Author's Note: This story owes a great, great deal to "Miles Before I Sleep" by SilverKitsune1. So if you like this one, go read that one. Hopefully this isn't too similar. I tried to put my own spin on the subject matter.
"If you walk out that door, don't you ever come back."
Breathing hard, wound up and angry, fists clenched, they stared at each other, a challenge one of them was going to lose. The letter was crumpled in Sam's hand, and he watched his father's jaw twitch. Unstoppable force and immovable object. (Which was which? Did it matter?)
In his peripheral vision, Sam saw Dean, rigid, waiting, expecting things to fall apart. There was something in his expression that was quietly unhappy, resigned. Like he knew what was going to happen and was just waiting for it to come.
No, thought Sam.
All his dreams, all the things he wanted, were that way. An open door, three steps and he'd be through.
Sam turned and walked the other way. Into the room he and Dean shared. Closed the door behind him. Set the letter down on the bed and stared at it. He heard the door slam, the heavy sounds of John going down the stairs. If you go out that door, don't you ever come back. Waited to see if Dean would follow him into this smallest of refuges.
Are you happy now? Some part of him wanted to scream.
Dean didn't come in for another hour, and Sam pretended to be asleep. He heard Dean shifting around for hours. He didn't hear their father come back.
His father didn't say he was proud of Sam for staying. Dean didn't thank Sam for not leaving. But Sam got that, now, thought he understood. That was what hunting was: you gave everything you had and expected nothing back.
Better to just have nothing in the first place.
It took him almost two hours to write the email informing the admissions office of his decision. He wrote and erased and wrote and erased over and over until he finally decided on the simplest of answers: I will not be attending your university next year. Thank you for your consideration.
He didn't burn the letter, or rip it up. Like the quietly harbored dreams of his adolescence, he folded it into quarters and put it at the bottom of his duffel, where it could get lost in peace. He refolded the rest of his clothes and put them away; careful, exact, precise.
"I thought you would leave," Dean said, a couple days After. "I really – thought that was it. That you'd hit your limit with Dad."
"Glad I can still surprise you," Sam said. Dean looked at him like he was worried, cleared his throat.
"Dad said we might not stick around for graduation."
Sam shrugged. "Okay," he said. Dean blinked at him.
"Wow. I expected a bitchfit over that one." He got the impression Dean was trying to feel him out. Sam lifted his gaze and looked at Dean, perfectly level.
"We have work to do, right? That's what matters." Dean looked at him like Sam was a stranger. Sam went back to cleaning the guns, three times until he was sure he had it right, and pretended not to notice.
He checked his email a week after, opened the response from Stanford. Thank you for your courtesy, it read. We will close your file. Good luck in your future education!
Future education. Huh.
John (never Dad, maybe father) didn't seem quite sure what to do with him. He watched Sam almost as much as Dean did, but with less worry than confusion. Sam wondered if maybe he'd won that argument after all, purely by doing what no one had apparently expected.
He walked gingerly around Sam, strange from a man who wouldn't know gingerly if it hit him in the face. Maybe 'warily' was a better word, like Sam was ticking and might blow up any minute and John didn't know how big the blast radius would be.
Sam himself wasn't sure where all the anger had gone. Buried deep, maybe. Or all gone. Drained right out like lancing an infected wound; Sam, the Winchester boil. Fixed now. Everything in order.
He and John circled each other, around and around, with Dean somewhere in the middle.
Dean got him a beer after the next hunt and studied Sam like he was trying to read his mind. "You did good," Dean said suddenly. Sam blinked at him, and Dean groaned. "Don't' look so surprised. And don't make a big deal out of it or anything."
Sam had a long drink. The beer was cheap and tasted it. Sam swished it around and studied the wood grain of the table with vague interest before glancing up. "You trying to get me drunk?"
"If I am?" Dean said, still eying Sam like he was going to explode, just like John did. Sam wanted to tell them both that the time for exploding was past. He had another gulp.
"Dean," he said, and let his lips curl, sort of a smile. "No chick flick moments."
For a second, Sam thought Dean would punch him. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed that he didn't.
They finished their beers in silence.
"Sam," John said, at some point, during the summer. It was a hot day and Sam was sitting on the porch looking at the clouds. He felt his father sit next to him.
"Yes, sir," Sam said, without thinking about it. John shifted like he was uncertain, which was ridiculous. John Winchester was never uncertain. Winchesters in general were never uncertain.
"Just quiet. Something on your mind?"
Sam considered that. Considered it a little more. "No, sir," he said flatly. "Not really." John started to frown, and Sam spared them both by saying, "Hot day."
"Uh-huh," said John. He got up a few minutes later and went back inside. Sam's entire body thrummed with tension he couldn't identify. Dean came home smelling like perfume and full of innuendo. They ate dinner together, more or less, but Sam kept his silence close.
"Don't you ever feel like picking up chicks?" Dean asked him, and Sam lifted his head a little and found a smile.
Their father was impressed with Sam's progress in hunting. He went from a good shot to a great one, became effective with three new weapons, and took on a daily run. "You've found your focus, Sam," he said, which was the nicest thing Sam could remember hearing in years.
Dean was worried about Sam's progress in hunting. He hid it well, but Sam had always known how to read him. He tried to get Sam interested in other things. Tried to throw girls at him. Sam shrugged it off like nothing. "Dammit, Sam," Dean said ferociously. "You've got to give me something." Dean counted his words and tried to unnerve Sam when it was single digits per day. Dean said he was losing weight.
Sam thought of Dean's face, rigid like the world was about to fall apart and he knew he couldn't stop it, and compared it to this one, and liked the latter better.
Once, Sam thought he heard John and Dean arguing about him, and when he entered they were staring at each other with wounds in both their eyes.
Only I, he thought in the quiet spaces of his thoughts that were only his, could do something to try to avoid tearing us apart, and manage it anyway.
They ran out of space in the Impala and Sam tossed the last of his books. Dean argued for them harder than Sam did.
"You know," Sam told him. "I'm not going back."
"You're not going forward either," Dean snapped. Sam looked at him and Dean breathed out hard. "I can't believe I actually miss your emo-girl moments."
Sam, deadpan, said "Me neither."
A wendigo tore his back open almost to the bone before his father took it down. Lying on his stomach, boneless, back warm with blood, the earth was cool against his face.
As his vision grayed, he realized that it was March 25th and freshmen had been in school for six months. Meanwhile, he was bleeding into the ground in a forest in the middle of nowhere, and the one world wasn't the other, couldn't be the other.
Dean was next to him, talking too fast. "Holy shit – Dad, Sam, it got Sam, he's really – oh fuck, it's bad," and there was pressure making him spasm and writhe despite the pain and there was Dean swearing and there was life passing by- everything in its own little place, packaged neatly, tucked away, a place for everyone and Sam in his place. His back was a mass of pain but he was distant from it, from John, from Dean, from everything.
And Dean was yelling and trying to hold things together, and John was blank and steady. Unstoppable force, immovable object, and Sam, somewhere in between now.
No, thought Sam.
He woke up to the beeping of a heart monitor and Dean's face, sleepless and ravaged, staring down at him. "Sammy," Dean said, and there was an edge on his voice, rigid, waiting, expecting things to fall apart. . Like he knew what was going to happen and was just waiting for it to come. "You almost died, and something's wrong. Is this about-"
"No," said Sam, looking up at the ceiling, white like paper, like bandages, like motel room sheets. Write about a significant experience you had that shaped your life, said the application packet.
But that was somewhere else, another life, another Sam. One world isn't the other, can't be the other. You chose.
"Sam," said Dean, a note of desperation in his voice and Sam turned his head and looked at him, smiled. It was the best one yet and he hadn't even practiced.
"It's okay," he said, "I'm fine."