Warning(s): Incest, language, character death
Notes: Wrote this in a little less than a week, but I think it turned out well./ Beta edited by cerberus_sky.
Summary: It was hard to imagine that life without monsters could still kill them...
"The body apologizes to the soul for its errors, and the soul
asks forgiveness for squatting in the body without invitation."
Gregory Maguire (Wicked)
It started with birdsong. Sam was taking a shower and he heard it in the running water. He stood there listening to it until the water had run cold and Dean started banging on the bathroom door. It was pretty music, it reminded him of some oriental story he'd read as a kid about a king and a nightingale. Except the nightingales were in the spray, piercing his skin with their beaks, sliding like hot needles down his back. Once he heard them it was like that gave them power and he could feel them. Their feathers slipping down his spine like fans caressing his bones. The beat of their wings upset the beat of his heart and confused his blood. Every cell in his body was an immaculate crystal.
Dean broke in the door and swept the room in his line of sight with his gun, expecting demons, ghouls, monsters, angels, something. He didn't expect to find Sam, crouched in the bathtub with the water spraying cold as ice down his back, whispering to himself and stroking his left forearm like it was a kitten. He blinked, then realized he was pointing his weapon at Sam's head and lowered it.
"Sam?" Dean said, going over to stand by the tub. He turned off the shower and shook him a little. "Sam, what happened? Sammy."
"Dean, don't yell," Sam said serenely. He tilted his head to look up at him and his lips quirked in a little smile. "I've never liked birds much, but... these... they sing and it's so pretty."
Dean scowled. "What?"
Sam dropped his eyes back to his arm and ran his fingers down it, fingertips skating over the tiny wet golden hairs from his elbow to the tips of his fingers. "Dean... I think I need to see a doctor."
Dean frowned and, realizing he still held his gun, reached back to slip it under his waistband against his back before he put his hand to Sam's forehead. "You don't have a fever," he said. "You feel sick?"
Sam shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "There will be headaches, though. About a week, depending... Then I'll be watching the birds fly around your head while they sing and before you know it, every day will be one big, painful tropical vacation."
"Sammy, what the fuck are you babbling about?"
"Dean," Sam said patiently. He turned his eyes back to Dean's face and they were only slightly out of focus. "Dean, I need to go to the hospital. Now."
"Alright, man," Dean said. He bent down to grab a towel off the floor and tossed it down on him. "Get dressed, then."
Sammy had brain tumors. The doctor called them something else, but what it basically came down to was Sammy with tumors. Cancerous tumors that couldn't be removed that were going to kill him. They didn't know exactly when. Three months or if he was really stubborn about it, maybe six, or eight.
More than a day, but less than a year.
If they wanted Sam to stop being Sam, or possibly a vegetable stuck to a ventilator, then there were doctors that could operate. The largest tumor could be removed, but not easily, and it wouldn't matter because all of the other little dust mote sized ones were growing. They were like warts on a toad all over Sammy's brain. There was something about frontal lobes and seizures and a million other things to think about now because it wouldn't be long before Sam couldn't function on his own. He might lose memories. Even without the surgeries, there was cancer eating his brain that was going to change his personality and alter his behavior.
Hearing and seeing things was just the beginning and Sam was taking it all so much better than Dean. Dean only understood a fraction of what he was being told and he felt like someone had just ripped his world away.
"You're going to die," Dean whispered, staring down at the linoleum floor at his feet. He saw the reflection of florescent lights in the white tile behind his head and focused on that. "Fuck."
"Everyone dies," Sam said calmly.
Dean shook his head and let out a deep breath. "Not like this."
"Actually, this way is pretty normal," Sam said.
"Not for us," Dean said.
"The angels and demons are gone, Dean," Sam said. "I haven't seen a ghost in nearly a year. Maybe this is how it ends for us."
Leaning against the wall, Dean bent forward, feeling nauseous. "Shut up with that Sylvia Plath shit, Sammy, before I hit you."
"What?" Dean said.
"I don't know any Sylvia Plath," Sam said.
"So, now would be the perfect time to quote some."
"Not my point," Dean said.
"Well I'm not going to stick my head in an oven if that was your point," Sam said.
"What?" Dean said. He shook his head and stood away from the wall. "Forget it. Can we leave?"
"They can't do anything, so I guess so," Sam said. He got up from the chair where he'd been sitting and ran a hand through his hair. "We're going to have to talk about this, you know."
Dean's jaw clenched. "Yeah, I know," he said, and turned to leave.
Sam sighed and followed him. "Dean."
"We can't do this here," Dean said, not slowing down. He walked through the exit doors and Sam half ran to catch up to him. "We'll talk when we're in the car or back at the apartment. Not here. I can't do this here."
"Do you really think it's going to matter?" Sam said, going after him down the wheelchair ramp and into the parking lot. "It's not. I... I know you, man and this is going to fucking kill you no matter where you're standing when—"
They reached the car and Dean took out his keys, then stopped, turned, and grabbed Sam. He shoved Sam back against the driver's side door and kissed him. His hands fisted in Sam's coat and he pulled Sam against him as he pressed him back against the warm Impala. It was a kiss full of desperation, full of not wanting to know what he knew, wanting to keep what he had. Sam kissed him back with less force, allowing Dean to take that from him because that was what he needed now.
So this was grief. It seemed only right that it should touch Dean, who was living more than Sam, who was dying.
Dean broke the kiss and nuzzled the side of Sam's face, panting softly. "It's killing me right now," he whispered against his skin, tugging lightly at Sam's coat like he wanted to climb inside it with him. "I'm scared," he confessed. "I can face ghosts, zombies, demons, fucking angels, whatever. Bring it on. Rain down that goddamn brimstone and smite me with your flaming fucking sword. I can take that, all of it. But you're right Sammy… this is killing me."
"Dean," Sam said, lifting a hand to pet it down the back of his head. "The sun's in my eyes. I'm listening to Chopin right now and smelling double fudge cookies and every time I move my hand I see tracers like worms following my fingers. I'm sorry I'm killing you, but I think we should go."
Dean made a strangled sound and pushed away from him, eyes on the ground, fingers wrapped tight and bloodless around his keys. "Maybe you should drive," he said.
Sam blinked in surprise, but he shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea," he said.
Dean ran his tongue over his bottom lip and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, alright."
Sam watched him anxiously as he went around the hood of the car and Dean got in and started it. "You going to be okay? To drive, I mean."
"Fine, Sammy," Dean said. He hit play on the tape player and scowled as Bonnie Raitt's voice filled the car in the middle of "I Can't Make You Love Me", which was so not cool music to be listening to right now. He hit eject and threw the cassette in the back seat.
"Um... Try the radio," Sam suggested.
"Shut up, Sammy," Dean said, backing the car away from the curb. "Just... I need to think. Please."
"Sure," Sam said. He rolled down his window and sat back, tilting his head back.
"You still hear birds?" Dean asked, voice low like he wasn't sure he wanted Sam to hear the question.
"Yes," Sam said, breathing in the cool air as it hit his face. "They never stopped."
After that day, once they knew, everything changed.
Sam stayed at home most of the time while Dean went to work. They’d had an office on the third floor of a building on a street named after some flower that neither of them could ever remember. Now it was Dean's alone and he waited there impatiently for six hours every day for some woman who was convinced her husband was cheating on her to knock on his door. He tracked down runaway kids, stolen DVD players and bail-jumpers. He got paid honest cash by the hour, plus expenses, to deal with living, breathing human beings, something he had very little talent for. But he did the work and he did it well, so it paid their rent and kept Sam stocked up on pain killers which he took when the headaches were bad, which was most of the time.
Sam took a lot of pills, drank a lot of booze and sometimes he walked to the mailbox and back naked. He tried to read sometimes, at least for a while, but then the headaches that woke him up in the middle of the night stopped going away and he couldn't concentrate. His mind would wander and an hour later he would blink and realize that he had yet to turn the page. He tried exercise, but even without the headaches, he was getting too weak to do much of anything and nothing at all like he knew he should be able to, so he quit. He started to forget things, just small things, but still... Dean bought him a little pocket notebook and Sam started writing himself notes.
Dean said "I love you" to him nearly every day now and sometimes Sam wondered if it was because Dean thought he might forget it. Or maybe it was because it was something Dean didn't want to regret later; the things he hadn't said. Sometimes Sam wondered if Dean was losing his mind. He thought, if the appropriate response to reality is to sometimes go insane and if your reality was their reality, then insanity might be the only response. So probably it was not all that unexpected, if one knew what to expect.
Sam had a lot of time alone to think about these things now.
One morning Sam woke up sitting in a chair in the living room because someone was knocking on the door. It wasn't the sitting in the chair part that woke him—he slept there most of the time because laying down made the headaches worse—it was the knocking. They had been living in the apartment for over a year and the only time anyone knocked was when they had the wrong address.
Sam winced, his eyes feeling like they were pulsing right out of his skull and got up to answer it so the knocking would stop.
He peered at the man on the threshold and frowned. He was in a suit. He had a very ancient looking woman and a girl of about ten with him. "Hello?"
"Hello," the man said, smiling brightly.
Sam looked beyond him at the old woman and little girl and his frown deepened. He knew he was in his underwear, but they were standing in his doorway, so they could just deal. "Yeah, can I do something for you?" he asked the man.
"My name is David Taylor," the man said. "This is my mother, Thelma, and my daughter, Becky."
"Pleased to meet you," Sam said, sounding anything but. He scrubbed a hand over his face and sighed. The guy had pamphlets and a bible. Unless this was an intervention of some kind, there was only one thing that could mean. "Look, I'm sorry, but I'm really not interested," he said.
"Can I just leave you one of these then?" Taylor asked, holding out one of his pamphlets. "Just read it, please. It—"
"It would make excellent fire starter if we had a wood stove," Sam said, taking it from him. "Or a book marker, if I didn't have to listen to all my books on tape now. Or great toilet paper if I wasn't worried about chaffing."
Taylor's face turned red. Sam wondered if it was from anger or embarrassment. Maybe a little of both. "I see," Taylor said. He turned and murmured something to his mother, who glared at Sam over her son's shoulder then led the little girl away.
Taylor turned back and he looked angry now, not embarrassed. Apparently it was a momma's boy thing. "I'm sorry you feel that way, Mr...."
"Winchester," Sam snapped. He was pretty sure that hadn't been the name Dean put on the lease, but fuck it. His head hurt, he was shaking, he was naked before an irate Jehovah's witness and he was trying really damn hard not to watch the bugs crawling through his hair. Bright colored bugs like bejeweled Egyptian scarabs. "Look, dude, I don't have anything against you or what you believe as long as you believe it somewhere else, okay? I'm tired, I'm dying and I've had about all I can take of angels for one lifetime."
"So you don't believe in God, Mr. Winchester?" Taylor asked.
Like he really wanted to know what Sam believed. Sam shook his head. "It's not that simple," he said.
"Oh really?" Taylor said. "Why not?"
"You don't really want to hear what I believe, Mr. Taylor," Sam said. He chased a scarab down Taylor's neck with his eyes before snapping his gaze away. "But I'll tell you because then you'll leave. I believe that life, like shit, just happens most of the time. I don't think there's a grand plan because I'm fairly sure God got his omnipotent ass run out of Heaven a long time ago and the angels he left behind are all a bunch of bored guys tired of playing the same game and watching us have all the fun. I don't think there's a scrap of true grace left among them to fight over. I believe that people tend to forget that all demons were angels once. Think of that and consider what it means. Heaven's just like Hell, only with a better interior decorator. They've got track-lighting, air conditioning, maybe Saint Peter on the harp playing "Enter Sandman" and it doesn't matter what it looks like anyway because those places—Heaven and Hell—aren't where we're going. They aren't for us. Not anymore. We're human, we just die and we don't get a refund later if we close our eyes during the show."
Sam narrowed his eyes and reached out to swat at a beetle on Taylor's shoulder. Taylor jerked away from him, reminding him what he was doing and Sam took his hand back. "Now, I've told you what I think and a little bit of what I know. I don't care what you believe because I would almost bet I've heard it before," Sam said. "So, have a nice day. Get the fuck off my doorstep."
He slammed the door in the stunned man's face, locked it and leaned his forehead against the cold wood.
"Damn, Sammy," Dean murmured behind him.
Sam tensed. "You heard all that, huh?"
"Yeah, I heard it," Dean said moving to stand by his shoulder.
"And I kinda agree with you, but I still think maybe you should sit down and let me get you something for your head," Dean said.
Sam smiled and looked at him over his shoulder. He turned and leaned his back against the closed door and laughed until he had to make himself stop before his head shattered with the pain. "Fuck God," he whispered, massaging his temple. "Seriously, fucking chicken shit asshole. Jesus, I need a drink."
Dean stepped into him and ran his hands up Sam's chest to slide his arms around his neck. "Shh, don't do that," he whispered, lowering his mouth to brush his lips over Sam's mouth. "You are the question," he said softly, moving his mouth to Sam's ear. "What am I?"
Sam made a soft sound; want, fear, pain and just plain exhaustion all in the tiny sound. "The answer," Sam whispered back, turning his head to catch Dean's mouth with a growl and kiss him. "Lock and key. God, I love you. Let me go."
Dean growled back and kissed him almost painfully hard. He imagined himself as one Sam's nightingales for just a moment. Wrapped up in the heat of his living body, so close to his soul that he could warm himself in its glow. "I can't," Dean said. "Not yet. Maybe not ever." He released him though and moved toward the kitchen. "Sit down. I'll get you a beer and your pills."
Sam sat back down and when Dean brought him his beer and his pills, he caught his hand. He ran his eyes up Dean's arm until his gaze settled on Dean's. There was such pain there, anger, frustration, but under it all like primer on a canvas Sam could see a morbid kind of determination in his brother. "You will not follow me," Sam whispered. "Tell me you won't. Promise me."
Dean's expression turned distant and he shook his head. "No," he said. "Don't ask me for that. I can't promise you that when I don't know."
"You know," Sam said. "I can see the decision... like lightning bugs just... there. You know."
"Drink your drink, Sammy," Dean said, taking his hand carefully away from Sam. "I have to go to work."
He made himself walk away from Sam, though he could feel Sam's eyes locked on him until he closed the door on them.
Once he was alone, Dean sank down onto the side of the bed and just sat there, staring at the opposite wall. He couldn't do this. Once again he was convinced that he could not do this and it repeated in his head over and over, I can't. I can't. Oh God, I can't, until he was dressed and pulling his coat on and walking past Sam out the door. He told himself he couldn't do it until he was doing it and it was just too late to take it back because by then he'd made it through another day.
Sam sat in the dark listening to Dean's steady breathing coming from the sofa where he'd collapsed when he got home. He wasn't sleeping. Sam wasn't sure exactly what he was doing except it made him think of Dean, when they were children and their father was gone, sitting up all night to keep him safe. Did he think that he could stop it? That if Death came for Sam in the night like the doctors had warned them it might, he could stand between them?
Maybe he did. That sounded just like something Dean Winchester might think.
"Dean, there's a comfortable bed in there going to waste," Sam murmured. He heard Dean's breath catch and smiled faintly in the dark. "Go lay down, will you?"
"I am laying down," Dean said.
"You know what I mean," Sam said.
There was silence for a long while, then the sound of Dean's clothes shifting against the upholstery of the couch as he sat up. "I'm scared, too, Sammy," Dean said. He reached over on the coffee table for his cigarettes and there was a spark that illuminated his fine features in the dark for just a moment while he lit one.
Sam watched the afterimage left behind shiver and grow wings, which it extended to fan itself.
"I'm scared shitless to come out here one morning—maybe tomorrow morning—and find you gone," Dean said. He sounded as weary as wet newspaper. "Find... rigor mortis and postmortem and exsanguination—"
"It's cancer, Dean, I'm probably not going to bleed to death," Sam said dryly. Dean had been watching CSI at the office again from the sound of things. "I'm sorry you're scared," he said, not sure what else to say.
"Don't," Dean said. He took a long drag from his cigarette, the spark on the end growing as he inhaled. "Don't do that. Don't you be sorry."
Sam huffed out a soft, humorless laugh.
"Why did we do any of it if this..." Dean trailed off. He reached over on the table and flicked ash from his cigarette. "What was the point?"
"Of what?" Sam asked.
"Of saving people and hunting things," Dean said. "If this is what happens, what's the fucking point of it anyway? Maybe one of those innocent people we saved got hit by a bus the next day. Or got leukemia. Or a deadly case of freakish herpes, whatever. Maybe saving them one day didn't mean shit. But then we did it, didn't we, and this is the thanks..." Dean stopped and crushed out his cigarette with an angry gesture that made the ashtray scrape on the wood table. "Why did we bother?"
"I don't know," Sam said. He thought for a moment. That didn't really seem like enough and the moment probably called for something more profound than that. "I like to think the moon is there even if I'm not looking at it," he said finally.
Dean stared across the dark room toward the sound of his voice. He snorted and shook his head. "Yeah, I guess," he said.
"Einstein," Sam said.
"What?" Dean said.
"Einstein said that," Sam said.
"Okay," Dean said.
"I don't think the world feels obligated to thank us," Sam said. "I don't think... I don't think it works like that. We're not entitled to a happy ending, we just get what everyone else gets."
"And what's that?" Dean asked.
"A life," Sam said simply.
"Some life," Dean said with a scoff.
Sam smiled and let his head fall back to rest against the back of his chair. "It was, yeah."
Dean put his feet up on the sofa and reclined back on it again with a sigh.
He'd thought, naively, that if there were no demons and the angels weren't watching anymore, they'd get the chance to grow old, become smelly and senile. They'd stop staking vampires and fighting off curses and start collecting social security and mowing the lawn on Saturdays. They'd come home early and sleep in late and the most stressful thing about their days would be when to fit grocery shopping into their work schedule. Library cards, parking tickets, allspice, TiVo, mailboxes, scraping the charred black stuff off burnt toast in the morning. They'd chase strange dogs away from the herb garden Sam kept on the right side of the walk, they'd get arthritis in all of their old wounded places and eventually they wouldn't even keep a gun in the house for security. For the first time in their lives they'd be boring. That's what he'd hoped for.
He could never have predicted that life without monsters would still kill them.
"If I die from this," Dean whispered, "don't expect me to be surprised."
Drifting between sleeping and awake, Sam heard him and laughed. It wasn't really funny, though. It really, really wasn't.
A few days later, Sam had his first seizure. He came to on the floor by the chair where he slept and he didn't know where he was at. Then he thought about it and couldn't remember who he was for a few minutes and it scared him so badly that he woke up Dean with this keening, distressed sound like a baby or a rabbit might make.
Dean got on the floor with him and tried to comfort him, but Sam couldn't remember who he was and shrank away from his touch. "I..." He swallowed and looked suddenly terrified. "I..." he tried again, drawing the word out like it was something painfully difficult.
"Shh, stop it," Dean said, trying to calm him. He got up on his knees and crawled over to the end table by the chair to turn on a lamp. "Sam," he said, sitting back down next to him. "What happened?"
Sam shook his head and stared at him.
Sam shook his head again, looking worried and confused.
"Okay," Dean said. He wasn't totally sure what he was agreeing with, but he stopped trying to ask Sam questions and stopped saying his name because it seemed to bother him.
Dean put out his hand and touched Sam's arm tentatively. When Sam didn't cringe away from him, Dean stood up and pulled to get him to stand with him.
"Are you okay now?" Dean asked him.
Sam frowned and nodded.
"You want to sit with me?" Dean said. He tilted his head toward the couch. “Over there?"
Sam nodded again, then licked his lips and said, "Yeah." The word seemed to relieve him a little and he focused his attention on Dean, concentrating. "Dean."
"Yeah?" Dean said.
Sam swallowed and looked away. "Man, that was weird," he said, voice soft and frightened. "Everything was just... gone. I couldn't remember anything. I couldn't remember how to talk." He let out a soft, shaky breath and dragged both hands through his hair. "Fuck. Oh, Jesus. It's getting worse. I can... feel it."
Dean winced as though the knowledge caused him physical pain. "Does your head hurt?"
"You know it does," Sam said. "But this... God. This..."
"Do you want pills?" Dean asked.
Sam looked at him like he could read Dean's mind and knew that what he really wanted was to get away for a second and catch his breath. "Sure, Dean," he said and his lips twitched a little as he watched Dean practically flee the room at a near run.
That night, they slept together on the couch. It was a job fitting them both, large as they were, together on it, but they managed it with Dean laying half on top of Sam. Sam woke from nightmares twice and the last time he couldn't go back to sleep, so he lay there feeling Dean breathe against his chest, his heart like a moth beating itself against the cage of his ribs.
Their one great fear was that it would happen again. That next time, it wouldn't pass. Next time, Sam would be gone, like a scratched record that wouldn't play anymore... like a disk wiped clean of vital information. Reset back to zero.
Sam started out not wanting to die, but not being surprised that he was going to anyway. In the beginning, it was more about making it easy for Dean than for himself because he was leaving Dean behind and he wasn't sure how well Dean could handle that. Sam himself hadn't handled it well when their positions had been reversed and he had been the one left behind, so he doubted Dean was going to be anything less than psychotically fucked up when this was over.
But all of that was before it started to hurt so badly. Then the real pain came and it was worse than headaches. This was pain that made any words used to describe it seem like small, meaningless sounds formed on the tongues of idiots. It seemed to Sam that the nature of his disease was to ready him for dying like a cruel man trained to interrogation through torture. Suffering made death almost desirable and certainly preferable.
The calm, resigned face he showed Dean wasn't completely false. He even believed most of what he said, but that didn't make the pain hurt less or mean Sam wasn't pissed as all hell about it and the more he hurt the less he remembered to be one of those brave suffering cancer types for Dean.
Part of him wished, in a vague way, that he'd died another way. According to Dean, how they were "supposed" to. Quick and painless and completely unnatural. Sam wouldn't have to watch the grief then, the grief that was reserved for the living which was supposed to happen after the funeral, not before it. But then Sam didn't have a lot of experience with grief, or funerals come to that. He couldn't even remember the name of a single person in their family that had died of natural causes and everyone who had ever mattered had just died, leaving no time or room to mourn for long.
Now he was falling to pieces without falling apart. He was bitter and spiteful then out of nowhere he would laugh hysterically. He dropped things and bumped into door frames, forgot where he was or how to use a microwave. If he went farther than a block away from their apartment, he had to call Dean to come get him but sometimes he couldn't remember the right phone number.
Sam wanted to die slowly by growing old. He wanted the distinguished wrinkles of crow’s feet, slate grey hair and maybe reading glasses. Eventually he wanted to trade in Budweiser and Jack Daniel’s for Oolong with lemon and artificial sweetener. He wanted arthritis, goddamn it and he wanted to watch the sun rise and set on the same horizon for the next twenty years from a fucking rocking chair.
Dying is easy, it's living that's hard someone had once told him. He couldn't remember now who it had been, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that whoever the hell said it had only been mostly right. Death was easy, dying... dying was the hardest thing Sam had ever done, and he wasn't even finished yet.
Alone one day while Dean was out trying to find some old lady's stolen fortune or something, Sam wandered into the bathroom to take a shower. Dean had installed handles on the wall of the shower like they used in hospitals and nursing homes for the crippled and Sam hated them. Mostly because of how necessary they were.
He used them to brace himself as the birds in the water tried to sing him to sleep as he washed his hair. Sam was toweling himself off when he looked up, caught a face staring back at him from the mirror and didn't recognize himself.
He didn't remember anything at all for quite a while after that.