Summary: When they’re very young, John leaves the boys home alone while he hunts. Until one day Dean’s old enough to help. But that means leaving Sam alone by himself. Dean’s never as okay with that as he pretends to be, and John soon learns he can threaten to separate the boys as a way to keep Dean in line. Nothing’s worse than being separated from his little brother. Nothing.
A/N: Working with kirathehyrulian was amazing. She not only did more artwork than the challenge asked for, she helped enormously with the editing and re-writing of this story. I owe her so much! Thanks also to jdl71, who always catches my most obvious mistakes. And to the mods of the gencestbang for making this project happen. Y’all are beyond awesome!
It makes Dean crazy that Sam knows. Every fiber of his being has always told him to protect Sam, to take care of him, to make sure he has a good life.
Or at least as good a life as possible with the way they live, always on the road, living in dingy motels or sleeping in the car, never staying in one place long enough to make friends.
Dean’s been lying to Sam for as long as he can remember. He lied about how their mom died. He lied about what their dad did for a living. When Sam confronts him, forces Dean to tell the truth because he read Dad’s journal... Well, Dean could’ve killed him for that.
It should be a relief, Sam finally knowing the truth. It should ease Dean’s burden a little, give him a partner in crime, so to speak. Make it easier for him to talk about his fears for their dad when John’s out hunting. Now Dean can share his thoughts with his little brother, not struggle to hide them all the time.
But it isn’t a relief. It doesn’t help. Not really. Dean looks at the fear in Sam’s eyes, the worry and trepidation, and he wishes he could take it all back. He wishes he could bury the truth in a big hole in a graveyard, after salting and burning it good and proper, of course.
Dad figures it out pretty quick, too, just as Dean was afraid he would.
“You told him?” John accuses his first-born as soon as Sam admits he knows.
“He figured it out, sir,” Dean says. “He read your journal.”
Dean expects John to lash out, to yell at him.
When John’s shoulders deflate, when he lets out a long sigh and mutters, “I guess it’s just as well,” it’s worse.
It’s not just as well. Dean should have protected Sam, should have let him be a kid for a little longer than eight years. Sam knows, and it’s the end of his childhood, and it makes Dean feel like a total failure.
That’s not the worst part, though. Sam starts having nightmares. His stomach bothers him. He gets anxious whenever John gets ready to go hunting, acts terrified and jumpy all the time while he’s gone. He doesn’t trust John to tell him the truth any longer, and Dean can’t sugar-coat it for him. That doesn’t seem fair, after the way Sam found out. After Sam gave Dean the Christmas present he’d meant to give John.
Dean does his best to comfort the kid when he wakes up screaming, holds him and rubs his back so he can fall back to sleep. Dean does his best to make Sam feel safe, but he knows it’ll never be the same. Sam’s childhood is over and Dean hates himself for it.
On Sam’s ninth birthday, John gives him a .45
“If you’re old enough to know what we do, you’re old enough to learn how to handle one of these.”
John shows him the basics, how to clean it, how to load and unload it, how to store it.
That summer, Dean takes Sam out back of every motel, into every field and off-road wooded area they can find to practice. Sam’s hands are small and soft, but his eyesight’s excellent. He focuses intently on the target and doesn’t give up, and by the end of the summer he’s a good shot. Not as good as Dean, but definitely getting there. His stubbornness and determination are good for something after all.
For a while, the nightmares subside. Dean knows that feeling. He was younger than Sam when he found out monsters were real, and it terrified him, too. Learning how to shoot helped, gave him a measure of control. Now he could defend himself and the people he loved. Now he could protect Sam if something came for him.
Not that he could when something did. Dean still has nightmares about the shtriga bending over his sleeping little brother, about the moment before Dad burst in and saved him. Sam was only six and he doesn’t remember, but Dean will never forget. Dean will never stop feeling guilty about leaving Sam alone and vulnerable that night.
Now that Sam can shoot, John decides he’s old enough to stay home alone for a couple of days. There’s a werewolf killing hikers two states away, and John needs Dean’s help, but Sam has to stay behind.
“He’ll just get in the way,” John insists when Dean protests. “He’ll be safer here.”
Dean’s pretty sure that’s not true. Dean’s pretty sure Sam would be much safer coming with them, waiting in the car while John and Dean put down the monster.
“It’s just for a few days,” Dean assures Sam when it’s time to go.
Sam stares at him, eyes wide, lips parted in shock. It’s one thing for John to leave them both while he hunts. It’s another thing to leave Sam alone. That’s never happened before.
“In the car, Dean,” John orders. “Now!”
“Okay, okay,” Dean mutters under his breath to Sam, frantic. “Lock the door and lay salt lines as soon as we’re gone, capiche? Don’t open it for nobody.”
John’s already gone over the rules directly with Sam, the whole “shoot first, ask questions later” speech he usually gives to Dean when he leaves.
Dean’s just stalling, and they both know it.
“I’ll keep working on him,” Dean says, resisting an overwhelming urge to grab Sam and drag him along, hide him in the trunk or in the back seat under a blanket. Maybe he can distract John long enough to smuggle Sam into the footwell. “No promises, but I’ll ask, okay?”
“Dean!” John’s got him in his sights now, his glare boring holes into both of them.
Dean gives Sam a look that he hopes isn’t as full of terror as he feels, then he closes the door, locking Sam in. The last thing he sees is Sam’s unhappy face, his trembling lip, his tear-filled eyes staring accusingly at Dean as he leaves. Dean knows he won’t sleep on this hunting trip, but if he does, that face will haunt his dreams. He’s sure of it.
“He’s nine!” Dean blurts out as he drags himself into the passenger seat of the car. “What if some low life finds him alone?”
John scowls as he guns the engine.
“I left you alone when you were nine,” he snaps, but Dean knows better. Dean had Sam. Whenever John left, he always left them together. “If you taught him how to take care of himself like I told you to, he’ll be fine.”
Dean’s heart sinks. “But Dad…”
“People are dying, Dean. This job needs doing now.”
Dean knows better than to argue when John’s in this mood. The werewolf has picked off an entire family — mother, father, two little boys — and John’s determination to kill the thing is beyond reason. It’s personal.
Dean knows better, but he does it anyway, because it’s Sam.
“I’ll make sure he stays out of the way,” he assures John, desperation making him reckless. “I’ll make him stay in the car while we hunt. Please, Dad? Please let him come!”
“That’s enough!” John roars, slamming his hand against the steering wheel. “I said he’s not coming, and that’s final. I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.”
Over the next few hours, Dean goes out of his mind with worry. He calls Sam to check in with him at every rest stop and gas station. He chews on his lower lip until it starts to bleed.
But when he talks to Sam, he feigns a toughness he doesn’t begin to feel.
“Yeah, it’s not going to happen,” he tells Sam over the phone. Of course, Sam’s upset, but Dean steels himself, uses his bravest voice in an effort to make Sam feel better. “Alright, I gotta go. Call you in a couple days.”
Sam gives a dejected goodbye, and Dean tries not to think about how helpless and defenseless he is, all alone in that motel room miles and miles away. He tries not to imagine Sam’s fear and loneliness. Sam’s probably bored to tears, and that’s never good.
“Sam’s good at being quiet,” he tells John. “He knows how to curl himself up in a ball and sit as still as a statue. For hours. I taught him, in case anything ever got in and he couldn’t run. He can control his breathing so it’s like he’s not even there. I’ve never seen anyone do that like he can.”
John frowns, grips the steering wheel and doesn’t answer. But at least he doesn’t lash out. At least he’s listening. Dean can work with that.
“Sam can run,” Dean goes on. “He won first place in his grade for the 100 yard dash last month. And you should see him sprint up the soccer field, Dad. He runs like the wind. If something happens on the hunt, Sammy can just book it out of there in no time flat.”
John grits his teeth, says nothing.
“Sam can shoot a tin can off a fence post at fifty feet!” Dean says a few minutes later. “He can throw a boy twice his weight!”
“That’s why I’m not worried about him.” John nods. “He can handle himself.”
Dean panics. His strategy is backfiring, convincing John of his choice to leave Sam instead of bringing him along.
When they stop at a diner for dinner, he can’t eat. His stomach is in knots and his hands are sweating.
John frowns. “Stop playing around and eat your food, Dean,” he growls. “I need you fed and ready to do this job.”
Dean picks up the burger, opens his mouth. His hands are shaking. He takes a bite, chews slowly as his stomach churns. The food tastes like sawdust. He’s not sure he can swallow.
“Jesus, Dean, what’s the matter with you?” John slams his hand down on the table. Dean jumps and his eyes fly open wide.
“Nothing,” he says, setting the burger down carefully. “I’m fine, sir.”
“The hell you are.” John glowers, peering at Dean closely for the first time since they left the motel. “I need you to focus, son. Hunting isn’t a game. We can’t afford to screw this up. So whatever’s going on here, I need you to lock it up.”
“Yes sir,” Dean says, swallowing hard.
“Okay, let’s go over it from the top. How do you kill a werewolf?”
“Silver bullet through the heart,” Dean says automatically.
John nods. “That’s right.” He studies Dean thoughtfully for another minute, then gives a little shake of his head and looks down at his plate again. “I don’t have time for this.” He mutters as he pushes his plate away. “All right. You boys win.”
“Sir?” Dean’s heart leaps. He’s too hopeful for his own good, but he can’t help it.
“I said, all right.” John waves a hand and Dean glances out the window, sees the payphone in the parking lot. “Go ahead. Call him. He can catch a bus and meet us in Milwaukee.”
Dean doesn’t need to be told twice.
When they pick Sam up at the bus station, Dean tries not to hug him too hard or too long. He tries not to let Sam see how he’s imagined every terrible thing that could happen to a nine-year-old kid alone in a bus station. He pretends it’s no big deal that Sam’s joined them, that it was easy to convince John to let him tag along after all.
“Don’t mess this up,” Dean warns, and Sam shakes his head vigorously.
“I won’t,” he says, eager and hopeful as ever. “I promise.”
Of course, the hunt takes longer than two days. Of course, Sam would’ve been left alone in that motel room until after the food ran out. He would’ve had to go out, beg for food or scavenge from the dumpster behind the diner next door.
Dean can’t stand to think about it. He pushes his feelings of fear and worry down deep inside, where he doesn’t have to consider how close they came to disaster. Now that Sam’s safe, squeezed tight between Dean and the backseat of the Impala while their dad dozes in the front, Dean lets the horror of the last twenty-four hours slide right out of his mind.
He’ll never let Sam leave his side, ever again. He’ll stay behind if John doesn’t want to take him. He’ll go on a hunger strike again if he has to.
Luckily, it doesn’t come to that. John can see that Dean’s useless as a hunting partner if he’s spending all his energy worrying about his brother. From then on, Sam rides along on hunts, waits in the back seat of the car while John and Dean take care of the monster.
More than once, Sam’s presence is actually helpful, so that even John has to admit it’s a good thing they brought him along.
The first time, John and Dean are both pinned down by ghouls in a cemetery, and Dean figures he’s done for. The thing has him by the throat and he’s starting to black out.
Then a loud bang cracks the air and the ghoul’s head explodes, showering Dean with grey matter and skull fragments. As the monster’s body collapses on top of him, Dean manages to open his eyes and there’s Sam, standing just a few feet away, shotgun smoking in his trembling hands.
“Jesus, Sammy!” Dean chokes out before rolling over to help his father smash in the head of the other ghoul with a shovel.
“Thought I told you to stay in the car,” John grouses, but Dean can tell he’s not really angry.
“Good shot, bitch,” Dean praises as he ruffles Sam’s hair.
Sam scowls. “Ew, Dean! Gross! You got brains in my hair, you jerk!”
Dean laughs hard then, adrenaline and exhaustion making him loopy, euphoric even. It feels so good to have Sam with him at his moment of victory. Their moment.
It feels like that’s the way it’s always supposed to be.
By the time he’s twelve, Sam proves useful as a researcher, so John sometimes drops him off at the public library in town on their way to the hunt. It still makes Dean twitchy to be out of sight of his brother, especially when there’s a monster in the area, but he figures Sam’s safer in the library than alone in a motel by himself.
When John falls down some stairs during a hunt, Dean drags him into the car, drives back to the motel and leaves him there, bruised and sore and drinking whiskey for the pain. Then Dean drives to the public library to pick up Sam. Of course, the kid’s sitting outside, by himself, waiting. It’s dark, and Dean’s mad at himself for taking so long, but he doesn’t apologize.
“I was beginning to think I would have to walk,” Sam complains as he hauls his backpack into the backseat. “Where’s Dad?”
“Dropped him off at the motel,” Dean says, gripping the steering wheel to keep his hands from shaking. “He fell down some stairs.”
“Is he okay?”
“Course he is, Sammy.” Dean tries to smile. “He’s Dad, isn’t he?”
Sam scowls. “He’s gonna get himself killed one day,” he says darkly, and Dean doesn’t argue. He’s too tired.
He’s just relieved Sam’s beside him again. Sam’s safe.
Dean would just as soon keep Sam safe from hunting forever, but a couple of weeks after his thirteenth birthday John decides Sam’s ready for his first kill. They take down a group of werewolves together, and Sam does his share, shoots his werewolf in the heart with a silver bullet just the way Dean taught him. He doesn’t even hesitate before pulling the trigger, and Dean’s damn proud of him. John gives the kid a satisfied nod before ordering the clean-up.
The next week, John leaves them to take care of a chupacabra while he goes after a vengeful spirit in the next town.
“You boys can handle this one on your own,” he tells them. “It’s good practice. You know what to do. Work together, clean up after yourselves. I’ll see you at the Lone Star Motel when you’re done.”
John wants them to be a team. He wants them to learn to work together.
It goes better — and worse — than Dean could’ve imagined. After the thing throws Dean against a fence, Sam steps right up. He’s quick, fierce, focused. He doesn’t stop until the monster is dead, dead, dead. It scares Dean a little, although he’d never admit it. Sam has learned his lessons well, and now he’s as deadly as any monster. At thirteen.
After the clean-up, though, Sam looks up at Dean with that same eager, hopeful expression he’s always had.
“Told you I could do it,” he says, still breathing hard after filling the shallow grave full of salted and burned remains.
“Yeah,” Dean nods, smiling weakly. “You done good, little brother. You’re a real hunter now.” He gets a whiff of the kid and makes a face. “Smell like one, too.”
Sam flushes red and frowns. “Shut up,” he grouses, then looks up at Dean hopefully again. “You gonna tell Dad? Tell him how I did?”
“Tell him yourself, squirt,” Dean shrugs, ruffling Sam’s hair as they walk back to the car together, shovels over their shoulders.
Dean tries not to think too hard about how Sam at thirteen should be hanging out with his eighth-grade friends in a nice suburban basement somewhere, eating pizza and playing Nintendo. Sam should be spending his summer at the town pool, not wading around knee-deep in monster guts.
Dean tries hard not to feel he’s failed Sam somehow, but it doesn’t help. Even while he’s proud of Sam for learning everything Dean’s taught him, Dean feels like a failure for teaching him in the first place.
Sam looks up to him, and Dean’s making him grow up too fast.
Sam’s growing up. He doesn’t whine and cry like he used to. Instead, he’s moody, angry, rebellious and tough as nails.
Dean’s grateful to have a little brother who’s more mature in many ways than Dean himself. It’s a relief. Sam’s already on his way to being a partner in the family business, instead of a small and helpless burden of responsibility. Sam terrifies Dean whenever he thinks about how small and helpless he still is, but Sam’s starting to grow, gaining weight and skill and a give-‘em-hell attitude. Sam’s going to be all right.
The summer after his fourteenth birthday, Sam steps up when John and Dean are wounded on a hunt. They’re both in pretty bad shape, and Sam gets them out of harm’s way and back to the motel. He patches them up, depleting their emergency first aid kit so he has to break into the local pharmacy to steal painkillers and antibiotics.
When Dean wakes up the next morning, John’s gone and Sam’s angry.
“Heya, Sammy.” Dean’s floating in a warm afterglow of whatever Sam’s given him. “Where’s Dad?”
“He went back out to clean up the mess you made,” Sam says, sulky. He’s sitting at the table in the little kitchenette, trying to study. He’s taking summer courses at the local community college, trying to boost his grades.
“Why didn’t you go with him?” Dean slurs. He’s having trouble keeping his eyes open.
“I told him I should stay here with you,” Sam says. “Make sure your fever went down.”
“I’m fine, Sammy.” Dean tries to push himself up, collapses back on the bed as a shooting pain slices up his right side.
“You could’ve died out there.” Sam’s voice is rough, low. It’s been dropping lately. He’s growing like a weed.
“Well, I didn’t, did I? You should’ve gone with him.”
”You should be in a hospital.” Sam’s angry.
“Dad says no hospitals. You know that.” Dean grits his teeth as another wave of pain hits him. The painkillers are wearing off.
“Fuck that. Fuck Dad.”
“Sam...” He means to reprimand, but it sounds more like pleading. Tears blur his vision.
“Dean? Oh shit. Lie still! You’ll rip out your stitches! Jesus, Dean.” Sam’s hands are gentle, reassuring. He’s getting good at this. Dad’s got nothing on Sam’s bedside manner, that’s for damn sure.
Dean chokes down a couple of painkillers and starts to float again in a few minutes.
Sam doesn’t leave his side the whole time, watching over him like a damn mother hen.
Dean doesn’t admit how much he likes it. He’s grateful that Sam didn’t go off with their dad and leave Dean here to suffer alone. Sam’s rebellious streak is good for something after all.
“You take such good care of me, Sammy,” Dean slurs just before he drifts off.
He can almost see Sam’s dimpled smile, can almost feel Sam’s hand in his hair, soothing.
By the time he’s fifteen, Sam stays behind more often than not while Dean goes with their Dad on a hunt. Dean still misses him like a limb, still calls him constantly. He tells himself it’s his job, annoying the hell out of Sam. He tells Sam that, too.
He’ll never admit that he needs to hear Sam’s voice. He’ll never admit how much he wishes Sam was right there next to him, every minute.
They’re hunting a kitsune outside Lincoln, Nebraska when Sam asks Dean how to talk to a girl. Dean’s proud and jealous at the same time. He wants Sam to have other relationships, but he doesn’t.
“Don’t get too attached,” he warns, and he can almost see Sam’s eyeroll.
“I know, Dean. Don’t worry.”
When they pick Sam up, the kid’s as silent and sullen as Dean’s ever seen him.
“What happened with the girl?” he teases, telling himself it’s normal to be curious about his brother’s romantic life. It’s part of the job.
He just wishes it didn’t make his skin get hot and prickly under his collar. He wishes he didn’t care so much.
“Nothing.” Sam doesn’t even look at him, which is how Dean knows he’s lying.
It’s on the tip of his tongue to tease Sam about his crush, but he doesn’t. Something about Sam’s face stops him.
Fourteen years go by before Dean finds out the truth, and he doesn’t take it well. Knowing Sam was in that kind of danger while Dean and his dad were gone hunting the thing that almost killed Sam just confirms his conviction that they never should have left Sam alone in the first place.
Fifteen or not, Sam’s vulnerable whenever Dean’s not right there to protect him, to keep him safe. It’s a lesson Dean learned the night he carried Sam out of their burning house, and it’s one Dean never forgets.
John knows how much Sam means to Dean. Hell, anybody with two eyes can see it. John’s nurtured that bond from the day his wife burned on the ceiling of Sam’s nursery. He uses Dean’s need to protect Sam as a way to control him.
When they fight, it’s usually over Sam.
“Sam needs to go to school, Dad,” Dean protests when John tries to uproot them for the third time in a month. “He’s got finals this week.”
“He’ll go where I tell him,” John insists. “We’re leaving, and that’s an order!”
When Dean continues to protest, to stick up for Sam’s need for normalcy in the face of John’s constant chaos, John snaps. He does the one thing he knows will teach Dean to get in line next time. He separates the boys. When he gets sick of Dean, he sends Dean off to stay with Bobby, keeping Sam with him. Or he sends Sam to stay with Bobby while Dean gets assigned as backup on another hunt, assisting one of the hunters John owes a favor to.
It makes Dean crazy to be separated from Sam. It feels like a hole’s been ripped through the middle of his chest. It scares him how much he obsesses about getting back to Sam. He calls every chance he gets, makes himself sick with worry. He’s not so much worried for Sam’s safety as he is worried that Sam will think he’s abandoned him. He worries that Sam will think Dean left him, that Dean doesn’t want him.
Being separated is the worst punishment John can inflict. After the first few times, Dean gets with the program. All John has to do is threaten to send Dean away and Dean clams up and falls into line.
Even if it means backing John up against something that’s good for Sam, like staying in school or finishing out the season on the school soccer team. It kills Dean to do it, but the alternative is far worse.
Years later, in the dark of the car, Dean apologizes. “Sometimes, when I was... when I was away, you know it wasn't 'cause I just ran out, right? Dad would... He would send me away when I really pissed him off. I think you knew that.”
Dean doesn’t even hear Sam’s response; he’ll always carry the guilt of leaving Sam. He’ll always hate himself for it, even when it has to be done.
Dying is leaving. It’s the same damn thing, in Dean’s book. He’ll never mind dying for his own sake. He only hates it because it means abandoning Sam, leaving him alone. Doing that most terrible thing to his little brother.
Dying is nothing. Being separated from Sam is far, far worse.
Sam’s training continues. He joins Dean and their dad on plenty of hunts over the next couple of years. Dean does the best he can to keep Sam safe while his skills improve, but he’s conflicted about Sam hunting. On the one hand, he’s proud of the hunter Sam’s becoming. As he grows older, wiser, and stronger, he’s getting better. Combined with his talent for research, he’s got all the makings of a really fine hunter. The best. Dean’s proud because he helped make that happen.
But hunting’s not all Sam can do. He’s smart. He gets straight A’s at every school, even the ones where he’s only attended for part of the year. He’s a natural athlete, wins awards right and left even when he’s only able to play for a season or two. He’s focused and achievement-oriented like Dean’s never been. He succeeds at everything he puts his mind to with a single-minded drive that makes Dean proud and scared at the same time.
Thing is, Sam’s got potential. He doesn’t have to settle for the dangerous, reckless life of a hunter. He can do better. Be more. Sam’s got what it takes to become successful at something outside hunting.
Dean’s beyond proud of him for that. He wants it to happen.
But Dean’s not Sam’s only parent. Whenever Dean raises the topic of Sam’s schooling, John grumbles.
“High school was enough for me,” he declares. “Nobody in our family ever went to college. College isn’t necessary to do what we do. You just make sure Sam keeps up with his drills.”
“Yes, sir,” Dean mutters. But secretly, he’s rooting for Sam. Sam’s not a loser, like Dean is. He deserves better, and Dean can see that his brother wants out. He can feel it.
Nothing can prepare Dean for the day it happens, though.
Dean knows Sam’s been applying to colleges. He can’t keep something like that from his big brother. But when the acceptance letter comes from Stanford, it’s a shock.
“You can’t go,” he tells Sam. It’s a knee-jerk reaction and he knows it. “It’ll kill Dad.”
Sam blinks, shakes his head like he’s shaking off a blow. “It’s not gonna kill him, Dean.”
“Well, damn near,” Dean grunts, not meeting Sam’s eyes. He can imagine the pain and betrayal there.
“It’s everything I wanted,” Sam whispers, like he’s afraid Dad might hear. Like he’s even home. “It’s what we wanted. You said...”
“Yeah, well, I changed my mind.” Dean knows he’s being harsh. Can’t help it. Now that the reality of Sam leaving is right here in the room with them, it makes him want to cry.
He won’t cry.
Sam sucks in a breath, turns away. Dean pretends it doesn’t hurt like part of him is being ripped off, like flesh is tearing away and leaving a long, bloody gash.
“Fine,” Sam says, breathing out. Looking away. “Doesn’t change anything.”
When Dad walks in, they’re still not looking at each other. It’s sudden, so neither brother has a chance to express his feelings, just deal with the sudden presence of their Dad, demanding to know what’s going on.
“I’m leaving.” Sam squares his shoulders, puffs out his chest, meets his father’s gaze without flinching. “Stanford University admitted me, Dad. It’s a good deal. Full ride. Everything’s covered. You don’t have to pay a dime.”
John’s eyes sweep the room, take in Sam’s duffel by the door, the stricken look on Dean’s face.
“Well now, that’s not really the issue, is it?” John says.
Sam sets his jaw stubbornly. “I’m going, with or without your blessing. I’m 18 now, old enough to make my own decisions. I’m getting out.”
“There is no getting out, Sam,” John reminds him. “Once a hunter, always a hunter. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”
Sam shakes his head. “No. No, Dad. This life — all the moving around, never trusting anybody, charging into every hunt like it’s your last, patching you and Dean up and hoping you’ll survive your injuries... No, Dad. I’m done.”
“Oh, you’re done, huh?” John stalks closer, self-righteous and angry, and Dean’s heart rate picks up, his palms sweat. “You’re gonna take off when people need you? Run away while monsters like the one that killed your mom go after other families? Is that how I raised you?”
“It’s not all on us, Dad!” Sam spits out.
“Oh yeah? Then who? Some poor guy who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow? Huh? You’re going to give up so that some other hunter gets himself killed for you?”
“No! Of course not! But it doesn’t always have to be us!” Sam insists.
“Of course it does!”
“Then you and Dean can do it. I’m out.” Sam sticks his chin out, deliberately not looking at Dean as Dean gives a little shake of his head.
“You think it’s that easy?” John demands. “You think just because you walk away from this life, monsters are going to leave you alone? Huh? You stop being a hunter, you end up prey.”
“I can handle myself,” Sam scoffs.
“Yeah? How about all the innocent lives you put in danger, Sam? Huh? You want to lead a monster into a college dormitory? Is that what you want? Get your civilian friends killed because you were stupid enough to think you could be just like them?”
“What? No!” Sam looks stunned. “I won’t let that happen!”
“How are you going to protect them?” John demands. “You can’t tell the whole school. You can’t prepare them all, so what are you going to do? Are you going to stay silent on the sidelines if something happens?”
“If,” Sam says. “If something happens, Dad. You don’t know what’s going to happen! You don’t know everything! Maybe you’re the one attracting the monsters, leaving a trail of bodies everywhere we go!”
John looks ready to hit someone, so Dean gets up between them, determined to plead Sam’s case.
“Dad, Sam’s not leading any monsters to a slaughter. He’s just going to college. It’s what kids his age do!”
“Not if they’re hunters, they don’t.” John’s eyes narrow, his gaze still locked on Sam.
“Come on, Dad! Sam’s gonna get a college education! It’ll help us! Whatever he learns at college can make us better hunters!”
John’s face is as dark as Dean’s ever seen it. He pushes past Dean so that he’s right up in Sam’s space, nose to nose. They’re almost the same height. Sam’s grown taller than Dean over the past year, and now Dean’s the shortest in his family.
“You walk out that door, don’t you ever come back!” John growls, low and harsh.
Sam’s jaw works, his fists clench. At first, he doesn’t back down, and Dean starts to get between them again. He’s struggling with his own emotions, and when Sam’s eyes flick to him for a moment, he reads the pain and betrayal there, the panic behind Sam’s anger.
Then Sam huffs out a breath and turns away, toward the door.
Dean and John watch as Sam grabs his duffel and yanks the door open. He doesn’t look back, doesn’t slam the door on his way out.
Dean runs after him, down the dark driveway, determined to talk him out of it.
“Sam...” Dean’s starting to panic, but he’s damned if he’ll let Sam see it.
“No, Dean. I’m getting out, and you should too! Come with me!”
“Sammy, you know I can’t do that.” Dean shakes his head. “You know I can’t leave him.”
Sam sets his jaw stubbornly. “Then you’ve made your choice.” Between him and me, Sam means. Dean knows that’s what Sam means. Dean chose John.
“Sam, I can’t leave him,” Dean insists. “He needs me.”
“He doesn’t need you,” Sam spits out. “He doesn’t need anybody. Never has.”
That hurts way more than Dean would ever admit, so he gets pissed.
“Fuck you, you selfish son-of-a-bitch!” Dean snarls. “You think everything revolves around you? You think you can just walk away from your family? Stick your head in the sand while people die, college boy? Just so you can be normal? Huh?”
“Shut up!” Dean clenches his fists. He wants to hit something.
He wants to grab onto Sam and never let him go.
Sam backs away, lowering his eyes, resigned. His jaw twitches, and Dean can tell he’s gritting his teeth.
“See ya later, Dean.”
They never say goodbye. It’s the worst night of Dean’s life, including the night their mother died.
The best night of Dean’s life is the night Sam’s girlfriend dies.
He’s a scum-sucking bastard for feeling that way, and he’s guilty as hell about it, but he’d be lying if he tried to deny it. Having Sam back in his life, even the broken, grieving shell that sits glaring out the window as Dean drives them away that night, is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. That includes the day Dad gave him the car. It includes the day Sam was born, because everything was wonderful back then so the day of Sam’s birth was just one of a crowded mishmash of happy memories and it doesn’t really stand out.
Sam never knows because Dean never tells him. Sam assumes Dean’s been hunting with their dad while Sam was in college, and Dean doesn’t tell him that’s not true either. The truth is, Sam’s presence was the glue that held Dean and his dad together. Dean sees that now. Once Sam was gone, Dad didn’t really want to keep Dean with him. John figured he was done raising kids. Dean was 22, old enough to hunt on his own. John had always preferred hunting alone anyway.
Dean had spent the years while Sam was in college mostly hunting on his own, or with one of the many paranoid, bat-shit crazy hunters they’d met over the years.
Although the truth is, he’d missed Sam so much he spent more time in bars than hunting.
Driving off into their future that night, supposedly to find Dad and the thing that killed Sam’s girlfriend and their mother, Dean knows one thing for sure: he’ll never let Sam go again. Whatever the future holds, they’ll face it together.
John must have known this would happen. He must have known that his absence would force Dean to enlist Sam’s help on his quest to find their dad. He knew Dean needed Sam by his side. John had helped forge that bond, had nurtured it in the way he raised the boys to look after one another, never to form or develop any other close relationships.
Now it really doesn’t matter what the future holds. Dean hopes they’ll find Dad. He assumes they will, sooner or later. He assumes Dad’s on the trail of the thing that killed Mom and Jessica, and sooner or later they’ll find it and kill it.
But all of that pales in comparison with having Sam back. Nothing matters as much as having Sam with him. Now that Sam’s by his side, the rest of it can either happen, or not. Dean’s fine either way.
He’ll never tell Sam that, though.