One Hell of a Good-bye

Sam bounded down the stairs. He took the last three steps with a single stride of his long legs, his dark hair still damp from an early morning shower. He was energetic and exuberant, and he reveled in the feeling of simply being happy.

He went into the kitchen and over to the table, where he dropped an armload of items into a navy blue backpack: shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste - everything needed for a respectable start to a day - along with a can of ...

"Shaving cream? That oughtta last you a year or two."

"Bite me," Sam replied, but he looked over at Dean with a grin. He couldn't be annoyed with his brother's heckling, not today.

Dean grinned back. "Haven't seen you in this good a mood for a while," he said, in that laid-back, understated way of his.

"Yep!" Sam said, as he straightened up.

"You that happy to be leaving?"

Sam laughed.

They had been living in the port city of Astoria, Oregon for more than a year now, one of their longest stays ever in one place. The early American settlement was rich in history and Scandinavian culture - and rich in Scandinavian folklore as well. The hunting had been better than usual here; not a strong selling point for Sam. Dean loved the place.

"You bet...in most ways," Sam replied. His grin dissolved, and he looked at Dean with those soft, hazel eyes that would put a puppy dog to shame. "But not in others."

It was the cloud in his silver lining. For nearly two months, Sam had reined in his emotions, trying to stay grounded, trying not to think too much about what this day would mean to him when it came. He had also tried not to think about the ferocious arguments with his father, who would keep Sam tied to a leash if it wasn't illegal.

This was the day he would break free of hunting for good. All his hard work, the studying, the straight A's his father never seemed to appreciate, everything he had accomplished in order to distract his mind from the horror of the things he had seen and done, had paid off in a way he had never thought possible. He had quietly applied for, and subsequently been awarded, a full scholarship to the school of his choice. That choice was Stanford University near Palo Alto, California, to study law.

He had taken care of all the paperwork, all the details, and most likely would never have told his dad - except for that little piece of intercepted mail. Sam was furious, but then so was his dad, and they had been fighting about it ever since.

Surprisingly, he had found an ally in Dean, who normally backed their dad in everything. The closer this day came, the more Sam hated the thought of leaving Dean. In a few hours, he would be doing just that.

Dean returned Sam's gaze for a few seconds, then shifted his attention towards a large, zipped-up duffle bag sitting on the floor. "So!" he said airily. "You all set ?"

Sam returned to the task at hand. "Almost," he replied. "Just a few more things."

He left the kitchen and leaped back up the stairs, making a right into the bedroom he shared with Dean. He couldn't recall them ever having their own rooms - some places they had lived in were so small, they had slept on the floor - but this one was large enough that, with that trusty, imaginary line drawn down the middle, they could at least have their own space. Of course, Dean seemed to think the placement of the line was arbitrary, as his space constantly encroached on Sam's. And, typically, his was a mess. He never cared how many times his dirty underwear ended up on Sam's side of the room. Sam wondered how Dean could ever find a pair of matching socks, before realizing he usually couldn't.

Sam kept his side of the room neat and clean. He never had any trouble finding his things, and it irked the hell out of him that Dean never had any trouble finding Sam's things either. He was more likely to help himself to one of Sam's clean T-shirts than root through his own, which were usually crumpled up on the floor.

Now, Sam's dresser stood empty. He sat down on his bed and pulled open the slender drawer of a beat-up night table that stood between the two beds. Dean used it only as a garbage can, and Sam had to sweep away an assortment of crushed-up papers, chewing gum, and candy wrappers to reach several items carefully stored at the back of the drawer.

He removed them one at a time: first, a slender black penknife. He turned it over so that the name engraved in fine gold script could be read properly: Sam Winchester. It was given to him by Dean on his 14th birthday. It came wrapped in a piece of soft fabric that looked suspiciously like the chamois cloth Dean used to shine up the Impala. When he unwrapped it, Sam's jaw had dropped. Dean acted like it was no big deal, but he had looked pretty pleased at Sam's reaction. Sam smiled at the memory. The knife would always be very special to him, even though upon opening it for the first time, he had cut his finger, badly. Naturally, Dean had honed the blade to razor-sharpness before presenting it to Sam.

Next, Sam pulled out a shabby paperback that he had read at least a dozen times. It wasn't the book that was special, though. He riffled the pages and there, slipped in between two of them, was a photograph. He held it up, and his eyes took in the details all at once. In the sunny background were trees, blue sky, and a sparkling river with rocks and scrub brush along the shoreline. There, leaning against a pickup truck, and looking uncharacteristically relaxed, was his father. Next to him was Pastor Jim Murphy, who didn't look at all like a pastor in a lumberjack shirt and fishing hat. He wore a broad smile, and he and John Winchester were the best of friends.

There, in front of them, stood Sam and Dean. 11-year-old Sam, looking happy and excited, was proudly holding up the best catch of the day - a 4-lb. rainbow trout he had landed himself, but with lots of shouted directions from his dad and Jim. 15-year-old Dean's fish was considerably smaller, but he was grinning, and obviously enjoying the moment immensely. Pastor Jim had placed his camera on a tree branch and set the timer. He had scooted back into his place among the little group, telling the boys to make sure they held up their fish until they heard the click of the camera.

They had spent the entire weekend in this haven, sleeping in tents and cooking their food over a makeshift charcoal pit. It was probably the most normal weekend they had ever spent as a family, and it was the best one of Sam's life.

He placed the photo back into the book, set it on the table top next to the knife, and reached into the drawer for the last time. He brought out a small, burgundy case, the kind used for jewelry. He flipped it open. There, on a bed of black velvet, lay a rosary. He removed it from its case and placed it in his left hand. The deep red, faceted glass beads dangled through his fingers and caught the morning light in a hundred tiny reflections. Fine silver chain joined together five sections - decades, he was pretty sure they were called. They formed a continuous loop leading back to a single strand. Sam let his eyes move down the strand - one bead, three beads, one bead - until his gaze was stopped and held by the shiny, silver crucifix at its end. Sam lay the crucifix against his palm and brought it closer. There was a timeless beauty to it; the body of Jesus Christ elegant and graceful, even in death. He studied the tiny detailing on the cross, then used his thumb and forefinger to turn it a little, towards the window. Sunlight poured through, glinting off the finely-sculpted surface. He would never forget the day he had received it.

Sam was 12 years old. Dad and Dean had gone to check out some freaky activity in a neighbouring town, and he was just as content to be where he was.

"Come with me, Sam."

Pastor Jim, wearing his flowing, black cleric's robes and white collar, motioned for Sam to follow him. They went through doors, down stairs, and into a small anteroom in the church basement. Sam didn't know it at the time, but concealed within this unremarkable room was Jim's own arsenal of hunting weapons.

"What are you doing?" Sam asked, with the frankness of a pre-teen.

"Preparing holy water for your dad."

"Huh?"

Pastor Jim laughed. "Lots of hunters, lots of holy water. When they need it, they know where to find me."

Jim removed a large container from a shelf, and proceeded to fill it with water from the utility sink. Sam watched, curious, as Jim rested the palm of his right hand on the container's rim, submerging his fingers in the water as he did so. He uttered a prayer over it in a quiet voice, then removed his fingers from the water and took down two jugs from the shelf. He carefully poured the water into the jugs, capped them, then returned the large container to its place. He turned towards Sam, and smiled at the boy's puzzled expression. Sam looked from the jugs of water, to Pastor Jim, and back again.

"That - that's it?" he said.

"That's it," Jim replied.

"But, I thought holy water must come from some place really special, you know, almost magical," Sam said, his cheeks turning a little pink.

"It is magic, in a way," Jim said. "I place my fingers in plain water, say a few prayers, and the water becomes blessed. I don't know how it works, but it does. I can't explain it, except to say the power of our Lord passes through me and into the water." Pastor Jim's eyes twinkled as he continued. "And when I get to Heaven, it'll be the first question I ask."

Sam grinned, still amazed at the simplicity of creating this powerful weapon against demonic entities. Although he barely understood the concept of demons, Sam would occasionally overhear snippets of conversation when his dad talked on his cell phone. Judging by the grimness in his dad's voice at mention of the d-word, Sam knew it was one creature he never wanted to meet.

He was quiet and thoughtful as he followed Pastor Jim back to the nave of the church. Jim suddenly stopped, turned around, and reached a hand into the pocket of his robe. He pulled out a small, burgundy case. "Here, Sam. This is for you."

When Sam opened the case, he felt nearly overwhelmed. Perhaps because he was here, in a church, and perhaps because of the experience with the holy water, the gift of the rosary filled him with awe. It was so beautiful. He stared at it for a long moment, then Pastor Jim spoke again.

"It's blessed, Sam. That means it, too, contains the power of our Lord. There are...certain entities... who would think twice before messing with a rosary." He placed a gentle hand on Sam's shoulder. "You'll understand, in time."

Sam looked up at Pastor Jim. He felt he had just learned something momentous, something sacred. He could say only, "Thank you," and nothing else. Pastor Jim just smiled.

"Sam!"

He was brought up short by Dean's voice yelling up the stairs.

"Hey, Sammy! Put a flame under it if you wanna get going - "

Dean stopped. Sam heard the front door open, then close. "Oh, no," he thought.

"Hey, Dad!"

"Hey, Dean."

Sam gritted his teeth. "Great. Just great."

"Good hunt?"

"Mostly. Any coffee? I'm beat."

He heard the thud of a cupboard door being shut and the clatter of the coffee pot. They had gone from the hallway into the kitchen, right below him.

Sam quickly returned the rosary to its case, and snapped it shut. He stood up and breathed in deeply. 'Okay,' he told himself. 'This is it.' He gathered up the remaining items, then searched the room for his grey, hooded jacket. He finally located it under Dean's bed, snatched it up, and stepped out the bedroom door. He paused at the top of the stairs. 'It's now or never.'

He descended the stairs much more quietly and slowly than he had previously. He entered the kitchen. Dean was sitting at the table, slowly drumming his fingers. His father was leaning against the counter, coffee mug in hand. A small knot tightened in Sam's stomach. "Hey, Dad," he said.

"Sam," John said, with a curt nod.

Sam went straight to the table and zipped the paperback, penknife and case into a pocket in his backpack. He could feel his father's eyes on him. "You're back early," he said, without looking up.

"It's the nature of the beast, Sam. Things don't always go as planned."

Sam didn't miss the deliberateness of his father's words. "Guess not," he said. He packed his jacket, then cinched and buckled up the bag. He sat it on the floor beside the duffle, catching his brother's eye as he did so. Dean looked ill-at-ease.

"So what's all this?" John asked, nodding towards the bags.

Sam looked from the bags to his father. He knew, obviously he knew, but he was going to make Sam spell it out anyway. "I'm leaving, Dad," he said. "For California."

John's eyes narrowed and his voice was grim as he said, "I wouldn't count on that."

Dean's fingers stopped drumming. He shifted in his chair. He looked from his father, to Sam, and back to his father. 'Here we go...'

John set down his coffee mug and strode to the table. He yanked out the chair opposite Sam, removed his jacket and slung it over the back. He didn't bother to sit down. He glared at his son. "Sam, I told you. This subject was not closed. You are not setting foot out of this house!"

"I'm going to Stanford, Dad." Sam said firmly. "And you can't stop me."

John's eyebrows raised. "No? Believe me, son, I'm going to try."

"So what are you gonna do? Lock me up?!" Sam exclaimed.

"You can lose the attitude, Sam!" John gave him a fierce look, as though the idea of locking him up had potential. "Sam, I know what this means to you - "

"No you don't," Sam said bitterly. "You don't have a clue what this means to me."

"If you don't start showing some respect, Sam, I will lock you up!"

Sam's lips pressed into a thin line.

Dean cut in quickly. "Whoa, Dad, just calm down."

John spun on him. "Dean, I am calm!" he snapped.

Dean never flinched. "Well let me know when you've worked up to angry, sir, because right now, it's a little hard to tell."

Sam's eyebrows raised a little. This was bold, especially for Dean. His dad thought so too.

"Don't take that tone with me, Dean! And unless you want to find yourself in more trouble than Sam, I'd shut it!"

Dean glowered. "Dad, there's no point in getting into another big argument! Sam wants to leave. Maybe it's time you just let him go."

John stared at Dean, incredulous. Then his face set into a piercing look that even Dean found disconcerting. "This is between Sam and me. Understood?"

A spark ignited in Dean's penetrating hazel eyes. "Yes sir," he said.

John scowled, then turned back to Sam. "We are going to talk about this."

"Dad, we have talked about this! A hundred times now!"

"Then we'll make it a hundred and one!"

"Dad, can we please not do this?" Sam asked plaintively. "I don't want to fight about it! I just want to leave."

"And that's all that matters, Sam? What you want?"

"No! It's not that! It's just...Dad, this is such an opportunity! Stanford's one of the best schools in the country! And I've got a free ride," Sam said earnestly. "Everything's taken care of, all I have to do is get there." Sam pleaded, "Dad, this is my dream. You've got to let me go." Sam's eager eyes looked into his father's. Maybe this time -

John shook his head. "No, Sam!"

Sam's hopefulness dissipated. His jaw set and his eyes steeled with resolve. He had solicited his father's support for the last time. "Fine." he said. " I've tried, Dad. But I don't need this. Not any more!"

Sam went to turn away. John grabbed him by the arm. "Sit down, Sam! We're not finished!"

"We are finished!"

"Watch how you talk to me, Sam!"

"Dad, I don't have time for this!"

"You'll make the time. Right now!"

"I can't!" Sam pulled his arm free.

"And why is that?!" John demanded.

"Because I have a plane to catch, Dad," Sam replied. "And I don't intend to miss it."

Complete silence followed. John stared at Sam, then the corners of his mouth curled up in a humorless grin. It was the kind normally associated with disbelief. "Did I hear you right?"

Sam swallowed. "Yes sir. You did."

"I don't believe this," John said, more to himself than to Sam. He paced back and forth several times, in an obvious effort to wear the edge off his emotions before he could continue. "Sit down, Sam."

"Dad..."

"Now!"

This time Sam obeyed, but not willingly. He pulled out his chair and angrily plunked into it, taking a sidelong look at Dean as he did so. Dean's brow was slightly furrowed, his eyes intense. They conveyed one message: Be careful.

John stopped pacing. He dragged his chair into place and he, too, sat down. He looked hard at Sam, and his expression was no-nonsense. "Are you telling me you went ahead and booked a flight?"

Sam sat up a little straighter. "Yes, sir."

"When?"

Sam squirmed a little. "Three weeks ago," he said.

John shook his head. "After everything I said, after everything we talked about. None of it mattered to you!"

"Dad - "

"What's your itinerary?" John asked brusquely.

Sam fumed. The army man in his father could be so infuriating. "Portland to Sacramento. Bus to Palo Alto. That's it."

"Not quite." John's gaze intensified. "How are you getting to Portland? It's nearly two hours from here."

Sam folded his arms. He was getting impatient. "Dean's driving me."

John's expression darkened. "Dean's not driving you anywhere."

Dean sighed. "Come on, Dad, you can't be serious."

John turned to Dean. "I'm dead serious. You knew about this three weeks ago, and you didn't say a word!"

"Because you'd have done the same thing you're doing right now!"

"Dean, I trusted you! You knew how I felt about this, you knew where I stood on this, yet you went behind my back and helped him plan this!"

"He was leaving one way or another, Dad! I thought this would be better than him taking off in the middle of the night and hitchhiking - which was his original plan, by the way! I thought if he was gonna go, then at least he was going to get there safely!"

"I would expect something like this from Sam!" John shouted. "But not from you, Dean!"

Dean's eyes flashed. Sam bristled. John wasn't finished.

"It's a damn good thing I did get back today or - "

"Or I'd already be gone!" Sam blurted out. "Without having to sit through this crap again!"

"Watch it, Sam!"

John got to his feet, pushing his chair back behind him. He rubbed a hand across his brow, then he leaned forward and put both hands flat on the table. He looked at Sam intently.

"I know you're angry, Sam. And I know you want to leave. But hasn't anything I've said to you sunk in? Do you not understand the need for us to stay together?"

Sam glared at him. "Yes, I understand! You're worried something will happen. But I'll be fine! I can take care of myself, Dad!"

"Sam, listen to me. One more time. You have no idea what you might be up against! I'm not about to let you run off to California and get yourself killed!"

"What are you talking about? Dad, it's a huge campus! They have their own ZIP code, for pete's sake. It's probably safer there than any place we've ever been!"

"Which is it, Sam? You don't get it, or you won't get it?"

"I don't get what?"

"You know what I'm talking about! That thing that attacked our family! Evil like that doesn't just go away, and it doesn't forget! It knows who I am, it knows who Dean is, and it knows who you are! And you can damn well bet it knows how to find you!"

"Why would it want to? You've been tracking it for years! If it wanted to find us, it's had plenty of opportunity!"

"The things we hunt are often unpredictable, you know that. I'm not going to take any chances!"

"So what am I supposed to do, Dad? Spend the rest of my life hiding?"

"You stay here with us. That's what you do! We're safer together."

Sam looked away. He empathized with his dad, he really did. But for him to hold Sam back, commit him to a lifetime of hunting, just because he was worried? Sam couldn't throw away his dream now. He wouldn't. He again faced his father.

"You know, you said to Dean and me so many times that you wanted us to be able to face anything. That's what all the training, all the preparation was for. What was the point if you never intended to let us do just that?"

"Quit being a smart-ass, Sam! You're 18, and you don't know it all! You and Dean are fine together. He can handle some things on his own, but you're not ready, Sam. You're still a kid, for god's sake!"

"A kid? I'm nearly 19! I stopped being a kid the first time I shot at something animate that shouldn't have been! I've seen things and hunted things that most kids don't even know exist! Most kids don't sleep with a sawed-off shotgun beside their bed and a knife under their pillow! Or had combat training since kindergarten! That's some kid's life, Dad!"

"All right! You've made your point! But there are more out there than you think!"

"More what?"

"Hunters. With families, just like us. And there are certain things they can and cannot do! They all live this kind of life! They all have to make sacrifices!"

"Dad, we've sacrificed enough! If there are other people out there who want this life, they can have it! Because I don't!"

John got right in his face. "You don't care, do you? You've been raised to help people who have nowhere else to turn, because no one will believe them! There's so much out there, skulking in the dark, preying on innocent people! We need you here! But you'd rather run off to California and stick your nose in a book! You're selfish, Sam, you want what you want, when you want it, and to hell with everything and everyone else!"

Sam was nearing his flash point. He jumped up from his chair and threw it aside. "Since when does wanting to go to college make someone selfish?! You never gave me a choice, Dad! I'm not you and I'm not Dean! You should be proud of me, but you've never appreciated anything I've done! I've never been good enough for you, and you forced me to do everything you wanted! I don't owe you a thing, Dad!"

Now Dean stood up. "Sam - "

John pounded his fist on the table. "You watch it, Sam, and I won't tell you again!"

"Dad, please! I can't do this forever! Okay? I can't wake up every day wondering where I'll be, or if I'll be alive or dead at the end of it! I'm done with this!"

"You're done with it?? I've been doing this for 18 years! And unlike you, I haven't got the luxury of just walking away!"

"No, Dad! You could walk away . But you won't! You're so obsessed with hunting that thing down and killing it, it's all you think about! You can spend the rest of your life doing this if you want! But don't expect me to!"

John's arm shot out over the table. He grabbed Sam's shirt front and yanked him forward. His eyes blazed. "Damn it, Sam! That thing killed your mother! It destroyed our family! What should I have done? Forget that it ever happened?!"

"Both of you stop! Dad, let him go! This is getting out of hand!" Dean angrily appealed to them.

Sam pried loose from his father's grasp. "After Mom died you could have raised us like a normal family, but you chose not to!"

John's anger turned to fury. "Do you think after what happened to us that any family could be normal?! This is what I can't get through to you, Sam! You think you can just turn it off and shut it down! Well I'm sorry this isn't the life you wanted, but we were thrown into this! You had to be dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way because you couldn't accept that! There were so many times I needed to rely on you, but I couldn't! So don't you dare question the choices I made!"

Sam lost it. "What about all the times I couldn't rely on you? You couldn't be bothered getting home for birthdays or even Christmas! You left it to Dean to look after me because you didn't care!!"

"Sam, shut up! You're pushing it too far!" Dean moved around the table towards Sam.

John bellowed at Sam. "I did what I had to! It was my job to do whatever it took to protect you and your brother!"

"Protect us? You're the last person I'd turn to for protection!"

Dean grabbed Sam by the shoulder in an attempt to pull him away. "Sam...!"

He wrenched loose. "No, Dean! I'm so sick of this!" Sam was enraged as he faced his father. "If you had done your job in the first place, maybe none of this would have happened!"

"What...?!"

"What about Mom, huh? Where were you to protect her?!"

"Dad!"

Sam heard Dean yell a split-second before an explosion at the side of his face snapped his head sideways and spun him off balance. He grabbed the table edge as a raging fire burned across his cheek. His eyes teared badly and his chest heaved. He was livid as he turned back to his father. He fought to speak, but nothing came out. He wheeled around, pushed Dean aside and snatched his bags from the floor. He was through the doorway before John could even move.

"Sam...," His father followed him into the hall. "Sam!"

Sam stalked towards the door. He didn't even turn his head as his father's parting words to him roared in his ears.

"You walk out that door, Sam, you don't come back!"

Sam reached the door. He wrenched it open and stormed out, the thunderous slam behind him guaranteeing that he never would.

In the kitchen, Dean stood in bitter silence. His family had been at odds for so long now. It was always Sam on one side, his father on the other, yelling their way around him. It was always going to come to this...

Dean shut it down. He grabbed the keys to the Impala from the counter. In the hall, his dad stood staring at the closed door, but he turned abruptly at the jingling of the keys. "Dean - " he began.

"I'm taking him to Portland," Dean said flatly. He brushed by his dad, went to the door, and opened it. He paused. With one hand still on the doorknob, he half-turned and looked back at his dad. Dean's eyes were smouldering. "That was one hell of a good-bye." He walked out the door and shut it behind him.

Outside, it was sunny and warm. Dean went down the stone steps. The Impala was parked in the narrow driveway beside the house, and Dean was thankful to see his dad's rental parked on the street in front. Going back inside was just about the last thing he wanted to do. None the less, he kept an eye on the front door, half-expecting his dad to come out and rip into both of them.

The heavy car door creaked on its hinges as he opened it, slid into the driver's seat, and slammed it shut. Sam was sitting right near the passenger door, staring out the window, his arm resting on the ledge.

"Sam?"

There was not a hint of acknowledgment from him. Dean turned the key in the ignition, and the V8 engine chugged to life, music to Dean's ears.

Within minutes, they were turning onto the state highway, heading east. Dean tried again.

"Look, Sam - "

"Shut up."

Five more miles was all Dean could stand. "Will you at least let me know if you're okay!" Dean burst out.

Sam finally turned from the window and said sullenly, "Do I look okay?"

Dean glanced at him, then did a double take. "Well...no," he said. "Actually, Sammy, you look like hell."

"Thanks, Dean," Sam said drily. Then he added, "Is it really that bad?"

Dean opted for a third look. "Let's just say he wasn't fooling around."

Sam said nothing.

"You know, Sam...,"

"Yeah, I know, Dean."

Dean shot a look at him. "You know what?"

"I shouldn't have said what I did to him."

"Uh, yeah." Dean sighed. "Jeez, Sammy, it was just about the worst thing you could have said. I mean, what could he have done?"

"Dean, I know. You don't have to say anything else."

Sam looked out the window. He did know, and not just because his dad had decked him. He knew right afterwards, when he had turned on him, wanting to scream at him, swear at him. His dad's features were frozen with wrath, but his eyes...He had seen his dad's eyes flood with an anguish that spilled over into every line of his face. Sam had torn into a nerve so profoundly raw, he'd had to turn away.

"Is that the way you really feel?"

Dean's voice brought Sam back to the present. "What?"

"Do you really feel that way? I mean, do you blame Dad? For Mom's death?"

Sam looked over at Dean. He was watching the road, but obviously expecting an answer.

"I don't know," Sam answered.

"What do you mean, you don't know? Yes, I do. No, I don't. It's a simple question!"

"I didn't mean to say it, Dean! It just came out!" Sam exclaimed. Then he heaved a sigh. "Okay, maybe...maybe at one time I did feel that way. I just didn't understand how he could drag us around from place to place, chasing after that thing! I thought, maybe he was doing it out of guilt. Because he couldn't do anything to save her."

"Sam, the man's obsessed, but he isn't shallow. Of course he feels guilty, who wouldn't? But he truly believes in what he's doing. Yeah, he wants to kill that thing, that's his motivation. But you take something out of this world that shouldn't be here, something that hurts people, well, that's its own reward at the end of the day."

Sam went quiet. He did not want to discuss hunting, or his dad, any more.

Dean could hardly blame him for feeling the way he did, though. Sam possessed a gentle spirit, one that recoiled against an odious job that had to be done. After many a hunt, he had stood silently, gazing down at their latest kill with a look that seemed almost remorseful.

He was so unlike Dean, within whom a cold fire of unmatched hatred burned for these...creatures...these abominations who destroyed people's lives, leaving their families to pick up the pieces - sometimes literally.

For Dean had never forgotten that night, so long ago...the scream...the yells...his father handing him his baby brother...Take him outside as fast as you can and don't look back!...He had done just that, holding little Sammy tightly to his chest, afraid of dropping him, and when he had gotten outside, he had looked back, and saw the fire...the flames reaching higher and higher. Then his father was there, picking up both of them at a run, and carrying them safely away from those flames. Terror had gripped his tiny body, for he knew that she was in there...Mom...Then the flashing lights, and the sirens...he had frantically watched the front door, his eyes tearing from the smoke and searching, searching for her...Mommy, come out!...Then when the big red trucks and policemen were gone, and he sat helplessly with Daddy and little Sammy on the hood of the big black car, he knew she was not coming out...and his innocence and safe little world were gone forever.

Dean looked over at Sam, who seemed to be lost in thought. Maybe Sam could put all this behind him and make it stay there. Over the past few months, he had seen a different side of Sam emerge, one whose stubbornness nearly rivaled that of their father's. But since finding out he was accepted at Stanford, there was something more...a determination in him that could not be ignored. Dean deeply respected, and even admired, that.

They drove for a few more miles in silence.

'Silence!' Dean thought. 'This is so not cool."

"Hey, Sammy, want to listen to some tunes?" he asked.

"Sure, why not," Sam said. He reached for the radio dial.

Dean smacked his hand away. "Driver picks the music." He powered on the cassette player, and the sounds of AC/DC rocked through the car.

"Why do I always have to listen to your stuff?" Sam complained.

"Because it's so much better than the crap and drivel you listen to."

"How would you know what I listen to? I never get to drive, so I never get to pick the music!"

"Oh. Well, I just figured anything you'd listen to would have to be crap and drivel."

Sam gaped at his brother. "I don't believe you sometimes," he said, shaking his head. "I just don't."

Dean smiled. Sammy was cheering up.

Soon, they were merging onto Interstate 5. Dean felt a slight twinge. They were halfway there, halfway to his not having Sam around. Sammy, the kid brother whom he had looked after, comforted, chided, scolded, yelled at, laughed with, laughed at, fought with, tormented, and loved like crazy, was really leaving - maybe for good. He pushed the thought away. This wasn't the time for it.

"So!" he said cheerily. "What does college have that hunting doesn't?"

"Normalcy," Sam replied immediately, lending an air of near-reverence to the word. "And no recon," he added. "I'm sick of freezing my ass off, crawling through God's country, getting rained on, and being eaten alive by bugs."

"Better than being eaten alive by something a hell of a lot worse," Dean said.

"True," Sam had to agree. He rested his head on the back of the seat before continuing. "Security. Making real friends." Hunting had forced Sam into being a loner all his life because he couldn't risk anyone finding out what his family did for a 'living'. "Heck, just being around people."

"Last time I checked, Dad and I were still people...mostly, anyway."

"You know what I mean," Sam said with a grin. He paused for a few seconds. There was one more item on his list. "And girls," he added dreamily.

Dean snickered. "You mean guys."

Sam took the bait. "Dude, just because you're 22 and have logged more mileage than the Impala, doesn't mean that I'm not interested or that I don't want to!"

"Sam, shhhhhhhh! She'll hear you!

"What?"

Dean gave the dashboard a loving pat. "She'll hear you! And get jealous!"

Sam let out a snort of exasperation.

"Seriously, dude," Dean said briskly. "What the heck are you waiting for?"

"I dunno!" Sam thought for a moment. "I guess I want it to be with the right person."

"The right person?" Dean rolled his eyes. "Oh, my god, Sammy, you'll be thirty and never been laid."

"Dean, why don't you shove it up - "

"Whoa, Sammy, you don't want to go there. Because I don't have a problem pulling over." He flashed Sam a devious grin.

Sam gave him a dirty look. "You would, too."

Dean laughed. "I so would."

Sam hadn't forgotten. He was sixteen, and it was the one and only time he had told Dean to go screw himself.

Dean smacked him upside the head and ordered him to drop and give him twenty.

"Are you joking?!" Sam was incredulous, and he looked over at his dad in the faint hope of some support. "Dad?!"

John didn't even look up from the table where he was sitting perusing local newspapers. "I'd do it if I were you, Sam," John said casually, but with an undertone that clearly implied, "and don't argue about it!"

"What the...!" Sam said angrily, as he turned to face his brother. "Have you been taking Dad lessons?!" he hissed through clenched teeth.

Dean looked him square in the eye. "Make it thirty."

Sam gave him the thirty, along with the most vile look before and after. He refused to speak to Dean for a solid week, until John stepped in, told Sam in no uncertain terms to get over it, and ordered the standoff ended - now.

Sam grimaced at the memory. "Then just shut up Dean, okay? Jeez, you're such a frickin' jerk!"

"Oh, quit bitching...bitch," Dean said slyly.

"Jerk!"

"Bitch."

"Jerk!!"

"Bitch."

"Jerk!!"

"Bitch."

Dean ended the exchange with a triumphant laugh. "I win," he declared.

"No you don't!"

"Dude, I so do. I'm older."

"Well, I'm taller!" Sam said smugly.

Dean frowned. "And that is so not right! You better quit frickin' growing, I'm warning ya."

"No way, man! Another inch and a half! That puts me up to six-three, and that's two inches on you, Dean!

"Sammy, trust me," Dean said. "Nobody has two inches on Dean Winchester."

Sam groaned loudly. "Dean, the mileage crack was one thing, okay? But now you're just bullshitting."

Dean's fist shot out and punched Sam in the arm. "Bite your tongue! Dean Winchester can lie, con, and hustle with the best of them, but he does not bullshit about things like that."

They bantered and bickered for the next twenty miles, and long before they had run out of things to banter and bicker about, they made another exit, to I-205. Dean's chest tightened a little. Twelve more miles would bring them to the airport exit. There were so many things he wished he could say, and he didn't have much time left to say them, even if he had known where to start.

Sam rescued him. "Dean? Can I ask you something?"

"Sure, kiddo."

Sam hesitated. Dean glanced over at him. He was staring straight ahead, and fidgeting a little. What he wanted to ask was obviously troubling him.

"What?" Dean gently prompted.

Sam took a deep breath. "Dean...are you okay with this? I mean, honestly?"

It was Dean's turn to hesitate. Of all the things Sam could have asked, it had to be this. Dean had fought many inner battles trying to decide how he felt about Sam leaving. This wasn't easy, and Sam was waiting for an answer. Finally, Dean sighed, then went for it. "Look, Sam, I'm not gonna lie to you. I want you to stay with Dad and me. I want us to be out there together, you know? In fact, I agree with a lot of the stuff Dad said."

Sam looked away. His disappointment was nearly palpable.

"But," Dean went on, "I also know it's not the life for you. Hell, you're miserable with this whole hunting thing. It's too bad, because you're damn good at it."

Sam looked over at him in surprise. Dean had never told him that before.

"But going to college, university, whatever...it's what you've always wanted. You earned it, you deserve it, and I know you'll do really well. Matter of fact, you'll do great." Dean paused. "So what I'm trying to say is...I think you're doing the right thing. You know, for you. And I'm okay with it. Honestly."

Sam had to swallow hard several times before softly saying, "Thanks Dean."

They made their last exit onto Airport Way. Traffic was surprisingly light, and in just a few minutes, Portland International came into view. They easily found their way to the passenger drop-off point on the departure level. Dean was impressed. "Wow. This curbside check-in is great!" It wasn't just great, it was a godsend. They were already pushing it timewise.

"We can only stay a few minutes," Sam said. Both of the Impala's doors creaked as they got out. Sam opened the back door, pulled out the heavy duffle, and sat it on the sidewalk. He reached in for his backpack, and dropped it on top of the duffle. He slammed the door shut.

Dean punched him lightly on the arm. "Guess this is it, huh, Sam?"

"Yeah." Sam looked over at the large glass doors. All the hustle and bustle of a normal day at the airport lay beyond. He drew in a long breath, and let it out slowly. He looked at his brother. "I gotta tell you, Dean. I'm a little scared."

"You'd be nuts if you weren't, Sammy. This is all so new, and it's a big, bad world out there." Then Dean's eyes softened, and he placed a hand on Sam's shoulder. "But if you can find a safe little corner of it, I'll sleep better at night."

Sam couldn't say anything. He turned his head and jammed a thumb and forefinger into his eyelids. Dean feigned an enormous sigh, said, "C'mere, you freak," and caught his brother up in a hug. Sam hugged him back, hard. He didn't care that a few tears dripped onto the collar of Dean's jacket, and he didn't care if Dean knew. A few seconds later, Dean pushed them apart. Sam managed to find his voice again, although it was a little strained.

"I'm really gonna miss you, Dean."

"Yeah." Dean cocked his head slightly. "Ditto."

Sam sniffed hard a few times, cleared his throat, and finally smiled. He raised his hands and wiped them firmly across his face - too firmly, he discovered, once he hit the left side. "Ow! Crap!"

Dean was sympathetic. "Dork," he offered. Then he grinned. "That'll look sweet on campus."

Sam gingerly ran his fingers along his bruised cheekbone. "I'll just tell them I have a sociopath big brother with violent tendencies - which isn't all that far from the truth, come to think of it." Sam grinned back at Dean, then

picked up his backpack. He began to sling it over his shoulder, then stopped and sat it down on the Impala's roof. He flipped it open. "Hey, Dean..." he fished inside, and pulled out a small object, "...can you keep this for me?"

Dean took the object from Sam's hand. The gold script on its shiny black surface glittered in the sun. He gave Sam a quizzical look.

"I didn't want to leave it behind, but I'll never get it through customs," Sam explained, a little sheepishly.

Dean nodded. "Sure." There was a little catch in his voice.

Sam turned to close his pack. Dean opened his jacket and placed the penknife safely in an inside pocket.

"And don't use it!" Sam slung the bag over his shoulder. "'Cause I want it back."

Dean nodded again. Then a twinkle crept into his eyes, and he lightly kicked the duffle on the sidewalk. "Need some help with that?" he asked.

"Yeah, right!" Sam picked it up effortlessly.

"Want me to walk you to the door?" Dean said, grinning slyly.

"It's four steps away, Dean! And no!"

"Hold your hand?"

"Wha..?"

"Kiss you good-bye?"

"N.."

"Get you a security blanket?"

"DEAN!"

Dean shrugged. "Just trying to be helpful," he said, still grinning.

Sam leaned in, looked Dean square in the face, and in a very firm voice declared: "Bite me." Then he turned, hauled open the large glass door, and with a brilliant smile at Dean, he was gone.