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Between the Lines of Fear and Blame 3a/4

A/N: I'm a little behind on replies, but that is part of my afternoon project :) I don't really have much else to say, but that I hope you enjoy!  Previous parts here.

 

CHAPTER THREE

As he begins to raise his voice

You lower yours and grant him one last choice

Drive until you lose the road

Or break with the ones you've followed

He will do one of two things

He will admit to everything

Or he'll say he's just not the same

And you'll begin to wonder why you came

-from “How to Save a Life” by the Fray

-o-

To sunlight.

Bright and glaring, Dean had to squint to try to make sense of it. It took a long moment before scene came into focus. When it did, Dean still didn’t know where he was.

The streets were crowded. Young people, maybe college-aged. Kids with backpacks. There was a wide green yard and stately buildings. A bicycle whizzed by him, close enough to make Dean jump.

Pulling himself together, Dean turned his gaze down the sidewalk, searching for any indication of where he was.

Then he saw the sign. Library.

Looking up, Dean swallowed a little. Stanford. He was at Stanford.

Suddenly, someone brushed him from behind, and Dean turned just in time to see his brother moving past him up the steps.

For a second, all Dean could do was gape. Sam looked so young. Tall and lanky; he was donning a jean jacket Dean didn’t recognize, a backpack slung over one shoulder. His hair was shorter than Dean remembered, making Sam almost look preppy.

All in all, Sam really did look the part of a Stanford student. There was no sign of Sam’s meager upbringing. No indication of the lethal skill and knowledge in his brother’s mild-mannered facade.

Dean had always figured that Sam had been different at Stanford. He’d gotten a glimpse of it at Sam’s apartment on their hunt to find Dad. But seeing it first hand? While it was happening? Was something else entirely.

Sam went inside, and Dean remembered to move. Following quickly, he scaled the steps and went in.

Dean had been in libraries before. But this library? Was pretty damn impressive. No wonder Sam had wanted to go here.

For a second, Dean just stared, a little awestruck at the entire thing. Then he caught sight of his brother, settling into a study table inside.

Moving again, Dean made short work of the distance and settled down across from him. “You’re moving awful fast,” he said. “What’s the rush?”

Sam looked up at him, brow furrowed. “I don’t have a lot of time between classes,” he said. “And I worked an extra shift last night so I didn’t get as much time as I’d have liked to study.”

“Oh,” Dean said. It made sense, but Dean hadn’t thought of it like that. College, in his mind, was supposed to be fun. A break he’d never allowed himself to take because he was off doing more serious things.

Sam shook his head, sighing. “I have a quiz in my anthropology class, and I really need to do well to keep my grade up,” he explained. “If I don’t get the grades, I could lose my scholarship.”

“But it’s a full ride,” Dean said.


Sam gave a snort. “Achievement based,” he said. “And full ride doesn’t cover my living expenses.”

Again, it made sense, but Dean hadn’t thought twice. Full ride had always implied that Sam had it easy these four years. Not that he had to work extra and study harder just to make sure he could do it.

“It’s a lot of work,” Sam said. “I’m trying to get some upper level stuff in as soon as possible to bolster my chances at a law school interview.”

Dean shrugged. “You got a full ride,” he said. “They’ll give you your interview.”

“I got my full ride because I spent every free moment studying. I didn’t sleep more than five hours a night my entire senior year. I still don’t. I can’t afford to ease up now.”

“Yeah, but you love this stuff,” Dean said. “And you have Jess.”

Sam nodded. “I do love it,” he said. “And it takes everything I can just to have it at all. The studying, the work, the relationships. It takes every waking moment, every bit of concentration. I can never rest. I can never take it easy.”

“Then why do you do it?”

Sam paused, cocking his head and looking at him. “Are you serious?”

Dean just shrugged. “If it’s so hard.”

“Because it’s everything I want,” Sam said. “It’s everything I ever dreamed of. I don’t mind work. I don’t mind sacrifices. As long as I believe in the goal.”

It made sense. It did. But it was just--weird to hear. Weird to think about. Sam’s entire time away was weird to think about. Because it was Sam. Dean’s little brother. Dean had been there for every moment of his life, and Dean didn’t like thinking about Sam existing apart from Dean.

That was why it was hard to let Sam go. That was why it had hurt so much for Sam to leave. Because, as far as Dean was concerned, Sam had always been his.

For Sam to be his own person...it was almost hard to believe.

But amazing to see. His brother’s strength. His brother’s abilities. His brother’s tenacity. His brother’s happiness.

“Dude, are you just going to stand there?” Sam asked. “You came all this way just to stand there?”

“What do you want me to say?”


Sam grinned a little, shaking his head. “You could answer the question.”

“You didn’t ask a question.”

Sam sighed a little, looking exasperated. “It’s still the same.”

“What?”

“Who am I, Dean?”

He’d heard the question several times now, but it still caught him off guard. This was a Sam he didn’t know--one he’d never gotten to know. One that had burned up in the fire even though Dean had dragged the rest of him out of it.

And after seeing Sam as an addict. Seeing Sam as a drunk. Seeing Sam as withdrawn and suicidal and depressed. This? This was nothing short of a miracle. “You’re freakin’ awesome, that’s what you are.”

Sam looked amused and perplexed all at once. “Okay,” he said. “And what is that worth?”

“It’s worth going for it,” Dean said. He shook his head, smiling. “Man, it’s just so hard to imagine that you had all this. That you had a place where you belonged. You got a girl, a permanent address, straight A’s. I knew you were good, but I never thought you were that good.”

It was high praise, but Sam didn’t look flattered. He just looked uncertain. Almost cynical. “Would it still be worthwhile if I hadn’t snagged a girl? If I had flunked out of Stanford. If I had just wanted to work a nowhere job at a coffee shop? If I had just wanted to go anyplace and do anything other than hunting? Would it still be worth it then?”

Dean shook his head. “But you never wanted those things.”

Sam’s smile was rueful. “I never wanted a lot of things,” Sam said. “But no one thought to ask me that before.”

Dean sighed. “Sam--”

Sam held up a hand, with a small shake of his head. “I don’t want to pick a fight with you,” he said. “This is the only time when I’ve seen any value in myself whatsoever. This is the only time I thought any of it was worthwhile. I believed here. I don’t want you to take that from me. I know the others have lost it, but I need it. I still need it, okay?”

“Sam--”

“You have to take me as I am,” Sam said. “It’s not about what I do or what I don’t do. It’s about the dream. It’s about hope. Without that, I don’t know who I am. I just know I don’t like it.”

“Sam--”

“Until you can accept that, I think you have to leave.”

“What?” Dean asked. “Sam, come on--”

“Do you understand it yet?”

“Understand what?” Dean asked. “I just need us to get out. Together.”

“But maybe I need to stay,” Sam said, shaking his head. “I need you to see that.”

“We need to go, Sam,” Dean said. “This isn’t real. You’re in a hospital--”

Sam just shook his head. “Reality is only what you make it out to be.”

“Sam--”

“Goodbye, Dean,” Sam said.

And then it was gone again before Dean could stop it.

-o-

This place was familiar. Nondescript and dingy. There was a flashing neon light that said Pit Stop Motel.

Memory flashed.

It couldn’t be.

Dean heard a door slam behind him, with the frantic sound of someone moving around.

He had stayed in a hundred crappy motels, but this was one he’d always remember. The motel that changed everything. The last motel Sam stayed at before he left.

This was the night Sam came clean about Stanford. The night Sam had had the blowout with their father, the night when their dad had said don’t come back and the night Sam had finally obeyed.

This one hurt--more than the others. Seeing Sam hurting, seeing Sam broken--it was hard to take, no doubt. It was confusing and insightful and downright weird.

But this one? Wasn’t just Sam’s memory. It was his, too. Because when Sam had walked out, it had been Dean who was left behind.

He closed his eyes. “Come on, come on,” he muttered. “We’ve got nothing to learn here.”

Opening his eyes again, the scene was still the same. He could hear Sam in bedroom, throwing his stuff together, and Dean knew what he was doing. He was packing.

Dean sighed. If he was going to get out of here, he had to talk to Sam.

He moved tentatively, knowing what he’d find. Sam’s door opened easily, but in his rage, Sam didn’t even turn to see Dean enter.

Sam was moving fast and hard, stuffing things into his duffel with uncharacteristic ferocity. Books and clothes, haphazardly strewn today, even bending the precious pages Sam worked so hard to keep straight.

Sam looked so young--thin and wiry, and Dean remembered those days well. Sam was still growing into himself. He was strong, lean and muscular, but without the impressive bulk that Sam carried as an adult. And his face was thin, with a boyishness about it that made Dean ache.

Sam’s face was red, eyelashes clumped together with the tip of his nose agitated.

Dean remembered standing here. Remembered watching Sam do this exact same thing. Remembered watching and having his heart break.

“So you’ve come to yell at me, too, huh?” Sam asked without turning around. He jammed a copy of Watership Down into his backpack.

“What?” Dean asked.

Sam glanced at him, face drawn stiffly. “You going to tell me what an asshole I am? How I should buckle down? Listen to Dad? Roll over and hope he forgives me?”

There was a bitterness there that Dean also recognized--one that he’d chided Sam for, but had taken to himself recently. Their father’s orders were harsh and blind, and Dean couldn’t say that he valued following them much anymore.

But this wasn’t about Dad. This was about Dean. This was about Dean and Sam and about how when the line was drawn in the sand, Dean had always picked Sam.

Sam had always picked himself.

“You think I care about Dad?” Dean asked finally.

Sam snorted, pulling a pile of boxers from his drawer. “You’re always telling me to buck up and follow his damn orders.”

“And you’re always telling him to go to Hell,” Dean mused softly.

“Not like he listens.”

“Oh, and you do?” Dean asked, and he couldn’t help the sardonic humor in his tone.

Sam paused for a second, looking at him. “I listen,” he said. He turned back to his packing. “I listened for eight years and all I heard were lies.”

That one stung. Harsh and brutal--and true. “We were trying to protect you.”

“So that makes it okay?”

“So it gives you license to a jackass?”

Sam spun on him again. “So you do think I’m an asshole.”

Dean shrugged. “You said it, man,” he said. “Not me.”

Sam nodded, keeping his face tightly composed. “Did you ever think about it from my point of view?”

Dean was used to Sam’s questions, both in real life and in the constant shift of devolving Sam’s he seemed to be meeting. But this one? Was a little out of left field. “What?”

“My point of view,” Sam said again. “Like, what I’m feeling here.”

The honest answer? No. Dean hadn’t thought about it. Sure, he’d figured Sam was angry and probably a little hurt, but that didn’t explain why Sam had thought he needed to leave--to cut all ties and just go.

“Because this sucks, Dean,” Sam told him. “It sucks. All I wanted was a chance. To do something for myself. It’s all I ever wanted. And what did he do? He kicked me out.”

“You could have told him sooner,” Dean said, and the old arguments were coming back. The ones he played in his head during those long years while Sam was at college. “You shouldn’t have lied to him.”

“Like he lied to me?” Sam asked, incredulous.

“You could have tried talking to him,” Dean insisted. “He listens.”

“To you, Dean,” Sam told him plainly. “He listens to you.”

“Because I follow orders.”

“I just want to know why we’re doing things.”

“And he just wants to keep you safe!” Dean exploded. “We’re better off as a family.” And Dean still believed it. He had to believe it. If they had stuck together, if they had just lived up to their promises to one another, none of this would have happened. They could have been happy and whole.

“This isn’t a family, Dean!” Sam yelled back. “And it’s not even about being equal or being trusted or whatever. It’s about the fact that I’m not happy, Dean. About the fact that every day I come home from school and I have to find reasons to not kill myself. Every hunt we go on, I have to talk myself out of just letting myself get killed. This lifestyle--it is taking everything good in me and ruining it. Do you know what that’s like? Do you know what it’s like to wish you were anywhere but here?”

Dean wanted to say he did. The months after Hell were full of it. His disdain for himself. The discomfort in his own skin. The way the hunt was a distraction he could never quite get into it. All he wanted was out.

But not to find himself. To run from himself. Dean realized the difference with sudden clarity. Dean wanted a break because hunting made him feel too real. Hunting was a part of who he was and Dean didn’t like facing himself.

Sam wanted out because the hunt didn’t let Sam be a person, and for all that made him safer, it also made him a hardened shell. It made him miserable.

It was the missing piece of the puzzle. The part of Sam he never quite got. That it wasn’t defiance for the sheer spite of it. That it was self preservation in the highest. Sam was just trying to hold on when he went to Stanford, just like he was grasping at straws for revenge after Jessica died. Just like he’d turned to Ruby after Dean’s death. Desperation forced men to do funny things. Sam didn’t know how to break; he just knew how to find a new vice to submit to.

Dean sighed, looking at Sam--really seeing his brother. The eighteen year old kid. He had nothing more than two bags to his name. When his family wouldn’t give him any value of his own, Sam applied to colleges who would do it for him. All Sam had was a letter and an ultimatum. One made him feel valued, the other made him feel worthless.

It was no wonder which one Sam took.

Dean swallowed hard, pushing back his own pain. He’d dwelled on it enough. He’d held it against Sam for years. It was time to let go--here and now, it was time to open up. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Sam stilled, head cocking. “You’re sorry?”

“That you think you have to do this,” he said. “That’s just...you shouldn’t have to think that way.”

“You’re telling me I’m wrong, then?” Sam asked, hesitant.

“No,” Dean said. “I just--wish it was different.”

“But it’s not,” Sam finished for him.

“It could be,” Dean offered.

“And how’s that?” Sam asked. “Dad going to let me go to college? You’re going to be cool with me being away? I’m going to have a chance to be myself?”

“I’ve only wanted you,” Dean said. “I’ve known you since before you were born. I know you better than you know yourself. You don’t need to be anyone else around me.”

Sam gave him a slight half smile. “And who am I, Dean?”

It was the question Dean should have seen coming. The answer fluttered in his throat, and it was important to say it just right, so Sam knew. “You’re still a Winchester. No matter what you think, no matter what Dad said.”

Sam nodded tightly, looking down. “Then tell me, Dean,” he said, looking up again, a hint of defiance in his eyes. “What is that worth?”

Dean felt himself bristle at the defiance, which was easy to do. Sam was young and full of fire--there were things he wanted and things he refused to compromise on, whether or not it was right or wrong. Sam was short-sighted in so many things, and just plain wrong in others. But there was something more than that. Something hopeful, something needy in it all. Where Dean had seen selfish before, now he could see a kid who didn’t just want it for kicks, but who needed it like he needed air.

It was a hard revelation, one he didn’t want to deal with. Sam leaving had hurt him--a lot. But maybe it wasn’t about Dean. Maybe it was about Sam.

“It’s worth not burning your bridges,” Dean told him. “You might regret it someday.”

Sam gave a brief laugh. “Regret? You mean like I regret telling Dad about Stanford at all? Or how I regret every single hunt I’ve ever been on. Or how I really regret the first eight years of my life that were all lies?” he said. He shook his head, his countenance barely held together. “I don’t have a choice. I need a chance, Dean. A chance to breathe. I was suffocating here. It isn’t about leaving you guys. It’s about being able to live. I wanted both. I only get one.”

It cut deep--deeper than Dean had thought it would. “And you need to go more than you need to stay?” Dean asked.

“If I stay for you,” Sam said. “I’ll be dead. This life--this endless hunt, these lies and this training and this endless pursuit of evil--I can be a Winchester. Or I can be happy. But Dad made it pretty clear. I can’t have both.”

And what Dean could see now was a desperation he’d never quite grasped before. The inherent need, burning deep inside Sam. The last smoldering hope in his brother’s soul.

It was why Sam at Stanford at been so different. Had been so happy.

It was why seeing Sam after Jess’ death was so painful. It was why the Sam lying in the hospital bed was nothing more than a shell.

Dean had seen his brother without hope; seeing him with it, as angry and desperate as it was, wasn’t something he could deny.

And yet, what hope could he let the kid hang onto? On the cusp of his dreams, Dean knew Sam was going to lose everything. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

Sam nodded. “That’s what I thought,” he said.

Dean watched as his brother took a deep breath, consciously forcing himself to let it out. Pulling his duffel bag over his shoulder he gave Dean one last look. “Aren’t you going to say it, too?”

Dean’s throat was tight, his eyes burning. “Say what?” Dean asked.

“The ultimatum. I know you believe it. I know you give it to me later. Maybe if you said it now, you could spare yourself the trouble.”

Dean remembered the ultimatum. He’d issued it from the shattered honeymoon sweet, from the floor where Sam had tried to kill him.

He’d meant it. He’d wanted to mean it.

But the thing was, Sam had been right about some of it. Maybe Dean hadn’t known him. Because Dean hadn’t known this. He hadn’t known how much it hurt Sam to go. He hadn’t known how desperate Sam had been to get out. He hadn’t known that maybe there really were two sides to every story, and whether Sam was an addict or a liar or a teenage kid just looking for a chance, maybe Sam still deserved that chance.

Sam pressed his lips together. He nodded. “Okay,” he said, and he started walking, brushing past Dean. The door opened and there was a pause. Dean closed his eyes and hoped and prayed that maybe Sam could come back. That maybe they could still fix this.

The door shut.

Sam was gone.

The tension left Dean’s body as the failure settled over him again. He had no words to save Sam here. Sometimes, it was easier not to try.

His futility dissipated and the scenery melted away and Dean welcomed the blackness once again.

-o-

Dean kind of liked motel rooms.

He kind of hated schools.

Which was why he couldn’t forget them.

It was sunny out, and somewhere a bell rang. The front doors opened and kids began coming out. One after another, in groups and pairs, walking and laughing, walking and jogging.

Squinting up, Dean saw the sigh. Truman High School.

Dean muttered a curse. Just what he needed. Another stellar memory.

There were kids everywhere, but no sign of Sam. Which was not ideal since Sam was the only one he wanted to talk to. He hadn’t wanted to be a part of this school when he’d been there; considering this was nothing more than a whacked out memory in Sam’s comatose brain, he had even less desire to hang around this time around.

The crowds began to clear as the students trickled home. Dean saw a few teachers begin to leave, and decided if Sam wasn’t going to make himself apparent, he was going to have to go on a bit of a search.

He tried inside first--roaming for what he had thought was once Sam’s locker. He tried the boys’ bathroom on each floor and even checked in a few classrooms that look vaguely familiar.

Coming up blank, he went outside again, wandering around to the back where the football practice field was.

It was early spring, though, and the fields were empty. Except for a small lone figure, perched in the bleachers.

Sam.

Fourteen and geeky, his little brother was unmistakable. It was almost hard to see him like that--young and innocent and small. It was hard to really remember a time when Sammy was actually smaller than he was, and Dean’s heart panged fondly.

He made his way over. Sam saw him, but didn’t say anything. There was something melancholy about this, though Dean couldn’t quite place what. Dean knew his own experiences here weren’t so positive, but he had thought it’d ended up okay for Sam. Some bullying, but Sam was smart and strong--so it wouldn’t have been a problem.

Sam was just sulky at this age, Dean recalled, and frustratingly so, but maybe he’d at least figure out why.

Dean stuffed his hands in his pockets and rolled his shoulders. The air was cool, a little crisp, and Dean took a deep breath and had to remind himself it wasn’t real. “What are you doing out here?”

Sam shrugged, looking off into the distance. “Just waiting.”

With a glance around, Dean pulled his jacket tighter around himself. “For what?”

“You. Dad.” Sam shrugged. “I’m not supposed to go home by myself. Right?”

That was right. There had been lots of restrictions as far as Sam was concerned. No leaving the motel room by himself. No talking to strangers. No walking home alone. It was just par for the course. They weren’t worried about muggers or murderers, but there were plenty of other things out there, and Sam was the youngest--had always been the youngest--and Winchesters didn’t abide by vulnerabilities.

“Well, I’m here now,” Dean pointed out.

Sam nodded a little. “Dad should be home soon, right?”

Dean remembered this. Remembered his father’s black eye and the trail of a black dog in Mississippi that would take them to the south for the next few months. “And then we can blow this joint,” Dean assured him.

Sam’s shoulders sagged a little, and Dean remembered belatedly that that wasn’t something Sam had wanted.

But that never made sense to Dean. There wasn’t anything to stay for. A school full of kids who didn’t like them. A town full of people who didn’t know them. Pretty girls were a dime a dozen, and Dean had never wanted anything except his family.

“And we have to start over,” Sam said.

“That’s a good thing,” Dean told him. “I’m sure there are geeks at the next school, too, so you’ll have no problem picking up where you left off.”

Sam didn’t look amused. He just looked sad.

“Dude, seriously,” Dean prodded. “What is with you?”

Sam sighed and looked at him. “Don’t you ever just want more?”

“More than this?” Dean said with a light voice. He thought about his teenage years--the lonely days in class, the draw of the hunt at night, and the nameless girls in between. And always Dad and Sam. “What more could you want.”

“My teacher, Mr. Wyatt,” Sam said. “He thinks I can go to college.”

Dean froze. It had always been a mystery--how Sam had dreamed of college at all. It had never really been presented as an option. It hadn’t even been a notion Dean had entertained. Dean had always figured Sam had picked the thing most likely to piss their father off, but maybe he was wrong.

About a lot of things.

“Yeah?” Dean said. “You are pretty smart.”

Sam nodded a little. “He asked me what I wanted,” Sam continued softly. He looked up. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“You’re fourteen, Sam,” Dean told him. “You’re not supposed to know what you want.”

Sam shook his head. “That’s not it,” he said. “It’s just...no one has ever asked me that before.”

Dean scoffed. “I ask you that all the time,” he said.

“I mean about life.”

“Spaghettios or mac and cheese is a pretty important life decision.”

Sam didn’t crack a smile. “It’s always one hunt after another,” Sam said. “We go somewhere, stay a few months, move on. It’s endless. Training, hunting, moving. There’s nothing to it. There’s nothing to look forward to.”

“We get to kill things,” Dean protested. “Save people.”

“People I don’t know from things I don’t want to know.”

“Ignorance isn’t bliss, Sammy.”

“I don’t want ignorance,” Sam told him. “I just want to be happy. I want to be safe. There’s nothing happy and safe in my life and I feel like if I don’t get out of it, I’ll just die.”

“Dude, melodramatic much?” Dean tried to quip.

“But Dean, I don’t like hunting,” Sam told him plaintively, and it was an odd thing to see Sam so honest and upfront. It had been something so characteristic of Sam at this age. “I just--I feel like it’s killing me.”

“Dad wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”

“Not like that,” Sam told him. He leaned forward, his brow creasing. “But--like inside. Me. I feel like it’s killing me inside.”

It was a hard thing to think about. That Dean’s horse and cart were well and good, except they weren’t anything that Sam wanted. Sam didn’t care if the horse was pulling the cart at all because he wanted something else entirely.

Dean had called it selfish most of his life, but looking at the kid--looking at fourteen year old Sam and seeing how miserable he was--was a stark revelation.

This is what Sam had talked about at eighteen. This was what he’d been trying to avoid. This was a Sam with no hope for a future. A Sam who didn’t know what happiness and stability and safety was. This was a Sam who didn’t know who to trust or how to believe because his whole life was short-term commitments and lies.

Sam sighed, seemed to shrink a little. “I keep going around with it in my head. What I want, where I’m going. And I keep having this question, Dean. This question in my head.”

Dean knew the question. He had heard it before. And yet, he had to let Sam ask it. He swallowed. “And what question is that, Sammy?” he asked, his voice forced.

“Who am I?”

It came easily. The banter of their youth. His cocky arrogance and Sam’s introverted logic. “You’re the geekboy.” And the name was light on his tongue, like it was meant to be.

Sam looked disappointed. “And what is that worth?”

“It’s worth sticking around,” Dean told him. “Worth getting up in the morning, worth sticking with us.”

Sam tried to smile. “You really think so?”

“Sure,” Dean said. “I’ve got your back. You put your nose to the grindstone a little more and Dad will ease up. It could be awesome.”

It was a fantasy Dean believed in--had believed in all his life. He’d always liked his brother, but his frustrations with the kid had been nothing more than the fact that Dean had known, without a doubt, what they could have had together. If Sam could just get himself with it and follow the program. Freedom only came after responsibility. Sam wanted the cart before the horse, and Dean knew it didn’t work that way.

“I wish it could be awesome,” Sam told him finally. He looked pensive. “I just--I don’t know.”

“What’s to know?” Dean said. “I know hunting’s not always the best, but people need us, man. They need us--they’re always going to need us. I just--I haven’t figure out a way around that. I can’t find anything else worth leaving for.”

Sam’s eyes went distant again, and he gave a sigh that was too big for his small frame. “I wish that were enough.”

“Sometimes it has to be.”

Sam looked at him again. “Do you believe that? Even when everything goes wrong, do you still believe that?”

Dean had to believe it. Even when he wanted to leave, there was no place else to go. No other satisfaction to find. He could make things right by hunting things. He could redeem himself. It was what he was good at, what he knew, who he was, even if he didn’t always want to admit it.

He collected himself and nodded. “I do.”

Sam’s lips quirked into a smile. “You’re lucky,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always envied most.”

“My dashing good looks?” Dean quipped.

“That you find meaning in what you do.”

Dean’s humor faded. “You can, too.”

Sam just shook his head. He looked at his hands. “I’m not happy, Dean,” he said. “I’m not safe. It’s been so long that sometimes I forgot what it feels like--to be really safe, to be actually happy. I know you try, but it’s not something sneaking into a movie or shoplifting a candy bar can fix. It’s about how it takes me an hour to fall asleep each night while I try to remember the incantations to keep ghosts away. It’s about how the first thing I do when I wake up is check to make sure the gun is still under my pillow. It’s about how I get up each morning and wish I just didn’t have to. I’m trapped like this, and sometimes I think the worst fate I could have is living long enough to be numb to this.”

There wasn’t anything to say. Sam’s words were heavy and morose and undeniable. It wasn’t like Dean had thought the kid was happy, but he’d never really thought of Sam as depressed either. But looking at him, the weary lines on such a young face, Dean wondered if he’d missed it all along. If he’d been so wrapped up in his own dreams and desires and duties that he’d forgotten that Sam was a person underneath it all.

“Sam,” he breathed. “I’m sorry.”

But it wasn’t enough. Sam smiled wanly and didn’t reply.

If he had understood back then, Dean wasn’t sure what it would have changed. If he would have mocked the kid less, stood up for him with Dad a little more. Maybe it would have hurt Dean less when Sam finally did leave for Stanford if he’d understood just where that need came from.

It wasn’t that it wasn’t selfish, because it kind of was. But only in the way that self preservation was always selfish at its most inherent level.

“Sometimes I feel like I could just fade away,” Sam continued after a long pause. His little brother closed his eyes. “Sometimes I wish I just would.”

Dean wanted to say something--anything--but the words weren’t there. Nothing was there and Dean let his own eyes close until he faded, too, and the scene dwindled into nothingness.

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