Title: What Might Have Been

Author: Elizabeth Goode

Summary: What would have happened if Sam hadn't left home to go to college? Dean and John find out from Missouri about a possible future that was avoided when Sam left to go to Stanford.

Spoilers? Set sometime after the finale, assuming everyone survived. Could become AU if things don't go well for all three Winchesters for the 2nd season.

"Damn it, Sam! Would you get your head in the game? How many times do I have to - "

Sam interrupted his brother. "Sorry. I just - my head - "

" - is all messed up. Yeah, Sammy. I know. Tylenol is in the backseat. Take some and get your head in the game!"

Depression hung over Samuel Winchester like a thick drapery. Right now, it was magnified by a pounding headache, making a simple act like turning his head and paying attention to what Dean was saying a monumental task. The Winchester brothers were back in Lawrence at Missouri's request. Dean had received a voice message on his cell phone that they could expect to see their father there as well.

Dean watched Sam with growing frustration. Something was wrong with his little brother - dammit, when wasn't there something wrong with Sammy? "Did you hear me, bro? We're almost there. About fifteen minutes away."

When Sam made no reply, Dean reached over and shook his shoulder, perhaps a little more roughly than he had intended.

"Sorry, Dean."

Ever since they had gotten out of the hospital, Sam had been withdrawn and lethargic. Which was weird, considering that Dean had received more serious injuries. Sam had become distant and jumpy, a strange combination. Sometimes he wasn't sure if Sam heard a word he said, and other times, the slightest sound or touch startled him terribly. Dean wasn't entirely convinced that Sam's head injury was entirely healed or that it hadn't done more damage than the doctors had thought. Privately, Dean blamed the visions. God only knew what those things were doing to Sam's brain.

"I SAID we're almost there. Any thoughts on what Missouri and Dad wanted us to come here for?"

Sam shrugged. "Not a clue. It'll be nice to be off the road for a while, anyway."

Fifteen minutes later, Dean pulled into Missouri's driveway and shut off the engine. Shouldering their bags, the Winchester brothers walked up to the door and knocked. They were greeted warmly by Missouri.

"Dean! Sam! It's so good to see you again. Your daddy's in the den, maps and papers all over my coffee table, such a mess he's made!" She moved to hug Dean, and he managed to sidestep the gesture, instead, putting an arm around her shoulders and giving a casual squeeze. When she went to hug Sam, his response was different. He sank into her outstretched arms, even letting her run a gentle hand through his silky mop of hair. She barely had to use her abilities to read the waves of despair radiating from the tall young man. "Samuel Winchester!" She gasped as she made eye contact and saw the abject misery reflected there.

Instead of answering her, Sam felt his knees give out, and he slid to the floor in a boneless heap.

Dean was at his side in seconds. "Sammy, you all right?"

"Vision." Sam struggled to stand, but found that his legs were not cooperating. Dean eased his brother into a sitting position, Sam's back braced against his chest, but seconds later, Sam's head lolled lifelessly against Dean's shoulder. Sammy was unconscious.

"John! John, come quick!" Missouri called into the den, and it seemed that John Winchester materialized beside his sons in the foyer.

"What is it? What's the matter with him?" John began checking Sam's inert form for vital signs.

"I don't know. He's been ... off. Ever since the - the wreck, he's been having more visions, sleeping less, and I practically have to beat on him to get him to eat. It's almost as bad as it was right after - after Jess. It's almost like he doesn't want - want to take care of himself. Like he wants to - "

"Die." Both Winchesters looked up at Missouri, who looked somber. "Like he wants to die." She ran her forefinger across the forehead of the unconscious young man. "Oh, baby, what's happened to you?"

Between Dean and John, they managed to get Sam to one of the guest bedrooms and stripped down to his boxers to make him more comfortable. Missouri waited until he was safely tucked in before she spoke.

"I think Sam's abilities are reaching out to mine. That's why I'm able to see what - what I saw."

John tore his eyes away from his youngest son to ask, "And what did you see?"

Shaking her head sadly, Missouri replied, "Nothing good. I think I shared in one of Sam's visions. It was presented as an alternate future. I just saw what would have happened if Sam had not left when he did to go to Stanford."

Dean had dropped his aversion to 'chick-flick moments' the moment Sam had passed out. He was sitting on the bed with his brother, gently stroking the straggling dark hair. "What do you mean, what would have happened if he hadn't gone? He went! What does some alternate future deal matter?"

"Because, Dean ... if Sam hadn't left to attend college, he would have committed suicide."

The two conscious Winchesters blanched simultaneously, and Dean stammered, "Wh-what?"

"You heard me, Dean Winchester. If Sam had stayed and fought with you and your father, he would have lasted eight more months. He would have written a note and shot himself in the head."

John lowered his head, letting his forehead rest on his unconscious son's chest. "Why? Why would he do - do that?"

Missouri closed her eyes. "It wouldn't have been the first time he considered it. When he was twelve, he thought about it for the first time. At fourteen, he sat on a motel bed alone while you and Dean hunted. He waited for you to come back for nine hours - for five of those hours, he sat there alone with a loaded gun pressed to the underside of his throat."

Dean felt sick, like he was going to throw up. "Why would he do that? Did something happen to him on one of the hunts? Was he - molested by a demon or something?"

"No, it wasn't anything like that. It was the life you all live. It was the nomadic existence, the pain, the wounds, the risk, the loneliness, the guilt, the constant fear, the hunt. It overwhelmed him, and he felt that he had no outlet. Adolescents are often prone to mild depression during puberty, but in most cases things like friends and hobbies and extracurricular activities help them through those rough times. Sam ... didn't have those luxuries. There was very little pleasure in his life."

Angrily, Dean glared at Missouri. "Don't say that! Don't say 'was' like he's dead or something! He went to Stanford. He didn't off himself. It's just a future that might have been, right? It didn't happen."

Missouri shook her head sadly. "No, it didn't happen. Sam went to college and met Jess, and he was truly happy for the first time in his life. He's depressed because he experienced joy and happiness, only to have it jerked away from him when the demon killed her. He loves you both and wants to feel that his love is reciprocated. Not to mention the visions, but they're taking their toll on him. They anchor him, tie him down, to the hunting life. Even if the two of you gave him your blessing and drove him back to Stanford yourselves, he would still get the visions. You choose to hunt, Dean. You hunt because it's what you have chosen. Sam doesn't have a choice any longer, and I think he's just realized that."

John stared blankly. "Do you think he'll - do you think he'll try to kill himself again?"

"I don't know. I do know that that poor baby's mind is not a happy place to be. He's different than you, different than Dean. Sam needs things that neither of you are terribly adept at giving. He needs to talk about how he's feeling, what he thinks. He needs to feel like he's not a burden, not the weak link for needing your support. It isn't a crime to feel, you know."

Dean felt terrible guilt beginning to gnaw at his conscience. How many times had Sammy tried to talk to him and been rejected? How many times had Sammy cried himself to sleep, trying to stifle the sounds, while Dean lay in the next bed pretending not to hear him? How many times had he complained about chick-flick moments? How often had Sam needed human contact and been denied? How many nights had he awakened with a scream on his lips, crying out for Jess? How many nights had Dean shushed him without letting him talk about it? He glanced at his father. If Dean felt this badly about not being sensitive enough to Sam's needs, how terrible must their father feel about ordering his youngest son to leave after he had declared his intent to attend Stanford? If Dean felt like crap, then their father must be feeling like dog crap right now.

He made the mistake of looking at his brother. Instantly, he pictured Sam at fourteen, holed up in a seedy motel alone, waiting for Dean and John to return. He pictured Sammy pointing his gun at the tender underside of his jaw, hands shaking as he considered pulling the trigger. He imagined his kid brother sitting like that for five hours, imagined what it must have been like for Sam. He felt something die inside of him at the realization that Sam, the smart one, the college boy, might not have a future after all. Dean looked at his father and saw that the man understood what the life he had forced on his youngest son had done to him. Dean remembered calling Sam selfish for leaving to go to college, selfish for wanting to stop hunting. Now that he understood what hunting had done to his little brother, Dean wished he had never said those things. And, he resolved that if Sammy ever woke up, he would tell him so.