John honestly didn't know how it'd even started this time. The same as all the other fights: an order from him, a belligerent answer from Sam, but usually, they had their words, and then Sam would grudgingly let it go with an agreed "Yes sir". Dean's own reply would always be the same two words, except his would generally carry the enthusiasm for both of them.
But this time, Sam hadn't backed down. Sam hadn't given in.
This time, Sam had said "No sir".
Scholarship. Sam had gotten a scholarship to Stanford. John had never doubted that his youngest wasn't bright enough, or capable enough, but Stanford. Scholarship. And the way he'd said it, bright eyes begging John for one scrap of understanding, one smile of pride, one bout of happiness for this momentous occasion.
And all John had been able to give him had been one glare full of anger, fueled entirely from fear and heart-pounding terror. All John had been able to see was a smoke-filled nursery, a cabin in flames, and his world crumbling.
John had given him understanding, though. John had understood far more than Sam ever would.
Sam had stood before him, hopeful smile faltering in the silence, and had said, "I'm going. I want to do this, Dad. I'm going. I'm going," and John had heard it in his words, in his voice. The hesitation. The uncertainty.
And in a split second, John had made the decision for all of them. "Then go. But if you go, you don't come back."
Sam's chin had pushed up, certain and sure of himself again, John's challenge accepted. He'd turned and stalked off for the small room he shared with Dean. Dean.
Dean who had been standing right behind them both, but turned and fled out the door as soon as Sam left. John had been left alone in the room with his thoughts.
He was still standing, fifteen minutes later when Sam came back out. A small duffel bag and backpack were slung over Sam's shoulder, and a white paper was crumpled in his right fist. "Can you...will you give this to Dean?" he asked, his voice tight and rough.
John nodded tersely and held his hand out, taking the offered paper. Sam stared at him for another long moment, searching and seeking one last time for something. John locked his emotions down tight and refused to give what his youngest wanted, and Sam finally pursed his lips and strode past him for the door. "You don't come back," John reiterated, and Sam paused at the door, hand gripping the knob.
"Don't worry," Sam said, low simmering anger buried in his voice. "I won't." He stepped out and slammed the door shut, and John slid back into the chair behind him. The paper was shoved deep into his jeans pocket. He buried his face in his hands and tried to breathe.
He'd sworn to protect Sam. He'd had his suspicions confirmed years ago, that Sam had been the real target behind the demon. The one who'd burned their family dreams to the ground. John had promised himself, promised Bobby and Jim and Caleb, promised Mary that he'd never let Sam out of his sight.
But each day he was getting closer. Each day the hunts were getting harder. Each day John was getting older.
And if John's research was any good, Sam was going to get dragged back into the hunting world soon enough. He only hoped that he'd be able to warn Sam before it happened.
At Stanford, Sam would probably be safest. One single location, a place for his mind to grow all it wanted, and hopefully, normal and safe enough for Sam to be happy and the demon to leave him alone. Maybe he'd be safer outside of the hunting world. Maybe the demon would lose interest in him if Sam wasn't actively hunting evil, demonic things.
John sighed, long and deep. He was taking a gamble, risking it all, but maybe Sam would be safer this way. Sam didn't feel hunting, wasn't proficient in it because he didn't care about it enough. His academia had always come first. For Sam to be divided in his thoughts, in his efforts...it would lead to Sam getting killed. So perhaps Sam would be safer this way.
The doorknob jiggled, the chiming sound of a key heard through the thin wood. Even as the door opened, John spoke up. "He's not here, Dean."
Dean paused in the doorway, staring at John with a wide-eyed look that didn't look right on his oldest. "What do you mean?" Dean asked. "I was gone for maybe twenty minutes-"
"He didn't want to wait," John said, the lie rolling easily off his tongue. "Said something about a bus to catch."
He wondered if his excuse was as paltry as it sounded, but Dean only gaped, hurt obvious on his face. John kept his face straight, even while his thoughts drifted to the crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. He could give it to Dean, ease the hurt, give him something to cling to of Sam's.
In another split second, John straightened and walked over to his oldest. No. Sam's focus had always been on academics, but Dean had always done better in hunting. He would've made a hell of a Marine, moved up through the ranks to the top. Dean needed to focus on the hunting and forget about Sam. It would hurt now, but the less he thought about Sam, the better off they'd all be. Like a band-aid being pulled off abruptly: the pain was more that way, but it didn't linger as the tension increased with each passing moment.
When Dean, however, asked softly, "Did he...leave a note, or...or something?" John had to bite his tongue and shake his head.
It was better this way, for all of them. Sam would be safe, Dean would be safe, and John could suffer the knowledge alone. He could check up on Sam at Stanford, keep watch from time to time.
Dean slowly shook his head, however, and moved past John towards his bedroom. "No. No, Sammy would've left something, would've at least told me-"
John reached out and caught Dean's arm, seeing hurt and betrayal but still love for the kid who'd left him. John's heart ached in response, but his voice was gruff when he replied, "No, Dean. He didn't leave anything. You need to learn to let your brother go. He's gone, Dean. He's not coming back."
John's challenge had been too well laid out for Sam to refuse: his youngest wouldn't come back. He'd taken the challenge, just like John had expected him to.
But Dean was shaking his head and wrenching his arm out of John's hold, and John belatedly wondered if maybe, just maybe, Sam hadn't rubbed off on his brother. "No, sir," Dean said, bitterness and anger from Sam being leveled at him. "I'm not letting him go."
John watched him go to the bedroom and begin rummaging around for the note he knew Sam had to have left behind. The note seemed to burn against his thigh for a moment, before John swiftly shook his head and turned away. The quicker the separation between the boys, the better.
A few minutes later, while John stood in the living room, Dean stormed out the front door again, anger winning out over hurt this time. The door slammed shut, and John closed his eyes.
Dean would learn to let Sam go. Maybe not today, but in the next few months, Dean would let his little brother go.
At least, John hoped he would.