Story Notes:

I've always been intrigued by the whole family dynamic and wanted to take a stab at exploring the Stanford years for the Winchester clan. Here's my take on what happened when Sam left, and how everybody coped.

I've never been quite sure about the timeline for this, since I got the impression that Sam left for college when he turned 18 (having gotten the full scholarship to Stanford and what not), but we're also told that he was gone for just over 2 years... So either it's a continuity error, or Sam started uni when he was 20 and not 18.

This story assumes that Sam left at 18, and that the time that he was gone was actually 4 years instead of 2.

This story, "Abandon," is the first in a series (my first ever series), The Stanford Years. Hope y'all enjoy it!


July 26, 2001.

Silver-blue scales glinted in the sunlight, grains of sand clinging stubbornly against the slimy, sleek surface of the gasping, flopping creature as it struggled to survive, struggled to absorb oxygen through its gills when none was to be had. Slow, agonizing death crystallized in the pathetic, flip-flapping motions of a life pushed to the brink, struggling against the inevitable, struggling against reality. But with each shudder, with each slap of its head and tail against the cruel sand, only death answered. Blackness was the only reprieve.

And that was exactly how Dean Winchester would describe the constriction in his chest, the inability to pull in air in spite of the wind through his hair and the abundance of O2 all around him. It was like slowly dying with no reprieve in sight.

He clutched at his knees and doubled over, forcing himself to gasp a breath, choking on it. Stop thinking and just breathe, his mind said calmly. Just breathe. But breathing felt unnatural. It felt wrong. It hurt.

Sammy was going to leave him. He knew it now. He had felt it coming for months now. The constant fighting with Dad. The secret packages from colleges Sam thought he didn't know about. Today's call from the Residence Coordinator at Stanford asking if she could speak to Sam about his accommodations for the Fall… God it hurt to breathe.

Dean had wanted to hang up on her, call her a whole host of dirty names – a damned filthy liar among them – but instead he had promised to leave the message with Sam with the assurance he would call her back as soon as he got in. Hot tears stung his eyes, sneaking like slippery devils with unrestricted fury down his flushed cheeks. He wanted to slap himself for being so weak, for being such a pansy-ass cry-baby, but Goddamnit, the phone call had taken him by surprise, winded him worse than a kick to the jewels, leaving him gasping and in pain.

His hands were shaking. He paced the parking lot, not trusting himself to stay in the motel room without smashing every item in it, and tried forcing his mind away from the panicked abyss the truth had plunged him into. He needed to think.

Don't be such a fucking girl, Dean. Get a grip. Come up with a plan, and then we'll deal.

He took several deep, steadying breaths, reining in the tempest of emotions swirling around inside him, forcing the choking feelings into the pit of his stomach, cramming them in and bottling them up where they properly belonged. If he was going to somehow save this family, he needed to keep his head. He needed to think.

Sam's gonna leave, he told himself. No amount of denying it would make it any less true. Sam was going to leave – needed to leave, in fact. And Dean couldn't blame him. The kid wanted a life, wanted an education, and who was he really to tell him he couldn't? Dad would be furious. Dad would forbid it. But if he could just be convinced… if they could both be convinced that there was some kind of middle ground, that a compromise could be reached somewhere in the middle. It would be ok – it would all be ok – if they could just come up with a plan.

Dean wiped the tears from his cheeks with trembling hands and then stuffed his hands in his pockets, hoping to steady them. He needed to walk. He needed to be moving, to be doing something. So he went to the library. The plan was already forming itself in his brain and he needed internet access.

Two hours later, with a host of print-offs as proofs of his labour tucked under his arm, Dean Winchester found himself marching back to their motel room. He felt better about things already. It still gutted him that Sam had made all of these plans behind his back, had basically secured himself what Anne Bartlet, the RC at Stanford had assured him was a full ride, and hadn't had the decency to even mention it to him. Had he planned on sneaking out in the middle of the night come September, leaving a note saying, "C-ya Dad, Dean! Moving on to bigger and better things! Don't let the werewolves bite you in the ass on my way out!"

Apparently he had.

The door to the motel room opened with a click and Dean entered with a heavy sigh. The bathroom door was closed, meaning someone was in there, and by the knapsack tossed haphazardly against the leg of the table, and the laptop sitting open atop it, Dean knew that that someone was Sam. His hands went both cold and sweaty at the very thought of confronting him now, and he almost turned on a heel to sneak out before his brother emerged from the bathroom, but he was too late. The bathroom door opened, admitting the youngest Winchester.

"Hey," Sam called as he made his way past the beds toward the desk. "Where were you?"

Dean didn't quite register that his brother had spoken to him. He was watching him with his teeth clenched tightly, a muscle in his jaw jumping like an electric beat through the skin. Sam looked so casual, so cool and suave, like someone decidedly not sitting on this time-bomb of a secret. Dean wondered if maybe his brother was possessed.

"Dude, what the hell?" Sam asked, noticing the intense look his brother was giving him.

"Nothin' Sam," Dean forced himself to say as he pushed back the anger. If he was angry when he started this discussion, Sam would only come out swinging. And Dean knew there would be enough swinging when Dad got back.

Sam huffed.

"Except that look on your face says I'm-about-to-zap-you-with-my-smouldering-eye-beams."

Dean shrugged, sighing, and tried to force his mask in place – the calm, impassive mask that showed no emotion – the one that was iron-clad to anyone who wasn't Sam Winchester.

"All right," Dean said, sitting on the edge of his bed, "Fine. I'll just cut right to it then."

Sam raised an eyebrow expectantly, the muscles in his jaw now flexing and jumping with electric shocks. He was already on the defence. The offensive swing would be a reflex. No chance of avoiding it now.

"You forgot your cell phone when you left earlier, and Anne Bartlet called," Dean said blankly.

The name obviously didn't ring any bells.

"Anne Bartlet, the Residence Coordinator from Stanford, called." Dean watched as all the colour leeched from his eighteen year-old brother's face and then continued. "She wanted to talk to you about your accommodations for the Fall."

Dean watched in almost detached amusement as Sam opened his mouth to speak, closed it, opened it again, and then closed it again, his eyes bulging out of his head in an expression of mingled fear and panic as he struggled to find the words to explain himself, to justify himself. He looked like a fish in a tank, his mouth going in noiseless motion. Any moment Dean expected bubbles to pop forth from between his lips.

At least you're not flopping and gasping on the ground, little brother.

"Dean…" Sam's voice came out in a strangled croak. "I – I – can explain."

"I bet you can," Dean said ruefully.

"I just – it was just – God, I can explain…"

"You said that already," Dean said, his expression darkening.

"Well I'm trying!" Sam spat. "You don't know how hard it's been… working so hard and hoping that it would pay off. And then waiting and wondering and praying…"

Dean crossed his arms and watched Sam struggling with his explanation.

"But I couldn't say anything until I knew, ok, Dean?" Sam's eyes were pleading. "I know I should have said something sooner, but it takes the administration people a long time to process the applications for funding. And I couldn't say anything until I knew if I was even going to be able to afford it, you know?"

"No, I don't know. Explain it to me."

"Dean?" Sam sounded so sad with the simple plea. It was obvious he had hoped that Dean would be on his side in this. He needed Dean to be on his side, or he'd never make it past Dad.

"It's July, Sam." Dean wished he could make his voice sound warmer, but it was impossible when he felt so cold inside, like an Arctic winter had taken up residence in the dried husk that was his body. "It's actually the frickin' end of July. And according to Anne Bartlet, orientation starts on September 2nd."

"I know!" Sam conceded brokenly. "And believe me the waiting has been killing me. I only found out last week that I'd gotten the funding – a full ride." He smiled in spite of himself, feeling so pleased and proud to have managed to get a full scholarship that would cover his tuition and residence fees for the full four years, provided he kept his grades up. But Dean wasn't smiling back.

"So you've known since last week that you were definitely leaving," Dean prompted. "That you're definitely leaving in September."

Sam nodded, swallowing hard.

Dean sucked his top lip into his teeth and then bit it, releasing it with a huff.

"I should have said something when I found out," Sam conceded. "And it was wrong of me not to. But I just wanted to enjoy the moment for a bit. I wanted to have a second to feel proud before…" Sam heaved a sigh. "Before this."

Dean's eyes narrowed to a dangerous glare.

"Before what, Sam? Before your family got in the way and ruined everything?"

Sam's jaw jutted forward in an angry pout, his nostrils flaring.

"Maybe," he retorted. "Christ knows the minute I tell Dad the whole world is going to come to a grinding halt, Dean!"

"Yeah, because you're leaving in a freakin' month and you didn't say a damned word! Sneaking around like some kind of jailbird, applying to colleges and getting accepted and not even telling us! I mean what the hell, Sam?"

"I couldn't tell you until I knew about the funding!" Sam insisted. "There was no point until I knew!"

"Why the hell not?" Dean demanded. "What would have been so wrong with telling us back when you found out? Which would have been, when, March?"

Sam nodded solemnly.

"Why couldn't you tell us then? At least then we'd have had time to prepare."

"Prepare for what, Dean?" Sam said. "Prepared for the onslaught of arguments to convince me to stay? Prepared to chain me up somewhere to prevent me from going?"

"No, asshead!" Dean growled. "We could have made plans to A) help you get there and B) figure out what we were gonna do."

"What do you mean 'figure out what we were gonna do'?"

Dean shrugged awkwardly.

"I don't know," he admitted. "But maybe we could go with you to California. Set up a homestead or headquarters or something… Some permanent place for you where Dad and I can crash between hunts."

Sam laughed mirthlessly.

"Like Dad would ever go for that, Dean!" he spat.

"Why not?" Dean said. "Pastor Jim and Bobby both have homes. I mean, I know it's not ideal, but we could make do while you were in college."

"Are you smoking crack?" Sam asked incredulously. "This is Dad we're talking about. He'd never go for that."

"Well he might if you'd told him in March!" Dean retorted. "If you'd given me some freakin' time to work on him. Now he sure as hell won't."

Sam huffed loudly.

"He wouldn't have gone for it if I'd told him when I was six, Dean. With Dad it's his way or the highway. He doesn't compromise, especially for things that he thinks are unimportant – like my whole future."

"Don't be such a chick," Dean jibed. "Dad cares about your future a hell of a lot more than you think. He just has different ideas about what's best for you."

"At this point, I don't really care," Sam admitted. "I don't need his permission."

"Ok, just calm down Sammy," Dean cautioned. "Don't go flyin' off the handle and making things worse. We're already standing in a heap of shit with no shovel. We just need to think and come up with a plan. If we have a plan, then we can talk to Dad."

"What are you talking about?" Sam asked. "I've already got a plan. I've been accepted, my funding is all sorted out, and I'm going. This really doesn't require any more planning."

"All right, Princess," Dean said lightly, trying to diffuse his brother, who had obviously worked himself up to a boiling point. "I'm not trying to convince you not to go. Look, I went to the library today and did some surfing on the net." He lifted the papers from under his arm to show Sam. "I found a couple of apartments that look like they'd be perfect for us to set up in. We could set you up with a desk or whatever for your room. So long as we had plenty of space to store our weapons in my room – and parking for the Impala, obviously – and then if we had a couch for Dad to crash on every now and then. We could convince him it was a good plan if I was with you, at least."

"If you were with me?" Sam demanded. "God, Dean, do you hear yourself? You actually want to go with me to Stanford?"

Dean shrugged.

"Yeah, why the hell not? That way I could keep an eye out on you. And I wouldn't be in your way or anything, 'cos I'd be on the road a lot hunting, obviously…"

"But I don't want you to come with me!" Sam blurted out. "I want to try life on my own, have a little space! I don't want to live with you, wondering where you are or if you're dead or dying every time you leave the house! I don't want to wake up to you stumbling in injured and needing impromptu medical patchwork after you've had your guts torn out by a Wendigo or a Black Dog. I'm tired of all of it. I can't do it anymore!"

Now it was Dean's turn to open and close his mouth dumbly, unblinkingly, like a fish in a tank.

The truth hadn't sunk in yet. His stubborn Winchester mind was still trying to work its way around the giant obstacle in front of him.

"So you're leaving leaving? You don't just want to go to school, you want to get away… from us?"

"This isn't the life I want, Dean," Sam said flatly. "You and Dad – it's what you live and breathe. But it's not for me. I'm out. I'm done. I'm going to Stanford and I'm starting a new life."

Sam paused, watching his brother intently, taking in the sight of his formerly red cheeks as they drained of colour. Dean went from an angry red to white as a sheet in a matter of seconds, and at first Sam thought maybe he had been too blunt. But then he realized that Dean was looking at something beyond Sam, something over his shoulder. Sam's insides froze as he heard the distinct sound of a duffel bag being dropped loudly onto the ground near the door.

"Starting a new life?" his father's gravelly voice sounded from the door.

888

"Son, you mind telling me what the hell is going on here?"

Sam felt as if the bottom of his stomach had fallen out, and wondered idly if this is what it felt like to be disembowelled. His father was standing at the door, his dark eyes set in an angry scowl, his hands wide at his sides as though he were looking for an opponent to hit or push.

"Dad," Sam breathed, swallowing past the panic rising in him. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. The million times he had imagined having this conversation, he had always managed to find some way to brace his father for the shock. But to be overheard like this…? The bottom had officially just dropped out.

"Did I just hear you telling your brother that you're leaving us to start a new life?" The wrath of John Winchester was just bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to be unleashed, like too much air blown into a balloon as it expands beyond capacity, bloated and thinning to transparent just before it bursts.

"Dad, hang on," Dean began, but was completely ignored.

"DID I JUST HEAR MY SON SAY THAT HE IS OUT? THAT HE IS DONE? THAT HE IS STARTING A NEW LIFE?"

Pop.

Sam rose from his seat at the table, kicking the chair away for dramatic effect.

"Yeah Dad, you did!" he challenged. "I've got my ticket outta here and I'm taking it. Full scholarship to Stanford. I start in September."

John's chest was heaving with anger.

"I can't believe you," he said, shaking his head in denial. "You would walk out on your family? On your responsibilities? On all those innocent people whose lives we save?"

"This is your vendetta Dad, not mine!" Sam shouted. "I never wanted this life – have always hated it – and now that I have a chance to get out, I'm taking it! I can't do this anymore!"

"Come on, Sammy, you can't mean that," Dean pleaded, but no one heard him.

"You can just go on to some cookie cutter life and pretend that people aren't dying while you schmooze with all the pampered dandies at Stanford?" John demanded accusingly. "You're ok with allowing other families to be torn apart like ours was, just so you can have it easier?"

"Our family was torn apart because you tore it apart!" Sam said savagely. "Other families lose someone and they deal with it and move on. But not John Winchester!"

"Both of you stop!" Dean warned. "Take a breather before you say something you regret."

"No, you had to get revenge," Sam went on. It was as if Dean had never spoken. "Instead of taking care of us – teaching us how to get on in life like normal human beings – you taught us how to be afraid, and how to kill things, and how to be bitter and lonely and completely isolated – just like you!"

"Shut up!" John breathed. "Shut up, or so help me I will shut you up!"

"When normal people lose a loved one to fire or natural disaster or hell, even murder, they grieve and then they move on! But you couldn't move on, so you just dragged us along on your stupid quest for revenge! But you never stopped for one second to think about what was best for us, or what we really needed!"

"Sam, stop!" Dean shouted.

"I did what I thought was best," John bellowed. "I did it to protect you because that's what parents do. Now maybe normal people would witness a death like your mother's and would be happy to stick their heads up their asses and pretend that evil doesn't exist, but I'm not wired that way, Sam!"

"Knowing what's out there isn't the problem!" Sam countered. "It's what you did with that knowledge – turning us into soldiers in your crusade – that's the problem!"

"And if I hadn't?" John sparred. "If I'd taken that knowledge and said a silent prayer every night, hoping that God was maybe fucking listening and would take care of you boys, what then? What do you think would have happened to all those people whose lives we've saved, huh? You think someone else would have saved them?"

"It's not our job to save people!"

"YES, IT IS!"

"Guys, stop!" Dean shouted. He felt suddenly very short, standing beside the towering figures of Sam and John Winchester, toe to toe, chests heaving with rage, heat radiating off of their bodies in waves, as they failed to notice his presence so close to them.

"You're selfish!" John growled, never taking his eyes off of Sam, not even registering that his eldest was still in the room. "You're a selfish, spoiled little brat. I thought I raised you better than that, but I guess we coddled you too much in trying to keep you safe from the worst of it. Maybe Dean looking out for you all the time was just keeping you soft enough to only care about your own damned life and to hell with the rest of us!"

"Coddled me?" Sam snorted, his cheeks burning red with ire. "Who the hell coddled me? My whole life has been a nightmare of monsters, sleepless nights, hunger, blood, and gore! No one's ever even paid attention to what I wanted – ever!"

"Well sometimes, Sam, it isn't about what you want," John rasped. "There are things bigger and more important than what we want."

"That's rich, coming from you," Sam countered. "You're the one calling the shots all the time. You always get what you want."

"You think this is what I want?"

"It's all you've ever wanted," Sam parried. "Me and Dean following you around hell and creation like two mindless, obedient little soldiers."

"Well I've always wanted a giant Pam Anderson doll," Dean added for effect, marvelling at the fact that his words continued to fall on completely deaf ears. "But that was before I apparently became invisible and mute and ceased to exist."

"I want to keep you safe!" John insisted. "Everything I've ever done has been to keep you boys safe."

"How?" Sam demanded incredulously. "By throwing us in the path of all those evil things that kill all those innocent people you keep talking about? By throwing us in the middle of all that evil, so that all we ever see is evil, so that we can't even see the good anymore? That's not safe, Dad. That's kamikaze. It's suicidal!"

"Well if it's so bad," John countered, "how come Dean's ok with it, huh? Dean knows how important this job is. He knows that his responsibilities lie here, with this family, hunting down evil so that innocent people – people like your mother – don't have to die! If I'm such a terrible father, and this is such a terrible life, how come Dean is on board with it while you're not, huh?"

"Because Dean thinks you're a fucking hero, Dad!" Sam spat. "Because he worships the ground you walk on! Because you've got him brainwashed into thinking that if he sacrifices enough, it'll actually be enough for you."

"Yeah, ok," Dean said darkly. "Standing right here, guys."

"No," John retorted. "Dean is on board because he knows that this is right. He knows that what he's doing here, hunting and destroying evil, is important. It saves lives. He does this because he's selfless. You? You're just too selfish to think about anything but yourself."

"No," Sam insisted. "I'm just smart enough to know the difference between obedience and love. And I know for damned sure that giving you the one will never get me the other."

888

It was like being stuck in a dream where the world suddenly slows down and you see yourself walking through crowded streets while everything else zooms past you while you're still operating in slow motion. In this distorted world, no one sees you or hears you because you're in a different space and time. Dean watched in horror as his father and brother slung soul-crushing insults at each other, but no matter what he said or did they only had eyes for each other. He was sorely tempted to fire a few rounds of buckshot into the wall just to get their attention, because shouting obviously wasn't registering on either of their radars.

"I'm just smart enough to know the difference between obedience and love," he heard Sam say. "And I know for damned sure that giving you the one will never get me the other."

Dean had never heard Sam be so cutting before, so mean. And what was with that dig about being smart enough to know the difference? And about Dean being brainwashed? If he weren't in such complete shock about what was happening, and if the insults weren't coming so quickly, he might have had time to digest them and feel the sting of them. But the sharp barbs cut so quick and clean that Dean barely had time to register them. He knew, though, that when the moment ended the world would come crashing down. And then he would feel it and it would hurt like a bitch, for all of them.

"Fine!" John suddenly said savagely. "If you think you've got it all figured out, then go. Go to Stanford and start your new life. There's obviously nothing keeping you here."

"Ok Dad, wait!" Dean pleaded. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Neither of them wanted Sam to leave. Dean was certain of that. But their Dad was doing his damnedest to push him away. Everything was suddenly spiralling out of control.

"Oh I'm going!" Sam said ruefully. "When September comes I'll be moving to California and away from this freak show!"

"Sammy, just… please!" Dean begged. "Just think about what you're –"

"Why wait?" John said. "If this life is so horrible, and the work we do is so unbearable, then far be it from me to keep you here against your will for the next month."

"No," Dean heard himself say. "No, no no no."

This couldn't be happening. They were supposed to be a family. Dean was supposed to be able to fix this. Only Sam didn't want it fixed. Sam wanted out. Sam wanted away. Away from them… from him.

"You want me to leave now?" Sam asked archly, stomping to the dresser on the far wall next to his bed and opening the drawers in a huff, tearing out the few items of clothes that he owned and stuffing them into his duffel bag. "Because all you have to do is just say the word and I'm gone!"

"I think I just did," John intoned.

"Sammy please, wait!" Dean cried, feeling truly desperate. He needed to make him stay, to stop him from leaving. He couldn't leave like this.

"Fine!" Sam snapped. His long arms snatching at the few items of his on his side of the room. "Fine! I'm gone!"

He rounded the bed and stormed toward the bathroom to collect his toothbrush and shaving gear. In a desperate attempt to prevent him from leaving, Dean grabbed Sam's duffel bag and dumped its contents back onto Sam's bed. When Sam returned from the bathroom he snatched the empty bag out of Dean's hand without a word and began re-stuffing the bag, shoving each item in with an angry stab of his right arm.

"No point in drawing this out anyway," Sam muttered. "Best to just tear off the band-aid."

"Sammy you can't leave like this!" Dean pleaded. "Dad, stop him!"

"There's the door," John whispered darkly. "But if you walk out that door… You walk out? You don't ever come back."

Dean froze at those words. He watched in horror as Sam's resolve solidified into something terrifyingly concrete, like cement. John and Sam stared at each other for an agonizingly long moment, each one spitting venom at the other with a single look, neither one conscious of anything else but the intense, angry gaze boring into him, until Sam finally broke it. Without a word he marched ahead, snatching his knapsack from the floor and quickly stuffing his laptop into it, then storming past his father at the door and placing a hand on the knob with one final look at his father.

"No," Dean breathed, his breath catching in his throat.

And then Sam was gone.

888

And now he most definitely couldn't breathe. Gills were expanding madly to pull in that oxygen, scales flashing like violent shards of steel in the glint of sunlight as the head and tail thrashed madly, desperately, in death throws. This fish was gasping for air and none would come.

Dean could see dark spots forming over his eyes and had to bend over, hands against his knees, to keep himself from falling over. He could hear the grumbling sound of his father's deep voice somewhere nearby, but he couldn't make out the words. Most likely his father still didn't even remember he was in the room.

Everything went hot and cold together, waves of ice and fire slicing through him simultaneously, and Dean only had a moment to register the strange numbness as it crept up his hands, tingling through the back of his head, before everything went blissfully dark. He didn't even feel his face as it collided with the floor when his knees buckled and he went down in a boneless heap.

"Damnit Dean!"

Someone was shouting. Had he closed his eyes?

"Come on, kiddo," the voice said, and a hand was suddenly ghosting over his forehead.

Dean blinked, stunned and confused to see his father's worried face looming over him. He was lying on his back, on the floor, his dad's knees pressed painfully against his ribs, his own legs splayed at an odd angle, crossed over each other, as though he had been twisted only part-way from his stomach to his back.

"Dad?" Dean mumbled, the fog and dizziness clouding his vision somewhat. He couldn't figure out what he was doing on the floor, or why the right side of his face felt like it was stinging and on fire.

"Dean!" his dad said wearily, relief softening his dark brown eyes. "You gave me a scare there, kiddo."

"Dude, did I just faint?" Dean asked, twitching his fingers reflexively, as if crawling back into his body and wiggling into his limbs as one would wiggle into a pair of gloves.

"Face plant to the floor," John said.

Dean made a move to sit up, but his father's hand on his shoulder pushed him gently back down.

"Just give it a few more minutes," John said calmly. "Take it easy."

Dean took a few deep breaths in through his nose, out through his mouth, in, out, in, out, until he felt the fog clear away completely. The dizziness had passed and he felt confident that he could sit up now without keeling over.

"Ready?" John asked, recognizing the clarity in his son's eyes at his readiness to get back on his feet.

"Yah," Dean said, taking his father's proffered hand and peeling himself up off the floor. His legs were only mildly wobbly, but once he made it to a full standing position he felt the earth solidify beneath him. Sufficiently grounded to stand without tripping or toppling over, he made his way to the bed and sat wearily down. His face stung like a mother from the severe carpet burn his nosedive to the floor had earned him.

"What the hell happened?" Dean asked.

"Got me," his father said, watching him intently. "You were quiet as a mouse while uh… well, while everything was goin' on. And then you just went down like a stone."

And then everything came flooding back. Sam. Sam had left. Sam was gone.

"Oh God!" Dean whispered, the colour draining from his face once again. "Dad, he's gone!"

John nodded solemnly, the softness of his features hardening instantly, his eyes suddenly blazing intensely once again as though Sam were still in the room to resume the fight they'd just finished.

"I know," he said.

"Well we have to go get him back!" Dean insisted. "We can't just let him leave like that!"

"Yes we can," John said firmly. "Your brother made his choice, Dean. He doesn't want to be here, so it's best for all of us that he stays gone. He'll only be a liability if he sticks around with his head not in the game."

Dean stared up at him from his seat on the bed in complete and utter confusion.

"Dad, what the hell are you talking about?" he asked. "Sam's gone! Sam just packed his shit and left!"

"That's his decision, Dean."

"Like hell it is! You told him to leave!"

John looked at his eldest son archly. "So?"

"So," Dean said emphatically. "Get out there and tell him to come back!"

"Absolutely not," John huffed. "I'm done dragging that boy along kicking and screaming through a life he hates. He wants out. He's out."

"But he's alone!" Dean half screamed. Even as he said it he felt a cold chill tear through his body and thought for a moment that he might throw up. Sam was alone. Sam was wandering the streets right now, everything he owned on his back, and he was completely alone.

John could sense the panic that had crept up his son's spine, chilling him from within, and in an instant he was soft again, crouching at his son's side and sitting next to him on the bed, a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Dean," he said. "Just breathe, ok? Breathe, son. You gotta calm down."

But Dean wasn't listening.

"Dad, we gotta get him back," he pleaded desperately. "He doesn't start until September. We've still got time to figure somethin' out – so that we can still be a family."

But John was shaking his head no.

"No Dean, we can't." He wasn't arguing. It was a simple statement of fact. "Point of no return, buddy. Sam just walked out on us. He ain't comin' back, kiddo."

"He didn't walk out on us," Dean said, almost soundlessly. "You told him to go. You told him to leave."

The sigh that came from John Winchester rattled his entire frame.

"I gave him a way out," he said simply. "He was screaming for it, and I gave it to him. It's what he wants. He doesn't want this. He doesn't want us. If he did, you'd be out that door right now following him to California."

And before he could stop himself, Dean felt his face crumble as anguish overtook him and the tears flooded from his eyes. He hadn't wanted to admit it, hadn't wanted to hear it or believe it, but Sam had told him plain as day that he didn't want Dean to come with him – didn't want to keep the family together. He wanted to get away. He wanted to leave, to get away, from him. Everything Dean had, everything he cared about, was in this room, and half of it had just walked out the door, away from him, with no intention of ever coming back. He'd lost his brother, his baby, his best friend (his only friend), in one fell swoop. And Sam hadn't even cast him one last parting glance.

He didn't even try to hide the tears, didn't try to school his face back to the mask of calm, because he couldn't, and because he didn't care to. His dad would forgive him this moment of weakness. Hell, Dean knew that underneath the anger John was probably hurting as much as he was, probably more, because he'd been the one to push Sam into taking that final step. So they grieved together in silence, Dean sniffling through the empty feeling inside, the giant, gaping, Sam-shaped hole inside him that howled like a swirling vortex, while John idly rifled through the apartment adverts Dean had printed off earlier that afternoon.

"You know, for all your swagger, Dean," John said lightly, "you're one hell of a big softie."

Dean smiled faintly and looked up at his dad, only to lose the smile instantly at the sight of the tears now crinkling from John Winchester's squinting eyes.

"Oh Jesus, Dad," Dean said wearily. "Don't you even start."

If John couldn't keep it together Dean knew he was about a nanosecond away from turning into a complete and utter chick, complete with blubbering, sobbing, and gorging on Haagen Daas. He had to get out of the motel room, and he had to get out now.

"Where are you going?" John asked as Dean suddenly shot to his feet.

"I gotta get outta here," Dean said, taking a deep breath and wiping a sleeve across his tear-stained face. "I think I'm going to go drink my face off and crawl into a nice ditch. Care to join me?"

"I think I'll pass," John said. "You gonna be ok?"

"No," Dean said brusquely. "But what're'ya gonna do, right?"

"Will you be back tonight?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Probably not." He grabbed the keys to the Impala. It didn't matter what time he got back, Dean thought ruefully. John's room was adjoining to the one Dean and Sam shared. Dean could come in at any hour he pleased without worrying about waking anyone up. There was no Sam here to be considerate of. When he did come back he'd be coming back to an empty room.

"All right," John said. "Just, be careful, huh?"

"Yeah, you know I will."