrived at the ER to find a furious-looking Dean sitting in a wheelchair, his arm heavily bandaged from wrist to elbow, having had to explain to the medical staff why a blind man had been using power tools. Sam had compounded Dean's brooding anger by refusing to let him discharge himself until the doctors were satisfied that he could leave.
The stony silence had ridden home with them right up until the yelling had started. Sam wasn't mad with him, not really, and Dean had known that, but it just felt like the perfect moment to unleash all the pent-up anger he didn't even know he had about his situation. He hadn't been lying when he'd said he was grateful for the drastic improvement in his hearing and the minor improvement in his sight following Hannah's intervention, but it still didn't change the fact that he'd once been a man who had operated power tools without nearly taking his own arm off; a man who had taken his sight for granted for thirty-odd years, like anyone else without a disability.
He realises now, he'd been naive to think he wouldn't harbour some bitterness about becoming blind, but the yelling had proved cathartic. Eventually, Sam had made another work trip and, much to his relief, Dean had agreed put the renovations on hold while he was gone. Since then, their temporary separations had been incident-free.
Charlie arrives just as he's finished dressing. She shouts upstairs, offering to make coffee. He tells her there's some made already, pulls his boots on and then heads down to join her.
The large windows in their kitchen give lots of natural light, aiding what's left of his vision so that he can tell where Charlie is standing. He sits down at the table as the blurred shape moves toward him. He hears the thunk of the mug on the wooden surface.
"Here you go."
They sit for a minute drinking their coffees. The morning sun feels good on his face. He thinks back to the period of time when he had lost two of his senses completely after the showdown with Lucifer, and how he'd enjoyed that warmth as something that connected him to life.
"So," Charlie says, "any idea where you want to go today?"
He considers the question for a moment. "There's a mall just outside Topeka. Sam likes some of the stores there, so I thought that'd be a good place to start."
"Okay. Any idea what you want to get for him?"
"Nope. I was hoping I'd see something and be inspired." He grins. "Well, I was hoping you'd see something and tell me about it and I'd be inspired."
Charlie laughs. "Got it."
They chat about hunting on the drive over there. It doesn't hurt to talk about it anymore, because that life feels like a dream. Both he and Sam are happy to answer any queries that Charlie puts to them, mainly on behalf of other hunters who are still out there, but they've solemnly stuck to their vow that their careers as active hunters are over.
Sam, well, it was always a given that he'd be okay with that decision, but it still amazes Dean that he's good with it too. He'd always told himself that hunting would be his life because he couldn't entertain the idea of settling down. Even having the bunker, hadn't proved too much of a seismic shift because it was a base of operations rather than just a home. With hindsight, finding the Men of Letters bunker seems even more serendipitous, given everything that happened after - like it was a practice run, a kind of halfway house to bridge the gap between hunting and civilian life.
Now, he enjoys the pace of this new life. The car shop keeps him plenty busy, and they have friends and a home that appropriately fill the space hunting left behind. In short - life is good.
"What?" Charlie asks as the miles fall away.
"You're smiling," she clarifies. He can hear the smile in her voice too.
"I dunno," he says, "Going Christmas shopping. I just never figured I'd be okay with all this ordinary stuff."
Charlie laughs. "Believe it or not, but ordinary suits you."
"Hey, Bradbury," he growls in mock seriousness, "there's no need for insults."
Turns out, he's not quite down with ordinary yet. The mall is busy, the pre-Christmas rush well underway. The hustle and bustle is stressful; the noise level is jarring and he can feel his tension rocketing. In busy, bright places like this, it's almost impossible to stop his remaining vision trying to make sense of the contrast between light and dark, even though what results is nothing useful, a large amount of frustration and, eventually, a killer headache. Fortunately he's remembered to bring his Ray Bans. He puts on the glasses and closes his eyes.
"You okay?" Charlie asks him as they stand on the upper floor, crowds streaming past them.
"Yeah," he replies, aiming for casual. "Why d'you ask?"
"No reason. Except that I'm starting to lose the feeling in my hand."
He realises then that he's gripping her arm tightly and makes a conscious effort to relax his fingers.
"Sorry. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea..."
"Nonsense," she replies, patting his hand. "You just need more practise at being ordinary."
He huffs a laugh. "What do you recommend?"
"Coffee. Possibly pie. We can plan our attack from there."
"You're the boss."
Charlie's a smart lady. The coffee melts away the tension and he's able to acclimatise to the mall's busy atmosphere while safely seated. He starts to feel like this might not be too bad; he simply reminds himself that he's helped stop the apocalypse, so this is nothing he can't handle. He doesn't even need any pie.
"Okay," he says with determination once they're walking again. "Let's do this."
They hit the first store. Charlie describes items of clothing that she thinks Sam will like, but it doesn't seem like enough. The next few stores are more of the same. Admittedly it's a weird problem to have, but with steady incomes now, they buy what they need when they need it, leaving nothing for anyone to buy as a gift.
"How about something for work?" Charlie suggests as they walk. His enthusiasm started to wane about five stores ago. To be fair, hers probably has too, but she's doing a good job of hiding it in her voice. "Something he'd never treat himself to?"
They head to a different part of the mall - where the stores are all ones that they'd have never gone near in their previous life. Everything here is high end and he's almost glad that he can't see the prices. They're browsing briefcases, the leather gloriously soft beneath his fingertips, when a sales assistant approaches.
"Can I help you today?" the sales assistant - a man it turns out - asks. His voice is friendly and, Dean notes belatedly, his cologne smells amazing.
"I think we're good thanks," he replies with an easy smile. "Just checking out the merchandise with my seeing eye geek."
Charlie snorts as the man makes an amused noise, which is good because he hates it when people get awkward around him.
"Well, okay. Just give me a shout if you need anything."
Once the footsteps have died away, he laughs. "Jesus, I feel Julia Roberts - I mean when they don't look at her like she's gonna steal something."
"I'm gonna overlook the fact that big tough Dean Winchester referenced Pretty Woman and - wait, does that make me Richard Gere?"
He grins. "Might do."
Joking aside, he does feel a little out of place in the store despite the warm welcome. Even though they are comfortable financially, it's hard to let go of old habits, which includes not spending obscene amounts of money on things.
"Okay, I'm not sure this is the answer either. He kinda likes that old ratty thing he takes to work already."
"The one with the devil's trap carved into the leather?"
They leave the store and decide to call it a day. He suggests grabbing some food before they head home because he's suddenly really hungry, and treating Charlie to some lunch is the least he can do to say thanks.
"I bought him that briefcase, you know," he says, once they've found a restaurant and have ordered food.
"Yeah. When he was at Stanford." He pauses to drink, his mind flicking through the old memories like photographs. "I kept my distance because I thought he was pissed with me and dad, but I never stopped checking on him. He was working so hard; I was so damn proud of him. I left that for him one Christmas."
"No wonder he treasures it."
Charlie's hand finds his arm, and gives it a squeeze. She knows all about their separation; after all, she's heard the story from both sides. The passage of the years has removed the bitterness in both their versions, but the sadness and regret at the time spent apart has never quite disappeared.
"So the briefcase's a bust," she says, "any other thoughts?"
She studies his expression as it shifts, a subtle rearrangement of his features that he probably doesn't even realise he's doing. She's been around the Winchester boys enough to recognise that there's something he's not saying.
She manages to inflect that one syllable in such a way that he sighs and gives a sad, lopsided smile. He ponders for a moment, then shakes his head like a dog casting off droplets of water, the melancholy smile replaced with a grin.
"Nah, it's nothing. Stupid idea."
She knows he'll share in his own time so there's no point pushing it.
"Okay, well, keep thinking about it. There's still plenty of time."
"I will. Promise you won't say anything to Sam though. I want whatever it is to be a complete surprise."
"You have my word," she replies solemnly.
About a week later, she's on the phone when she hears the door opening. She checks the bunker surveillance and is surprised to see Sam descending the stairs. He's wearing his suit and tie and she knows from speaking to Dean earlier that day that he's on his way back from a meeting. Why he's taken a detour here is more of a mystery. She ends the call and walks through to meet him.
"Hey, Sam," she grins. "You're not confused about where you live again, are you?"
He laughs as they embrace.
"Once. I did that once and you and Dean will never let me live it down, will you?"
She laughs too. "D'you wanna drink?"
They walk into the kitchen, where she grabs them both a beer. As he drinks, she tried to gauge whether his presence should be concerning her, but there's nothing in the set of shoulders or the slope of his brow that hints of trouble.
"So what's up?"
"Dean told me you were having some trouble with one of the generators. I told him I'd take a look at it since I was passing."
She can't help but smile as he puts down his beer and starts loosening his tie. It's only this morning that she'd told Dean about the malfunctioning generator and yet here's the cavalry. She never had siblings growing up, but she's definitely acquired two big brothers now.
They head down into the bowels of the bunker. The generators are in a dusty, locked room and she feels guilty that Sam isn't appropriately dressed for the occasion. She insists on finding him some coveralls first - a good call since he gets grease on himself almost immediately.
Sam completes a preliminary inspection and then calls Dean. On speaker phone, Dean talks him through the repair, with Charlie acting as his assistant. She notices the amount of swearing increases with the number of tools required and it's an effort not to laugh at what goes between these siblings as their frustration with each other mounts.
"Find the blue wire."
"I'm looking - there isn't a blue wire!"
"For fuck's sake... Remind me which one of us is blind, huh, Sam? You're obviously not looking hard enough!"
"Godammit, Dean. There isn't a - wait - there's a brown one."
"It's only brown because it's covered in grease! Jesus, Sam. You're supposed to be smart!"
"Yeah, well, you're a shitty helper! Maybe if you'd said 'it's blue but it'll probably look brown because it'll be covered in grease, then we'd be getting somewhere!"
Eventually the job gets done. She fires up the generator and listens in relief as it runs like a dream. She thanks Dean and ends the call, but not before Sam has promised his brother he'll be setting off soon, like they've not just spent the last half an hour hurling insults at each other.
"So how's he doing?" she asks as they head back to the front door, Sam grabbing his things off the table as they pass.
"Yeah, he's okay." He shrugs into his jacket and stuffs his tie in one of the pockets. "Don't get me wrong, he has good days and not so good days. I'm not sure I'd have adjusted so well."
She smiles at the obvious pride in his voice. His expression is then thoughtful for a moment, like he's debating whether to start the next conversation or not.
"With Christmas coming up, I want to get him a gift, but I'm struggling to come up with something special. Gifts in the past have always been skin mags, or car polish."
"So basically anything you can buy at a gas station?"
"Exactly. But this is our first Christmas properly out of The Life. I want it to mean something, you know? So I want to find a gift that reflects that."
These boys... Two sides of the same coin. She nods, hoping her expression is giving nothing away.
"Have you had any ideas?" she asks once she's confident that she can pose the question without arousing his suspicions.
He hesitates for a moment. "There was one thing..."
He sighs, like the idea pains him. "When we were hunting, we used to talk about what we'd do if we actually had regular lives. For us it was like the whole 'if we won the lottery' kind of conversation because the odds of it actually happening were terrible. Worse than terrible, in fact. We used to call it 'The List'. We added and took things off over the years, but our number one always stayed the same."
"What was number one?"
"A road trip to The Grand Canyon."
"The, wait, what? You mean to tell me with all the driving you did, you never actually made it to the Grand Canyon."
She takes a moment to acknowledge her surprise. "So you're thinking of a trip? That's a really cool idea."
If possible, Sam looks even more pained. "Is it though? Maybe before everything that happened. Now... now it just seems cruel. I mean, what's the point in going to the Grand Canyon if you can't actually see it?"
He leaves the question hanging for a moment. "Can you imagine Dean's response? 'A trip to go look at the Grand Canyon. Jeez, Sammy, that's great. Did you miss the part where the doctor said I had no useable sight?'"
"Okay," she concedes. "Well, I can have a think and if I come up with anything, I'll let you know."
"Thanks, Charlie." He embraces her, smiling. "You're a good friend."
He's about to leave, when he adds, "Oh, and promise me you won't say anything to Dean. Whatever the gift ends up being, I want it to be a surprise."
"I promise," she says.
Over the week, she fields separate calls from both of them. When Sam is out, she spends an hour on the phone to Dean, browsing websites on his behalf in his search for the elusive perfect present. When it's as unsuccessful as their shopping trip, she reassures him that there's still time - that out of the blue, the right idea will reveal itself and all will be well. She hates the despondency in his voice.
Sam phones one day when he's working from home and Dean is at the garage. He's also no further on in finding the perfect gift for his brother and he's hoping for inspiration from her since he knows she's been spending time with Dean recently. She tells him that although nothing springs to mind, she'll let him know if Dean says anything to her that could be useful.
Friday night she joins them for dinner. She's been there before when one or both of them has had a tough day, but the atmosphere tonight is different. Sam is quiet and almost sullen, Dean is snappish, and comes close to exploding when he smashes a dish when he goes to wash up after they've eaten.
She looks at Sam and they both wince at the swearing that follows the crash from the other room. Hesitantly, into the silence, Sam shouts, "Dean? You want a hand?"
"No, I got this," comes the bad tempered reply, before a grudgingly added, "thanks."
She meets Sam's gaze again, allowing the question to remain in her eyes. He gives a helpless shrug in response, because it figures he won't have actually asked Dean what's up with him so he's no clue.
"You know," she says once she's satisfied that Dean's still dealing with whatever havoc he's created in the kitchen, "you're kind of in a funny mood yourself, Sam."
He sighs wearily, evidently guilty as charged.
"Sorry. I've got a lot on at work, and I'm still stressing about finding a gift for Dean. We were talking about Christmas again the other day and he was saying how much he's looking forward to this one being really special. It's not gonna be if I don't come up with a good present."
She glances around, but the sound of crockery being swept up is still coming from the other room.
"What about your road trip idea?" she asks quietly.
"No," he replies quickly, shaking his head. "I shouldn't have mentioned it."
She watches as he collects up their empty wine glasses, the action his way of saying that he doesn't want to continue down this particular conversational avenue. He leaves the room and she listens as he goes into the kitchen and speaks to Dean. The exchange is short and perfunctory and she's torn between wanting to slink away, and to go in there and bang their heads together.
In the morning, they both leave before she's awake. She gets up and makes herself some breakfast and finds herself mulling over the previous evening while she waits for the coffee maker to work its magic. She doesn't like seeing them at odds with each other, especially when there's no significant reason for it. Despite everything that's happened to them, even in the few years that she's known them, they've still not actually mastered talking to each other.
As she eats, she makes a snap decision. She dresses and deals with some e-mails on her laptop before locking up the house and jumping in her car. She makes the drive over to Dean's business in Harmony, parking up and heading around the back where she can hear the sounds of work going on. She runs into Danny who grins and offers her a salute in greeting. He's got a smear of oil on his cheek and his blond hair is in disarray.
"Hey, Charlie, how's it goin'?"
"Good thanks," she replies.
"Come to see the boss?"
"Yeah, I-" she starts, then stops abruptly as Dean's voice carries through the shop.
"Dammit, Walt! I can still hear those fuckin' rod bearings. You told me you were gonna replace them yesterday."
She exchanges glances with Danny. "Well, I was gonna ask you what kind of mood he's been in this morning, but I think I might have my answer."
He offers her a helpless shrug. She pats him on the arm.
"Leave it with me," she says.
Dean's office is at the side of the workshop. She passes Walt, who gives her a quick wave before he buries his head in the engine of the Firebird he's working on, and heads after Dean. His hand trails the left wall until he's behind his desk. He sits heavily and reaches for his mug of coffee, takes a drink, then grimaces when he discovers it's cold.
"Hey, Dean," she says, giving a little knock on the open glass-panelled door.
"Charlie?" He always says it by way of a question, just in case he's placed the voice wrongly. He never has. "You okay? I thought you were heading home?"
"I am. Just thought I'd stop by here first for a little chat."
He sighs. "I'm gonna need coffee for this, aren't I?" He stands up again, cup in hand.
"Let me," she says, moving toward him. He acquiesces by holding his mug out and then sits back down. His expression says he's resigned to whatever she's going to say.
She fixes them both a drink from the battered coffee maker he keeps in his office. She's in the process of locating the sugar - turns out it's under a stack of invoices - when he says, "I'm sorry things were a little weird last night."
"Hey," she replies, setting his drink down in front of him before taking her own to the chair opposite. "It's your house. You can be as weird as you like."
His soft huff of amusement indicates that he appreciates her attempt to let him off the hook.
"Yeah, well. I'm sorry. It can't have been much fun."
"Wanna tell me why things were like that?"
He nurses his coffee, his expression somewhere between thoughtful and unhappy. After a few moments, he gives her a shrug.
"Well, I can't tell you what Sam's deal was; probably lawyer stuff or PMS." He waits a beat, knowing there'll be the obligatory eye roll, even though he can't see it. "But I'm just starting to freak out about this whole epic first Christmas idea. We were chatting about it again the other night and I dunno what Sam's got planned, but knowing him it'll be something awesome, so I don't wanna end up giving him something lame in return. But that's what's gonna happen if I can't come up with any ideas."
She's tempted to tell him his brother's in the same boat, but she promised Sam she'd keep his confidence. Something occurs to her.
"When we went to the mall that time and you couldn't find anything... Afterwards, you looked like you did have another idea."
She lets the not-quite-a-question hang in the air, mentally cheering when he bites.
"There was something," he says, setting his coffee mug back on his desk. "But it's stupid."
"Go on. You know I love stupid."
He smiles briefly. "Years ago we used to keep... well, it was like a reverse bucket list, I guess. We always figured our days were numbered because of hunting, but sometimes we'd shoot the shit talking about what we'd do if we ever had time like regular people."
"What was top of the list?"
"Don't laugh; a road trip to the Grand Canyon."
She knows the answer already, but it seems prudent to say, "you mean you never actually got there, even with all the driving you did?"
"Okay," she says, trying to pretend like this is the first time she's had this conversation. "So why not plan a trip, make that your gift? It sounds perfect to me."
The Winchesters don't share a strong family resemblance, but the expression on his face suddenly makes him look identical to his brother.
He sighs, apparently exasperated that she can't see the problem already. "They're like... I dunno, conversations from another life altogether, you know? It's a pretty crappy present to someone to say 'my gift is us going on a road trip; oh, but you're going to have to do all the driving.' Besides," he continues, scrubbing a hand across his jaw, "I don't think Sam would enjoy it. Knowing him, he'd be too busy feeling guilty and worrying about me."
"But you'd still love to go? Even now?"
"Are you kidding me? It's the Grand Canyon. Who wouldn't want to go?"
Now the exasperation is hers. They've both asked for her help and they've both made her promise not to tell the other what they're planning. How can she make them see that they both want the same thing without giving the game away?
"Have you talked to Sam?" she asks. "You never know. Maybe if he realises you're okay with it then it'd be exactly the gift you're looking for. Better yet, you could plan it together."
"No," he replies, shaking his head vigorously. "He'd say it's what he wants, but he'd just be saying that because he thinks it's what I want him to say."
It's a battle not to roll her eyes because these boys.
"Okay, but there are only a few days left," she cautions, hoping the lack of time will make him reconsider.
He looks thoughtful for a split second before he shakes his head.
"It'll be okay. We've come up with a plan to save the world in less time. How hard can it be to find a good Christmas gift?"
Hard, it turns out. Another two days pass and neither of them have solved their gift-giving nightmare. Sam texts her:
Feel like I've really failed. I'm gonna end up rushing out on Christmas Eve and getting him something crap.
So she replies:
Dean won't care if you haven't got an awesome gift. He loves you and he'll just be happy to spend time with you. Are you SURE you don't want to do the Grand Canyon thing?
And he replies:
Think I'd rather go with nothing than something that might make him feel bad.
She has a similar conversation with Dean, which yields no further progress. It's frustrating - she only needs one of them to have a change of heart, but there's no sign of either of them capitulating.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, she's made a decision. Normally she wouldn't intervene because they always find their way back to each other, but they've both said they want their first Christmas in civilian life to be special and time is running out, so this time she's going to make an exception.
She phones Dean, noting immediately from his greeting that he sounds grumpy. She tells herself that it's because he's not had any coffee yet, but it's ten to nine and the odds of him not having had at least two cups already are slim to none.
"I really hate to do this with it being Christmas Eve, but the generator's gone down again and I'm worried about leaving it while I come stay with you." She pauses while Dean relays the message to Sam and, as expected, there's a hint of you clearly didn't fix it properly in his tone. She doesn't completely catch Sam's response, but there's a sharpness in the delivery that says Sam is in a bad mood as well.
"Maybe if you both come?" she suggests. "I'll make lunch."
They're on their way. Her nervousness increases with each passing minute until she actually jumps when the alarm she installed announces their arrival. They're coming down the stairs, identically stony-faced until Sam sees her and smiles.
This causes Dean's expression to change too, warming to something that confirms his beef is with Sam and Sam only.
"Hey, kiddo," he says, "Glad you figured out you needed Mario as well as Luigi this time."
"Good to see you both," she replies, stressing the last word. "So how about we get you down a drainpipe, huh? I know you've probably both got other stuff to do."
She's pretty sure she's not imagining the noises they both make in response, since last-minute Christmas shopping was probably on both of their agendas until she called.
"Oh," she adds, as they go to follow her. "And this does not make me Princess Peach, okay?"
She deliberately hangs back as they take the stairs down. Her heart's starting to race because there's potential for this to go really horribly wrong, but as they both step into the generator room she re-commits herself to the plan and swings the door shut behind them. She catches a glimpse of Sam's surprised face before either of them can react.
"Charlie? Charlie, hey!"
Then Dean: "Sammy, what the hell's goin' on?"
"She's locked us in!"
With the bolt safely in place, she opens the small viewing slot. As expected, she's greeted with two unhappy faces, their expressions a mix of anger and wariness.
"It's okay," she says quickly, "I'm not possessed or crazy or anything."
She proceeds to demonstrate this with holy water, silver and a quick flash of the anti-possession tattoo she was only too happy to get once she was introduced to the world of hunting. The anxiety on Sam's face lessens slightly.
"She's good," he explains to his brother. She catches the slump of Dean's shoulders before he shakes his head.
"Well if she's good, then what the hell is she doing locking us in here?"
Sam turns back to the viewing hatch, eyebrows raised in expectation of the answer.
"Okay." She takes a breath. "This is my Christmas gift to you both."
"What?" -and- "The fuck?" they say almost simultaneously.
"Hear me out, guys. You wanted your first civilian Christmas to be awesome, right? You both told me that. You also wanted to get each other a gift that reflected that significance and neither of you have managed it."
"Charlie..." Sam says wearily, a fraction louder than Dean's muttered 'goddamnit'.
"I also know you both have the answer already and if you weren't so stubborn and actually talked to each other you'd be having that awesome Christmas you both want." She gives them a smile, ignoring the fact that neither of them smile back.
"So consider this little intervention my gift to you both. I'll come back in half an hour, see how you're getting on. If it's any consolation, I've left you some beers."
She turns on her heel and heads back up the steps. There's no yelling, so she tells herself that's a good sign. At the top she checks her watch. Twenty nine minutes to go.
Dean feels his way to the wall, then slides down to sit on the floor. After a beat, Sam seeks out the beers Charlie mentioned and does the same so that they're sitting shoulder to shoulder on the cold concrete. He opens their beers, hands one to Dean and they both sit in silence.
"Well this is fun," Dean says flatly. "I dunno about you, Sammy but when I said we needed to have an awesome first Christmas, this is exactly what I pictured. It almost makes me wish the generator was busted; at least we'd have something to do while she does her demented Lindsay Lohan act and Parent Traps us."
Sam laughs softly. "Yeah. Or you know, we could do what she said and actually have a conversation?"
Dean makes a face in response to the suggestion. "Wow. That's the fastest onset of Stockholm Syndrome I've ever seen."
"Shut up," Sam replies, knocking Dean's shoulder with his own.
They sit there for a moment before Dean says, "I wanted to find you a gift - something that meant something, you know? But you're a nightmare to buy for; I even went to the mall and everything."
Despite the joking tone, Sam takes a moment to be impressed.
"How was it?"
"Well I don't think I'm in danger of turning into a shopaholic any time soon," Dean replies, the obligatory deflection before he decides to answer the question Sam's really asking. Maybe they are capable of honest communication, after all.
"The second I arrived, I wanted to leave. I hated feeling... you know." He doesn't say 'vulnerable' but Sam knows what it will have taken for his brother to even leave the gap for him to insert the word himself.
"Charlie was great, which is why I might not kill her for this little stunt," Dean continues with a huff of amusement. "I didn't find you a gift, but it was good to know it wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be."
"That's great, Dean."
"Yeah well, like I said, it didn't solve the gift issue."
After a moment, Sam says, "According to Charlie, we've already got the answer."
Dean frowns, all frustrated annoyance. He waves a hand. "That's my fault because I told her about The List."
"Wait," Sam says quickly. "I told her about The List."
"I dunno, a couple weeks ago? You?"
Dean shrugs. "I nearly said something when we went to the mall together. We had a similar conversation the other day when she dropped into the shop and I ended up telling her then."
"But she didn't say anything to you first? Anything that prompted you to mention The List?"
Sam ponders this for a moment. "So if she didn't tell you anything, she only decided to stage this 'intervention' after she spoke to you, which means whatever you said matched whatever I said earlier."
"Okay," Dean replies slowly, expression indicating that he's getting things straight in his mind.
"So which thing on The List did you tell her?" Sam asks hesitantly.
"Uh uh. You first."
Once upon a time they'd have decided this via Rock, Paper, Scissors, but now Dean always accuses him of cheating by changing his choice before he has chance to feel what hand shape Sam's making.
"Fine. After three, we'll say it together."
Dean rolls his eyes. "Fine."
"One, two, three..."
"The Grand Canyon," they both chorus in perfect synchronisation.
There's a pause, followed by laughter, then voices that overlap each other - Sam's "seriously?" and Dean's "you're kidding me."
Sam shakes his head. "No wonder Charlie was getting so pissed with us. But I thought..."
"What?" Dean asks.
"I thought... I thought it might be-"
"You thought I wouldn't want to go anymore because I'm blind?" Dean says softly.
The word is like a physical blow - not as sharp as it once was - but still a reminder that after all their years of joint suffering and loss it was his brother alone who had to sacrifice something to save the world. He still wishes there was a way to remove Dean's burden, or even share it, but they're done with looking for fixes, which always turn out to have hidden penalties anyway. Dean would kill him, and the thought of damaging what they now have between them is enough to stop his mind from exploring the possibilities.
"Yeah." Sam swallows hard around the lump in his throat. "Even though we always talked about it, that was before - it just didn't seem fair to do that trip now. I thought... I thought it would just remind you of what you'd lost."
He turns his head and studies Dean's profile, glad Charlie didn't see fit to lock them in here with the lights off. Dean turns too; his eyes are still exactly the same - not dulled or faded just because they don't work anymore. He gives Sam a smile.
"But nothing's different; not really. The trip still symbolises us achieving the impossible. We fuckin' did it, Sammy. We survived and we got out. Of course I still want to go."
Sam takes a moment to picture the two of them, sitting side by side in front of nature's wonder and realises that he wants it so badly.
"So why didn't you suggest it?" he asks, his voice rough with emotion. "I'm pretty certain Charlie didn't try to put you off the idea when you mentioned it."
"She didn't," Dean admits, "but I told her it was a terrible idea because I figured you'd say you still wanted to go just to humour me, then you'd spend the whole trip worrying about me or not enjoying it because of me. Plus, you'd have to do all the driving, so it seemed like a bit of a crappy gift."
Sam huffs a soft laugh. "So as much as it pains me to admit it, I guess Charlie had a point. Maybe we should have just talked to each other first."
"Maybe," Dean laughs. "But I don't think we should tell her. Wouldn't want it to go to her head or anything."
When Charlie frees them they have every intention of pretending to be mad with her, until it's apparent how worried she is about their reactions. They embrace her - first Dean and then Sam before jokingly telling her that she's still invited to Christmas dinner tomorrow, but only if she promises not to lock either of them in a closet. She blushes and solemnly vows that she'll be on her best behaviour.
Her smile of relief broadens to one of delight when they tell her that they'll be booking that trip to the Grand Canyon after all. They might not have come up with a surprise gift for each other, but the knowledge that they'll be planning something together that means so much to both of them is definitely better.
Five months later
"Please tell me you brought the coffee."
"Trust me, Dean, I've got it. I know you'd be sending me back to the car if I'd forgotten it."
"Damn straight I would. It's only half a mile."
"Aw, all that shuffling paper is makin' you soft, Sammy."
"Yeah? Well maybe if you shuffled a little more paper, you wouldn't have an office that looks like a tornado passed through it."
"I'll have you know that's a highly organised filing system."
Sam snorts and resettles the large backpack he's carrying. His flashlight is trained on the trail, picking out the path towards Yaki Point. Dean's touch is light on the crook of his elbow; their steps are serenaded by the clink of bottles in the cooler that saw them through adventures from a lifetime ago. It seemed unthinkable to leave it behind.
"Okay, I think this is the spot the ranger recommended."
"What d'you think?" Dean asks.
"Yeah, I think this'll work."
Dean puts down the cooler and sits on it while Sam shucks off the backpack and begins to empty out the contents. He then takes the two portable lawn chairs and sets them up side by side.
"How close are we to the edge?" Dean asks, casually.
Sam pauses and contemplates making a joke, but it's a reasonable question for his brother to ask when there's a drop of approximately six thousand feet that you can't see.
"The edge is about twenty five feet away, at your nine o'clock."
Dean nods, head instinctively turning in that direction. "How long 'til sunrise?"
"'Bout another thirty minutes?"
They've come prepared, but the cold is still biting now that they've stopped moving. Sam locates the coffee he made earlier and sets it down beside the chairs.
"Come on," he says to Dean, walking over to his brother and touching him on the arm. He picks up the green cooler and brings that too. "Time to get ready for the show."
Incrementally the sky starts to lighten. When the coffee's gone they switch to beer. The companionable silence is interspersed with conversation about everyday things; the topics are mundane on the face of it - work, their home, life in a small town - but it's still a novelty for them to be having them. With the darkness fading, Sam wishes he could go back and thank the ranger who suggested they make their way up here because their view of the south rim and the ensuing sunrise is going to be spectacular.
He doesn't realise he's gone quiet until Dean says, "Remember, Sammy, I want you to enjoy and appreciate every moment of what you see. Don't think you shouldn't because of me, okay?"
"I know," he replies, his voice unsteady as the first rays appear over the horizon, flaming orange against the lightening sky. The canyon walls look purple in the glow and the vastness and scale of what he's looking at takes his breath away. He wishes Dean could see it too.
"I can see the sun," Dean comments, as if he's read his mind, before he grins and holds out his beer bottle. "We made it, Sammy."
Sam brings his bottle up to clink with Dean's. "Here's to us, big brother."
"To us," Dean echoes, pausing to take a drink. "Okay, so now I want a complete, graphic description of what you're looking at. Don't leave anything out; I'm talking like full-on scenery porn, okay?"
"You got it," Sam agrees, laughing. "Okay, first of all, I'll tell you about the sky..."