Author's Note: I stole this prompt from somewhere, I can't remember where. I debated over the format for awhile, but despite the general overall weirdness of this - I'm rather fond of it. Hence posting it despite my uncertainties. All my author's notes are really neurotic. Why is that?


On November 2nd, 1983, there was a fire in a house in Lawrence, Kansas, and Dean woke up to the sound of screaming. His father was dragging him out of bed, and he was holding his mother as she thrashed and wailed and struggled. "Get up, Dean!" His father said urgently. "Get up, and get out of the house! I'll be right there with your mother!"

Still half asleep, without thinking, driven by the fear and anguish in his father's voice, Dean bolted downstairs and outside, and it was only once he was out that he thought of Sammy. He started back toward the house but his dad barreled out, still dragging his mom who was yelling at the top of her lungs and trying to turn back.

"Sammy," Dean managed to say, frantically, and his father said, "I've got him."

His mother subsided into sobbing, but the screaming didn't stop until the fire crews came, and then Dean looked for his little brother and realized that his father didn't have him after all.

All the screaming had stopped by then, and there was only the crackle of flames rising high into the night. Dean couldn't move, couldn't go back into the fire.

The house burned all the way to the ground. They drove to the hospital in a fire truck. His mother was shaking and making a high, thin sound between her teeth that scared Dean. His father was just quiet.

His father let Dean come with them. All Dean saw was the little bundle of blankets, but he heard his mother retching and sobbing, and his father's face went pale like milk.

"Dad?" he said, "Why didn't you get him?"

For a moment, he thought his dad was going to hit him, or the wall, or something. "Don't talk about things you don't understand," he said instead, harshly, and pulled his mother into an embrace, though Dean could see her hands digging into his dad's chest.

Dean didn't talk for three years after that.

After all, there was nothing he understood.

~.~

Sam wasn't clear on how exactly he'd ended up here.

Sam wasn't sure he was even clear on where here was.

It was a gravel road, stretching up toward what looked like a cabin. In the other direction – nothing. Just woods. And no one visible in either direction, no sign of how he'd gotten here. Sam sighed, and rubbed his forehead. Another angelic game? It looked probable.

Where, though? And why strand him in the middle of nowhere?

There was smoke, he realized, coming out of the chimney. Sam stared at it for several seconds, and because he was a sucker and stupid and didn't exactly know what else to do, put his hands in his pockets and started walking.

He made it three steps before he saw the car in front and stopped dead.

It was the Impala. But she looked…old. Battered, exhausted. Dean would never let her get like that. Dean would never-

Sam broke into a jog and was almost to the stairs when he heard a cupboard slam. "—the fuck up!" he heard. Dean's voice, and Sam slowed. He knew that tight and worried voice anywhere, disguised under fury. "What do you think you're doing? She can't go anywhere-"

"I'm fine, Dean." A female voice that Sam didn't recognize. Not Jo or Ellen – and he felt a pang all over again for their futile, wasted deaths. But Dean wasn't alone. When was this? "If there's a trail to follow…we should go while it's still fresh."

"You almost bled to death, Mom. Do you hear me?"

Sam could almost hear the gears in his head grind to a halt, like in a cartoon. Mom? No. Dean sounded too old. Maybe it was Dad? But no, he remembered Dad's voice when he'd been younger from their last trip back in time, and it hadn't sounded like that. Alarm bells were going off in Sam's head and he just had to get a look.

"This isn't your choice to make, Dean." And there was his dad, anyway – voice low and rough and harsh. Not just dad. Dad on the rampage, issuing orders. "If we can find the demon-"

There was the hollow sound of something thudding into wood. Probably Dean's boot against the wall. "Finding the demon isn't going to make the fact that you didn't save Sam any better!"

Sam's stomach swooped, and he grabbed for the side of the house. This never happened, he thought, and on its heels, but it could have.

He didn't exist here. Dean was alive, his mom and dad were alive. Sam thought his head was going to spin off his neck. Oh god-

"Don't speak to me like that, Dean!" His father's voice, going low and dangerous. Both he and Dean had always backed down from that voice. Sam leaned against the wall. Hunting. They were all hunting together. Hunting, but together. Was he supposed to learn something from this?

"I'll speak to you how I want to. Sir."

"John – John!" His mom, sounding scared. Sam tried to step toward the door, because he had to see them, had to say something, and his foot knocked loudly against the stairs. The silence was sudden and complete.

"Someone's out there," said his dad. John's voice sounded hollow. Sam heard the soft sound of movement, probably someone picking up a gun. "Or something – shit. Mary-"

"I'll be fine."

"Take care of it, Dean."

They were going to come out and shoot him. Before Sam could think better of it, he reached for the door and knocked twice. His knees felt weak and his head was light. His family behind that door – and he didn't exist.

The door was yanked open and he stared down at Dean. His stomach dropped.

His older brother's face was hard. There were deep hollows around his eyes and he looked younger than Sam had expected. His face looked drawn and the way he carried himself was tense, not just hunting-tense but can't-let-go tense. There was a tic jumping in his jaw. "What the hell," Dean growled, and even his voice had an edge on it that Sam didn't know, hadn't noticed from outside.

Sam opened and closed his mouth. What had he been planning to say? "I'm lost," he settled on, finally. Because yeah, he was. "Can you…"

"No," said Dean, harshly. "We're a little busy."

Something was jangling along Sam's nerves, something wrong. He couldn't have explained it to himself, though, let alone anyone else. "Can you at least give me directions to the nearest," he started, heart sinking, but then the female voice – his mother's voice – cut in.

"Dean, don't be rude. It's just fine."

Sam glanced down. Sure enough, there was a salt line. He made sure not to break it when Dean stepped very slightly back, every line of his body hostile. (At least, Sam thought dryly, that part didn't throw him as much as it might have a year ago, or two.)

~.~

Mary Winchester thought that she was going to lose her mind.

The weeks after the fire were a blur of lost time and waking up screaming and fighting John's arms, lashing out at him. A blur of Dean's silent, wide-eyed stare that she couldn't meet, of constant awareness, fear, paranoia.

They stayed in a rental house, just down the street. Too close, but it was only until they could get the insurance papers filled out and move, far away.

She had lived like this once. Been the stranger that came in and pretended to feel strangers' grief, plumbing them for information. She felt like she was fading away under this new melding of the old and the new.

She found an old shotgun and hid it in the closet by the door where John would never look, because John never looked at anything anymore, just stared hollow eyed through doors and walls and everything except for herself. Mary knew she was doing everything wrong, but she couldn't care; nothing was working out the way it should have.

Ten years. And this was the price she was asked?

I never should have-

The concerned neighbors made her want to kill something. All their cooing and sympathies when underneath it she could almost hear them saying to each other, glad it wasn't me. So sad, but I'm glad it wasn't me. Better her than me.

Dean's schoolteacher called and said that he wasn't talking. Dean's principal called and said that he'd been in a fight.

She picked him up and hugged him too tight, and her oldest child didn't say anything. It was like they'd all been hollowed out. Why didn't I pay the price? She thought, hopelessly. Why wasn't it me?

Dean did, indeed, say nothing. She thought it would pass. She didn't push, and neither did John.

It didn't pass.

The first hunters came a few months after, and she slammed the door in their faces. They tried to sneak in the back door and she gave one of them an ass full of buckshot and yelled obscenities at their retreating backs until she found Dean watching her, watching his family fall apart.

She read him a bedtime story until she remembered reading to both of them, Dean and her pregnant belly in the last trimester, and threw the book into the wall and sank into rocking back and forth, keening.

Dean said nothing, but he did hug her, and she hoped he didn't understand. (Knew that he did.)

You're going to be a big brother, she'd said in a hushed voice, and Dean's face had lit up like a bulb.

John drank. He thought she didn't know, but she did, could always smell it on his breath when he fell into bed beside her with a chasm between them. You should have saved him, not me, was unsaid between them, or had been since the night after the morgue, when she had screamed at him until her throat was raw and John had just taken it, taken it, taken it.

She'd hated that even more.

Mary sat down with him once and got drunk as well, because Dean was asleep or pretending to be, and it didn't matter. She told him everything then. About her family, about being a hunter, about demons and deals and everything real and awful in the world.

She'd expected him not to believe her.

He grabbed onto it like a lifeline.

John dragged them to the road in his old Chevy Impala. She and Dean followed. She looked at her son and almost said, he's too young, wait a while.

But Dean looked back at her, not speaking, and she was scared of his silence. Maybe he needed this like his father.

For Mary, she didn't think anything could bring her back to life.

~.~

"Thanks," he managed, earnestly. He could feel three stares on him and didn't know where to look first.

Sam decided on the couch, because if his mother was injured that would be a safe place for her, and felt another jolt of horror. He had only ever seen pictures of Mary Winchester, but she had been a vibrant woman in those, full of life, with a broad smile. Her face was thin, like she'd lost a lot of weight recently, and her arms were wrapped around herself in a defensive posture, shoulders slightly curled. Her eyes were dull, and he couldn't see the bandages, but could see the pinched pain in lines around her eyes and mouth.

He looked for John next, apprehension filling him up, and couldn't see him. He heard someone moving around the kitchen, though, and wondered if his dad was getting a drink. Dean's haggard face was still regarding him stonily.

"Who're you," Dean asked, voice perfectly flat, and Sam couldn't look away from the bleakness in his eyes. He floundered for a moment.

"I'm – Sam," he said, finally. "Sam Young," and he could see his mother curl into herself a little. Wondered if she did that every time she met a Sam, and regretted not using another name.

Something was wrong. They were supposed to be happy. They were supposed to be together!

"Uh-huh," said Dean. "Look. We don't have a phone or anything. You'd be better off walking."

"It's getting dark," Sam said quickly. "There's supposed to be some nasty stuff in these woods." He looked around the cabin. "Can I just – until morning?"

Dean shrugged, and didn't look toward the kitchen the way Sam would have expected, deferring to their father. He caught a bruise high on Dean's cheekbone and wondered, shifting uncomfortably. A glass shattered in the kitchen and Sam heard a muttered, "Shit."

Dean made a derisive noise and Sam saw his mouth twist. "Fine," his older brother said, finally. "Make yourself at home. Mom, you okay?" His voice softened some, but only a little. Sam could feel the cracks like canyons between them, because back in the real world they were between him and Dean.

It's not supposed to be like this.

His mother's smile was ghostly. She looked, Sam realized, like she was wasting away, a little at a time. He opened his mouth and then closed it. He didn't know this woman. Didn't know anything about her.

Dean backed off. Sam heard a noise from behind and turned, looking at his father.

John looked much the same, except his eyes were red-rimmed and he staggered slightly as he stood. Flat out drunk. Sam wanted to close his eyes and wish everything away. What was the point of this?

"Huh," John said, raking a drunken gaze over Sam. "This the little skulking critter?"

"Yeah, Dad. You gonna blow him away like the last one?" Dean's tone was acidic. He sounded, Sam realized, like Sam. Except worse. Angrier, more bitter. John's gaze switched to Dean, his face going red.

"You little asshole," John slurred. "Maybe I should've-"

"Stop," said his mother, and her voice had risen a little, though she still sounded more exhausted than angry. "Both of you. I can't stand-"

Dean turned on his heel. "I'm going to go get some firewood, he growled. The door slammed behind his back.

Sam looked between John and Mary. In all his images of his parents, they had loved each other. Laughed together, been closer even, maybe, than him and Dean, in a different way. These two people weren't in love. They looked at each other like they didn't know what they were seeing.

"Do you think he's right?" John challenged, drunkenly, and Sam saw Mary's eyes flick toward him.

"John," she said, her voice a little stronger, and Sam's father shook his head.

"What else was I supposed to do?" He said, and then turned and walked toward the back of the house. Staggered. Sam watched him go, feeling a new kind of pain. So it had been a choice. Him or his mother. You made the right choice, Sam wanted to say, but he thought of Dean and looked at his mother and John's retreating back.

Was this really any better?

~.~

Dean helped finish his first ghost at seven. He spoke again a few days later. "You said you had him," he said to his father, from the backseat of the car. "You told me you had Sam."

"Are you going to lie to me like that again?"

His father had hesitated for a long time. His mother was sitting in the passenger seat, too thin, closed back into herself after the hunt was over when she wasn't yelling at his father. "Yes," his father said finally, "Probably."

Dean nodded. "Then I won't trust you," he said, and that was that.

He loved his mother, but he didn't understand her, and she pushed him away. He loved his father, but didn't trust him. Dean got used to loneliness. He thought about Sam a lot. Wondered if he would have been a cool little brother, knowing he would have been. Maybe he would have liked cars. Or planes. They could have played soccer or baseball or something together.

Sometimes it seemed like Sam had never existed at all. No one ever talked about him, and whenever Dean tried to bring him up, his mother turned away and went white and his father started drinking. Dean learned to keep his thoughts to himself at the same time as he learned how to use a gun, a knife, a million other little things.

They killed monsters. Dean didn't feel like much of a hero. Most of the time he just felt scared.

And angry. All of the time he felt angry.

He tried to be a good son for his mother. He didn't try to be anything for his father.

~.~

Sam realized that Mary was watching him. She looked small and old, like a grandmother shrinking into herself. "I'm sorry," he managed to say, almost choking on the words. "I guess it really was…a bad time."

"There's no good time, anymore," she said, and smiled. "Sit down. They won't be back for a while."

Sam sat. "Why are you here?" He asked, suddenly, not knowing why. "On – retreat?"

"Something like that." She sighed. "Do you ever just – know things, Sa - Mr. Young?"

"Yes," Sam said carefully, "I guess. Sometimes. Why?"

"Because the moment you walked in, I knew that I liked you," she said, sounding puzzled. "Why is that?"

"I don't know." I'm your son. I'm alive. I'm alive and you aren't and either way we're all screwed. I'm so sorry. Sam hunched his shoulders. "I would-"

"We're here because my infant son died sixteen years ago and none of us have figured anything out yet," she said suddenly, in a rush, and Sam's stomach jerked sideways. "—I said it, there." There was faint triumph in her voice. "His name was Sam too."

Sam swallowed hard. "It's a common name," he said, and she nodded.

"Yes."

Take me back, he thought. Take me back, take me back. This wasn't what he wanted, for any of them.

"I'm just sorry for Dean," Mary said softly. "He was so excited to be a big brother."

~.~

"I love you," his mother said, but Dean knew it wasn't meant for him.