Spoilers: For Season 5.
Warnings: Based on a true story, so warnings for emotional bile. Brief Sam/OFC, language, h/c (kinda)
Disclaimer: No affiliation with Supernatural. No copyright infringement Earrings
by wave obscura
This is a story about cancer.
But there will be no hair loss, no sweating, and hardly any vomiting. Sam won't hold Dean while he shivers in the night. Dean won't turn sallow, his eyes won't sink into his skull, his lips won't turn bluish-purple. He won't ask his brother to take him somewhere peaceful to die. He won't lift his face to the sun and close his eyes and feel the breeze on his face and revel in the miracle that is life.
He won't say anything wise and meaningful. Not once.
There will be no death. After six weeks of chemo on Mondays and radiation five days a week, Sam and Dean will drive from Arizona to Texas to hunt a werewolf. But it won't actually be a werewolf, it will be some other kind of monster they've never heard of. They'll call Bobby for help, and Bobby will paw around in his dusty books until he finds out the truth.
At the very end of the phone conversion, Bobby will say "I'm glad you're back at it, boy," and Dean will nod even though Bobby can't see him, and hang up.
And that's the last time anyone will mention Dean's cancer. Ever.
But that's all several weeks from now. Right now Dean has an abscess way down on his abdomen. What was an itchy bump before he went to sleep has become the size of a fist. If it hadn't appeared so fast, he would have just lanced and drained it himself. He gets shot, stabbed and clawed at a lot, so it wouldn't be the first or last gross infection he'd have to take care of.
He's so surprised by how fast it appears, though, that he curses loudly at the lump and it wakes up Sam. Sam gets out of bed and also curses at the lump, and tries to poke it but Dean smacks his hand away.
Sam insists on the emergency room and Dean doesn't argue. It's better not to fuck with infection, not when it's being so weird.
The doctors think Dean might have a hernia or a blood clot, so he has emergency surgery at 3 a.m. Sam's not worried about such a mundane procedure. In fact he doesn't even stay, he tells them to call when Dean's ready to be picked up. He goes back to the motel and passes out.
He picks Dean up around 11 the next morning. Dean takes painkillers and sleeps. There's a drain in the wound, and Sam declares that the color of the drainage is good. He's still not worried, in fact he looks forward to a break.
A few days later Dean has an appointment to have the drain removed. Sam and Dean expect to skip town that day, so they pack up the car before they drive to the hospital. Dean stashes his painkillers in the first aid kit. He doesn't need them anymore.
Out of nowhere, the woman who did Dean's surgery says he has cancer.
But that's not how she words it. She actually says "I sent the tissue off to be looked at, and it was a lymph node that presented with cancerous cells."
Sam and Dean stare at each other of a long moment, Dean's eyebrows raised, Sam's eyes like saucers.
"But you removed it, right?" Dean says, at the same time Sam says "Cancerous cells? What the hell does that mean?"
The doctor says it could be coming from a lesion on the skin, or the lungs, or the anus, except she keeps using the word "bottom," because that's where she thinks it might be coming from, and if Dean can handle the pain, she'd like to do a biopsy right here and now.
Sam stands in the hallway and listens to his brother bite back screams. He tries not to imagine Dean on the examine table with his ass in the air, but it's impossible. He's startled by how unfunny it is, and all he can think, over and over again, is what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck.
When they call Sam back inside, Dean is white, his jaw is slack and his eyes blank.
"I'm sorry," he says to Sam.
Sam knows he should tell Dean he has nothing to be sorry about, but he feels slack-jawed and blank too. So he says nothing.
There are three or four more appointments, none worth mentioning. They get no answers for nearly a month. They sit around the motel and drink. Sam yells at Dean for drinking, he shouldn't be drinking if he's sick, and Dean calls Sam a fucking hypocrite and asks "do I look sick to you?"
After a while they move on to fighting about other things. They fight about Dad, about the direction their lives have taken, about demon blood and Satan and how Dean always steals Sam's socks. They fight about the messy tube of toothpaste, how Sam clips his toenails everywhere but the bathroom, about how Dean's pissed because Sam has worried a big hole in leather of the Impala's front seat by picking and picking and picking at it.
They fight about what they're going to watch on television, who's sleeping in what bed, who gets to shower first, how much and how bad each other's armpits and shit and laundry stink.
An observer might assume that they'd eventually break down and talk about the cancer. That maybe one of them would cry and then they'd have a healing conversation about life and death and illness. But they don't. Instead they spend a lot of time at the loud bar down the street, where they don't have to talk at all.
Sam spends hours researching squamous cell carcinoma. He looks for things to make himself feel better. He finds statistics to cling to. He calls Bobby and recites the statistics and tells him that he doesn't think it will be a big deal, that it sounds like a slow-growing cancer that will probably just go away without a prolonged battle.
Both he and Bobby know he's mostly wishing out loud.
Dean thinks about everything but. Instead he does all the puzzles in the newspaper, calls random girls in his contact list and masturbates a whole hell of a lot.
Sam gets pissed at Dean at appointments. Dean never listens to the doctors. Instead he picks at his fingernails or clucks his tongue and stares at the wall, sometimes swings his legs back and forth like a toddler. Sam asks all the questions, makes note of all the answers, what few answers they're able to get. And it seems to him that he does all the worrying, too.
They go home. Dean stares at the TV and Sam stares at the computer.
"I'll be fine," Dean says.
"I know," Sam says.
Sam occasionally likes a blow job from a total stranger when he's stressed out. It's the way he was raised, after all. A couple of years ago he'd have been "done with all that" and oh-so-disgusted, but like Dean says, a man has needs, and it's not like Sam has time to court a girlfriend.
Armed with all of these justifications, Sam goes out one night when Dean starts drinking very early and falls asleep before 8 o'clock. The whole motel room is thick with the smell of booze and clean sweat, nothing noxious, just humid and stifling. So Sam takes the Impala into town and meets a local girl who isn't very pretty or very smart or very thin. He coaxes her into giving him a blow job in the parking lot behind the bar. He doesn't kiss her or compliment her dress. He doesn't even touch her, really, or offer to buy her a drink. She compliments the hard contours of his abs and he responds by nodding at his dick like suck it, bitch. After he comes, he sends her back into the bar, promising he'll be right behind her after he cleans himself up. Instead he drives away.
As he drives away he tries to feel satisfied. He tries to think of her as Some Dumb Whore. But Sam has an infuriating sense of self-awareness, especially after Ruby, that doesn't allow him to lie to himself. He knows damn well how manipulative he is. He knows that he's spent a lifetime convincing people to trust him with just a simple look, that he's learned to ooze "nice guy" like poisonous frogs ooze deadly toxins.
He knows damn well which one of them is a shitty person.
He also knows he's behaving this way because his brother has cancer, and he knows that it's pathetic textbook Psych 101 avoidance and projection. He knows that when he feels like shit, his first instinct is to make someone else feel the same way and that's exactly what he's done.
But what really, really makes him feel guilty is that he's more worried about himself than he is about Dean. He's worried that instead of being a hero who stops the apocalypse, he'll have nothing to look forward to but taking care of his dying brother.
If he only gets one life, this is not how he wants to spend it.
Maybe he's the Antichrist, maybe he's Satan's one true vessel. But at the end of the day he's still just a selfish human with a sick brother and shitty coping skills.
An observer might assume that Sam would go home and wake up his brother and force a heartfelt talk. "We have to deal with this," Sam might say.
Instead Sam goes back to the motel and drinks another beer and goes to sleep.
Dean is fucking pissed. He's not afraid of death but he's afraid of being sick. He wants to be torn to shreds or eaten by spirits or have his heart ripped from his chest by Lucifer himself.
He's afraid that in the end, normal is what's going to kill him- some Everyman's disease, because in the end he always gets nothing, doesn't he? Nothing, not even a distinguished demise.
He rises shortly after Sam leaves and cuts through a path in the woods to the campground a few miles behind their motel. It's a long walk, but it keeps his brain occupied, keeps him from stewing.
He snakes his way into someone's camp with a bottle of booze. After drinking and marshmallows and lukewarm hotdogs, he goes on a walk with a girl who isn't very smart or very pretty or very thin.
It always happens this way, when he's upset about something- one minute he's working his way into some girl's panties and the next he's weeping into her arms, and she pets the side of his face and says shhh, shhh.
At least this time he manages not to sob out loud.
He hates it when he does that.
Then comes the day where they find out the results of the PET scan, which will tell them exactly where and how far spread the cancer is. When Sam wakes up that morning, all the guns are clean and Dean has gone to K-Mart and bought a deep fryer, a ten pound bag of potatoes and a gallon of cooking oil. He uses his favorite knife to peel the potatoes and slice them into french fries.
Talk about shitty coping skills, Sam thinks. This is extreme, even for Dean, to bother with all this just to avoid feeling fear.
But Dean adds fresh garlic to the fries and they're fucking delicious, so Sam doesn't call him out on it, not this time.
This is the part where they find out about the six weeks of radiation, with chemo every Monday. The doctor tells them Dean is in stage III, which freaks Dean out because there are only four stages. But Sam knows from internet research that they're only calling it stage III because it spread to one lymph node, which has already been removed.
Sam and Dean's only experience with cancer until now is what they've seen on the Lifetime network at two in the morning- women in scarves with purple rings around their eyes, trying to say goodbye to children who are too upset by death to stand at their bedsides and listen. A Julia Roberts movie where she holds an emaciated man over the toilet while he violently retches, trembles with muscle spasms. Blood pouring from nostrils, blackened lips spewing yellow bile.
Sam imagines Dean like this and thinks about running away again.
Dean thinks about being like this and wants to shoot himself in the head.
The doctor tells them Dean has "an anal carcinoma," which Dean knows is really just a less humiliating way to say "ass cancer."
Sam cringes in readiness for Dean to make a joke and he's shocked and appalled and disturbed when Dean doesn't. Dean's legs stop swinging back and forth like a child's and he shrinks up on the exam table. Two red spots appear on his cheeks.
"You have no reason to be embarrassed," Sam says. "Stop it."
It's impossible for Dean not to ask "why me." Liver cancer or leukemia or even fast-acting pancreatic cancer would be one thing. He could believe that maybe those kinds of cancers could just happen, beyond the control of God and his angels, even Zachariah. Maybe he could have believed that those kinds of cancers were just a tragic coincidence. But cancer in the ass? That was someone's cruel joke, it had to be.
He wishes Michael would appear so he could ask "did you do this, and if I give you my meatsuit, will I still have cancer of the ass when this is all over?"
He's pretty sure the answers to these questions are "yes" and "no."
The following Monday, after chemo, Dean pukes in Sam's Nalgene bottle on the way back to the motel. It's just like any other bout of puking, there's no extra quivering or pain or sweating. And it doesn't happen again, not until the next week. He also vomits in the days after his last treatment, coming off the Percocet they gave him to counteract the pain from the radiation burns.
Sam looks up the kind of chemo they're giving Dean on the internet. Because of the dosage and the type, there's only a 20 percent chance that he'll lose his hair. And it turns out he doesn't lose his hair, not even a little.
They both expect that Dean will spend a lot of time sick in bed, but the anti-nausea medication makes him high, antsy and restless. He cleans out the car and takes it to the gas station down the street and vacuums it out and then polishes every interior service. He gives her a premature tune-up and rotates her tires and changes her oil.
After that, Sam shows Dean how he sews the buttons back on their shirts, and Dean is so bored that he actually listens and learns.
Eventually, though, Sam takes one of the credit cards to K-Mart and buys a Playstation 3 so they'll have something to do. They play SmackDown up to eight hours a day. Dean thinks it's funny to put makeup and skirts and pigtails on the giant male wrestlers.
They find a salt-and-burn that's only a couple of hours away, and that keeps them busy for most of a couple of weekends. Sam keeps waiting for Dean to get tired or weak or something, but he doesn't. He's just like before, except he has to piss more often. He has to drink almost constantly because the chemo could damage his kidneys (it doesn't).
Sam tentatively hopes that the whole course of treatment will be this way, that the worst they have to fear is extreme boredom.
Dean doesn't say or hope or think anything at all, really, but he starts to make obnoxious jokes again and for that Sam is glad.
Between them, they make a list of hunts. They hang a map on the wall and fill it with push-pins: the things they'll do, the places they'll go.
Three weeks into treatment, Dean starts really feeling the burn of the radiation. "It fucking hurts," he complains, so Sam goes to the store and buys Eucerine and aloe vera. He forces Dean to tell the doctor, who prescribes him more Perocet, which takes the pain away and gets rid of some boredom.
And that's about it. After six weeks of treatment, the doctor says the tumor has shrunk and disappeared. He calls it "remission" but Sam and Dean call it "over." They don't care that five years have to go by before it's officially cured. They can go on with their lives right now, trying to stop the Apocalypse and all the other things that they were put on this earth to do.
They don't care about five or ten years from now. Neither of them plan to live that long. And they know when they die they'll go somewhere, that somewhere in the universe there will always be a Sam and Dean, that the past is just as real as the present and the future and all are simultaneously occurring somewhere. They know deep down that not even the Colt can snuff them out completely.
They know all this for a fact.
So after a few weeks of saving people and hunting things, they pretty much forget that Dean had cancer at all.
Which makes this story pretty pointless, really. Except for this part here:
Every day in the waiting room in the radiation oncology department, there's a woman with an inch of hair and long, dangling silver earrings. Her face is a little swollen. She's probably in her mid-40s. Her smile is honest-to-God radiant. Yeah, maybe the constructed mystique of cancer makes the smile more radiant and meaningful than it otherwise would be, but that's beside the point.
The point is that Sam and Dean will think of her sometimes, how she laughs with the other ladies about how the chemo has launched her into instant menopause, which makes her cry over nothing, about how the radiation suites look like the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
The woman in the silver earrings doesn't know what Sam and Dean know. She doesn't know if the cancer will go away or come back, or why she got it in the first place. She doesn't have the knowledge, or the ego, to wonder if a divine being or creature from hell gave it to her on purpose. She doesn't have the luxury of knowing that everything happens for a reason. She'll never know if the cancer means something, if it's a lesson or a test or if it's just a mundane nothingness, a random happening of cold and compassionless biology.
She doesn't know what she's put on this earth to do, and she might never know. In fact maybe she's here for no reason at all. Maybe she'll get sick and die and just be dead.
This make all the difference to Sam and Dean. Not only does it afford them the opportunity to feel lucky, but for the first time ever, they know for sure that they can't save everyone.
They especially can't save the woman in the silver earrings.
She doesn't need saving. She's doing just fine on her own.