Years later Sam will pinpoint this hunt as where it all went wrong. At first the anger towards John burned so hot and bright that it obscured all other feelings. Eventually the monotony of the intervening years and of dealing with his curse dulled that pain, banked the fire so that the guilt could shine through.
If only he’d listened, he told himself much later. If only he’d been the good son that John wanted him to be, maybe this could’ve been avoided.
Even in his darkest moments he didn’t believe it.
It was a ghost hunt. John was still Dad back then, even as Sam raged at him about being pulled out of school again and dragged out in the middle of the night again to go after the vengeful spirit. This was only a few months after Mr. Wyatt lit a spark in him, the idea that he didn’t have to be a hunter. Dad didn’t understand where this sudden rebelliousness came from and he definitely didn’t like it. They’d been fighting like cats and dogs and even though neither would back down, all three of them were exhausted by the continuous conflict.
Sam had stayed up late the previous night finishing homework. After a full day of school he was exhausted and cranky. So Dad left him on guard duty while he and Dean dug up the bones. He’d kept up a constant stream of complaints about this hunt, about the town they were in, about the dubious parenting choice of keeping your teenage son up until the early hours of the morning when he had school tomorrow.
In the years after he’ll wonder if John was right, if his anger towards the hunt was why he hadn’t seen the ghost until it was too late.
It doesn’t really matter. John thought so.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the apparition had attacked Sam, but instead she went after Dean. Sam didn’t even see her before she lobbed a rock they’d dug out of her grave at Dean’s head. It hit with a meaty thunk and Dean flopped to the bottom of the half-dug grave like a wet rag.
Dad yelled and Sam threw a handful of salt—these were the days before rock salt shotgun shells made their lives so much easier. The ghost flickered away and Sam fell to his knees next to the hole. “Is he okay?”
Dad was already at Dean’s side, checking him over by the light of his flashlight. In the wavering beam Sam could see the blood coating the side of Dean’s face.
“Dad? Is he gonna be okay?”
“Damnit, Sam, keep an eye out for the ghost!”
Sam scrambled up, swiveling his head, his stomach sitting somewhere around his knees. Dean had to be okay.
The spirit still hadn’t reappeared a few minutes later when Dean finally regained consciousness with a pained groan. Sam’s heart hammered in his throat as he listened to John try to assess him, but Dean sounded confused and out of it and the panic only rose as he thought about Dean and brain damage.
“Sam, get over here, we need to get him to a hospital.”
Sam dropped the bag of rock salt and knelt at the side of the pit, helping his dad support Dean as he crawled onto the graveyard lawn.
“Hey, Sammy,” Dean said, and it should have been reassuring but Dean’s voice was slurred and the panic in Sam’s chest just kept spiraling higher and higher.
They both supported Dean as he stumbled towards the car. John put him in back with Sam.
“If you had been keeping watch instead of sulking this would never have happened!”
It hit harder than any blow, knocked all the wind out of him. He couldn’t even respond, mouth gaping open in shock as he supported Dean’s boneless weight with his body.
Dean spent two days in the hospital before they broke him out. He didn’t seem to notice Sam’s quiet guilt, too out of it to notice much for a while. It was like an open, festering wound. At the time Sam thought the guilt would be worse than any punishment Dad could give him.
He should’ve known better than to underestimate John Winchester.