Almost is the saddest word

Sam almost does it. His bag is packed and slung over his shoulder. The door is open, his hand on the knob. All he has to do is take one step. If he takes it, he'll be free but he'll also lose his family. Dad is staring him down, so utterly convinced that he's driven Sam in a corner, and for a moment Sam gets the urge to walk out the door – break the metaphorical corner – just to spite the man. One look at Dean crushes that urge, though. Dean looks like his entire world just collapsed around them and he's desperately trying to glue it back together with water. Right then, Sam knows he can't do it. Not even a normal life can justify that look on his brother's face. That look can not be the last look Sam ever sees on Dean.

The door closes with a soft swish. It's anti-climatic after the explosion that rocked the motel room only moments before. After a second of staring at the door – and wasn't god supposed to open a window when a door closed? – he turns to his family. The duffle bag ends up in the trash. Sam ends up in the bathroom. For a second he wonders if it should have been the other way around. The bathroom door locks to the poorly hidden relief on Dean's face. Sam expects tears, expects a breakdown. After all, he's been fighting for this escape for years, and now it's slipped through his fingers. He can hear from Dean's tentative knock that his brother is expecting it too. Everything is quiet in the anticipation of Sam's screaming, of broken mirrors and showers full of tears. In Sam's mind it's all happening. In the bathroom, he digs his nails into his hands until they bleed. John Winchester will not have the satisfaction of seeing his son blow off steam. Dean will not have the burden of seeing Sam break down.

Sam digs his nails until his anger bleeds out. He holds his hands under the water until he has cooled down. He watches the pink water go down the drain with his career until the pain stops. He doesn't look up until he knows the mirror holds the face of a Sam who won't run away. Then he dries his hand, unlocks the door and steps into the room like nothing has happened. Dean is looking at him like he's still waiting for Sam to crack.

"I'm fine, Dean" Sam says. Dean's smile almost makes everything worth it.

Freedom is overrated anyway.

They leave the motel in disarray, swapping it for the quietly organised rumble of their cars. The freshly baked pancakes John bought this morning hint at a less grumpy mood than usual, his hand lingering near Sam's shoulder as he sits down to eat hints at an apology for his behaviour last night. It could also hint at something else though. Dean wakes up looking like he dodged a bullet. Not in a white-faced, normal person kind of way, but in a Dean way. A way that involves a lot of satisfied sighing and a triumphant smile that says 'I won'.

Sam's not entirely sure what he looks like, but feels like he didn't so much dodge a bullet as feel it go right through him. The pancakes are average, and the coffee is bad. He grabs his duffle from the trash and throws it in the Impala's trunk. He never opens it again.

The Winchesters leave behind nothing more than a trail of dust and the notes of a Zeppelin song. The motel room's empty, but Sam still feels like he's forgotten something. He wonders if it's himself.

There's a ghost in South-Carolina. She throws darts into people's necks. Dean finds it hilarious. Sam mostly just laughs because he thinks he might once have found something like this funny. John looks at him weirdly. Dean asks when he found a sense of humour. Apparently Sam was supposed to be serious and empathetic. He's not sure if he felt anything when he say the post-mortem pictures, but he's pretty sure it wasn't empathy.

When they go after the ghost – Margaret Something – John and Dean get trapped in the cellar while she tries to crush Sam's windpipe. He blasts the ghost away and burns the bones. It's the first time he doesn't miss a single shot. John buys his sons a beer.

"Good thing you didn't leave, huh son?" He looks Sam in the eyes, "They would have found our corpses in the morning if you had." Sam decides John might have a flair for dramatics. He nods and tells his family how he escaped Margaret's strangle-hold. He doesn't tell them how he hoped he never would.

It takes two months for Dean to start asking him seemingly random questions.

"Want to go check out the library? I hear they have a great Shakespeare section." He says one day. Which is a… strange thing for Dean to say. Sam dismisses it with a shrug of his shoulders. He can't bring himself to care about the hilarity of old Bill's plays.

The next question comes two days later. "Hey, want to go to the Museum of Local Sciences with me? I got a free coupon." Sam blows it off with a disinterested 'nah.'

The questions get more and more frequent, until Dean asks Sam to go to somewhere very un-Dean with him everyday in the third week after the first question. Finally Dean barges through the door and slaps a folder on the table that Sam's researching at. He says, "You are going to this seminar about the history of modern literature with me tonight." With such vehemence that the old Sam, the pre-Stanford-ultimatum Sam would have agreed out of sheer fear for his older brother's wrath. Now he just stares blankly at Dean, and tells him he doesn't really feel like going.

This only seems to anger Dean more, however, because he leans over the table with a manic gleam in his eyes and hisses. "Oh, you're going little brother. And you're going to enjoy yourself, or so help me god…."

So Sam goes. He pretends to be interested and he smiles when Dean asks him if he had fun. Even if the smile is empty and the interest is fake, he knows he has to do this for his brother.

You see, Sam might not be going to college, but he's not stupid. He knows Dean is starting to notice the wind whistling through the holes where the old Sam used to be. He's trying to fill the holes with books and beer. Sam plays along and pretends that the books bring back is old self, but the characters seem meaningless and the plot feels awkward. He almost tells Dean that the old Sam is gone, but then he sees hope in his brother's eyes and he smiles and goes through the motions of being Sam, pretending that not everything is empty and meaningless.

Dean seems satisfied for the time being.

Four months after the 'incident-that-shall-not-be-named' Sam and John sit hidden in the brush of a Minnesota forest, waiting for a black dog to walk by. It follows the same trail every day and father and son both have a perfect view over it. Dean is sitting somewhere over to the right with a jovial Caleb who is absolutely delighted to see Dean again. Those two always got along well.

Something in the air shifts slightly. Sam almost expects the black dog to appear when he notices John rub his beard, which makes him realise that his father is the reason for the change of atmosphere. John has always had that kind of influence, like Dean, he has the power to change the mood of an entire room. It's never good when John looks as worried and as haggard as he does, so Sam is pretty sure he should feel some trepidation about what John is about to say. He can't manage more than a vague feeling of curiosity, and even that is half-hearted.

So when John turns to face his son, and, for the first time in years, focuses his very being on Sam, he is met with a poor attempt at interest in his words. He forces Sam into an intense gaze and asks him, as if revealing a great secret, "Sam, are you okay?"

Sam almost laughs at that question, the notion that he would be okay is so ridiculous.

Instead he shrugs and grumbles a vague "I guess." He thinks that's something he usually would have said, though guessing from the sudden pain in his father's face, he might be wrong. John's mouth opens, ready to say something when the dark shape of the black dog slowly slinks into view. Sam points in its direction and John shoots him a lingering look before his face goes hard again. He turns back towards the dog as a hunter, not a father.

It turns out to be one of those few hunts where everything goes well. So when Sam finds himself across from his father in a dingy bar, with Dean and Caleb off to play some pool, part of Sam hopes his father will continue the conversation he started earlier. The rest of him, the newer part, rationally tells him that will only bring back old pains. The shell of cool numbness he currently finds himself in is comfortable enough. No need to provoke sleeping volcanoes.

John seems to agree with new Sam. Though he almost says something, then he looks down at his drink. For the rest of the evening, he stares pensively into his beer without uttering a single word.

They never mention their moment in the woods again.

Five months after the ultimatum that changed everything, disaster strikes: the Impala breaks down. Of course, the wonderful laws of 'Winchester Luck' dictate that this happens in the middle of nowhere, with no cell-phone coverage, and no human for at least fifty miles. As if that's not enough, it's raining cats and dogs.

Dean, who seems more worried about the state of the car than the fact that they could literally die here if nothing happens, walks around the car with great gestures, spewing out enough profanity to make a sailor proud. Or, you know, John Winchester at least.

Silently handing his brother whatever tool he impatiently asks for, Sam can't really bring himself to care. After all, she's just car, he thinks, the very thought a blasphemy in the Winchester household. Raindrops turn his fingers numb and soak him to the bone.

It's been hours. Sam has been delegated the duty of turning the key in the ignition over and over again until the motor starts. The wrist movement has become nearly as routine as his lies. He almost suggests to Dean that he go in search of help, just walk in a random direction until he reaches some sort of settlement. Maybe he'll die of starvation, or hypothermia. Or maybe he can just keep walking forever, until the wind and the rain erode away everything that is Sam, and he can finally be free.

Then the ignition sparks when he turns the key, and the Impala's low rumble sounds over the pitter-patter of the rain. Dean whoops and punches the air. Soon their back in their rightful places: Dean the driver, Sam the passenger, and the Impala on the road.

"She's runnin' smooth again, Sammy. Aren't you baby?" Dean says as he strokes the car.

Banter is easy, so Sam snorts a quick, "Should I leave you two alone for a minute?", that sounds fake to his own ears. In his exhilaration, Dean doesn't seem to notice.

He laughs and put on a Kansas tape. Things almost feel normal again.

But Sam can still feel the cold of the rain seeping through his skin. It feels almost like it's seeping to his soul.

Sam almost gets out in time. Almost. As usual, though, he's half a second late. The explosive that Sam installed himself erupts with the power of a volcano, the entrance to the mine he's trying to escape crumbles like it's made of dough instead of stone. The force throws him back, and his last thought before he loses consciousness is that he almost got out. Kind of like he almost got out of hunting in time to save his sanity.

By the time Sam opens his eyes again he sees the remains of the mines entrance disappearing around a corner. Good to know the explosive did its job at least. The wendigo that's using this place as a lair is going to a have a hard time getting out. That's good. That gives them more time to kill it. Sam wonders vaguely how he's moving away from the entrance without trying. He doubts he can move by the sheer force of will alone. It takes a minute for Sam's concussion-muddled brain to realise that he's being dragged along the rocky floor of the mine. It makes sense, though, he realises belatedly. That would explain the pain in his back. Apparently, constantly scraping over rocks and sand is painful for your back. Huh. Who knew.

With a sluggish move of his head, Sam tries to see who's pulling him along. He has just enough time to see the long leathery claw that's practically crushing his elbow before white spots of pain engulf his vision. No moving his head. Alright. And that hand? That's the wendigo, Sam's pretty sure. The idea that he is going to be strung up like a rabbit, and eaten somewhere not too far in the future is slightly disconcerting. Sam can't really bring himself to care.

The next time that Sam is fully aware of being awake, he realises he's strung up by his hands, a steady drip of blood coming from his head. The chamber he's in smells like death. The wendigo is only inches from his face, putrid breath washing over Sam. Suddenly the creatures head shoots forward, all flashing eyes and razor sharp teeth. It feels like the thing is chewing off his arm, but he can't be too sure. Losing an arm is no more painful than losing yourself.

Something in Sam really wishes he were at Stanford. Most of him just wants to disappear. Maybe Dean and John will be too late. Maybe all they'll find is rotting flesh on bone, with no idea which bones are his. No way they can trace back their own blood in the drying pools on the ground.

The blood keeps flowing. Like it flowed down the drain so many months ago. Perhaps everything else will flow out with it. All that pain, all that forbidden desire for a place he'll never see. Perhaps all of the old Sam will flow out and he'll never have to feel again.

He almost thinks he hears Dean's voice. He almost thinks he hears the heavy falls of John's boots.

Then the putrid smell of death stand in front of him, ready for the next bite.

Sam's numb. Everything is numb. There's a soft beeping, a soft bed, and a soft pain in his… everywhere. It's comfortable. The same sort of comfort that he's found in the past months, there's a strange contentment in the deadened nothingness that is his life.

It takes a while for Sam to wake. He contemplates not waking for a while, but the pull on his body is just too strong. When he opens his eyes, he stares strait into Dean's bright greens.

"Hey, Sammy. Welcome back to the land of the living. How ya feeling?" There's a smile on his brother's face but it's not quite there. More like the memory of a smile. For a moment the smile reminds Sam so strongly of the smile that he's been putting on for the last half year that he ends up telling the truth.

"Like death warmed over." He says. That's not a lie.

"I bet." Comes the gruff answer from the corner of the room, where John is standing with his arms crossed and his brow furrowed into an emotion that looks an awful lot like worry. The Winchester patriarch launches into the long list of injuries that Sam sustained. The wendigo is dead, and apparently it's a miracle that Sam even survived.

The rest of the day passes in relative peace, which is surprising, because Sam seems to remember Dean losing his head over much smaller injuries – when Sam was at the receiving end of them at least. It all goes awry when Sam asks the only question that he can really come up with.

"So, when are we busting me out of here?"

Dean gapes at him for a moment, then something in his face shifts and he's suddenly on his feet, yelling: "When are we busting you out of here? How about when the fucking doctor says you can go?" he stops to take a breath, but before either Sam or John can interrupt him or calm him down he continues: "What exactly about 'bleeding out', 'stopped breathing'and 'lost you on the table' do you not understand? Huh? What is wrong with you Sam? Do you just not care?" The yelling goes on for a while, though Sam zones out after the second 'What is wrong with you?'.

It takes John Winchester, two orderlies, and a nurse who tells Dean that his yelling is affecting Sam's health to finally calm his brother down. Sam thinks he probably could have done it on his own. Or at least, the old Sam.

When the quiet finally returns to the room it's forced. John is standing next to the door alternating between agitated glances at his sons and reassuring looks at the orderlies in the hall. Dean's crying, which in itself is something of a miracle. Sam doesn't really remember the last time he's seen his brother cry. He's pretty sure it was his fault that time too, though. For some reason he feels like he should be more affected by it, but his eyes are dry and his pulse is steady.

With a thick voice Dean whispers, "We thought you were going to die." Which is funny, because Sam's pretty sure he's already dead.

He almost points that out to Dean, but he decides not to.

After all, tears really aren't Dean's best look.

After Dean's breakdown the Winchesters reach a state of almost happiness. John almost stops obsessing. Sam almost smiles. Dean almost believes it.

The string of almost is fragile though, and asking for more will surely make it break.

So they pretend the almost is not almost. They pretend it is real. And sometimes it feels like it is. Dean blasts his music and rides in his baby. John hunts and searches for the one monster he can never seem to find. Sam goes along with it and pretends that he's alright.

He gets so good at pretending that sometimes it almost feels like he's alive.

Almost, but not quite.

The saddest word
in the whole wide world
is the world almost.

He was almost in love.
She was almost good for him.
He almost stopped her.
She almost waited.
He almost lived.
They almost made it.

Tiny Stories (via prettysuicidal)