Disclaimer: I do not own any of these characters.

Summary: John was always a good soldier, but rarely a good dad. Luckily for him, he had Dean to pick up the slack. John reflects back on five instances where Dean proved to be the better parent of the two of them.

Tag to Dead Man's Blood but no actual spoilers.

John's mind was speeding down a one-way path now and he was helpless to stop it. He knew what the final destination was going to be, long before he had allowed his thoughts to wander in the still of the night.

And yet here he was, unavoidably racing towards the second worst memory of his life, dwarfed only by his beloved wife's death; the day his baby boy chose Stanford over his family.

John was man enough to admit, to himself at least, that he could have handled the situation better. But at the time, it was hard to see sense past the anger and betrayal. Even now, seeing his youngest resting peacefully mere feet away, John could feel his blood boiling just below the surface.

Sam would never understand what his desperate need for freedom had cost his father and brother, mainly because Dean would never allow John to tell him.

It was Sam's presence that kept Dean sane in the life they led. His little brother was his stone; the one who kept him grounded when the insanity of the hunt threatened to push him over the edge.

He needed Sammy to function and to bring happiness into his dark little world. But when it came time to choose between his own happiness and Sam's, Dean was able to make the ultimate sacrifice and let his brother go; something John wasn't quite so graceful at doing. He hung his head in shame as he recalled the events of that day with vivid clarity.

The three of them had been bickering more than usual, which was saying a lot. Sam was constantly picking fights with John and Dean was always trying to keep the peace, but even he had been pushed too far on more than one occasion lately.

When Dean resorted to yelling, that would always be the end of the fight. The admonishing glare he would alternate between his family members would take the wind out of their sails and make the other two Winchesters feel like they were going to be sent to bed early without supper. Not even John could look his eldest in the eye when he wore that disapproving expression.

But this time, John just couldn't let it go. The topic of discussion had been Sam wanting to go to college and John flat out refused to let that happen. They functioned as a team and Sam was a key part of that. Not to mention they couldn't watch the boy's back if he was off playing Joe College. Once a hunter, always a hunter. Why couldn't Sam understand that?

"You're not going, and that's final," John growled, but he knew damn well that his youngest wasn't about to back down. He had built up a head of steam over the past few days of constant tension and from the look on his face, John could tell Sam was seconds away from blowing a gasket. That's when Dean stepped in. Perfect timing as always.

"Stop it, both of you. Let's talk this over like adults, shall we?" Dean was right in the middle of the other two men, a hand on each of their chests to prevent them from strangling each other.

If anything though, his hands acted as a conductor between two sources of electricity. John could literally feel himself shaking and Sam's jaw was clenched so tightly, it was a miracle his teeth hadn't been reduced to powder.

John dropped his gaze to his eldest, seeing the pleading look in his eyes. Against his better judgment, John ignored it. "You can't have an adult conversation with kids involved, Dean."

Dean's eyes fell shut in resignation, waiting for the inevitable explosion. He winced as Sam's voice rose an octave higher. "I'm being a kid? That's rich…" Sam took another step towards their father and Dean immediately shifted his stance to counteract the move, turning towards John and putting Sam behind him.

He reached back and latched onto Sam's left wrist so he knew exactly where his brother was and kept his right hand against his father's chest. "Come on guys, this is ridiculous," Dean stated, hoping against hope that his family members would see reason through the red haze of anger.

Instead, the pressure against his back increased, forcing Dean to shift his weight and steady himself by pushing harder against his father's chest in return. Damn it, Sam.

"What's so wrong with wanting to further my education like a normal human being?" Sam challenged, looking right over Dean's head as though he were an invisible barrier.

"You don't get to be normal, Sam! This is the family business, like it or not!"

"Knock it off, both of you!" Dean barked, trying to get their attention off of each other, even if only for a moment. They completely ignored him.

"No, Dad! This is your business! You never should've dragged Dean and me into it. It's obvious you're only out for revenge!"

"I don't hear Dean complainin' about hunting."

"That's cause you've brainwashed him into thinking he has no other choice!"

"There IS no other choice! He's just smart enough to know that! It's time you grew up and faced reality too!"

"That's enough!" Dean shouted, pissed that he had been dragged into yet another fight that had nothing to do with him. "Sam, outside. Go cool off." He yanked on his brother's sleeve, trying to direct him towards the door.

Sam stood his ground a moment longer, glaring daggers over Dean's shoulder at his father. "Sam!" Dean barked as he turned his head far enough to look up at his brother without losing contact with John.

Reluctantly, Sam started to side step towards the exit. The fresh air would do him some good but he wasn't sure he was ready to surrender just yet. Admittedly, the fire in his soul was slowly starting to ebb now that Dean had taken control of the situation. He would let this round go, if only for his big brother's sake.

As Sam began to walk away, John took a half step to the side as if to get around Dean but his eldest matched his move effortlessly as though he had seen it coming. "Don't," Dean said quietly but the warning in his eyes belied the gentleness of his tone.

Dean's focus never left John, even after he heard the motel door slam shut behind his brother. He took a moment to collect himself, not wanting to let his anger get the best of him as well. Finally, he allowed his restraining hand to fall from John's chest.

"This isn't right," Dean forced out when he was relatively sure he could keep the quiver of anguish out of his voice.

John softened almost immediately at the broken expression on his boy's face. Now that Sam wasn't here to fuel his anger, he was able to recognize the barely concealed pain deep within his other son's eyes. "Don't worry, Dean. Sam's not goin' anywhere."

Dean shook his head. "That's not what I'm sayin'. We can't keep him here, Dad."

John rolled his eyes, feeling his rage swelling inside of him again. "Don't you start too. Hunters can't just walk away from the life, Dean, and you damn well know that. The demons, the monsters… They will follow him and they will try to kill him, regardless of whether he's actively hunting or not. When you boys were born, you had targets slapped on your backs, and I wish like Hell I could say otherwise but that's just the way it is and your brother is gonna have to deal with it."

"So what're you gonna do, Dad? Huh? Tie him to a chair 24/7? Throw him in the trunk whenever we hit the road?"

"If that's what it takes to keep him alive."

"That's not living. That's torture. If we force him to stay here with us, miserable and resentful, then we're no better than the things we hunt. He just wants a chance to be normal for a while. Who knows? Maybe it's just a phase and he'll come back when he realizes how boring normal can get."

"You don't understand, Dean."

"Then explain it to me."

John considered telling his son about the yellow-eyed demon that wanted his brother but he just couldn't do it. Not yet. "It's not your burden to carry. All you need to know is that we can't protect him if he leaves."

"I get that, Dad, but he's not a little kid anymore. He's a good hunter. I trust him to have my back, and I know he can hold his own. If college is what he really wants, then I think we should give him the chance to be happy."

John had taken to pacing the floor, listening to Dean's words and internally refuting them as quickly as they left the boy's mouth. Why was Dean pushing this? He knew his eldest didn't want Sam to actually leave, so why was he backing the wrong horse? John paused as a thought occurred to him.

"Are you miserable in this life, Dean? Is this your way of tellin' me that you want out too?"

Dean dropped his gaze to the ground. "Of course not. This is who I am and I'm good with that. But Sammy… He's not like us, Dad. He wants something better than daily deaths and destruction and I think he deserves that chance."

"And you'd be okay with that? Lettin' him just walk away?" John purposefully laced his words with sarcasm as he crossed his arms over his chest. He was Dean's father after all and knew him as well as anyone could.

Dean bit his lip for a moment in thought. "No. But this isn't about what I want. Sam has been fighting against this life since he was old enough to say so. At least let him apply and see what his options are."

"Dean, I just…"

"Please. If not for him, then for me. I'm askin' you to give him a chance."

John's anger deflated as quickly as it had risen. The fight left him and he sank down onto the corner of the nearest mattress with a sigh. "Fine. Let him apply to a few schools and see who's interested. But we can't afford college, Dean. He's just gonna get his hopes up."

"He's a smart kid, Dad. If he wants it bad enough, he'll find a way to get it. Let me talk to him and see where his head's at."

Unable to respond past the lump in his throat, John just nodded his approval and Dean was out the door in the next second, Sam's jacket in hand. It was a cold night and he knew his little brother was too stubborn to come back inside after it on his own.

As soon as Dean shut the door, John made his way over to the front window and cracked it open; partially because he was feeling overheated and caged in, but also because he was hoping to hear the gratitude and acquiescence in Sam's voice when he heard John's compromise.

Dean glanced around the dark parking lot, hoping to catch a glimpse of his brother brooding nearby. Thankfully, Sam hadn't gone far. He was leaning up against the driver's side of the Impala; the one place they both felt safe and at home. Dean sauntered his way over and when he was a few feet away, he gently tossed the jacket to his brother.

Sam caught it without looking up. Apparently he found his shoes to be incredibly interesting all of a sudden. "You alright?" Dean asked, concern lacing his words.

Sam nodded. "Yeah. You?"

"I'm good." Silence fell between them for a few moments as Dean mirrored his brother's position, their shoulders touching in an attempt at sharing comfort. Dean broke the silence first. "He's just tryin' to keep you safe. You get that right?"

"I don't need to be babied anymore, Dean."

"I know. But it's kind of a hard habit to break, kiddo. Just cut him some slack, okay?"

"What did he say to you?" Sam questioned, finally looking up into his brother's eyes. "After I left."

"He's willing to negotiate. You can apply to the schools you're interested in and we'll figure out where to go from there once we know what your options are."

Sam swallowed hard and looked away again.

Dean frowned. "Sam?"

"I already applied, Dean," he answered softly.

"What?" Surely, he had heard wrong.

"I got my acceptance letter this afternoon. I made it into Stanford. Full ride."

Dean was stunned. When had Sammy found the time to fill out applications without anyone noticing? Why hadn't he come to Dean for help? Why hadn't he mentioned before that he was looking into colleges?

Sam chanced a small glance back over at his brother and saw the hurt and betrayal in his unguarded expression. "I'm so sorry, man. I honestly didn't think I was gonna get in anywhere considering how often we switched schools growin' up. But my teacher suggested I give it a shot so I did, and now…"

"Now what, Sam?" Dean's voice was barely above a whisper.

Sam leaned a little further against his brother, hoping the simple gesture could magically make everything better again. "Now I can be free. Dean, you know how much I've wanted this day to come. I can't keep living under Dad's roof, putting up with his orders, watching you play the obedient little soldier while he's running you into the ground…"

Dean pulled away from his brother's support and lifted a hand to cut off his rambling. "Sam, if you're so desperate to leave, then fine. But don't blame it on me."

"I'm not blaming you, Dean. I'm tryin' to thank you, man. If it wasn't for you, I'd never have made it this far." He meant for the simple statement to come across as a compliment filled with gratitude, but instead it was like rubbing salt into his brother's wounds.

Dean had made it possible for Sam to leave him? How could he have screwed up so badly? How had he not seen this day coming? Why was it suddenly too late to stop it and fix things?

"So that's it then? You're just gonna walk away?"

"It's not like it's going to be forever. I can still meet up with you guys on holidays or even weekends if you're ever hunting in Cali."

"When are you leaving?"

"I… Tonight. I bought my ticket an hour ago."

So this was it. Dean thought he'd have more time. More time with Sam. More time to get used to the idea of losing him. Sam continued to ramble on about how it wasn't Dean that Sam wanted to leave behind, and how he needed his big brother's permission before he left because Dean's approval meant the world to him.

Dean's throat had closed up and he found himself nodding, though he was no longer listening to the words coming out of Sam's mouth and he had no idea to what he was agreeing. He was just numb, inside and out.

After a moment, Sam seemed to realize that his brother had mentally checked out and that his words were no longer getting through to him.

He loved his big brother more than anything and, if he thought Dean would even consider the idea, he would have asked him to come along. But Dean would never leave their father. He was too dedicated to the man, and to the job.

Dean looked so lost as he started to back away towards the motel room and it broke Sam's heart. He never wanted to hurt Dean, but there was no other way. He refused to stay in this life forever.

Sam strode forward quickly and wrapped his arms around his brother, tears streaming down his cheeks in silent goodbye. Dean tried to get his arms to move and return the embrace, but they weren't obeying him any longer. None of his muscles were. In fact, if Sam hadn't been gripping him so tightly, he probably would have hit the ground by now.

John had seen and heard enough. He remembered what it was like for Dean after Mary had died. The four year old had been withdrawn and barely spoke aside from responding to orders and the occasional lullaby to Sammy when he thought no one else was listening. John knew in his heart that losing his brother was going to be a hundred times worse. Dean had more or less raised that kid, and now he was just going to walk away.

He stormed out into the parking lot with his youngest son's bag in hand and Sam instinctively turned to block Dean from his father's wrath with his own body. John grabbed Sam by the collar of his shirt and jerked him backwards, breaking his hold on his brother who slumped to his knees the second his support disappeared.

John turned and shoved Sam further across the parking lot and away from Dean. "If you want to go so badly, then go. But if you leave, don't bother tryin' to come back."

"Dad, I…" Sam gasped as soon as he regained his footing, unsure how serious he should be taking his father's threat.

"No more excuses. No more fighting. You think you can find a better life for yourself without your family, then by all means. It's just one less mouth to feed around here." He tossed the bag at Sam's feet. "Take your crap and go."

Sam took a step towards Dean but John held a hand out to halt his attempt. "Leave 'im," he barked, not wanting Sam to draw out the goodbye any longer than he had to because he knew it was killing Dean inside with each passing minute.

"Take care of him," Sam demanded with an underlying threat, sending one last apologetic look past John to Dean.

"Your brother will be fine. You worry about your own ass." John spun on his heel and headed back towards the motel room. "Come on, Dean. Get back inside."

Sam turned sadly, unable to bear the sight of his brother obeying yet another order as if he were a mindless drone. He bent down, picked up his bag, and started to walk towards the nearest bus stop. Panic flooded through Dean as he watched his brother walk away.

With a monumental effort, Dean forced his legs to support his weight and stood back up. Only instead of heading to the room as his father had instructed, he stumbled his way across the parking lot till he reached Sam's retreating back, grabbed his arm to spin him around, and drew him against his chest in a bone-crushing hug.

Sam let out a huff of surprise as the air was squeezed from his lungs, then dropped his bag in favor of clutching the back of his brother's shirt.

Dean's big brother radar was going off and he knew there was one last thing Sam needed from him before he went off into the real world. "It's okay, Sammy. I get it. You deserve to be happy and I want this for you. Just promise me you'll be careful."

Sam let out a sob of relief that was muffled by Dean's collar as he clutched him tight enough to crack a rib. "I p-promise," he sniffed, tears streaming down his face once again.

"I'm proud of you, kiddo." Dean moved one hand to the back of Sam's head, his fingers sinking into the soft mop of hair Sam refused to cut only because it pissed their father off. "Call me if you need anything. And I mean anything, got it?"

"Yeah." Sam pulled back far enough to dry his face with his sleeve. Only then did he realize his big brother's eyes were red-rimmed too.

"Take this." Dean pulled a small wad of cash from his back pocket and held it out to Sam who shook his head.

"Dean, I don't need…"

"Just take it, bitch. In case you run into trouble along the way."

Sam took it with a small smile. "Thank you, jerk." He stuffed the money into his own pocket, then looked back up into Dean's eyes. "I'm really gonna miss you, Dean."

"I have that effect on people," Dean smirked back, needing to see his brother's smile one last time instead of his tears. He succeeded. But then Sam's expression turned to sad concern.

"Are you gonna be okay, man? Last thing I wanted to do was stick you with Dad and throw all the weight of hunting onto your shoulders."

"Sam, stop. Dad and I are gonna be fine. We'll do what we do best, and you go be a nerd like you do best." Dean winked with a forced smile. It was getting harder to keep up his façade.

Sam snorted. "Yeah. I can do that. Take care of yourself, big brother. I'll try to stay in touch."

Dean nodded, but he knew the last part was a lie. Sam would get engrossed in his new life and would want to keep it separate from his past. He was going to cut them out, probably for good. But if that's what it took to make the kid happy, Dean was willing to suffer for it.

Sam picked up his bag again and walked away, glancing over his shoulder once to engrave one last image of his brother in his mind so that he could keep Dean with him over the next few years. Dean waved and waited until Sam was out of sight. Then he sunk to his knees in the middle of the parking lot again, the final vestiges of his strength leaving him.

The pain in his chest was crippling. He knew John was watching from the doorway still and he wanted to hold it together for his father but his emotions were too overwhelming to contain.

He didn't know how long he sat there, shattering to pieces, but he jumped when a strong calloused hand landed on his shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze.

"Come back inside, Dean. It's cold out here."


John could remember how terrible the next few months had been. He had to remind Dean to eat, force him to sleep, and resigned himself to the silence that fell over them. The worst part was patching his son up after each hunt. It almost seemed like Dean was seeking out the punishment, looking for a pain worthy enough to overcome the one in his heart.

The separation had been more than hard on the boy, but he pulled through just like he always did. John had caught him holding his cell phone from time to time as though hoping it would ring, but for the most part, things slowly went back to normal between them.

There was nothing Dean wouldn't sacrifice for his brother, even after Sam had left and practically destroyed him. John used the palms of his hands to wipe away the moisture that started welling up in his eyes as the memory abated. He had never seen his son so devastated. So broken. And yet Dean managed to survive. If that didn't prove how strong he was, nothing would.

John's walkie-talkie crackled to life, jarring him back to the here and now. He mentally shook himself. They had a job to do, and it was time to get back to work. Enough reminiscing. Couple finds a body in the street, everyone's missing by the time the cops get there… That's our vampires alright.

He stood quickly and tapped both of his boys on their ankles, jostling them enough to wake them from their slumbers. It felt like old times, having Sammy back in the fold, and Dean being the buffer between them. John just wished Dean didn't always have to put everyone else's well being ahead of his own.

John's stomach flipped at the thought of the added weight he would one day have to drop on his eldest's shoulders. If he couldn't save Sam… But that was a problem for another day. For now, he would just let his son enjoy the comfort of having Sammy back at his side.

They filed out through the motel room door together. A family again. For now.


So sorry for the incredibly long wait! I had some personal issues to deal with, which ultimately destroyed my muse for a while but hopefully it's back now and the final chapter was worth it!

Please review, and I will try to get another chapter for my Dark Angel story up soon as well. Thank you all for reading and for your continued support! It's been a pleasure, as always.