A Quarter Century of Sorrow
K Hanna Korossy
"Hey, Bobby? It's Dean. Listen, uh you're not gonna believe this, but guess what? Looks like we're famous!"
Bobby scoffed. "Boy, are you drunk-dialing me again?"
Dean reared back. "What? No! When did…? Never mind. No, there's this guy, Chuck Shurley. Turns out he's a—"
"—prophet of the Lord," Bobby finished warily.
Dean blinked a few times, staring at the dirty bricks next to their motel room door. He opened his mouth, closed it again, then blurted, "You knew?"
He could hear Bobby's sigh over the phone. "Known for a while now. Ellen passed a couple on to me, and I had to check it out. Guy looks legit, Dean."
"He is," Dean said absently. "Cas told me— Wait. You knew? And you didn't think it was worth mentioning?"
"Why? Not like you two could've done anything about it. Some of the stuff in there's pretty personal—figured you were better off not knowing it was out there."
Dean tucked his chin down, eyebrows up. "You read it?"
A pause. "Just parts of it," Bobby said, sounding unusually defensive. "Just enough to know what I was dealing with."
Dean closed his eyes. For only writing what he saw, Chuck had gotten an awful lot of intimate details right, everything from Dean's desolation when Sam died, to every tear his brother shed when he had to kill Madison. Bad enough to think they had fans out there feeding off their misery, but Bobby—and Ellen—knowing every detail was somehow worse. Unlike Sam, however—well, the Sammy Dean had grown up with, anyway—Bobby didn't feel a need to hash out every emotion he felt. With one change of subject, Dean knew the books wouldn't be mentioned again. He cleared his throat. "So, uh, Sam and I learned something else about this whole seals thing."
"Yeah? What's that?"
"Lilith's not gonna survive to see Apocalypse Now."
Bobby grunted. "That's it? No details on how or why? Who threw you that bone, your cryptic angel buddy?"
Dean shook his head even though Bobby couldn't see it. "Lilith, actually. Had a nice chat with her before she had to run. Sam and I figure, why would she lie about that?"
"Yeah, okay," Bobby said slowly. "I'll look into it." A beat. "You and your brother okay? People who 'chat' with Lilith usually wind up dead."
"We're good," Dean confirmed, glancing briefly at the door between him and his brother. Bobby didn't need to know about the deal Lilith had offered Sam, or about Sam's stone-cold determination to kill the bitch before all this was over. Bobby already looked at Sam funny sometimes when he thought neither of them noticed. "We're heading south now—the haunted building case was a bust. I'll call you when we get something."
"Thought we'd talked about you maybe coming out here for Sam's birthday."
Dean's eyes widened. "What day is it today?"
Bobby gave a dry chuckle. "It's April thirtieth, you idjit. Don't they have calendars out where you are?"
Crap. Dean winced. "I don't think we're gonna make it but, uh, thanks, Bobby. I gotta go."He snapped the phone shut on the older hunter's response, then chewed his lip, thinking.
How'd they end up almost at May? And end of the world or not, how had Dean not noticed?
He shook his head and opened the door, going back into the warm, brightly lit room.
Sam was sitting on his bed where Dean had left him a few hours before to go get the Impala's window fixed, his long legs stretched out instead of in the usual folded huddle he'd assumed up until a year or so ago. This Sam stood straighter, moved more confidently, took advantage of his height instead of minimizing it. Dean was chagrined he missed the former, more hesitant version of his brother.
He shrugged out of his jacket, eyeing the cover of the book Sam was reading. All Hell Breaks Loose. Terrific. Dean hadn't even picked that one up, unable to stomach the thought of reliving Sam's death. He cleared his throat. "Bobby already knew about the books."
"Huh," Sam said distractedly, eyes still on the page. "Nice of him to share."
"Ellen gave them to him."
Sam's face twitched and he turned a page. "Yeah, well, no telling how many people we know have read them. Better change up some of our codewords and contingency plans."
That hadn't even occurred to him. Dean resisted slamming his jacket down and tossed himself onto his bed instead, hands weaving together behind his head. "Awesome. Thanks for that thought," he muttered.
"You're welcome." Then, in the same placid voice, Sam said, "You never told me Azazel said maybe I didn't come back one-hundred percent me."
This just kept getting better and better. Dean glared up at the ceiling. "He didn't. He asked if I was sure you were you, and I said yes. He was just messing with me, Sam—he was a demon. They do that."
"But didn't you ever wonder?" There was a note of…something in Sam's voice now. Dean wished he could see his brother's eyes to figure out what, but that would mean meeting his gaze, and Dean wasn't up for that at the moment. Besides, he still remembered Sam's face when Dean had finally admitted his fear his brother would go evil. One speared-through-the-gut look per day was Dean's limit.
"No," he lied through his teeth. Then he turned, just catching Sam ducking back behind the book. "Hey, you know what day it is today?"
He could see Sam's forehead furrow above the lurid picture of the open devil's gate spewing spirits. "…Thursday?" he finally offered.
"April thirtieth," Dean amended. "What do you wanna do for your birthday, Sammy? Tour of your favorite libraries? Get some shiny new gadgets for your laptop?" He grinned. "Twenty-six spankings by a hooker of your choice?"
Sam fixed him with a steely-eyed glare over the top of the book, killing Dean's glee in about a second flat. "Dude, we're trying to stop the Apocalypse here. Think maybe we could focus on that instead of some stupid childhood tradition?"
Dean looked away, trying not to feel stung. Didn't seem so stupid when Sam had made sure they ended up in Vegas for Dean's thirtieth earlier that year. He'd believed, even been touched by his brother's insistence they had to celebrate Dean's being alive again, even if neither of them mentioned that in some ways he was four months younger than thirty, and in other ways many years older. Apparently, childhood traditions were only for simple older brothers, though, not strong, focused Mighty Hunters like Sam.
Dean couldn't leave him to it, though; he'd tried that before and gotten as far as the door. He'd never been the one to leave in the family. But sometimes he wondered if staying was all that different at this point.
Dean turned away, curling onto his side to stare at the door. Yeah, he never worried about Sam still being Sam at all.
He was still half-asleep when he turned in bed and stretched one arm. He came fully awake with a groan when pain shot down his shoulder and back.
Dean cringed. He'd forgotten about getting hit by a friggin' minivan the day before, but his body hadn't. He tested out each limb cautiously, cataloging where it ached and where it flat out hurt. Great. Start of another craptastic day in the Winchesters' lives.
Speaking of Winchesters, he eased over to face Sam's bed, its covers rumpled and tossed back. The bathroom door was closed, though, and when Dean concentrated, he could hear the small sounds of movement within. Taking advantage of having the room to himself, he rose stiffly and dug out a relatively fresh t-shirt from his duffel on the floor, then tugged off the one he'd gone to sleep in.
"God, Dean, what happened to you?"
Sam's voice startled him into whirling around, clutching the t-shirt to his chest like some shy virgin. Dean grunted and made himself peel it away nonchalantly, exposing the variety of impressive bruises and scratches to his brother's scrutiny. Sam's frown deepened, his mouth puckering with displeasure.
Dean shrugged it off—well, not literally since his shoulder felt about twice its size—but he pulled on his t-shirt as carefully as he could manage, looking pointedly away from Sam. "Minivan accident, remember? Pink, flowered band-aids? Driver's daughter had kind of a fetish."
Sam shifted, his bearing suddenly uncertain. "That…that really happened?"
Dean's mouth curled wryly. "'As it is written,' right? It's no big deal, Sam." He pulled on his jeans like an only slightly geriatric dude. "What we really should be talking about is your last day as a twenty-five-year-old. After tomorrow, it's all downhill to thirty, man."
Sam's scowl returned just like that. "It's just another day, Dean—forget it."
"Aw, c'mon," Dean cajoled. "I'll even let you put that…sacrilege back in my car for the day." His lip curled at the thought.
"It's called an iPod, and no thanks. That's why you got me earbuds, remember?" Sam was doing his own packing, movements efficient, precise. Dad would've been proud.
Dean watched him a moment, then turned to stuff his smelly socks to the bottom of his own duffel. "Hey, Sam?"
"When you asked me a while back about cutting off the snake's head and ending this whole thing…were you talking about a deal with Lilith?"
He was turned away, didn't see Sam react, but he heard his brother stop moving. Long seconds passed.
When Sam did speak up, it was soft and almost pained.
"I think this family's made enough deals, don't you?"
Dean had no answer for that one.
They didn't have a specific job, just headed vaguely southward into warmer weather. It was usually a good idea to put some miles between yourself and your most recent case, and Dean always felt most at ease on the open road. He thought these days maybe Sam did, too.
They traded off during the day, Sam's turn since lunchtime. Dean had taken advantage of the opportunity and slouched in the passenger seat, reading a sheaf of loose pages. He was so intent on it, he didn't even notice his brother's interest until Sam spoke.
"Okay, I know it's not a skin mag."
Dean pulled his head up with effort. "Huh?"
Sam nodded at the papers. "Last time I saw you that immersed, you'd just gotten the last issue of Busty Asian Beauties."
Dean snorted. "I do read things beside porn, Sam." He suddenly grinned. "'Course, I don't know if you call it exactly reading porn…"
"No making the driver gag, dude." Sam glanced over his way again. "So, what is it?"
"These?" Dean hedged, suddenly reluctant to share. "Nothing, just…stuff Chuck wrote that didn't get published."
Sam's brow furrowed. "Like…other prophecies?"
"Like…me coming back from Hell and the time since."
Sam stiffened noticeably, his eyes suddenly glued to the windshield, his throat bobbing. "Oh."
Yeah, oh. Kinda made him wonder what Sam thought he might be finding out. Chuck had been hesitant to give Dean the manuscripts, too, but amazing how a few below-archangel-radar threats had changed his mind.
There wasn't a lot in there so far that Dean didn't know, however. Sam sneaking around with that witch bitch, of course, but that wasn't news. The only thing that had really taken him aback, actually, was some of what was going on in Sam's head. Revenge, yeah, and anger, sure. But also deep fear of Dean dying again, hardcore determination to do whatever it took to keep him alive, and resignation at what Sam saw himself turning into as a result. Dean's jaw had tightened while he read until he was surprised by the ache of his teeth. He got why Sam had turned to Ruby while Dean had been gone; he really did. But why his little brother didn't trust him with this now that Dean was back, that still had him at a loss. He kinda hoped he'd find the answer in those pages.
A brightly colored sign caught the corner of his eye. Dean glanced up, then perked up. "Hey, Sammy—watermelons. Gotta be first of the season. Want one? We can stick a candle in it."
Sam didn't even look. "No," was all he said.
Dean's eyes narrowed; watermelon was one of Sam's favorite foods and something they indulged in whenever possible. The kid liked it even more than pie, which Dean didn't get, but whatever. Picking up a melon wasn't exactly going wild and crazy over the birthday boy, and the flat refusal set off something smoldering in Dean. What was the point of staying if Sam had already checked out on him?
He shifted in his seat to face his brother. "Dude, look, I get it. Things have changed; it's been a bad year; you're a tough guy. But seriously, no birthday? What, you're afraid I'm gonna think less of you if—"
The car jerked so suddenly off the road, Dean almost tumbled from his seat. He caught himself with a curse against the dash, ready to protest the treatment of his baby. Then his brother turned to him and he caught sight of Sam's face.
Or rather, the tears that shone in Sam's eyes.
"Dean, two years ago, Jake killed me on May second, and you made a deal," he said in a raw voice. "Last year, I watched you get ripped apart screaming and held your body in my arms on May second. You died for me on my birthday and went to Hell. So, yeah, I don't exactly want to celebrate the day. In fact, it's pretty much my least favorite day ever. Just…just drop it, all right?" He chewed on his lip, trying to hide a sniff, and Dean's heart broke a little more.
"Yeah," he said softly. "Okay."
Sam nodded, shoved the back of his hand over his eyes once, then turned again to the road.
Dean didn't mention it again. But he was thinking.
The Mighty Hunter at rest looked an awful lot like a sad, innocent young kid.
There weren't many streetlights on back roads, but Dean's gaze swiveled with each one to look at the figure folded pretzel-like into the front seat, head tipped back against the window in questionable rest. Sam's hair was fanned out across his forehead and the lines had eased around his eyes, softening his whole face. The years fell away, reminding Dean that Sammy should've been a newlywed just starting out in a cramped little apartment and at the bottom of the lawyer ladder, life full of promise. Even Dean at twenty-six had been a relatively carefree hunter, his dad on speed-dial, his brother safely tucked away at school, his life lonely but not without its perks. Sam, on the other hand, faced the latter half of his twenties orphaned, his fiancée and law career toast, his brother violently killed in front of him twice now—a lot more if you counted the trickster's little repeat performances—and facing the end of the world while doubting his own humanity and goodness. It wasn't a burden anyone should carry, let alone a sensitive, good-natured kid from Kansas.
Dean sighed, reaching out a hand to push some of the hair from Sam's face to see it better. He missed that young, innocent-looking guy, and he'd take what he could get. Hunting-Sam with his pragmatism and thirst for revenge and stiff pride was just a mask that slipped in sleep. This was why Dean stayed: his kid brother was still there under all the crap the angels and demons and life had piled on him. Even Chuck's pulp novels were clear on that. It was this Sammy who feared losing his big brother for good and was determined it wouldn't happen again.
Dean wished he could promise him it wouldn't. That he could be that strong big brother again, able to fix everything for Sam. Dean stayed, yeah, but he couldn't seem to do very much. Sometimes it took all he had just to get himself through another day.
There was a sign up ahead for a turn-off, and Dean contemplated it a moment before taking it.
Maybe he couldn't fix everything for Sam. But he could still give him the birthday Sam needed, whether he realized it or not.
Sam stirred as Dean pulled up to the shore, blinking groggily in the dark. They were hours from civilization, and the only light was the half-moon and scatter of stars above them. Dean turned off the engine and gingerly stretched his aching muscles as Sam blinked sleep out of his eyes and looked around.
Dean peered up through the windshield. "Uh…North Carolina? I think."
"You think?" Sam pushed up, absently shoving his hair back. "There's nothing around here, Dean."
"Yup. Thought maybe it would be a good place to go for this."
Sam's face crinkled in deepening confusion and a little wariness. "For what?"
Dean held up a finger and slid out of the car. There was a breeze coming off the water, and he shivered as he ducked around to the trunk to the cooler of beers he'd stopped off for earlier. He grabbed a couple, as well as a few newspaper-wrapped bundles that he shoved under his shirt. Then he hurried back inside the car, slamming the door with a theatrical brrr.
One of Sam's eyebrows went up at the sight of the bottles in Dean's hand. "Beer? We had to go out into the middle of nowhere just to kick back a few?"
"Not just." Dean grinned at him, handing over a frosty one and flicking his own open with his ring. He then tilted it to Sam's, clinking them softly. "As of…twenty-four minutes ago, happy birthday, bro."
Sam's face shut down so fast, Dean was surprised he didn't pull a muscle. "Dean—"
Dean jumped in quickly before Sam got completely wound up. "Dude, just listen. I understand, okay? No celebrating, no party, no pretending the last couple years haven't sucked beyond belief sometimes. But…well, not all memories are bad, right?" He tucked his hand into his shirt and pulled out the three small packages, stretching them halfway across the seat. "Sometimes it's good to remember, man."
Sam's face contorted a few times, but something like pained resignation finally took hold, and he accepted the packages with as much enthusiasm as if Dean had offered him a poisoned apple. Then again, martyr boy probably might've liked that one.
Wedging the beer between his legs, Sam unfolded the smallest and flattest square of newspaper. Dean couldn't quite see past those gigantic hands, but he knew Sam had gotten to the good part when his brother froze, then swallowed.
"Got it from the Moores before I…well, before the deal was up. Meant to give it to you, time just kinda got away from me. I thought you'd find it in my stuff after, but…"
"I couldn't go through your duffel," Sam whispered, his voice a little choked. One hand reverently stroked over the picture he held. "I've never seen this one of her."
Dean cleared his throat, nodded at the two gifts still remaining. "Open the other ones."
Sam had an obviously hard time setting the picture aside, but he did, head bent so low over the next parcel as he unwrapped it that his hair hid his face. Again his hands stilled, then he said a little more steadily, "Mom's?"
Dean nodded. "It was in Dad's storage space. I didn't read it, but looks like she wrote in it right up until she left with Dad." He shrugged awkwardly. "Figured maybe it would let you get to know her a little, too."
Sam lifted the diary to his face, sniffing tentatively. Dean frowned at that, until his brother said, tone distant, "I remember, the way she smelled. Don't know how, but…"
Dean chewed on the inside of his cheek, not responding.
Sam moved on to the last gift, and this time chuckled a little wetly when he unearthed Dad's pocket knife. He finally looked up at Dean then, eyes glistening in the moonlight. "You sure, man? I know you always wanted this."
Dean shook his head. "Naw, I'm good. He'd be glad you have it."
Sam nodded dumbly, sliding the knife into his jacket pocket. Jess's picture he tucked carefully into the diary, then he laid the book on his leg as he reclaimed the beer and opened it. This time he was the one who held out his bottle. He tilted his face up to Dean again, gaze steady. "To why we fight."
Dean tapped their bottles together. "To making them proud."
Sam hesitated a split-second, then joined Dean in taking a drink.
Dean could only hope it was enough.
While the show never made a point of it, according to the Official Supernatural Season 2 Companion book, Sam died on May second, his birthday.