Not for Years
K Hanna Korossy

"It's been a long time since I laughed that hard." Dean chivvied Castiel toward the car, his chest actually aching from the unexpected activity. "It's been more than a long time." The words began to sink in, his smile fading. "Years."

Okay, not quite, just seemed like it sometimes, especially after the eons in Hell. Sam had always been kinda bitchy, but they'd managed to play a lot despite their less-than-ideal childhood. Even after Sam reluctantly hit the road with him again, they'd still had some fun times. But the years had piled a lot of crap on them both, and sometimes it was kinda amazing they could function at all, let alone laugh. Dean himself had screwed up a lot of it, first not getting there in time to save Sam, then dying on him and leaving him totally alone. No wonder the kid rarely cracked a smile, let alone laughed.

But even in the bad times, there'd been moments, even days when there'd been joy. When they'd rolled the windows down and turned the music up and talked about nothing. Sam always ended up making faces at him, and Dean would push his buttons just to see him do it.

Good times.

00000

Sam stared silently at the motel ceiling, listening to Dean's breaths deepen in the bed next to his.

Nighttime had once been his refuge: freedom from Dad's constant orders and trainings, escape from a life Sam felt held him prisoner. Then they'd become a nightmare, the place where his worst memories, Jess's death, then Dad's, played over and over again while he was powerless to do anything but watch.

Now, they just left him flushed and restless, resenting every moment he had to give his body to rest instead of spending it on researching a way to save Dean.

"Shut that big brain off and go to sleep, Sam," Dean ordered drowsily from the darkness.

Sam's nose twitched as he craved defiance but only felt grief. Five short months and no one would be sharing his room, his life, bossing him around and irritating him and caring about him. His eyes prickled with pain.

Don't look at me like that. They were phantom words this time, echoes of Dean's plea over dinner. C'mon, Sam, don't make this any harder. As if that were possible.

Sam swallowed, his throat tightening as if ghostly hands were clamped around it.

"Sam?" Dean again, sounding a little more awake.

He wanted out of the deal, too; he'd said so. But he also wanted to be with Sam, wanted to enjoy the time he had left, didn't want Sam to be miserable for 365 days. Sam could see his own pain reflected in Dean's shiny eyes even when they didn't talk about it.

There was a rustle from the other bed: Dean shoving up on an elbow to look at him. "Hey, don't make me come over there and knock you out."

It dragged a surprised, wheezing laugh out of him. "I'm okay," Sam managed, feeling a little breathless as he said it. He rolled onto his side facing his brother, seeing only the gleam of Dean's eyes in the dark. "I'm okay," he repeated, no more convincingly.

"Uh-huh." Dean sounded equally unpersuaded, but he settled back into the bed. They'd gotten pretty good at not talking about what they both knew the other was feeling. "Go to sleep, dude. We've got a long day ahead."

Not long enough, Sam's mind couldn't resist shooting back, but he nodded anyway, even if Dean couldn't see. Don't make this any harder. As far as last wishes went, it was both really easy and really hard.

He rolled back to stare at the ceiling. Once, his greatest fear had played there in Technicolor: a blonde woman dying in flames for him. Now, his mind's eye provided the even more horrific image of a blond brother suffering endlessly in flames. For him.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut.

Don't make this any harder.

He couldn't promise that. Not that he would stop looking, nor that he would stop worrying, or being scared, or getting mad all over again. But…it was a lousy way to spend a final year. Dean deserved better than that, too, whether he woke up May 3 in Hell or in another skeevy motel room.

Sam exhaled. One day. He would try at least for one day. He could put aside the fear and the obsession that long, manage a smile without faltering and food in a stomach that had forgotten how to eat. He could do that for a brother who'd sold his soul for him. Probably.

"Sammy…"

He pulled in a breath. "I'm okay," he pushed out and this time made himself believe it so Dean would. "Go to sleep, man."

Dean grumbled but shifted, breaths evening out again.

Sam closed his eyes and willed himself to follow.

00000

Dean winced away from the light filtering in through the cheap blinds and buried his face deeper into the pillow. Friggin' mornings. One thing he wouldn't miss in Hell. He was making a list, like that would help.

Something tickled his nose, something awesome enough to make him tilt away from the soft pillow and sniff, his eyes still tight shut. Smelled almost like…coffee. The good stuff, rich and pungent, not the caffeinated gruel Sammy had been living off while he did research in all hours of the day and night.

At the reminder, Dean's eyes popped open, tracking unerringly to the small table in the corner of the room, and the figure there.

"Y'leep?" Okay, so he wasn't his most coherent when he first woke up. See above, re: mornings.

Sam lifted his head, a brown lock sliding onto his forehead just as it had when he was five, and…he smiled. Honest-to-God, pearly-whites-showing smiled. "Yup. Only been up about a half-hour."

Dean would never, ever be girly enough to say it, but damned—literally—if he hadn't missed that smile. Sam's mouth rarely curled into anything but a grimace these days, let alone the dimple-popping look that once had all the girls swooning for him, even if he'd been totally oblivious to it. It made Dean's own mouth soften, like they were Siamese twins or something, and suddenly mornings didn't seem so evil. "Huh," was all he grunted, though, as he glanced over at the clock.

Ten-nineteen. He'd slept until after ten. And Sam had only gotten up a little before him, supposedly, which meant he'd slept past nine. And then gotten coffee.

Dean frowned, glancing surreptitiously around the motel room, just checking to make sure it was his own world he was waking up in and not some freakish alternate universe where Sam wasn't a bundle of stretched nerves. But nope, he remembered that weird stain on the wall by the door, and his duffel was spilling out onto the floor just as he'd left it.

Sam had stood while Dean ran his inspection, and now appeared by the bed like the ten-foot shadow he was, extending a cup of steaming heaven to Dean. "Picked up some coffee and a couple of newspapers. It's that dark Arabian crap you like."

Dean squinted at him, extending his suspicious search to Sam himself. He hadn't seen the hoodie in a while but he recognized it, and the jeans were the same ones the kid had torn in that whole Gordon Walker thing. He still looked tired and his eyes were shadowed with the events of the last year—years—but he didn't look exhausted and seemed to have actually showered, and the pinch of his mouth was gone, erased in that blinding smile, and… Okay. If this wasn't his Sam, Dean didn't want to know it.

"Thanks," he mumbled, and shifted his balance to claim the cup of coffee without face-planting back into the bed. It smelled terrific, bitter and black the way he really did like it. It tasted just as good, smacking his sluggish brain awake and pooling warmth in his stomach.

He shifted up and back so he was tucked against the headboard, sipping contentedly at his ambrosia while he watched Sam retreat back to the table. Which didn't hold the laptop, or Dad's journal, or any of the elephant-sized books Bobby had been loaning Sam lately. Just a pile of newspapers spread out over the tabletop, and Sam sat down to bend over them again.

"You looking for a hunt?" Dean asked cautiously, not wanting to ruin what was pretty much the best start of a day he'd had in, well, a really long time, but still needing to know. Because he wasn't totally convinced yet Sam wasn't some kind of Stepford-Sam, or maybe a shapeshifter. Except, shapeshifters didn't usually get you your favorite coffee and act like pod-people.

"We finished up the wraith, right?" Sam said absently as he scanned the pages, pausing to circle something, then looking up. "Or did you want to take some time off?"

Dean felt something hard and tight that he'd started to take for granted after all this time, dissolve a little. Yeah, this so wasn't his burdened, hurting little brother of the past months—years. And Dean absolutely, totally wasn't going to look a gift Sam in the mouth. Whatever was on the kid's mind, whatever had made him decide to not dwell and just go with the flow, Dean was all for it. Was ready to buy stock in it, actually.

He grinned, propelled out of bed with an energy he hadn't felt in too long. "Dude, seriously? Move over, bitch." And he plopped down next to Sam to peer at the newspapers, coffee in hand and brother at his side and his expiration date suddenly way off in the future.

00000

It was easier than he'd thought it would be.

Not the forgetting, because that wasn't happening anytime soon. Not when every glance at his watch, every date he glimpsed reminded him that time was running out. But the pushing it aside for Dean, the acting like he was happy, that wasn't as hard as he'd expected. Not when Dean's grin grew brighter all day and light returned to his eyes and the affection flowed between them as easily as when they'd been kids. It wasn't hard to be happy to see his big brother like that.

Sam just couldn't let himself think about maybe losing that in five months.

They'd found a case, an apparent boogeyman that was stealing kids from their beds, and started on the drive across three states. When they stopped for lunch, Sam pushed himself to eat, the competition to see who could consume more tacos clearly delighting Dean. On the road, he blared his music and Sam sang along and they joked and reminisced and played Do-Marry-Dump and Pick One and any other sophomore game they could think of, and it was fun.

And carved him up inside a little more each hour.

Because it was too easy to set it aside and pretend Dean wasn't dying. Way too tempting to just let himself take pleasure in his brother's joy and deny that it wouldn't last forever. It was just one day, and Dean deserved it, but he deserved so much more to be saved, and this was one day less that Sam had to do that, and it hurt it hurt it hurt.

The sun was just starting to set as they pulled into a motel on the outskirts of town. Dean turned off the engine with a satisfied sigh. His smile was easy as he turned to Sam, his freckles darker from the sun streaming through the window all day. "Saw a bar down the street—you wanna go have a few?"

"Sure," Sam answered gamely. Maybe the alcohol would make it seem less like a lie, or a betrayal.

They walked down, Dean's strides easily matching his. Few had the height to keep pace with Sam, and fewer still had ever known him well enough to fall into step with him. He got it, in moments like this, why Dean had made the deal he did, even if Sam would never agree with it. But he knew why Dean had thrown away everything just to have Sam at his side again, and knew he'd be willing to do the same in turn.

The bar was just Dean's type, classic rock instead of country, more leather than denim, and girls who weren't shy about the looseness of their morals. It didn't take long for Dean to settle on a curvy brunette dressed like Daisy Duke in a biker jacket who was watching him like he was chum in the water. Sam had snorted his longsuffering blessing when Dean had asked him if he'd be okay alone for a little while. No, but, hey, at least Dean had asked this time.

He put away a couple of beers by the time Dean returned. The buzz was pleasant, making all his fears fade into the background, and the lazy smile Sam managed to match Dean's was almost effortless.

"Have fun?" Sam asked languidly.

Dean smirked at him over the bottle in answer and settled back in his seat, content now to just drink and listen to the music and hang out with his brother.

Sam took another swallow and skimmed the half-full room. "Night's still young. We could…hit a movie, go eat some fried food. Hey!" he sat up a little straighter. "We could doub-double-date. You and Daisy, and me and…" He turned to search for a candidate in the mixed company of the barroom, and almost slid off his seat.

Dean's eyes had gotten narrower, focused on him now instead of the room. "Dude, are you drunk?"

Sam smiled at him. His brother knew him really well. Better than anyone else alive. "Oh, yeah. Makes it easier. I mean, less easy." He frowned, suddenly not sure what he meant. Easy was what he'd wanted, right?

Dean's forehead had that little line now that said he was worried about something, the line that had been missing all day. Sam was doing something wrong then. He lifted his hand to smooth the crease away, correcting quickly when he nearly jabbed Dean in the eye. He pouted when Dean caught his hand, the frown line just getting deeper. "Sam, what's going on with you?"

"Nothing," he insisted. "It's a good day. Not making this harder, I swear, Dean."

Dean's expression was doing things Sam couldn't read anymore, but at least the groove had faded some. Although, he looked…sad. And that wasn't better.

"Darts," Sam decided, and pushed himself to his feet. They must've fallen asleep because they nearly dumped him to the floor, but Dean hooked a hand under his arm and kept him upright. His brother was always doing stuff like that. Sam didn't know who would once Dean was gone, but he wasn't thinking like that, not today. "We should play darts," he announced instead, breathing heavily into Dean's face.

Dean's nose wrinkled. "Give you something sharp to throw? Yeah, I don't think so." His grip tightened on Sam, the other hand pressing against Sam's back. "C'mon, Sasquatch, time for bed."

Sam let himself be manhandled toward the door while he collected his thoughts. Bed sounded good, but there was something— "Hey." He dug in his heels just outside the bar, pushing back against Dean's steering hands. "No. It's not…it's not over yet. Still got…" He peered at his watch but it was all blurry. "We can still do. Stuff. You know, have fun. Forget." Forget Dean was dying, and what good was having fun when it would all be gone soon? As if those memories would help either of them where Dean was going.

Dean was looking at him. The frown was completely gone, but the smile was, too. His eyes were soft, shiny in the moonlight. "This whole day, it was for me, right? I thought you were finally letting it go, but you were just doing it for me, weren't you?"

Sam's own eyes suddenly felt wet. "I'm trying," he whispered, the buzz gone like it had never been there. "God, Dean, I'm trying, but it's… It's not real. None of it's real. You're still gonna go to Hell, man, and I'm still…" His words broke down, and he hissed in a breath, grabbing the lapel of Dean's jacket. "I can't pretend. I can't pretend it's okay when…" His face felt hot and maybe a little damp.

Dean was moving him again then, pulling him over into the dark shadows by the side of the bar. "I know," he said quietly there, his hand curving around the back of Sam's neck. "I know, Sammy."

It took him a while to calm down, Dean not moving, not saying a word, just cupping his head and letting Sam lean against his shoulder. When Sam was ready, Dean tucked an arm up under his, palm flat between his shoulder blades, and walked him back to their home for the night.

Sam ended up in bed somehow, still in his jeans but without his jacket and shoes. Dean sat on the other bed, shoulders rounded once again, eyes dark, and Sam felt the last remnants of the day's happiness slip away.

"Sorry," he sighed, rubbing his sore eyes.

Dean huffed and shook his head. "We'll keep trying, okay? You and me both."

Sam thought about that. Maybe he could do that. He nodded slowly. "Okay."

"Okay," Dean echoed. Then, gently, added, "Go to sleep, Sam."

It was like the night before, but this time he was too tired to think and stare at the ceiling and try to figure out how he could do this. He just would. He'd have to. Dean would help him.

The TV turned on, low, something with a laugh track, and Sam fell asleep to the sound of a room he wasn't alone in.

00000

Sam had once made the sacrificial effort to give him a day like that, a good day, even while Dean knew he'd been dying inside. That had been real happiness, borne not out of desperation and hysteria, but the simple contentment of being loved. And Dean wouldn't have traded the memory of that day for all the fun times in the world. That was what they'd had once. That was what Dean had lost.

That was what Sam had not chosen.

By the time he joined Cas in the car, Dean couldn't even remember anymore what he'd found so funny.

The End