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They say it's hardest for the middle child. The oldest is wisest, biggest, knows what's best. The youngest is the baby, the royalty, the spoiled little shit that literally everyone loves. But the middle kid is just that. In the middle.

Sam always buried himself in his schoolwork. He didn't like hunting, didn't want to do it, but he couldn't fight his family. So he worked hard in school, wherever they went, no matter how many times he had to write a book report about Catcher in the Rye or Brave New World. He liked taking care of his baby brother, though he was old enough now to not need to be taken care of, he was as stubborn as Sam, if not more, and he liked hunting as much as Dean.

Adam used to be uncomfortable around Dean, back when he was just a baby and Sam was the one with the gentlest hands. Sam found a bit of relief, being a five year old who took care of a baby without any help from the rest of their family, a baby who showed up years after Sam's mom died, but they never talked about that fact. Adam grew up quickly, joining the family business as soon as he could.

Dean took Adam under his wing immediately, so immensely proud of his baby brother. Being a hunter at the age of ten, already more aggressive and focused than Sam had ever been.
Sam wasn't happy about it, but once again, he couldn't fight his family. So he let Adam slip from his fingers into Dean's, and he focused on his studies.

He was a straight A student. His teachers liked him, but he was shy and didn't talk much to others. He didn't see the point - at the end of the day, he would still just go home to the family who seemed to be better off when he was curled up on the motel bed, studying silently, while they discussed hunts and the like and cleaned the guns.

When Sam was sixteen, they went on a hunt. It was during the summer, which meant that Sam couldn't hide behind his AP calculus book or shoot off on a tangent about his AP psychology project he had to finish when Adam asked him why he didn't go on hunts with Dad and Dean. They were all together, a shitty little family in a shitty little car - he glanced over at Dean, as if his brother could read bad thoughts about his precious "baby" - and Sam was forced to be the hunter he never wanted to be.

"Sam," Dean's voice snapped him out of his thoughts.

"Yeah."

"You did research, right, bookworm?" Adam snickered at that. "What'd you get?"

"A rash of break-ins and murders in New Hampshire. All very happy husbands murdering their very happy wives and writing 'Hers' on the walls in their wives' blood, then breaking into nearby banks and taking quite a bit of money, then disappearing off the map," Sam droned, still staring out the window. "My guess is a witch."

"Hate witches," Adam mumbled, as darkly as an eleven-year-old could get.

Dean gave a proud chuckle, and Dad snorted. Sam suppressed an eyeroll, knowing that it'd get him in trouble.

He just wanted out. He wanted to be able to leave already. He'd already applied to Stanford, gotten into the pre-law program, and he knew he'd have to leave his family behind. He thought that would hurt more, but the idea became more and more tempting, more delicious, every day.

His dad and brothers were strong. They loved to hunt, they loved saving people like that. Sam constantly disappointed him because he was smart and strong and he had the ability to be a great hunter, he was the best sharpshooter in the four of them - Dean was better at hand to hand combat, Dad knew the weak spot of every son of a bitch under the rainbow, and Adam had quite the talent for blades - but he couldn't find himself happy in that life. He wanted to be normal, he wanted the stability and foundation that his childhood never had. He never said that out loud, though, knew his family would condemn him and keep him in quarantine, so they figured that he was just genuinely wrong in the head. Sometimes, he thought the same.

He remembered when he was fourteen, pretending to sleep in the cramped little bed next to Adam, who was already passed out. Dad and Dean were sitting at the little table in the motel room, sipping on their beers and talking about anything that came to mind.

"So," Dad started. "What about Sam?"

"What about Sam?" Dean shot back.

"S'it just me, or has he been actin' weird lately?"

Dean chuckled. "Sam's a weird one, sir. Always has been, always will be."

"He worries me sometimes."

Dean sighed. "Yeah. Whatever happened to that little kid we used to know, huh."

"We threw a baby in his arms and told him his every nightmare was true," Dad pointed out.

"You're blaming us for it? Shit, he's the one who talks about the 'thought process' behind the monsters. Hell, maybe he's just," there was a pause, and Sam's breath caught in his throat, clenching his fist in the bed sheets. "Just fucked up?"

"Yeah, probably."

But that was years ago. Sam didn't feel too bitter about it anymore. So his family thought he was a fucked up freak. Whatever.

He wouldn't have to deal with them for too much longer.

---

Today wasn't a bad day. It wasn't a good day, either, but it wasn't a bad day. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that he was currently cleaning a gun with practiced precision - Adam kept asking him all these questions, because he was the fastest out of the four of them - it might have actually felt like a normal day that normal people go through.

He'd woken up to Dean kicking the bed, yelling about getting up and going to some diner down the road for breakfast. He'd gotten up and dressed and brushed his teeth and then they'd gone to the little restaurant where Dean had steak and eggs and Adam had chocolate-chip pancakes and Dad had a muffin (even though the waitress insisted he have some coffee) and Sam had a western omelets and they were just a family for once instead of the Winchesters. And when they got home Sam was doing homework and Adam watched him do all his complicated algebra homework, complaining loudly about how letters aren't numbers, Sam! which made Dean chuckle and ruffle Adam's hair.

And then Dad brought out the gun cleaning gear, and they huddled around the little table. Sam, when trying to go fast, could clean a gun in forty-seven seconds flat. But he was going slow today, taking his time to make sure it was all done perfectly because a clean gun is a safe gun. Dean and Dad started talking about the latest girl Dean was "dating," some redhead college girl who apparently had a thing for thongs, and then changed the subject to Adam and his studies, because they realized they probably shouldn't be talking about thongs and hot redheads around a kid Adam's age.

Sam looked up, watching his family talk and enjoy their time while he stayed on the outskirts of the conversation, silent and barely there.

And he wondered.

What would happen if he just...

Got up, went into the bathroom, and shot himself in the head?

What would they do? Would they even do anything? Or would they just salt and burn his body and go on like they always did?

He pressed the gun in his hands against his leg, looking down at it.

He could do it.

He could totally do it.

Right now, he could just shoot himself and be done with hunting and killing and all the abnormal in his life, he wouldn't be a failure to his family anymore.

He would just be Sam. Fucked up. Dead. Gone.

No, he should call Uncle Bobby first before doing anything drastic like that. He always liked Uncle Bobby, they researched together and he talked to Sam like he wasn't just a fucked up little shit. And when Dean and Dad were out on a hunt and he and Adam were holing up in Uncle Bobby's house and Sam let slip that he wanted to run, Uncle Bobby didn't hate him. Didn't tell him he was wrong. Just said that he'd be in danger his whole life regardless of whether or not he was a hunter.

Uncle Bobby would tell him not to do it, of course, but he didn't get it. He wasn't trapped like Sam was, he was just a hunter and that was his life and he liked doing it.

Sam. Sam was trapped.

He was going to do it. He was going to pull the trigger and shoot himself in the head and be dead and gone and finally see his mother and Dad and Dean and Adam would be happy and he'd be free, it was a win/win wasn't it this was the only way out thiswastheonlywayout--

"Sam."

He blinked, looking up at Dean, who was looking at him with an eyebrow raised.

"You okay? You look like you're about to hurl."

He nodded, setting the gun down on the table, not realizing he'd put it back together and overcleaned it while he was thinking. "I'm fine," he mumbled, grabbing another, dirty gun.

He ended up not calling Uncle Bobby, and didn't tell him about wanting to shoot himself or planning to do it in the bathroom and didn't tell Adam or Dean or Dad because god knows they'd react badly.

---

Sam sometimes dreamed about things that happened in the past. Maybe because he'd seen too much to really be scared in dreams anymore, he knew exactly what to do, even if he was in a bad situation. He was too clinical about fear these days.

But it was the memories that were supposed to be comforting and happy that got to him. Because he knew that if someone looked in on his tenth Christmas, in a cabin somewhere in Minnesota, they'd see three little boys cuddled up under a big, thick blanket and opening presents. They wouldn't see the fact that Sam had gone through the spider-infested attic to get that blanket because Adam didn't have any really warm clothes yet and he needed to stay warm during the night. They wouldn't see that Sam was worrying over Adam like a mother hen because the kid was tiny and thin and shaking slightly and he knew that was bad. They wouldn't see that Dean kept telling him to calm down because Adam's fine, dude. They wouldn't see that if Sam wasn't trying to spread body heat to his little brother, he'd be holed up in the tiny little bedroom that he'd have to share with his brothers later that night once they were done giving each other crappy little gifts made from broken beer bottles. They wouldn't see that Sam was rubbing his thumb over a pendant in his hand, feeling the ridges of the face carved in the wood, wouldn't see his hesitation to give the pretty charm away.

That's what he dreamed about sometimes. He dreamed about sitting there, trying to convince Dean to light the fireplace, trying to decide if it was worth it to wait until Dad came home.

He remembered Adam's wide, toothy grin as he looked at the "presents" Dean and Sam had collected over the year - sea glass, an iron chain, a lighter with cool purple fluid inside, a new knife. The kid was acting like it was the best Christmas ever, and the hugs he gave Dean and Sam were chokingly tight.

He remembered how, when Adam finally fell asleep, Sam volunteered to take him back to the bedroom, because he knew Dean would want to sit back on the couch and sneak a beer and watch crappy PayPerView pornos - not that Dean knew that Sam knew what a porno was. He picked Adam up, carrying him to the other room and tucking him in tight to make sure he was warm.

He looked down at his hand, the pendant catching the light coming from the other room. He took a deep breath, turning around and padding over to the living room, watching Dean through the door to the kitchen as he plucked a beer out of the six pack in the fridge. "Dean?"

He looked over his shoulder, straightening up. "You should be gettin' to bed, Sam."

Sam stepped closer, playing with the thin strip of worn leather that held the pendant. He stared down at it for a minute, then handed it to Dean. "It was going to be for Dad," he explained. "But he's not home, so you should have it."

Dean took the pendant, looking down at it. Sam couldn't help but notice that, even though Dean smiled up at him, it wasn't the big, happy grin he'd given Adam. "Thanks, Sam."

Sam always woke up from those dreams feeling empty and dirty. Because reliving those moments made it worse, made being the broken brother worse because it made him realize he'd always been wrong, always been left behind. How can you fix what had always been broken? If that was just how it was?

He could deal with fear, in his own, clinical way. He could deal with fights at school by ignoring the bullies until someone hit a nerve - insulting Adam or Dean - and then he knocked the kid out in .795 seconds flat. He just couldn't deal with these memories. They hurt too much.

---

It was getting late. Three in the morning.

Adam had fallen asleep first, leaning on Sam's shoulder and clinging to him like he used to. Sam combed his fingers through his little brother's hair, smiling down at him on occasion. John was sleeping, too, snoring lightly, his face pressed up against the glass of the window. When he glanced up at Dean, he could tell that he was tired. He kept tilting his head from side to side, trying to crack his neck even though it stopped cracking two hours ago. The car would occasionally drift over the yellow line and Dean would huff after a second and right himself.

"Dean," Sam whispered, leaning forward slightly, careful not to wake Adam.

"Yeah, Sam."

"You should sleep."

Dean looked up into the rearview mirror, and Sam found himself staring into the bright green eyes that were part of every good and bad memory he'd ever known. "Sam, I'm fine."

"You're only human, Dean, you need sleep sometimes. I can drive."

Dean looked away, back the road, and stayed quiet for a long time. But eventually he pulled over to the side of the road and threw it in neutral. "If you crash, you're dead."

"Don't tempt me," Sam murmured under his breath as Dean got out. He gently untangled Adam from his grip, leaning him against the window on the other side of the seat, and followed Dean out.

The fresh air was nice and it felt good to stretch his still-rapidly-growing bones. They creaked and popped and he cringed a bit, but reached out for the handle on the door. Dean's hand covered his for a moment, and he looked over at his brother - they were the same height, now.

"You didn't sleep much either," Dean pointed out.

Sam shrugged. "I'm fine. More awake than you."

"Wake me up in a few hours, okay? You should sleep some, too."

"I'll just get some coffee. I'll be good," he forced a smile. "Don't worry, Dean. Just sleep for a while."

Dean paused, then nodded, moving his hand away. He slid into the back and Sam plopped down in the driver's seat. "Call me if you need anything. And don't need anything."

Dean didn't let him drive too often, only moments like these when he was too tired to go another mile and Sam was wide awake, because he was sort of nocturnal like that. But he was a good driver, and since it was pretty much just a straight road for a while he wasn't worried about crashing or anything.

It was just time to think. To breathe. To pretend that he was on a road trip with his family because it was their vacation, and they were far away from whatever home they had in whatever state, and he was driving because he just got his license and he was allowed to drive and show how trustworthy he was. He ignored the glaring thunk and clud of boxes of guns jostling around in the trunk, ignored the scar on his wrist from when he'd gotten cut by the claws of a werewolf when he was thirteen. In his mind, he was normal. Happy. Sam Winchester, the kid who was going to Stanford in just a year, who lived with his semi-alcoholic father and two brothers.

It was times like this when he felt happiest. Because in his mind, everything was better. John was still proud of how fast he cleaned a gun, Dean still ruffled his hair and smiled down at him, Adam still looked up at him with those big eyes with all the trust in the world. Sometimes, he thought about having his and Dean's mom back with them, too, and they'd be back in Kansas and Adam was still with them anyway.

But he didn't think about too often.

He always felt cold when he did. Watched.

Like if he reached out, he could feel some ethereal hand that would pull him into that deliriously perfect world.

Like if he reached out, he'd feel his mother's hand, and she'd smile at him and tell him he'd been doing so well over these past years, she loved him, she missed him, she couldn't wait for when they got to meet properly.

He never reached out. Just tightened his grip on the wheel and sped up a bit, a black flash on the dark road.

---

Sam's senior year of high school was filled with busywork and half-assed papers, projects he technically didn't need to do because he'd already gotten into his dream school.

Adam worked on his own schoolwork, though always put as little effort as possible to get it done, and only sometimes asked Sam for help on his English homework. He was a smart kid, a genius in science and math, but sometimes words got kind of messed up in his head.

Dean spent half his time out on hunts with Dad, but when he was home, Adam acted like Sam didn't exist.

Sam was just the nanny until Dean got home. He didn't mind that anymore. As long as Adam was happy. He was happy in this life, and it was good for him to have a role model who wasn't an alcoholic semi-absent father or a brother who'd been gone in a few months.

Sam got in fights with his dad a lot more these days. Not full-blown, punching fights that exploded like volcanoes and it took a day or two for the dust to settle, but intense little mumbling spats that made the air palpable with crackling energy, tripped off by any tiny little unexpected event, and suddenly John was slamming the door behind him as he headed to the bar.

He was getting to his last reserves of patience.

By the time summer rolled around, they were actually in northern California. They'd gone to some cute little restaurant that had amazing burgers and pretty great fries, and Adam seemed to be enjoying his milkshake.

He didn't want to ruin the meal, so he waited until they were all done with their food and just waiting for the waitress to come back with the faulty credit card. He took a deep breath then cleared his throat in a lull in conversation.

"I got into Stanford," he said. John's expression turned dark as he looked over at Sam, and Dean and Adam looked too shocked to say much.

"Uh," Dean coughed. "Congrats, Sam."

"I intend on going," he explained. When everyone else at the table seemed to be at a loss for words, he kept pushing words out, partially just to fill the void. "The fall semester doesn't start for a few weeks, but I'd like to get there early to talk about financial support and all that with the dean. I don't expect you guys to visit or really be happy about it, but I'd like a ride to the train station. I can pay for the ticket."

There was a long pause.

Adam broke it first. "Wait, Sam-"

"Here you go! Have a nice night!" the waitress broke in, her smile forced. They ignored her, except for Sam, who threw her a tight apology smile.

"We'll talk about this in the car," John said quietly, taking the fake credit card back from the waitress and shoving it in his wallet.

Sam sighed as he stood up, followed by his brothers, and he stepped in behind John as they walked back to the car.

John gripped the wheel tight, his knuckles going that yellow-white from tension and Dean looked stiff and uncomfortable in the front seat and Adam looked frozen, his eyes wide, next to Sam. Sam felt loose, almost comfortable, but there was a tight clench in his gut that made it hard to breathe right. He watched the world whip by outside, only hoping that John wouldn't kill him so someday he could join that world and escape his current, shadowy habitat.

"You're serious about this decision, Sam?"

John's taut growl tugged Sam out of his thoughts roughly, and he looked up. His eyes met John's in the rearview mirror and the clench in his gut made his breath a little harder to come by.

He took a deep breath, nodding. "Yes, sir."

John looked away, and Sam could practically feel his frown on the air. He was quiet for a long time, and when they pulled up to the motel, he got out slowly, slamming the door. "The hell is wrong with you?" he suddenly yelled, snarling at Sam as he got out of the car.

If Sam had been any weaker, he would have folded, given up. But he was done with being a hunter, being ignored by his family and pushed off as the black sheep.

"What's wrong with me?" he repeated, trying to keep his voice at least a little calm, if only for Adam - John yelling sucked, but it was normal, but if Sam started yelling, he'd know something was really, really wrong. "Wanting to go to college makes me wrong?"

"You're a hunter, Sam, and that's your life," John stalked forward and grabbed Sam by the front of his shirt. "That's what your life is going to be!"

Sam frowned, pushing John off of him, using the height advantage he'd grown into over the years. "It's not the life I want!"

"Too fucking bad! You're not going to that damned school!"

Sam gritted his teeth, clenching his fists. "Guess what, Dad! Yes, I fucking am!"

"Fine!" John conceded, pointing a thick, dirty finger at Sam. "You wanna leave?" The finger moved, pointing over Sam's head and down the road behind him. "You don't come back."

Sam's jaw tightened, and he froze for a minute. Wasn't that what he'd always wanted? To be free of the family who didn't want him? Why was his gut churning like he'd eaten something spoiled?

He sucked in a breath, nodding. "Yes, sir," he spat the words out, pushing past John to get into the motel room.

Dean herded Adam inside, tried to tell him to get ready for bed because it was getting late and he needed to sleep, they were heading out tomorrow morning. But Adam kept staring at Sam as he packed his bag, collecting different articles of clothing from around the small room. Sam only risked one look at his little brother, and had to look away almost immediately.

Adam used to look at him with such love and admiration. He saved the awe and wonder for Dean, but at least it felt like Sam and Adam were close in some way. He'd raised him, hadn't he? But the admiration faded over the years, worn to a tiny little thread that only showed in the harsh light of monster blood on Sam's hands. And now, now Sam could see that even the love that used to glow so brightly was gone. He was nothing to Adam anymore, a failure to John, and he didn't even want to think about what Dean thought of this whole situation. There was faint disgust in the way Adam looked at Sam, and that hurt more than John kicking him out or Dean hating him, because at least he expected those reactions.

He turned his back on Adam, taking out the guns and knives in his bag and throwing them on the bed.

He felt Dean standing next to him more than he heard him walk over.

"You should bring at least one weapon. A knife, maybe," and Sam was destroyed, crushed, hurt, and thrown away like he'd never meant anything. Because Dean sounded calm, accepting. He wasn't pushing Sam away or not talking to him or trying to convince him to come back. He was so okay with Sam leaving and on one hand that was good, because Sam wasn't sure he'd be able to say no to Dean if he told him to stay, and on the other hand it hurt because it confirmed what he'd always thought.

Dean didn't need him.

Adam didn't need him.

He was nothing.

In this family, he meant nothing.

He sucked in a shaky breath, avoiding looking at Dean, before replying. "I'm not going out to be a hunter, Dean. I don't need a weapon."

"Then use it for self-defense. People can hurt people, too."

Yeah, no shit.

He grabbed a knife and shoved it into a side pocket on his bag, zipped everything up and slung the bulky thing over his shoulder. "Bye, Dean."

"You sure you don't want a ride to the train station?" Dean's eyebrows lifted, and Sam was really regretting turning towards him because now he had to face him head on, had to look him in the eye and say 'welp, it was nice knowing you, see you in Hell!' Dean's bright green eyes didn't look longing or sad or disappointed or angry or anything. He just looked at Sam and asked him questions.

Sam nodded. "I can walk."

"It's late."

"That's never stopped me before."

Dean took a deep breath, looking down for a moment, and Sam's eyes followed his, to the damned little pendant he'd given him seven years back. Dean's fingers curled around it, and Sam didn't have to look up to see the frown tugging at the ends of Dean's mouth.

"Call me if you need anything."

"And don't need anything," Sam finished.

Dean sighed. "Yeah."

Sam couldn't say anything else without bursting out into tears, so he turned around and left the motel.

He wondered if he'd ever see them again. If it would be on purpose or if they'd run into each other while they were on a hunt and he was out grocery shopping or something. If they'd even look at him. If he'd want them to.

---

Sam hated his dreams. Hated how they warped everything and immersed him in a scarily perfect world and how much it made him realize just how broken and dumb he was.

Because he knew that this would never happen, but he was still enjoying it anyway.

Because as much as he knew with every fiber of his being that John wouldn't let Dean and Adam visit him at college, he still loved opening the door and seeing his brothers standing there with grins on their faces.

Because as much as he knew that John would never speak to him ever again, his heart still leapt when his phone rang and it was Dad, not John.

Because as much as he knew that Adam hated him now, he still hugged his little brother tight and didn't let him go for minutes afterward, even though he complained about being treated like a little kid.

Because as much as he knew that Dean would never pick up the phone if he called, he still pressed the little 2 button and the phone did the dialing for him and Dean answered immediately, sounding happy and relaxed.

Because as much as he knew it would never happen, he still liked driving down to the airport, boarding a flight, and lighting down in Kansas to meet with his family and being able to eat with them that night and act like he wasn't the biggest black spot in their eyes.

Because he woke up feeling shitty and sick to his stomach and knowing he could never be the brother or son he was supposed to be.

He hated his dreams.

He didn't sleep much these days.

---

Sometimes he wondered if Jess was an angel.

She was beautiful, kind, smart, funny, and just amazing. And she fell for Sam, a pathetic little nobody almost-human that had killed more things than anyone should have. He was fucked up, wasn't he? Hunched in the bathroom with blood dripping from his fingers because he'd slammed his hand into a wall during a nightmare, too shaky with pain and shame to clean himself off, waiting to hear the front door slam shut as Jess walked out forever.

But instead there was only the brush on lips on the top of his head and a wet towel wiping the blood from his hands, soft words floating through the air and settling on his shoulders like precious little feathers.

Sam was fucked up, didn't deserve someone like Jess.

She just hushed him, running a hand through his sweaty hair. It was okay, She was there for him. She'd always be there for him. She loved him.

Did he need to go to the hospital?

No, they weren't broken.

That was good.

Jess helped him back out to the bedroom, and curled her arms around him, holding him close to her chest. Then those words he was dreading.

"Who's Adam?"

---

Sam woke up at the first sound of someone breaking into the apartment. He told Jess to stay in bed, grabbed his old knife and flipped it through his fingers with old muscle memory as he stalked down the stairs.

There were two figures standing there, and the bigger one attacked him first. A fist hit him in the gut, knocking the breath out of his gut, but he countered with a sweeping kick, some fleeting memory telling him to be less sloppy, Sam, you keep that shit up, you're gonna be monster chow someday.

The smaller one seemed to edge into the fight for a second, but only to pull the bigger away, hissing in a whispering tone that Sam couldn't understand from his position. He held the knife up in a defensive position, eyes carefully gliding over the two men.

"Who are you?" he asked, commanding and firm but quiet enough so that if Jess had fallen back asleep she wouldn't be woken up.

The bigger one chuckled and the smaller one skittered over to the nearest lamp, flicking it on.

It was Adam and Dean.

Sam froze, his eyes wide.

What the fuck. What the fuck. It'd been four years, and he'd been kicked out, he'd kicked himself out, and Dean still looked the same but Adam, Adam the little kid had turned into a fucking adult and he even had stubble.

He didn't notice he'd let the knife go until he heard it clatter on the floor.

"Sam?"

He blinked a few times, looking behind him as he slowly came back to real time. "Jess," he blurted out. "What are you doing out here? Get back to bed," he insisted, stepping towards her.

"Who are they?" she asked, pointing towards his brothers.

He clenched his jaw, looking back at them. Dean's gaze was trained on Jess, a smirk on his face, though Adam was whispering something frantically in his ear. "This is, uh, Adam. And Dean."

Jess' face lit up. "The Adam?" she looked back at him, grinning. "I've heard so much about you."

Adam stopped whispering to Dean, his face going red. "Uh, nice to meet you, too."

"So, is Dean your friend, or?" Jess threw Dean a confused, but polite smile.

Dean's smirk faded, and Sam looked away, feeling shame well up in his gut. He'd avoided telling Jess about Dean, knowing it would just bring up painful shit that no one wanted to talk about anymore. "Jesus, Sam, didn't realize I was your least favorite."

Sam winced a bit. "Wasn't that, Dean," he muttered, then bent down to pick up the knife, brushing imaginary dust off the blade. "Jess, this is Dean. My older brother."

"Oh."

Yeah.

Oh.

"So," Sam finally broke the silence, slipping his knife in his pocket. "What are you two doing here?"

"Could we say it in private, maybe?" Adam asked, his eyes darting from Sam to Jess. "It's a family matter."

Sam snorted, throwing his arm around Jess. "No. Anything you have to say, you can say it in front of Jess."

Dean gave a bitter purse of the lips and a nod. "A'ight," he said. "Dad hasn't been home in a few days."

"He's probably on a Miller Time shift, he'll stumble in eventually," Sam shot back, really wishing that his brothers would just leave already, so they could go back to normal and pretend Sam's family had forgotten him a long time ago.

"Dad's on a hunting trip," Adam clarified. "And hasn't been home in a few days."

Oh.

"Jess," Sam muttered, his arm falling away from her shoulder. "Can you excuse us for a minute?"

She gave him a confused look, but shrugged and turned around. "I'll be in bed."

Sam waited until he heard the door to the bedroom close before he looked back up at his brothers. "So. Dad."

"He went out on a hunt while we were out in Ohio going after a shifter," Adam started. "When we got back to the safehouse, he wasn't there."

"And before you start bitching," Dean broke in. "We've called him. A lot. We've asked Bobby, Pastor Jim, all friends of his that we know. No one's seen him or heard from him."

Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to put a stopper on the ache beginning to stem through his forehead. "And- what? You want me to help you go after him like a lost puppy who slipped out of his collar?"

"Sam, it's Dad. If something happened where he'd have to stay out longer, he would've called," Adam said.

Sam sighed. He had a point. Dad always made sure to keep his boys updated, because god knows they were always worried about family. He nodded. "Yeah, okay, but you know how he is."

"Sam," Dean's voice was firm, the kind of I'm-not-taking-your-shit tone that used to make Sam scared as a kid. "We need your help," and Adam nodded in agreement.

Sam let out a bark of laughter. Seriously? Seriously? They needed him? Sam? He shook his head, running a hand through his hair.

They had seemed so eager to get rid of him four years ago. God forbid he didn't want to subject himself to a tortured life and an early, gory death. God forbid he wanted to be normal. Wanted to have a wife someday and a family that wasn't in constant danger.

He laughed at the thought again, but it was quieter this time. Because they didn't get it, he could see it on their faces. They didn't understand why it was so fucking hilarious that they needed him.

He scrubbed a hand over his face, his smile fading. "No, you don't," he finally said, suddenly serious as though they'd just put a gun to his head. "And you never did."

Adam winced, and Dean rolled his eyes.

"Look, drama queen, we may not need your help. But we want it."

"Yeah, well," he shrugged, glancing over at the clock. "You can't just show up at two in the morning after four years of absolutely no contact and just expect me to pack all my shit up and hop in the Impala with a smile on my face."

"I don't expect you to do anything with a smile on your face," Dean snarked.

"Sam," Adam mumbled, his eyes wide and pleading. "Please. As soon as we find Dad, you can get back to this life, we promise. And we can go back to whatever normal you want, whether it's..." he trailed off, gesturing vaguely around the apartment. "This, or whatever. Just, please, Sam."

Of course.

Adam knew Sam too well, knew how to manipulate him and twist him and make him do anything Adam wanted.

Sam could never say no to Adam.

He heaved a deep sigh, feeling himself deflate a bit. "Fine. But I have to be back here by Monday."

"Why?" Adam sounded genuinely curious, but he was smiling, because he'd reeled Sam in just like any other time he asked for something.

"Interview."

"Job interview?" Dean asked. "Skip it."

"Stanford interview. To get into the law program," Sam didn't mean to spit those words out, he swore.

Dean's eyebrows rose, and he tried to feign that he was only patronizingly impressed, but his nostrils flared and his jaw clenched. "Law, huh," he muttered.

"Yeah, law," Sam shot back, starting back towards his bedroom. "Just, give me like ten minutes to pack and get dressed."

---

"So, you guys have any idea as to where Dad could be?" Sam asked, throwing his bag in the back.

"Yeah, we got a bit of a lead," Adam said, slapping Dean on the shoulder.

"Dad left behind his journal," Dean said, pulling the dirty thing out of his jacket pocket. Sam's eyebrows raised in surprise. Dad never went anywhere without that thing, even when they were kids. "Talked about a case. Adam and I had the idea of checking in over there, see if he's there."

"And if he's not?"

"Well, we just want to check," Adam said.

Sam sighed, leaning against the side of the car. "Okay, so. We go to Buttfuck, Wherever and, Dad's not there. I can't just keep looking forever, guys."

"We'll get you back here by Monday," Dean interjected. "Don't worry, you're not leaving suburbia behind forever. You'll get back here in time to get up bright and early and you can get back to pretending we don't exist again."

"Dean," Adam hissed, then moved over to the passenger's seat. He hesitated, though, looking over at Sam.

Sam didn't hesitate getting into the backseat. The Impala wasn't a who's-older contest - it was a Dean's-good-side contest. And Sam was so far into Dean's bad side that he didn't care to try and sit up front.

---

Well. The hunt was successful, at least, but no signs of Dad. And it was all too obvious for Sam - he was leading them, putting them on some fucking goose hunt, a Hansel and Gretel trail that he just didn't have the patience for.

So Dean and Adam dropped him off back in his apartment, and he waved them off, promising Adam to check in on him more, which made the kid grin, but Dean frowned. Probably didn't want Sam to mess Adam up, didn't want to convince him that out was a good choice.

He set his bag down in front of the stairs, planning to unpack in the morning. He was tired and didn't want to do anything but sleep off the guilt.

He flopped down on the bed, facing the ceiling with closed eyes. Jess was probably in the bathroom, he should go tell her he was back, but the bed felt like one hell of a cloud nine.

Something dripped on his forehead.

What the hell, thought we got that fixed.

He opened his eyes.

Jess.

JessJessJessJessJess nononononononononono--

He didn't move, he swore he didn't move but the next thing he knew he was outside on the sidewalk, his bag next to him. He looked around, and he saw Dean and Adam running down the street towards him, and around him were firefighters and there was an ambulance and Jess was dying.

He sprung up to his feet, starting to move towards the flaming house, but hands suddenly grabbed him, arms curling around him and the noise that left him wasn't as much human as it was nopleasegodnodon'tgo.

He tried to pull away from the hands and the arms and the words barely filtering into his head - "c'mon, Sam, calm down, you can't save her, she's gone, I'm so sorry, Sam, please, stop," - but he was wrestled onto the ground.

It hit him.

Jess was gone.

Forever.

And it was his fault, his damn fucked up fault.

Everyone who loved him back died. His mother, now Jess. He was cursed, always to be unloved and broken.

He let out a sob, curling against the ground, because if he buried himself six feet under now he wouldn't have to wait until a monster ate him.

The hands on him helped him up, and there was that voice again, shaky and unsure and quiet and familiar - "it's okay, it's okay, we're here for you, you're okay, Sam, it's just me," - and he was suddenly in the Impala, and he was pressed against a warm thing that was breathing and living and he was too weak to not accept just the feeling of a pulse under his hands.

"I should've done it," he murmured.

"Should've done what?" the voice asked, a hand in his hair, and he could hear concern in there but he couldn't care, he just didn't deserve it at this point.

"Should've killed myself," he admitted to the worried voice, and he could hear two sharp intakes of breath but he kept going. "I almost did it, when I was fifteen, I was so close to just- just ending it and I should've done it, Jess would be alive and Dad would be proud I finally killed something and Dean wouldn't miss me, didn't miss me when I left, and Adam, he would've had the right role model all those years, wouldn't have gotten so fucked up by me, I should've been a better big brother, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I should've done it, I should've just shot myself," he rambled quietly and he didn't stop until he ran out of breath and he was just sitting there, breathing heavily and crying and close to dry heaving.

"Sam," a new voice said, lower and rougher and tighter and it sounded angry and distressed and he buried his face into the warm breathing thing, not wanting to face anger right now, only some kind of acceptance, slip deep into the darkness of death or sleep, not get yelled at. Not right now, not right now. "Sammy," it eased, a bit softer.

Sammy, no one's ever called him Sammy before.

"Sammy, it's okay, we're here for you, we're not leaving."

He shook his head. "Doesn't matter, they all hate me and I see why now, should've- should've done it, should've done something, shouldn't have told them I was leaving, should've, should've--"

"Sammy, it's okay now, no one hates you," the first voice hushed him, quiet and gentle and in his jostled, loosened, cracked, fucked up mind the only thing he could think was that this voice sounded a lot like Adam. "No one hates you, we're here, okay?"

No, no, no one here hated him because it was just him and the voices, the weirdly familiar voices but he didn't want to think about that when he listened to the deeper voice hiss to the first one that he wanted the other to take over the wheel for a bit he could also hear the squeak of sweaty fingers on leather and the rev in the engine that he'd known his entire life. Just him and the voices.

He let out a sob as the warm thing he was holding onto slipped away from him, leaning against the cold, cold leather - didn't want to think about how different it was from the burning, burning hot of the fire that swallowed up the only one who'd ever loved him, didn't want to think about how that heat probably ate away at Jess' body, licking over her sides and cooking her alive until her skin boiled and her eyes melted.

Another, bigger, warmer, thing took the first's place, and he clung to it, his hand molding to what felt like the side of a neck, feeling the strong, steady pulse under the warm skin, using that as an anchor to hold onto desperately.

Arms curled around him, holding him close and he dug his nails into a thick, familiar leather jacket that smelled like home more than it did the alcohol that he knew stained the right sleeve. A hand cradled the back of his head and he let the thick fingers card through his hair, weakly leaning against its chest, sobbing hard and dry.

"It's okay, Sammy, it's okay, I'm here for you. Should've been here for you all along, Sammy, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

"I'm fucked up, I'm sorry, I'm fucked up and it's all my fault that Jess is dead, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Sam mumbled. He suddenly felt so tired, like he would fall asleep right there and he didn't mind that, but just hoped that he wouldn't ever wake up, and he could end himself with this warmth and comfort.

"You're not fucked up, Sammy, you're okay, I'm here for you, always will be, I promise, from now on I'm not gonna let you go, okay? We're gonna be real brothers from here on out, okay? You're not fucked up, Sammy, not fucked up."

Real brothers. That sounded awesome.

It was nice to hear those things, it really was. But it made Sam worry that if these voices loved him anymore than this, they'd get killed, too. But he couldn't bring himself to warn them, to tell them to stay away because they were nice and he didn't deserve them, didn't want to be the reason why they got killed. He was too tired, and he slumped against the new warm thing, his body racking with every weak sob. The hand not in his hair started rubbing his back, easing the tense muscles there.

Sam wondered if this was what it felt like being needed by someone. If it felt like this sort of bittersweet plucking motion in his chest every time the voice called him Sammy, which sounded more appropriate for a little kid, but he couldn't help but like it because it wasn't just Sam. If it was supposed to make him feel this warm on the inside but cold on the outside - though, judging from the tingly feeling in his arm, he'd gotten mildly burned, so that might have been part of it.

Part of him wondered what his brothers were going to do now that he was apparently being carried away by these voices. Would they mind? Would they even know?

He slipped off to sleep while listening to the deep voice hush him and comfort him.

---

When he woke up, he didn't open his eyes. He'd so desperately wanted to never wake up, but here he was, awake and groggy and he felt heavy and sticky and gross.

He curled up against the pillow he was drooling on, letting out a soft groan.

"I think he's waking up," he recognized Adam's voice.

"Yeah," Dean's almost-grunt answered.

"Last night," Adam mumbled. "How do we talk about it to him? What- what if he shuts down like he did?"

"Last night was a product of shock and grief," Dean said. "Trust me, you're not going to see Sam like that again. He won't let you."

He had a point. Sam didn't want Adam to see him like that again.

"Oh," Adam was quiet for a while. "I just... didn't expect him to-"

"It wasn't fair to you," Dean said, in that firm I'm-trying-to-comfort-you-here-gimme-a-break voice. "You've never had to be the big brother before."

And he would never have to be again.

He sat up, scrubbing his hands over his face. He didn't want to listen to that anymore.

"Hey, Sammy," Dean called, smiling softly. He grimaced, sliding out of the bed that he'd been tucked into. His muscles ached, making him wince as they protested against his too-fast movements, but he dragged himself into the motel room's bathroom.

"The name's Sam," he grumbled, then shut the door behind him.

The warm water helped ease his muscles, but he still felt like shit. Jess was dead, the only escape he'd had from the shit that stained him even when he showered in scalding hot water and scrubbed his skin so hard it turned red, she was dead and gone and it was his fault because he couldn't bring himself to believe his dreams, and then he'd broken down in front of his brothers, the ones who he'd always told himself he couldn't be weak in front of, but that had been pathetic and now he had to pick up the shards of himself, because Dean and Adam didn't deserve to have that thrown on them again.

He stepped out of the bathroom, grabbing some clothes out of his bag and turning away from his brothers as he got dressed.

Dean sat down on the bed next to him, quiet for a bit before he spoke up, "We can go out for breakfast, if you want."

"I'm fine," Sam grunted, zipping up his jeans.

"You still need to eat."

"So we'll get some drive-through food. You guys were talking about a hunt while you were driving me home. Let's go there."

As he pulled on his shirt, he looked over at Dean, whose eyebrows were furrowed and lips were pulled down into a frown.

"Sam," Dean stood up, and Sam was faced head on with the fact that he was now inches taller than his older brother, and he still wasn't sure how he felt about that. "You should eat something healthy. I remember seeing some Asian place around here. You like Asian, right?"

"Yeah, I guess," Sam shrugged. "But for breakfast? Dean, I-"

"It's noon," Adam broke in from the kitchenette.

"Shit, Dean, did you really let me sleep in that late?" Sam hissed, darting into the bathroom to see if his hair looked okay. Man, he looked like shit. He bent down and splashed water on his face. He wasn't sure what was going on, but there was a pent-up energy building up in his legs and he suddenly wanted to run a marathon. He ran his wet fingers through his hair, hoping that covered the 'looking decent enough to go outside' portion of his morning routine.

"Felt like you needed the beauty sleep," Dean shot back from the doorway.

Sam barked out a laugh, then slipped past Dean. He slipped on some socks and his sneakers, then stood up. "Let's go, huntin' time. What is it? Ghost, shifter, general makes-things-go-bump-in-the-night something?" He grabbed his bag and slung his jacket over his shoulder, grinning at Adam as he passed him to get to the door. "C'mon, lazyasses."

"Sam, slow down," Dean started.

"Fine, if you guys want to go get something to eat, I'm gonna go run around the neighborhood. I used to run all the time, kept me in shape when I wasn't training with you guys. Better to do it in the morning, but hey, beggars can't be choosers."

"Sam," Dean's voice was loud and firm this time, and it broke something in him, made him shut up and hunch his back because Dean's voice just made him think of the crack of fire and a certain scream that he never wanted to hear again. He bit the inside of his cheek, trying to keep at least a little upright even though the world was spinning and it was suddenly really hard to breathe. Dean must have seen he was having troubles, because he walked over, grabbed the bag and set it on the floor, then helped Sam's arms into the jacket. "C'mon. Let's go get some lunch."

Sam nodded, looking down at his feet.

"Adam," Dean called.

"Coming."

---

Half way through his udon soup, the weird energy started to build up again, except in Sam's chest this time, and he sat back in his chair.

He looked up at his brothers, suddenly taken by curiosity. "So, what did you guys do while I was at school?"

Adam shrugged, talking around the peanut chicken in his mouth. "Hunted. Graduated."

"Good," he said, then turned to Dean. "I'm guessing you just hunted and got laid a lot."

"You know me too well, Sammy," Dean said with a proud smirk, and Sam's fingers tightened around his fork.

It was that new nickname. No one had given him a nickname before, he'd always just been Sam, or if he was in trouble, Samuel. But Dean had taken to calling him Sammy and on one hand it flipped the switch, turned on a fuzzy little warmth inside him that he kind of liked, but on the other hand it was this weird name that sounded like it was more for a little kid than it was for a twenty-two year old with the gift of exceptional height. He wasn't sure if he liked it or hated it or wanted him to stop calling him that or wanted him to call him a billion other gooey things and stroke his hair and just be there.

Sam's mind was working against him here.

So he just sat back in his chair, his leg bouncing rapidly. He wanted to move, get out of this tiny little restaurant, maybe spend some time away from his brothers - it suddenly felt like he was seeing too much of them, after so long away from them.

Dean hadn't changed at all, looked like the same handsome playboy who knew every girl's favorite line. But Adam had grown up, had turned into a man and Sam had missed every second of it. He felt bad - he'd promised Adam a long time ago he'd always be there when he needed him.

Maybe he hadn't needed him, though. He'd always needed Dean more, ever since he could start hunting. Sam was Dean's fill-in.

It hit him that it had always been like that. For everyone. Dean was the star child for everyone but teachers, but even they liked him because of his great personality, his charming smile and bedroom eyes. Everyone thought Dean was so cool, even Sam, so when Sam rolled up on the scene, nearly blocked out by the large shadow he'd never grow out of, everyone only put up with him until Dean showed up. People befriended him to get close to Dean. Girls asked him for Dean's number. Dad compared them, said Sam would get killed one day if he didn't end up more like Dean. Adam only loved Sam until Dean and Dad came home from a hunt.

"Sam?"

His head hurt.

He felt nauseous.

He needed to get out of here.

He didn't remember stumbling out of the restaurant, just suddenly collapsing against a streetlight, gasping and wheezing because something was cutting his brain in half, excruciatingly slow, torturing, and he could feel every bit of it, the flash-fire burn of his very sanity being ripped to shreds.

"Sam!"

"F-fine, I'll be fine," he heard himself grumbling, pushing away the hands trying to grab at him.

"You're not fine, what's wrong?" It was Adam's voice.

When he tried to open his eyes, light was too bright and it hurt, but when he closed them, he could see flashes of someone being hurt, dying, but he couldn't see who it was, just bodies and blood and he could smell the stench of death and rotting--

He sucked in a deep breath as he was suddenly thrown back to reality, opening his eyes and looking around. Adam was grabbing him by the front of his shirt, eyes wide and panicked, nothing like the calculated, determined look on his face during hunts, because he was a good hunter and he knew what he was doing, but he didn't know how to act when he was watching his big brother fall apart right in front of him.

Sam suddenly saw Adam's face on the bodies he'd seen, his throat slit and blood pouring out of him by the bucketful, his eyes turning distant and his body going slack. It hurt, hurt to even think like that, but it was all too plausible with his line of work, and Sam couldn't, couldn't see that, didn't think he would ever be okay enough to see that.

He wrapped his arms around Adam, squeezing him tight against his chest like he did when he was a kid and Dean and Dad got into those rare fights.

Adam hesitated at first, but then slowly returned the embrace, his arms circling around Sam. "It's okay, Sam, I'm here," he mumbled.

A large hand lightly touched his shoulder, and he twitched away from it, squeezing Adam tighter.

"Sammy, calm down, it's just me."

Sam looked up, relaxed at the sight of Dean. "Sorry," he muttered, letting go of Adam and wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans.

"The hell was that, man?" Dean asked, grabbing him by both shoulders, but not roughly. Just to get him to look at him.

"Panic attack," he lied easily. "Happens sometimes."

"Never happened before."

He shrugged, then nodded behind Dean's back. "You pay?"

"Yeah," he said slowly. "You good to go? Sure you don't wanna go down a Xanax and vodka or something?"

"It's a panic attack, not a bout of depression," Sam retorted, turning around towards the Impala.

Adam slipped over to Sam's side. "That didn't seem like a normal panic attack," he said suddenly.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you don't get panic attacks. You're Sam, this stoic, strong guy. Since when did you of all people get panic attacks?"

Sam shrugged, opening the door to the Impala. "Doesn't matter, Adam, just drop it," he said, ducking down into the small car. His hands still felt a little shaky, but he didn't want to admit that to Adam and Dean.

Adam slid into the seat next to him, holding something in his hand, while Dean got into the driver's seat. Sam looked over, and his eyebrows shot up in interest at the sight of the jumbo candy bar in Adam's hand.

"I see your sweet tooth didn't get any smaller," he commented.

Adam unwrapped it, making a face at him. "Shut up, I never had a sweet tooth," he grumbled.

"The way you pleaded for a Kit Kat when we went to the grocery store when you were a kid begs to differ," Sam shot back, grinning a bit.

"I said shut up, asshat," Adam finally got the thing unwrapped. "Damn thing's frozen, but here," he held the candy out to Sam. "Chocolate will make you feel better."

Sam stared at it for a bit, then slowly took it. "Thanks."

He shrugged, sitting back in his seat.

"Wait, do you just stash candy with my beers?" Dean suddenly broke in, looking at Adam through the rear view mirror.

Adam turned pink in the cheeks. "Uh, maybe."

---

It was three in the morning.

Sam had forgotten how to have a healthy sleep schedule. Coffee kept him up when even the thought of nightmares made him shaky and nervous.

Besides, someone had to keep watch. Salt could only do so much if there was a ghost lingering outside the motel room.

He downed the rest of his fifth coffee, pacing around the kitchenette.

Sleeping had become a chore for Sam, something he tried to avoid. It only led to bad dreams and loads of guilt he'd been carrying for years.

He glanced over at his brothers, and was surprised to see Dean sitting up in the tiny little cot they were supposed to be sharing. Dean had this look on his face, like he wasn't happy to be up, but he had to be, and he got out of bed, walking over to Sam.

"Morning," Sam whispered, keeping quiet so Adam didn't wake up. "What are you doing up so early?"

"You haven't slept yet, have you," Dean shot back, avoiding the question.

Sam shrugged. "I can handle a night without sleep."

"How often do you sleep?"

The question shocked him, and his eyebrows furrowed.

"Since when did you care?"

"Since I was your big brother. Now tell me. How many nights a week?"

Sam pursed his lips, sighing. "One? Two?"

Dean frowned. "Is this related to the panic attacks? Jess?"

Sam felt himself twitch at the sound of her name, and he was flooded with unwelcome memories, good and bad, of every fight he could have not started, of every kiss and hand held, of every dream he had that contained the exact details of her death that he was too scared to face head on because it was too much like what Dean's last night of childhood was like.

"This isn't about her," he hissed, feeling his voice tremble on his lips.

"Then what is it about?" Dean's voice was soft, and it hit Sam hard.

He'd heard this tone from Dean before. When Adam was twelve, and he liked a girl, and the girl rejected him and humiliated him in front of his friends. The kid was upset all night, testy and angry, pushed Sam away and yelled about him being an awful brother - which fucked Sam up for weeks afterwards, pulling himself away from Adam and blaming himself for everything going wrong, clamming up and refusing to talk much because he'd failed Adam - but he opened right up to Dean. And Sam had to sit and listen as Dean's voice went gentle and pliant, and he said comforting things to Adam that Sam had never dreamed of anyone saying to him.

He'd heard that tone before.

Dean thought he needed help. Comforting.

"Dean, go back to bed," he said firmly.

"Not until you tell me what's wrong," Dean paused, taking a deep breath. "It's okay, you know. To be sad about her death. I mean, it's understandable to be fucked up--"

Sam didn't hear the rest of what Dean said, his brain fixating on his words. Fucked up. That's all he'd ever been, all he'd ever be.

Sam, the fucked up brother.

He shoved his hands against Dean's chest, keeping his head down, forcing Dean to stop talking. "Shut up," he mumbled. "Just... just shut up."

"Okay. Sorry, Sammy."

"Why do you keep calling me that?"

"What? You don't like it?" Dean smiled a bit.

"I'm not a chubby twelve year old anymore. It would have fit then, not now."

"I think either way you're a little bitch," Dean said with a smirk. "C'mon, it's a nickname, not a curse. Lighten up a little."

He huffed. "Whatever."

Dean paused, leaning against the counter. "You sure you're okay?"

Sam lifted a shoulder. "I guess."

He puffed out a breath, halfway between a huff and a sigh, and yet too small to be either. "Tell me if you start feelin', like, panicky again, or something, will you? That was... shit, Sammy, I just never expected you to be the one to break first."

Sam looked down at his feet, and he sort of felt like he was the oldest now, and Dean was the youngest, and he had to look out for his brothers by protecting them from his insides that kept threatening to ooze out of the holes in his sides.

"Fifteen, Sammy. Fifteen, and you never thought you could tell us. Tell me."

Sam didn't say anything, just sat down on one of the tiny little chairs at the table. He felt heavy, and his head hurt.

"Is that why you went off to college? Because you felt like we didn't want you?"

He clenched his eyes shut tight, scrubbing his hands over his face, trying to rub away the sparks of pain shooting between his eyes. "Dean," he mumbled, but was ignored.

"You could have said something. Asked. We never hated you, Sammy--"

The world went dark for a minute, and when he opened his eyes, he was faced with yet another blood-soaked scene, this time a bedroom, and the lamp on the bedside table was on, a book thrown haphazardly on the ground. There was a body sprawled on the bed, another on the floor, and he stepped over the woman to get to the book on the floor. The blood was tacky, weakly sticking the pages together, but he couldn't read it, the letters swimming together like an alphabet soup.

As he snapped back to the motel, he heard a loud groaning, agony-induced, something animalistic and broken, and an undercurrent of "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy, come on, Sammy, you're okay, you're okay, you'll be fine, c'mon now, just loosen up, Sammy, wake up, c'mon, Sammy..."

He flicked back to the room. It was calm there. No dying animal noises, no oddly-comforting words said in a hushed voice, no panicked sounds of a third party waking up, confused and out of the loop. Just darkness, reading light, drying blood, and corpses. Sam knew these things, knew how to handle himself around them. Liked them, sometimes. He didn't like them when the loneliness crept into his bones and made him feel like a cold, wavering, broken little toy soldier, but when he could focus on the blurry letters dancing around and making him nauseous instead of the meat cleaver being shoved through his head - was it even his head? It felt detached to him, somehow - he didn't mind them.

"Sammy? Sammy, are you okay? You back?"

He wanted to say something, but he couldn't, everything was shaky and melty and he didn't feel like anything would come out if he tried.

"Sam, please, look at me," a small voice pleaded in his ear, and something inside of him told him to look up at it. "Is this a migraine or a panic attack? Sam?" The voice's volume dropped as Sam's head did. "Shit, Dean, this is really bad."

"What do we do?"

"I- I don't know, uh," there was a pause. "Help me get him up onto a bed, then soak a towel with cold water, and um, run to get a ginger ale, too. He looks like he might throw up."

Sam slowly lifted a hand into the air, swatting lightly at Adam. His voice came out creaky, groaning. "'M fine. Really."

"You're not fine, Sam!"

"Stop yellin'," he mumbled, his hand thumping back down on the floor. "I'm fine, seriously."

"Sammy, just let us lay you down for a bit," Dean's voice was soft, and there were a couple fingers sifting through the shorter hairs on the back of his head. "Just sleep for a bit, okay? Just a couple hours, then we'll get you up and you can have your coffee and you'll be fine. Okay?"

Sam shook his head. No, no, he was looking weak enough in front of Adam, he couldn't, he shouldn't--

"Please, Sammy," Dean sounded desperate. Like Sam was something he should be desperate for. "For me."

Sam relented, taken back to the days when he did everything he was told because he figured that was the only way Dean and Dad wouldn't just take Adam and drive away and leave him alone in a dark little motel room. He nodded, his cheek sticking slightly to the cool linoleum.

"That's my boy," he could hear the smile in Dean's voice. "C'mon, Adam, help me pick him up."

---

Sam didn't have another "panic attack" for another few days. Which was good, because it calmed the frayed nerves of all three brothers, and they slipped back into their respective positions in the family hierarchy - Dean being the leader, Adam being the (aimlessly) determined baby brother, Sam being the quiet, stoic middle one who sat in the back.

It was better like this.

And when Sam suddenly left the motel room "for a minute outside" in the middle of the night, and stayed out there, twitching and biting down on his lip until it bled so screams didn't come out too loud, his brothers didn't know, and the order wasn't upset.

---

Sam wasn't thrilled when John suddenly wasn't "lost" anymore. Almost felt jipped, like he'd been robbed of the perfect life he'd worked so hard for, tore himself apart for and slowly built the bricks up around him and Jess for, the dream he'd finally gotten was ripped away just for this son of a bitch who hadn't wanted him since he was nine.

But he didn't say anything, just let his gaze meet John's, cold and harsh, keeping his body language tightly constrained, not showing discomfort or willingness to get close. Strong silence.

"Good to see you, too, Sam," John said, pulling his hand away, and shutting the motel door behind him.

Sam made sure to smile at Adam a lot, answered Dean's soft questions easily, and didn't even flinch under the touch of his brother's hand on his back.

---

"Sam."

Sam looked up from his computer, the harsh brightness the only source of light in the room, and turned his head to see Adam standing there, clad in boxers and a t shirt, rubbing one eye, his hair messed up and pressed up into strange angles.

"Hey, Adam," he started, pushing himself away from his computer. "What's up?"

Adam shrugged. "Couldn't sleep."

Sam sighed, sitting back in his chair and gesturing to the one next to him. "Join the club."

Adam sat down next to Sam, scooting his chair over to look at the computer. "What're you doing?"

"Looking in local papers for potential cases."

"Why? Dad has a few lined up."

Sam snorted before he could plug it up. Adam looked up at him, smiling a bit.

"You still think he's full of shit, huh?"

Sam shrugged. "Pretty much," he admitted. He paused, then spoke up again. "Not that you should think the same."

"Sometimes I do," Adam confessed, looking down, his teeth closing around his bottom lip. To talk shit about Dad was to blaspheme profusely - he'd broken the rules.

Sam was shocked.

Adam glanced up at Sam, then puffed out an uneven almost-laugh. "Don't look at me like that. You know the feeling. Sometimes it just feels like we could've been a lot different. Not that I don't love being a hunter, I do, I just sometimes think about what it would've been like to just, like, be a normal kid."

Sam's mouth closed and he swallowed down a feeling he didn't remember ever feeling before.

"I think I would've tried to get into medical school."

Every word hit Sam like a freight train, and he couldn't help being so amazed. But there was a dark rumble-rumble kinda bass to the feeling, this bad feeling that he'd programmed into himself years ago.

He'd fucked Adam up.

Adam lifted a shoulder. "I think I should've told you that earlier. I feel like if I'd told you that you weren't the only one to, uh, well, like, feel that way, like you might have been a lot different, a lot more happier, if we'd been given a different situation," he always tripped over his words when he got more focused on the thoughts he was trying to convey instead of the words coming out of his mouth. "Maybe you wouldn't have hated yourself so much. You wouldn't have hated us-"

"I never hated you, Adam," Sam finally blurted out. "I always loved you, you know that."

Adam nodded, looking down at the table, still worrying his lip with his teeth. "I know," he mumbled. "But I also knew that you were the strongest person I knew, that nothing could hurt you, you were marble against a squirt gun. My entire life, you were always there for me, even when I didn't want you to be," he sighed and shrugged. "But that was wrong. You were going crazy for years before you left, and none of us had any idea."

"Adam-"

"Is that why you left?" he suddenly asked, looking up at Sam with those big, round, warm, brown eyes that had been one of the few small, happy, flickering candles in Sam's dark, sad little world since he was a little kid. "Because you thought we hated you? Because you, what, thought we'd be better without you?"

"I just-"

"Dean wouldn't stop drinking for weeks, Sam, he blamed himself. And Dad practically got himself killed trying to hunt every damn thing in the country," Adam huffed, breaking the intense eye contact, and Sam slouched a bit, not realizing he'd tensed up.

"I'm sorry," Sam mumbled. "It wasn't that, I promise," lying once a-fucking-gain, but that was okay. It was okay to lie to Adam if it was to make him feel better. "I was a lot more selfish than that. I did it for me, thought I'd be happier off at some law firm with a wife and a kid."

"You might have been," Adam shrugged again. "Who knows."

Sam shook his head, and reached out slowly to rest his hand just slightly on Adam's shoulder. Adam didn't pull away, so Sam solidified the touch, squeezing the tight muscles there, taut with nervous energy. "I'm happy here. I love you, Adam. And I love Dean, too."

Adam opened his mouth to say something, but he closed it, then nodded. "Love you, too. Just," he cracked a small smile. "Don't leave again, okay?"

Sam smiled back. "I promise. No more leaving."

Adam helped Sam look for cases for a bit longer, but eventually fell asleep on Sam's shoulder, drooling into the flannel of his shirt, but Sam didn't mind the cold, wet feeling.

---

Sam was fed up with John. He couldn't deal with the constant dirty looks, the disappointment and regret in his father's eyes. It hurt every time he looked, and he wasn't sure why he kept glancing over.

John hadn't changed much, though. At six every evening, he'd go to the bar, and he'd come back to the motel around three in the morning, drunk and stupid, and he'd pass out until noon. When he was awake, he was grumpy and hard to deal with, and he'd pick fights with Sam, telling him that he was "too weak" to go out into town on his own and pushing Dean to go with him, even Adam once - not that Adam was weak, but being told that his father trusted his little brother more than him hurt Sam a bit more than he wanted to say. But he kept quiet, letting the sharp words cut into him until they finally reached the bone.

When Adam was out getting breakfast, and John was asleep on one of the beds, snoring away loudly, Sam finally broke.

"I can't deal with him, Dean," he hissed, holding his head in his hands. "I just can't."

"I thought you said you weren't going to bail on us again."

"I'm not," he protested, looking up at his brother. "But he's unbearable. I hate just sitting there and letting him insult me, I'm not going to be some verbal punching bag for him."

"So what do you want me to do? Send him off?"

Sam lifted a shoulder.

"We can't just leave in the middle of the night and leave him here."

"Why not?" Sam shot back, frowning. "He did that to us all the time."

Dean sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. "For fuck's sake, Sam. He's our dad, he's family."

Sam hung his head. "Never mind then. Forget I said anything."

Dean walked over to Sam, put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed him. "It's gonna be okay, I promise. You'll do fine. But I'll talk to him."

"He's not going to listen to you," Sam mumbled. "He thinks you're a pushover for him and Adam."

Dean frowned. "I'll be clear."

Sam stood up, shaking his head. "No, no, it's fine. S'just words. I'll tune him out, I guess."

Dean sighed, wrapping his arms around his little brother. "You'll be fine, Sammy. I promise. No one's leaving anyone behind this time. Okay?"

Sam nodded, bending his back enough so he could bury his face in Dean's shoulder. "Okay."

"Okay."

---

Sam endured the next few weeks, being strong for himself and for his brothers until he found John dead in the hospital. It was a few stressful days, and the case was a confusing one, but Sam was honestly relieved.

John was gone. He was free.

He kept his relief from his brothers, knowing that they were grieving over their father. Though they went straight back to work, it was easy to tell that they were both affected by it. Adam was quiet, Dean was aggressive.

It only took two hunts for them to get used to not having him around, though. And while Dean acted weird about some things - mostly relating to Sam - Sam was happy.

Happy. That was weird.

He hadn't ever been really happy. Even with Jess, he was scared that she would leave him in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Even when he was at school, with a few friends and good classes, he had this inkling feeling of dread in the back of his mind the whole time.

But he was... Happy.

Hunting didn't feel like a trap anymore.

Adam smiled at him like he used to, when he was a kid. When he thought that Sam was the smartest person in the world and valued every piece of advice Sam gave him, even if he still hung on every word from Dean's mouth.

And Dean was treating him like he used to treat Adam. Listening to his opinions other than just facts about hunts, joking with him.

He felt like a brother. Not like a computer. Not like a freak. Not fucked up.

He felt needed.

---

Sam closed the computer with a soft sigh, sitting and letting his eyes get used to the darkness. He stood up, turning towards the two beds in the tiny motel room.

Adam was coiled up into a loose ball, his hands curled like babies' when they try to hold onto their parents' fingers. The kid looked simple and peaceful, so much lighter than he did when he was awake.

"I love you," he whispered into the dark.

An arm curled around his shoulders, pulling him in close to a warm body.

"We love you, too, little brother."

And Sam smiled until it hurt.