*Takes a deep breath* I must say I am rather nervous about this. Incredibly nervous, actually. This is the first thing I have written for Supernatural and there's a certain terror that always come with entering a fandom for the first time. Will I get the characters right? Will seasoned fans butcher me? I have to admit I'm fairly new to the Supernatural scene but I truly enjoy the show, if only for the bond between Sam and Dean. It's such a powerful thing to watch and their struggles tug on my heartstrings like few other things do.
This idea came to me recently and bugged me so much I had to let it out. It's an AU, since I can never seem to write anything canon, no matter what fandom I am in. I am pretty pleased with how it turned out, in spite of fear that the boys may not be in character. Feel free to let me know. But gently, if I may ask. Flames will be used to roast marshmallows or burn my college papers from this year.
I'm not going to offer anything else by way of explanation. I will let you draw from it what you want. If you have any questions feel free to PM me.
Enjoy, I hope. And review!
Disclaimer: I own nothing except my own ideas.
It's the middle of May when Dean shows up at his door at six a.m. with a huge smile on his face and Sam knows something is wrong.
It's been two years of only sporadic phone calls and for Dean to bother coming all the way out to California in person something close to the end of the world must be upon them.
"What are you doing here?" slips past his lips before he can stop it and he inwardly winces at how cold it sounds.
Dean doesn't waver and Sam thinks he must be dreaming when his brother starts spouting stuff about a road trip and summer vacation and time to catch up, brother to brother. It sounds crazy—it is crazy—and Sam immediately wonders if Dean is suffering a concussion or has had a little too much to drink. But Dean's stance is steady and his voice is clear and normal, in spite of the strange words it's uttering.
Concluding that his brother seems to be mostly there and this is serious, Sam's thoughts turn to Jessica and the apartment and joint rent and the internship he's been offered by one of the most prestigious law firms in the Palo Alto area. He tells Dean that he has a life and he can't just up and leave it because his long lost older brother is feeling a little lonely.
Dean levels him with a stare so intense that Sam nearly backs up a step. There is an emotion in his brother's eyes that he can't remember ever seeing there before and it scares him more than he cares to admit even to himself.
"Trust me, Sammy, this is important." Dean is insistent and Sam fights the urge to roll his eyes—not sure how three months on the road can be more important than an internship some of his peers would kill to have.
"It's only three months of your life, Sammy. It won't kill you." Dean refuses to relent and Sam settles for correcting him about the nickname because they've been circling through the same arguments for a good hour now and he's tired of debate.
Dean smirks at his "it's Sam" and pounds the final nails into his metaphorical coffin.
"You'll regret it if you don't come." It's said with such sincerity that Sam almost does a double take. Dean looks more serious than he's seen in a very long time and something about his piercing green stare is more unsettling than the ominous words.
Sam is still uncertain and suspicious because Dean never does anything without a reason, in spite of what he wants other people to believe, and the reason behind this doesn't seem good. He runs this argument past Dean only to have it batted aside with biting sarcasm, as usual. Now Sam is on the verge of bodily throwing his brother out of his apartment but Jessica stops pretending not to listen from the kitchen and sides with Dean, insisting that Sam should go and enjoy a few months on the road with his brother because once he starts law school opportunities like this will be few and far between.
Sam can never deny Jessica anything—even though he thinks she's a traitor and Dean's victorious smirk is really annoying—so he lets out a long-suffering sigh and surrenders. Dean throws an exuberant arm around his shoulders and blinds him with a megawatt smile, alternating between joking about how he knew Sam would come around eventually and telling Jessica exactly how awesome she is for agreeing to let Sam go.
Sam still feels like something isn't right, but he shrugs the anxiety away. It's probably only his imagination. What could be wrong with Dean asking to spend some time catching up with his little brother? After all, Dean was the one who practically raised him.
No, Sam assures himself, there's absolutely nothing wrong.
He should have known better.
Dean chooses the music and, for some reason, Sam lets him without complaint.
They cycle through about five cassettes before Dean starts back at the beginning again, humming along with Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Kansas, and a whole bunch of other names Sam doesn't bother to keep track of. He can't remember when Dean started wearing leather jackets or listening to classic rock. It just happened one day and since then it's become an intrinsic part of who Dean is. He wouldn't be Dean without those five cassette tapes and the leather jacket and the Impala.
Sam shoots glances at Dean when he's sure he won't be caught, taking in the changes in his brother. Dean looks a little older and his eyes are a little brighter than two years ago. In fact, Sam can't quite remember ever seeing Dean this alive. His brothers taps the steering wheel in time to the music and jumps back and forth between quiet humming and singing at the top of his lungs. Sam shakes his head. He's never seen Dean drive the Impala without Dad but Dean looks more at home in the car than Dad ever did.
Like he was meant to own it.
The road stretches out before them and the music blares, distracting Sam from questions about where their father is or why Dean is doing this now of all timesor what his brother hopes to accomplish with this. He asks Dean where they are going but the only response is a shrug no matter how he phrases the question so he eventually gives up on that, too.
"Just sit back and enjoy life, Sammy." Sam corrects him again, but Dean is singing too loudly to the music to hear him.
Sam rolls his eyes and lets the issue slide.
They pass over state lines, drive through forests and open fields and little, quaint country towns with old ladies knitting on ancient front porches, cutting their way east and visiting places that don't seem to have any point or meaning. For some reason, they skip completely over Las Vegas and stop to see the world's largest ball of string. Sam doesn't understand and after awhile stops trying.
Dean has never made sense.
Still, as his brother looks up at the stupid ball of string, that emotion is in his eyes again.
Sam wishes he could figure out what it is.
June has taken May's place when Dean looks more tired than usual and Sam feels a pinprick of worry.
He asks Dean if he's okay and gets "I didn't sleep well, that's all" as an explanation, which is frustrating to say the least. When he persists, Dean gives him a smile that falls a little short of his eyes and shakes his head.
"It's nothing, Sammy, don't worry about it. I'm fine." For the first time, Sam is too distracted to correct him.
When Dean claims he's fine, he is often anything but and Sam knows for a fact that his brother slept like a rock last night, even got up early. He chooses not to press the matter, certain that it's a battle he won't win, and it's sunny outside after two weeks of rain—it would be a shame to spoil the nice weather with a fight.
He watches Dean more frequently, though, and begins to notice things he failed to before:
Dean's skin is a shade or two paler than normal.
He looks a little thinner than Sam remembers.
His hair is much shorter than it was two years ago.
All of these subtle differences paint a picture that's wrong in Sam's mind and once he's created it, it refuses to leave him alone. As they leave miles and scattered landmarks behind them, Sam wonders and worries and watches Dean wear thinner. His brother still manages to pull laughter and smiles and acceptance from him, but the curiosity and nervousness keep him up at night staring at the ceiling counting the things that could be wrong with his brother instead of sheep like he probably should.
As they stop in cheap dinners along the winding road, he also notices Dean's appetite has dwindled. His normally ravenous brother only orders one hamburger and refuses beer and fries. He only gives the waitress one smile that's a little worn around the edges and doesn't make her swoon like it should. When he eats, he takes slow measured bites instead of inhaling his food like he's supposed to.
For a minute, Sam's convinced the world is ending.
He sits and gapes at Dean for so long that it draws his attention and he looks up with a puzzled frown. "Dude, what's wrong? Do I have something on my face?"
"Are you sick?" It's the first thing that comes to mind and it's mostly joking, but for some reason Dean doesn't roll his eyes or even crack a smile.
"Eat your food, Sammy." He points at the plate piled with all the food that he's supposed to be eating then goes back to his meager lunch.
It takes an hour and half of the too-full plate for Sam to realize that Dean never said no to his question.
The list gets narrower and the fear grows.
Dean has two pill bottles hidden in his duffle.
Sam finds them on a search for Dean's razor, intending to borrow it since his own bit the dust. When his hand brushes one it produces a loud rattle that nearly sends him a foot in the air. He recovers quickly, eternally grateful than Dean went to find breakfast and therefore wasn't around to witness his girly reaction. He goes fishing for the bottles again and pulls them out as though he's holding a snake instead of two measly plastic containers.
They're bright orange, half full, and stamped with neatly typed stickers that proudly display a doctor's name.
Sam's stomach churns and he sinks into the nearest chair, staring at the bottles with a mixture of shock and fear. Prescription means Dean has been to a doctor. The fact that Dean has been to a doctor means that something is seriously wrong. For a Winchester, doctors are a last resort, only taken when every other road, option, and door has been tried, and there is simply nowhere else to turn. Usually, a Winchester will only check into a hospital if they are standing on death's doorstep feeling the cold pull of a reaper's hands.
With a shaky hand, Sam raises the bottles and examines the labels. One he recognizes as some form of painkiller but the other is completely foreign. He stands on wobbly legs, committing the labels to memory, and stuffs the bottles back where he found them. Hopefully, Dean won't notice that they've been disturbed.
Less than five minutes later, Dean enters humming Metallica under his breath. He hefts a bag and grins brightly, looking for all the world like a kid at Christmas. "I found some awesome donuts, dude. Sprinkles and everyth—Sam?" The smile morphs into a frown of concern faster than a blink and Sam wonders absently what he must look like to invoke such a fierce reaction.
"'M fine." He decides not to confront Dean about the pill bottles. Research first, then battle. Just like a hunt.
Dean arches an eyebrow at him and dumps the donuts on the table. "You sure? You look a little green. It isn't the tacos we had last night, right?" Dean looks worried, rubbing his stomach, and Sam manages to gather his wits enough to shake his head.
"No. I just didn't sleep well." He purposely throws Dean's earlier excuse back at him. The second eyebrow joins the first high on Dean's forehead, informing Sam that this hasn't slipped by him.
"Well, judging by the way you were snoring, you seemed fine to me."
"I don't snore," Sam grumbles, rubbing a hand across his jaw. Rough stubble scrapes against his fingers, reminding him that he still needs to shave. "Besides, how were you awake to hear me? You sleep like a rock."
Dean shakes his head and ambles back over to the donut bag, delving inside in search of a napkin and several of the donuts. "You kept me up. Dude, you're loud."
They're dancing around the true issue, just like old times, and Sam fights the urge to grab Dean by the shoulders and shake him until the truth spills from his lips. Instead he sighs and heads for the bathroom, picking up Dean's razor off the bed on the way past and studiously ignoring his brother's protests.
"I'm going to shave."
"With my razor? No way."
"So buy a new one."
Dean dissolves into frustrated muttering but concedes defeat in favor of chewing on his donut contemptuously. Sam smiles, accepting the rare victory with quiet satisfaction, and retreats to the bathroom. The weight settles back on his shoulders the minute the door clicks shut behind him. The mirror shows him a pale face with weary eyes and bedraggled hair that he barely recognizes.
No wonder Dean had a fit when he walked through the door. Sam's somehow managed to look worse than him.
Sighing, Sam splashes cold water on his face and contemplates how he can conduct research without Dean finding out.
In the end, his best plan is to wait for Dean to fall asleep then lock himself in the bathroom with his laptop—that is he so grateful he talked Dean into allowing him to bring—and the medicine bottles. Alone on the hard tile floor, the silence is suffocating and his fingers fly across the keyboard—desperate for answers to the mystery that his brother has become.
The first search affirms his earlier conclusion about painkillers and the second reveals medicine used to prevent nausea, dizziness, and severe headaches.
Sam's head falls back against the door with a muffled 'thump' and he welcomes the pain as the sharp edges on the wood dig into his scalp. It's a distraction from the fear that is threatening to eat him alive, starting with his heart and lungs.
Sick. Dean is sick.
He's finally found his answer, but it holds no relief, no closure, and somehow only deepens the mystery.
Still, he closes the laptop firmly. Research is finished for now. There are still pieces missing, but he doesn't think he can bear to see the whole picture.
It's the height of June when Sam finds out Dean's dying.
"What do you mean a brain tumor?" He follows Dean out of the Impala onto the lonely highway, slamming the door shut behind him with vengeful finality.
Dean stops a few yard away and Sam glares daggers at his bent shoulders, hating how his brother looks too small, too pale, too sick, too old, and too young all at the same time.
"I don't see how that's hard to understand, Sammy. And I thought you were the smart one."
His jaw hurts from clenching so tightly. It is hard to understand. Winchesters don't die of brain tumors. They die sacrifices; they die protectors; they die fighters; they die in motion—saving, hunting, battling evil. They don't die slowly or of something as humanly normal as cancer.
They don't die like this.
"It's inoperable." He wants Dean to shut up. He wishes he hadn't pushed so hard because the mystery was so much easier to handle than the truth. "The doctors gave me a eight months to live … five months ago." Dean tilts his head to the cloud-streaked sky and Sam is desperately glad his brother hasn't turned around. It makes this a little easier to handle. "I went through chemo and stuff. The whole shebang. Nothing worked."
Well that answered the shorter hair question.
Sam almost laughed at the image of his brother bald, but he knew if he let the sound out it would dissolve into sobs within seconds. There was nothing funny about all this, anyway.
"So … you have until August?"
Dean sighs—long and drawn out, and Sam can't help but wonder if a little life leaves with the exhalation. The wind whistles down the road, tugging at their clothes insistently, asking them to go somewhere, and for a moment Sam wishes the wind would blow him away to some far-off place where brothers didn't die and fathers didn't leave and no one was ever left to face life alone.
"Yeah. The end of August. I'll be gone before the fall." Dean finally turns and his eyes are hollow in his face—too bright and too green, and nothing about Dean fits right anymore. The only familiar thing is the faded leather jacket nestled securely over his shoulders.
The shock is slowly beginning to seep away, allowing anger to creep into the cracks it leaves behind. This is what he hates about his brother. There's always something Dean is hiding from him, always things he refuses to say or do or accept. It's so typical Dean to show up at his younger brother's door proposing a summer on the road, just for fun, when the real reason is that he wants to spend time with his brother before dying.
Sam really wishes he could hate Dean for this.
"How could you?" The anger swells and overflows, manifesting in nails digging into palms and rigid shoulders. He isn't sure what he's accusing Dean of. There's too many words and they're all getting jumbled and tangled in his throat.
How could you make me love you again? How could you make me want you in my life again? How could you take all of it away? How could you keep this from me?
Finally, something besides dull acceptance floods into Dean's eyes, though it doesn't chase the weariness away. "Is it so wrong to want to spend a little time with my brother, Sam? I didn't want my last memory of you to be you yelling at Dad and slamming doors and hopping on a bus to Stanford. Is that really too much to ask?"
Sam can't answer—doesn't know the answer and doesn't want to. It should be no because Dean is his brother—Dean is everything. But it isn't quite no. Because now there's Jess and Stanford and Law School and Dean isn't really everything anymore. It can never be yes, either. He's not that heartless. He's not their father. He can never just walk away from family without a second glance. But this hurts. Probably more than it should. But he doesn't know for sure. He wasn't old enough to grieve for his mother and he hasn't really lost anyone since.
Confused and frustrated, he dodges the question with skill acquired from years of practice. "That isn't the issue. When were you planning on telling me, Dean? Or were you even going to tell me?"
Dean flinches and the walls start building in his eyes, closing off the path to his soul. "Of course I was going to tell you!"
"When?" Sam half screams—absently thinking that this is the perfect place to have a shouting match, no one can hear them. Maybe that's why Dean pulled over. His stupid brother never does anything without a reason.
"Later!" Dean yells back, but the volume doesn't come close to matching Sam. The fight leaves him after a few seconds, bleeding away like his life slowly is, and defeat is left broken in its wake. "Later … closer to the end."
"When you drop me off back at Stanford, right?" Sam accuses, shaken by his brother's sudden surrender but unwilling to stop the battle. "What were you going to do, Dean? Leave me at my place, say your goodbyes, and then go find a motel to die in? Was that your plan?"
Another, sharper flinch and Sam feels his heart plummet straight into his stomach. "You were going to die alone," he whispers with horrified realization.
Dean attempts a casual shrug, but his shoulders are too stiff to make it successful. "So? I don't see the big deal, Sammy. Dying is dying. The end will be the same if I'm alone in a motel room or watching you freak out."
"Dean…" Sam chokes on the rest of the half-formed words. All the anger is gone and aching sadness has settled in deep in all the holes and tears it left behind. The picture of Dean lying alone in some cheap motel breathing his last in the chilling silence nearly brings tears to his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Sammy." The words are so soft Sam almost doesn't catch them, but when they brush across his ears they also turn into knives that plunge straight to his heart. "I didn't want you to find out this way."
"I don't care about that!" The words are an explosion of emotion, so loud they chase birds from the fields squawking in fear. Dean blinks at him in open surprise—eyes wide and stunned and a little nervous. Sam continues, taking two steps forward to bridge the gap between them. "You are not dying alone, you hear me? You are not dying alone."
"Don't Sammy me. I'm staying with you, Dean. Until the end. You're my brother and I'm not going to be abandon you … not like Dad did."
Dean twitches and his eyes grow even wider, shifting to brilliant green. "How … how did you know about that?"
A bitter chuckle punches the air as Sam shakes his head. "Lucky guess," he mutters wryly.
Dean sighs and looks away. "I was in chemo for a long time. I was slowing him down. When I got out of the hospital I found the Impala in the parking lot and all the weapons gone." Sam promptly swears to himself that he will kill his father the next time he sees him, or at the very least pound some sense into him. "He called to make sure I was okay. I lied and told him the problem was fixed." Another shrug, this time merely tired. Dean looks so small, folding in on himself in pain and misery, and suddenly Sam can't take it anymore.
Three more steps and he has Dean in his arms. Dean grunts in protest, frantically trying to escape the impending chick flick moment, but Sam holds fast. "You jerk. Why do you think you don't matter enough for us to worry about you?"
"Shut up and listen, Dean." He steps out of the increasingly awkward hug—neither of them have ever been the 'touchy feely' type—but keeps his hands firmly on Dean's shoulders. "You're the one that came and got me and now you're stuck with me. I'm not going anywhere and we're going to fix this."
"No, Sam." Dean sounds determined now and a little resigned, but his eyes are almost pleading. "No fixing this. Dad already tried. Just let it be, okay? Promise me you'll let it be."
"Promise me." It's a demand, not a request and Sam reluctantly caves.
Dean smiles and it touches his eyes for the first time in weeks.
But Sam only feels empty.
Dean talks a lot.
It's an almost ceaseless stream of conversation—often one-sided because Sam is content to simply sit and soak it in. He can't remember a time when Dean talked this much, at least about the things that mattered. Now, something has been released within his brother, allowing him to speak openly about pretty much everything.
As they weave their way through the forests and fields of Illinois, Dean talks about their mother with a sad smile on his face. When they cross into Indiana, he switches gears and opens up about Dad—for once not bothering to hide the pain in his voice at being left behind and Sam's knuckles bleach white across the steering wheel while Dean pretends not to notice. In the middle of a blue grass field in Kentucky, Dean reminiscences about their childhood, focusing on the rare good memories blended in with all the bad. On the banks of the Mississippi River on the edge of Tennessee, Dean spins stories about the two years he spent without Sam at his side, skimming over the bruises and the cuts and the pain that came with every hunt without Sam to watch his back.
Throughout it all, he presses Sam for information about Stanford and Jessica. Sam finds himself spilling almost everything—surprised at how attentive a listener Dean is as he rambles on about college and dorm life and his geeky friends, and how nervous he was when he asked Jessica out for the first time. Every laugh he draws out of Dean is a thrill, and he manages to pretend his brother isn't growing paler or more tired as the weeks wear on.
No, it's easier to focus on merely talking.
They talk about things that Sam never dreamed they would and the words that his brother utters blindside him with their depth.
"You know, Sammy, as a kid I always wondered where I would end up if I allowed a river to just take me wherever it wanted."
"You'll have to forgive Dad sometime, Sammy, because once he gets done with this stupid quest of his, he's going to regret not sticking around. And dude, please don't go hunt him down and kill him or anything, okay? You'll regret that."
"We'll have to stop by the Grand Canyon on the way back. I've always wanted to see it. Just to see for myself if water can really carve into the earth that deep."
"Did you find what you were looking for when you left, Sammy? Did all the answers lie in sunny California?"
"No, Dean. Not really."
"Didn't think so. Normal's relative, Sammy. Everyone has their own definition. And deep down, everybody's a freak in one way or another."
So it goes, on and on, and Sam is constantly uncovering new layers of his brother. He wonders if dying has given Dean a new kind of wisdom or if it was there all along but he never took the time to dig for it. This mature side of Dean is strange but fascinating, and Sam finds himself cherishing it. He always thought Dean was a simple man driven by simple desires and satisfied with simple things.
He was wrong.
And he thinks more than once that if he had never hopped on a bus to Stanford he would have discovered this before it was too late.
June is bleeding into July when Sam takes Dean to the ocean.
A cool Carolina wind blows across their faces as they exit the car and approach the sand. The beach is lonely and mostly empty since the sun has decided to take a day off and lounge behind the clouds. Dean pulls off his boots and socks without hesitation before half walking, half stumbling across the beach to where the ocean brushes its fingers across the shore. Sam watches in wry amusement as his brother plops down in an undignified heap on a spot where the sand has piled slightly higher than the water.
He joins Dean with a little more grace, and smiles quietly at the contended grin spreading across Dean's face. "Man, I've missed the ocean."
"Yeah, when was the last time you were at the beach?"
"When I was ten. Remember that?"
Sam vaguely recalls a cabin by the sea and more days without their father, but he shakes his head, wanting the story from Dean.
"We stayed in this little cabin that belonged to a friend of Dad's while they worked a job. Dad told me not to get too close to the water, but I would sit out in the sand for hours, just watching the ocean. You know that line on the horizon?" Dean lifts a hand and points at the gray smudge where the sky and sea seemingly run together. "I used to wonder how far I would have to swim to be able to touch it. I thought that heaven used to be there because that's were the sun would go to sleep at night." Dean shakes his head, laughing softly. "Crazy, huh? I was one weird kid."
Startled, Sam turns his head to the horizon just as the sun briefly breaks through the clouds to check on the world, setting the line on fire. It blazes brilliant gold and Sam's breath catches in wonder. It's the most beautiful thing he's seen in awhile.
Turning, he watches Dean stare out at the sparkling line with awe filled eyes. Looking at Dean, Sam finally realizes what is so different about his brother.
Dean is at peace.
Somewhere along the broken road of doctor's visits, chemotherapy, pills, and abandonment his brother grasped peace and acceptance and held on tight. Now, it radiates out from him like light—hard to define but impossible to ignore.
Suddenly, as if it heard his thoughts, the light bounces up from the ocean and reflects in Dean's gaze. For a minute, Sam sees heaven and streets of gold. It's so achingly beautiful that tears bloom, blurring his vision and forcing him to turn his head before Dean notices.
Dean glances at him briefly but then his attention is drawn back to the sea and sky.
Sam swallows deep, reminded that soon Dean will be going where he can't follow. This isn't merely getting on a bus to Stanford. This is the kind of leaving that tears holes so wide they never really heal. He doesn't want to think about life without Dean, but when he turns his eyes back to the horizon he sees it reflected there beside the image of heaven.
It creates a bittersweet ache. His own pain mixed with his brother's peace.
Sam wonders what Dean sees when he looks at heaven.
Dean has good days and bad days.
Sam can usually tell what it will be as soon as he wakes up. A good day is Dean still asleep in bed, looking not quite peaceful but still calm without pain pinching his features tight. A bad day is Dean hunched over the toilet throwing up whatever he had for dinner the night before or by the sink washing pills down his throat and rubbing his forehead in a weak effort to fight off an agonizing headache—sweat coating his forehead; eyes bloodshot and sickly green against his almost white face.
Still, every morning Dean smiles—sometimes bright and brilliant, sometimes sad and wavering. He smiles when Sam shakes him awake on the good days. He smiles when Sam crouches down beside him in the bathroom and rubs his back until he stops heaving on the bad days.
Sam can't decide whether he hates or loves the smiles.
On the bad days, Dean is tired and dizzy and a mess of hurts and sickness, grudgingly letting Sam drive, but griping at every pothole in the road Sam manages to hit. Sam mutters apologies and snarky comebacks until Dean falls asleep against the passenger window, slipping in so deep he doesn't even wake when Sam fails to dodge a particularly large hole in the road and his head hits the window hard.
Sometimes, Sam checks to make sure he's still breathing and tries not to feel like he's looking at a corpse.
On the good days, Dean is vibrant and alive and almost normal. He presses the gas until the Impala reaches speeds high above the limit and hums along to whatever cassette is playing as the world whips by outside the windows, and Sam tries not to fear for his life.
Sam loves the good days because Dean is freer than he's ever seen him. There is no talk of hunting or ghosts or demons—although Dean still sleeps with a knife under his pillow and they both salt the door and windows before they go to bed—and for once the supernatural worlds leaves them alone. He wonders if God is really up there looking out for them, and has decided to give them these last few months to just be brothers.
When he runs the theory by Dean, he's surprised at Dean's positive response.
"Well, Sammy, being stuck in a hospital with nothing to stare at but a white ceiling and nurses who aren't even close to being hot gives you a lot of time to think about God and dying and stuff. And I figure, this is kind of like a gift, you know? Being able to die peacefully, with time to settle everything before I go. I think … I think I might just believe in God. Maybe a little."
Sam laughs at the irony and Dean cracks a grin, and it's one of the best days.
The rollercoaster is hard sometimes—full of peaks and plunges and curves. Sam never knows going to sleep what the next day will be like but he learns slowly not to think about it. Dean is still Dean every morning. The only difference is he needs Sam's help a little more on the bad days. Sam slides into the role of caretaker easier than he thought he would.
It feels good, being able to look after Dean.
And as the weeks go by, Dean learns to accept the help just as Sam learns to give it. He stops shoving Sam away when he crouches beside him on the bathroom floor, offering comfort as the nausea wrecks havoc on Dean's body. He doesn't grumble about leaning on Sam when the earth is spinning too much for him to walk.
It's painful and frustrating and somehow rewarding, and neither of them are ever sure what to feel.
But at least they have each other.
At least there's that. For now.
July is slowly dying away when Sam takes Dean to see the Grand Canyon.
The time is moving fast now, almost a blur, and he desperately wants to grab hold of it and slow it down. But time travels at its own pace and so here they are—one month left and still too much to say, too much to do.
Dean exits the car and stands on wobbly legs. He's tired and pale, and the headaches have been getting steadily worse, but his eyes light up a little at the sight of the canyon that he's been talking about for months.
"Look at this, Sammy." He pulls himself to the rail and drinks in the sight of the red coated rocks and chasms carved deep in the earth—jagged and worn, like scars. "It's almost like goes on forever. Like the ocean."
Sam hums in agreement and joins Dean at the rail. He peers over cautiously and looks down, down, down until he feels sick. He takes a step back, forcing down thoughts about what it would be like to fall that far, and shakes his head to clear the sudden onslaught of dizziness. Dean watches with an amused smirk and Sam braces himself for the oncoming teasing.
"Scared of heights, Sammy?"
"No. Scared of falling."
Dean pauses at this and looks back over the railing contemplatively. "Yeah, it is a long way down isn't it?"
That's the understatement of the century, but Sam forces himself to remain silent, unwilling to be the victim of continued ribbing by his childish older brother.
"You'd make a pretty big splat if you fell over the edge, dude. I bet you'd be completely flat. Like a pancake." Dean chuckles almost manically and Sam shivers at the image.
"Not funny, Dean."
"C'mon, it's a little funny. Big, bad Sammy scared of heights. Wait till your girlfriend hears about that one."
"You wouldn't!" Sam cries.
Dean laughs evilly. "Oh, I would. I wonder what else big, bad Sammy is scared of. Snakes? Spiders? Mice? The dark?"
"Shut up," Sam growls but inside he's elated because this is as close to normal as they've come in awhile. It's easy to forget that Dean probably won't live long enough to tattle on him to Jessica.
If only he could stop reminding himself.
The smile slips from his face before he can tack it more firmly in place and Dean's grin dies quickly, too, as Sam's expression reminds him how little time he has left.
"C'mon, dude, why do you always ruin the fun? It's a wonder you have friends with the way you brood. Like a girl."
Dean holds up a hand. "No chick flick moments, understand? We're at the Grand Canyon, let's have some fun."
And surprisingly, it is fun. Dean manages to coax Sam out onto the skywalk where Sam lasts all of two seconds before running back to land, Dean's laughter chasing him all the way. He doesn't see what's so funny. Having glass as the only thing between you and at least a thousand foot drop is stupid. Dean's hauls him back out onto the bridge, calling him a baby and a bunch of other derogatory nicknames, and plants him along the rail with instructions not to look down.
Sam obeys and is surprised by how beautiful the red peaks are against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky. "Wow."
Dean sighs in agreement. "No kidding. I guess water really can make scars on the earth."
"Do you ever think that something might have made all this?"
"Well … yeah."
Dean shrugs, squinting up at the sky. "I don't know. Maybe. Being around something like this certainly makes me feel tiny."
"Yeah, but it's not a bad feeling."
"No," Dean's tone is quiet, introspective. "It isn't. It's … nice to marvel at something for a change. With all the things we've seen, it takes a lot to amaze me. But this, dude. This does."
Sam nods and the conversation dies away.
They lose track of how long they stand there just drinking in the view. The time almost seems to stand still and Sam is grateful, wondering again if they have at least an angel watching over them. He shoves the thought aside for future study and focuses on the now that is slowly slipping by—the warm, fresh air and Dean's comforting presence at his side.
He refuses to think about what will happen when it's all gone.
Sam is determined to be ready.
He has accepted the fact that Dean is going to die and there is nothing he can do stop it, but he refuses to let it break him. He spends nights researching brain tumors and reading stories from people who lost someone to their cruelty. With studious precision, he gathers all the answers and information he will need to get through the grief of Dean's death.
Sometimes, he catches Dean glancing his way, and the knowing look in his brother's eyes informs him that Dean has caught on to what he's doing and is none too pleased about it. He feels bad for making his dying brother worry about him, but doesn't stop. If he stops, Dean's death will take him by surprise and he'll fall apart.
And falling apart is something that Winchesters simply don't do.
One night around two a.m., Sam is flipping through testimonies of cancer survivors when a hand comes down and closes the laptop so quickly he barely has time to pull his fingers out of the way. Blinking in the darkness, he tilts his head back and finds Dean's determined face staring down at him. Dean tells him to stop because this isn't helping, and he's tired of Sam acting like he's dead already, which he's not, by the way.
Sam feels guilty—like a kid with his hand caught in a cookie jar—and grudgingly promises to put his research on hold, realizing with a large amount of reproach that he's been treating Dean's death like he would a test—find all the answers and you'll pass without any problems. But, he feels if he doesn't do something toprepare himself, Dean's death will be the blow that kills him, either physically or emotionally.
Sometimes, when this frustration seeps out of him and onto Dean, Dean's eyes soften and he looks sad and sorry that he's leaving his little brother alone to face the world. He tells Sam more than once he would change things if he could, but he's dying and that's kind of irreversible. But he says more often how proud he is of Sam, and how amazing Sam is going to be once he's become a stuck-up lawyer. Sam knows it's Dean's way of telling him that he'll be fine after all this over.
He'll be fine, someday.
Sam wishes he could believe Dean. Wishes he knew for certain that he will be able to get up and walk on after this. But he doesn't, and the only comfort he has is preparing himself for the bitter end. So he does, in little ways. He forces himself to imagine life without Dean—no matter how much it hurts. He tells himself over and over that Dean is going to die in less than a month, there's nothing he can do about it.
He will be ready when the time comes. He's determined to be.
But he really should have known better.
August has begun its descent when Dean rouses him from bed.
"Sammy, wake up! C'mon, dude, you sleep like a freakin' rock! It's a wonder you haven't been killed your sleep or something…." Sam cracks an eye open and stares in bleary surprise at his brother seated on the end of his bed, breathing heavily and looking highly annoyed.
"Dean?" He mutters because this can't be right. It's still dark outside and they're only eight hours from Palo Alto and the end of their trip, so they don't really need to leave this early to make it back in time for dinner like Sam promised Jess they would.
"What do I look like, Cinderella?" Dean snaps, but then goes pale and runs a hand over his forehead. The headaches and dizziness and nausea have been getting steadily worse. Now it's so bad that Dean can barely stand upright on his own. Sam doesn't want to think about the effort it took for Dean to sit and shake him for so long.
"It's five a.m." A glance at the clock confirms it and Sam is so confused he can barely string two thoughts together, but there's something nagging at him—a sense that something's wrong.
"I know." Dean's anger has faded quickly, like it always does these days, and a tired smile has taken up residence on his face. "Get up, Sleeping Beauty. We've got places to see, things to do."
"Dean….?" Sam is worried now—worried that this might be it—and he doesn't think he could move if he tried.
Dean's eyes soften and there's so much love in them that it hurts. "Please, Sammy..." The quiet plea propels him out of bed faster than a bucket of ice water to the face. Fumbling blindly in the dark, he manages to pull on his clothes, then his socks and shoes. Dean has already packed most of their stuff and the sight of it waiting by the door makes Sam's heart take a gleeful plunge straight into his stomach, which in turn tries to climb up his throat.
This really is it.
Dean makes it to the car on his own, but collapses against the passenger door as soon as he's seated. Sam pretends his heart doesn't break at the sight. They drive in silence along the California highway—the ocean to their left and towering mountains on the right. The sky is beginning to lighten when Dean indicates a wide turnout on the side of the lonely road.
"Pull over there."
Sam obeys, maintaining the silence, and parks the car on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It seems like a fitting place to die, Sam thinks, and is immediately horrified. Dean opens the passenger door with effort, but one attempt to stand has him sinking back with a groan of pain. Sam rushes to his side, hovering like a worried mother hen, waiting for the signal to help. Dean glances up at him and quietly holds out a hand, swallowing his pride to let Sam care for him this last time.
Sam pulls him upright and wraps his arm around Dean's shoulders—as close to a hug as he dares—and together they shuffle to the cliff and drop down on a rock nearby with twin sighs of weariness. The silence between them is almost reverent, and Sam doesn't want to break it, but his mind is going through constant loops of this is it and I can't do this I can't I can't until worlds finally tumble out unbidden.
"I can't do this," he whispers, feeling wet tears slide down his cheek for the first time since they started all this. It's a miracle he's been able to hold them off this long.
Dean doesn't look at him, but Sam hears the tears in his quiet voice. "Yes, you can."
He shakes his head with desperation—the half crazy part of him thinking that if he begs and pleads and uses the puppy dog eyes enough, Dean will hold on and stay. "I can't do this alone."
"You won't be alone," Dean points out gently. "You've got Jessica and Stanford and those geeky friends you told me about. And somewhere out there you've got Dad. You won't be alone, Sammy."
They're not you, Sam wants to say because no one has ever understood him like Dean does, but he bites his tongue. Saying it will make him sound five years old and he's not that far gone. Give it a little time, maybe, but not yet.
"Yeah." It comes out a hiccup and Sam grits his teeth in annoyance.
Dean elbows him and when Sam finally looks at his brother he sees wet cheeks and tear-soaked eyes to match his own. "I got you something." He seems pleased, in spite of the pain haunting his eyes and features. Sam has no idea how his brother is even coherent with how much agony he must be in from the pressure on his brain, but Dean has always been a fighter and a measly brain tumor won't keep him down.
Not right now, anyway.
"What?" He turns his attention to Dean's words because they're much easier to deal with than his gaunt face.
Dean pulls something out of his pocket, wrapped in brown paper that looks suspiciously like a cut-up grocery bag. "Sorry I didn't have time to wrap it or anything. No way was I going to go buy wrapping paper or something girly like that."
Sam chuckles in spite of how heavy his heart feels and carefully tears open the package. Inside is a cassette for an iPod hookup and speakers for said iPod.
Sam gapes. "Wh-what is this?"
"For the Impala," Dean explains with a teasing smile. "She's yours now, Sammy. Take good care of her or I swear I'll haunt your ass."
The tears are back full force and Sam sobs out a laugh, cradling the present in stunned disbelief. "Dean…."
"I know, I know, I'm awesome."
"You're … actually going to let me put this in your car?"
Another jab in the side. "Your car, moron."
Sam manages a trembling smile and Dean returns it weakly. He's fading fast, now. So fast it's making Sam dizzy. He's scared because this is too quick, and they were supposed to have more time than this—dinner with Jessica and a few days to show Dean around campus, give him a glimpse of the life Sam never should have kept from him.
Afraid and feeling like he's five again crawling into Dean's bed after a nightmare, needing comfort and the soothing presence of his older brother, Sam slides closer to Dean and wraps an arm around him, pulling him into one last embrace—not caring about chick flick moments and Dean's aversion to any form of sappiness. And Dean merely sighs and leans into Sam, letting him support and comfort him one last time.
It sounds so final. Sam closes his eyes and thinks brokenly about firsts and lasts, and why people celebrate the one and not the other. Lasts should be cherished so much more; they are all that's left behind after someone passes—last hello, last goodbye, last conversation, last laugh, last night, last day.
Yes, people should celebrate lasts.
"Sammy?" Dean's voice is getting fainter, hard to hear over the wind through the pines and the violent sounds of the sea as it hurls itself against the rocks below them.
"Yeah?" He's afraid of what Dean might be ready to say—so afraid it will be the last thing he ever hears from his brother's lips.
"I love you." Sam jerks in surprise at the whispered words. He can count on one hand the times Dean has verbally said he loved him. Dean is an expert at avoiding emotion in any form and to see him willingly entering a chick flick moment is shocking, to say the least. This really was the end. "Just in case you didn't know already." Dean half-jokes, keeping his eyes on the sea that is slowly being lit up by the rising sun at their backs.
"I love you, too," Sam replies finally with every ounce of conviction he possess, feeling off-balance and sad and stunned and heartbroken—too many things to describe them all.
Dean coughs and Sam shakes his head. "Okay, let's talk about something else now. That was…"
"Incredibly awkward?" Dean asks with an arched eyebrow and a smile that falls miles short of his eyes.
"I don't know what to talk about, Sam." Dean turns his eyes away again but not before Sam catches the sadness in them.
"Then don't say anything. You don't have to, Dean. These last few months, you've told me everything I need to know." He leaves off what he really means, but Dean is skilled at reading between the lines and Sam knows he'll hear: you can go now; you can rest.
Everything about Dean seems sad, but peaceful, and his answering smile is no different. "Then, I want you to promise me something, Sammy: don't go back."
Sam frowns, confused. "What?"
"Whatever you do, don't start hunting again. Don't go back to Dad. Don't get caught up in revenge. Go back to Stanford. Become a lawyer. And marry Jess. She's the best girl you'll ever find." A pregnant pause. Then: "Not to mention the only girl stupid enough to date you."
"Hey!" Sam cries in mock outrage, elbowing his brother—but gently, he's afraid Dean will fall apart otherwise."
Dean grins cheekily at him, but sobers quickly. "I'm serious, Sam. Hunting, that's not what Mom would want for us. This life, it's what's meant for you. Sorry I didn't see it sooner. So promise. Oh, and promise to take care of my car, too. Or I'll end you myself. Somehow. And promise you'll salt and burn me. Last gross hunter thing I'll ask you to do. I really don't want to be woken up or used as a meatsuit for a fugly. Got it?"
"I promise," Sam answers without hesitation, laughter and tears making his breath hitch—already knowing that he will return to Stanford after this and work in his own way to make his mother and brother proud.
"Good." A weight looks as though it's been lifted from Dean's shoulders, and he sits up a little straighter, in spite of the pain.
Silence falls between them but it's comfortable and surprisingly free of death's shadow. In front of them, the sun scatters diamonds over the ocean's surface and the horizon lights up like a beacon, urging them toward heaven.
Dean jerks suddenly, staring at the horizon with intensity. His face sheds the pain and weariness he has been wearing for months and childish wonder takes it's place.
"Sammy … can you … see it?" His voice is a stage whisper, full to the brim with awe. Sam glances out at the horizon and sees nothing but sunlight.
"Dean?" He whispers in confusion.
"It's … so beautiful." Heaven is in Dean's eyes again, but this time it isn't merely a glow from the horizon.
Sam's heart breaks.
He wonders what Dean is seeing as he looks at heaven.
"Wow." Dean murmurs, gripping Sam's wrist tightly and sounding almost like himself again.
"Dean…." Sam pulls his brother closer, at a loss for words.
It's the end and there's simply nothing left to say.
"You'll be okay." Dean looks at him one more time but there is distance in his eyes. Dean is fading rapidly and all Sam can do is hold on and sob. "You'll be okay … Sammy. Remember … what I taught … you. You'll be … okay."
Dean's breath goes out in a sigh, soft and faint— like a wisp of vapor. It doesn't resume.
Sobbing brokenly, Sam cradles Dean's body and wrenches his gaze from his brother's still face to the horizon just as the sunlight flares, catching it on fire the way it did back in the Carolinas.
For a minute, Sam sees heaven and streets of gold and Dean's megawatt grin.
So achingly beautiful.
EDIT: 100 reviews. I have 100 reviews for this story. I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw that number. Since I haven't had any time to go back through and individually answer reviews, I want to thank each and every person who has bothered to leave feedback. I see that I have made a lot of people cry. I'm sorry for that, and proud at the same time. Reading back over the story two years later, I felt a pull at my own heartstrings. I remember staring at this finished document through misty eyes two years ago, feeling heavy yet lighter now that I had it all written down. I remember tentatively posting it, thinking "It doesn't matter. No one's going to read this." Thank you, everyone, for proving me wrong. For flooring me. For sharing this emotional experience with me. You all are amazing. Completely and totally amazing.