Deliberation

(c)7/2006 gekizetsu

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For Kunju, who asked for my rendition of the fight that took place when Sam left for Stanford. And she's just awesome anyway.

Warning: nothing I do is original.

Additional warning: angst and cursing and meanness and misunderstandings.

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Hey, can you talk a little louder?

I don't think my heart is broken enough.

-Anna Nalick, Paper Bag

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The funniest part, to him, was how scared he was.

After all the things he'd seen long before the age of eighteen, all the things he'd done that would have terrified anybody, he'd never been as scared as he was right then. It was the idea of just picking up and leaving, of committing himself to something totally out of his comfort zone, of having no one at his back while he did it. What he wanted most in the world was scaring the hell out of him, and that made it all the more appealing.

Sam was going to Stanford.

Dear Mr. Winchester,

It is a pleasure to advise you that your strong academic credentials and potential for the study of law qualify you for a dean's scholarship award.

It was too much to hope. Not only to be accepted, but with a full ride . He'd get a part time job and establish his own credit, have something approaching a place he could call home for at least four years, then maybe head off to graduate school. He'd be starting life.

How the hell he'd managed to get the mail first that day, the day his acceptance came, he could only put down to fate. He'd had several explanations ready (just wanted to see, just for fun, just curious) and hadn't had to use a single one. Those first few days of reading it over and over and then hiding it again had been full of giddy terror. He'd only half-hoped, and as a result, only half-planned. The rudimentary parts of the whole thing he could whip up in minutes - how to get there, how to do it on his own. The life he'd led so far had prepared him for this and then some. Sam could travel anywhere, talk to anyone, get them to believe damn near anything. At eighteen he'd had a lot of people tell him he was beautiful and whether he believed it or not didn't matter. He got away with a lot more because of it. This was bigger, this was escape and starting over and never hunting again.

For a while all he could do was think I did it. They want me. A normal, hardworking life, all he could want of it.

As if John sensed that Sam might break for it, he tightened down on everything. He wasn't blind, and Sam wasn't that closed off. The slightest rebellion on Sam's part had been dealt with in fast and almost brutal efficiency during the preceding six months. Sam's mouth was just as fast and brutal, until even Dean was backing him into walls and corners and warning him to tone it down. Orders came from John; requests came from Dean. Dean just wanted peace. Sam's disobedience or disrespect wasn't usually his problem unless it endangered them.

As soon as Sam graduated high school, John had dropped the rented house they'd been staying in and informed the boys that it would be nothing but traveling from then on. Then the letter came.

And Sam backed down.

If John noticed, he didn't let on. He wasn't about to praise Sam for doing what he was supposed to in the first place. It was Dean who watched him closer, who pried a little, who was distracted. He'd never admit to being nervous, but he knew. He knew Sam was up to something, knew Sam better than he knew himself in some ways, and Sam hated keeping things to himself. He wanted to share this one thing and couldn't. He knew better than to put Dean in the position of both rock and hard place, happy for Sam but disloyal to their father and the hunt.

Sam planned for months and kept his mouth shut. Maybe he wasn't the completely respectful son he was supposed to be, and he didn't fall completely in line. There was only so much he could do to keep himself under wraps, but he didn't want that last little while they were all together to be tense. There was no more fighting. Sam replaced it with waiting.

They'd be better off without him.

Dean spent more time jumping in front of him than anything else, whether Sam needed it or not.

The more Sam distanced himself, the less a part of them he felt. It didn't matter if it was a defense mechanism to keep the reflexive guilt at bay as long as it worked.

He wrote letter after letter to Dean, explaining, pages of something to leave under a pillow to be found later. He destroyed them all. Dean would never have read them, and if he had, he'd have done it with eyes that damned Sam for abandoning him.

It would be the bravest thing Sam had ever done. But it would look like selfish cowardice to his family.

Nothing like a little irony to fuck life up, right?

They could only blame themselves for making him capable of anything.

The end of August came and Dean watched Sam keep his stuff more organized, watched him cast a few things off without asking. Sam couldn't decide if he was relieved or disappointed. Dean was more observant about things, better at putting them together than their father was whether it had to do with Sam or not. Sam found himself being a little deliberate about some of the things he did, because when it all came down he didn't want Dean caught totally unprepared. He had that much mercy left in him, no matter how little he felt a part of the whole thing.

He'd thought about trying to pull Dean out with him, just for awhile, then cast the idea aside. He would be asking Dean to tear himself in half, and the older Sam got, the faster his sympathy waned. He couldn't be Dean, didn't want to, and was rapidly approaching the day that he would be looking at Dean the same way he looked at their father: with an expression that shouted nutcase . Obsessed, pathetic lunatic.

He'd hate himself for that.

Easier to get them to hate him first.

They were all going to die out there if he didn't get out. He was going to get out and be sane and pray the guilt didn't kill him when first Dean and then John went to some pointless accident without ever knowing if the thing that had started the whole thing was really out there.

Sometimes, before he could shut it off, the blasphemous part of him whispered that maybe, just maybe, it had been nothing but an accident. He wasn't stupid enough to dismiss evil when he'd had the good fortune to disembowel more than one physical representation of it. But God knew John had nothing to say to his boys about what had really happened the night Mary died or what they were really chasing.

He'd handle this like he handled everything else that had frightened him: he'd plow through and keep moving. He'd find his way. He'd done things that had seemed impossible before, but nothing was going to be trying to disembowel him this time.

Okay. Maybe his father would.

He knew when Dean got silent and stuck close that the jig was up. He never said anything - aloud, anyway - and Sam was grateful for that. They didn't have to stumble around the words or break down into how could you's or don't make this hard's . That would have been normal and predictable, so of course they avoided it.

Dean's silent understanding was still damning. Sam knew he had to get away from him as fast as he could, or resent the hell out of him forever.

The day before he meant to leave, he got up early and did the research he hadn't finished the night before, the history of a local library that had burned down eight times since its original construction in 1802. Something in the sub basement needed a look. Clean the guns, get some laundry done, and later on go ahead and let the cat out of the bag. He wasn't sure he'd be staying until morning, if things went as bad as he thought they would.

Dean stared at Sam openly while the latter packed his duffel. Sam could feel words hovering and the fact that Dean wasn't saying anything meant he couldn't decide where to start. Dean was famous for saying whatever the hell he felt like no matter how it sounded, so hesitation meant this was important to him. Sam kept his hands busy and his eyes down and let his brother stare. John had gone to meet someone without telling them who or where, and there'd already been words between the boys about how wise that was. Sam resented the secrecy and had voiced that to Dean. If he gets into trouble we won't be able to get him. Dean had said yet again he knows more about it than we do and he knows what he's doing and don't question his judgment . Sam was tired of listening to Dean beat that same old drum by rote. What scared him was that it might not be rote. Dean might have been willingly indoctrinated to anything their father doled out rather than just brainwashed.

Whenever John got back, Sam was going to have to tell him he wasn't moving on with them.

"It's not safe," Dean said.

Oh, Christ.

Sam felt again that bizarre combination of annoyance and admiration that only Dean could drag out of him. This was how it would start, Dean leaning back against the chipped old dresser, hands braced behind him, serious and sad.

"Not safe anywhere," Sam said carefully, still packing and sorting. "You know that."

"Weren't you going to say anything?" Dean said, and there was nothing belligerent in it. Yet. "Just leave?"

The word 'us' had been left off the end but Sam heard it anyway.

Sam paused but didn't look up. "And listen to you try and convince me to stay, and wander nowhere the rest of my life? I'm done hunting, Dean. I can't do this anymore. I want something besides this."

Dean was silent for a long moment and Sam wasn't sure what to do except keep his back turned. There should have been some arm-waving condemnation and finger jabbing but Dean was just staring. Sam didn't have a stock reaction for that.

"Which one did you choose?" Dean said. "I mean, they all accepted you, right?"

Sam snorted. He couldn't help it. "Stanford."

Dean whistled, low and appreciative. Then he reverted to type and said, "They have a special-needs program for window-lickers like you?"

Sam laughed under his breath and shoved his duffel across the bed before turning to look at Dean. "Go ahead, be a dick. It doesn't matter."

Dean shrugged. "You already know more than anybody in those places. You'll just be bored."

Again, patting Sam on the head with one hand and smacking him down with the other. It defied reason.

"What about saving people?" Dean said, but his face and tone seemed genuinely curious rather than insinuating that Sam was a selfish waste of skin.

"Lots of ways to do that," Sam said. "I just won't need salt or Latin. Okay...maybe Latin." He sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the ceiling. "Are you gonna be cool about this, or do I have to kick your ass?"

He meant it to be a joke, but Dean didn't dredge up so much as a smirk for him. He looked blank, something he only did when he was panicking. Sam swallowed hard around the lump in his throat and kept his own face blank. It occurred to him then to just leave before John got back, because it was only going to get worse. He'd been kind of looking forward to letting their father yell at his back as he ignored the last orders he ever intended to hear, but not if it meant this weirdly resigned fear from Dean.

"I know you can take care of yourself," Dean said, but he said it like he was trying to convince himself.

"It's college," Sam snapped. "Not the military, although we're pretty much already in it. The world's not out to get us, Dean."

Dean shrugged again. It was all wrong. Sam realized then that he was mad at Dean for not just saying whatever he meant for once, for being left behind, for taking it well, for jumping whenever their father snapped his fingers. For taking Sam's blows for him, for trying to keep a peace that was illusory at best, for trying to be whatever his brother and father needed him to be and never trying to get away. For guarding Sam like some sort of treasure.

Mad at Dean for being Dean, except never quite Dean all the way.

"Dad's not dumb," Sam said. "It's not like he's never imagined this was coming. It's not like I'm shocking or abandoning our poor, misunderstood dad. He won't like it but he'll be prepared. He's always prepared, remember? We're just sidekicks."

"C'mon Sam," Dean said, shifting his weight to one foot. For once that was all there was. He was resisting the urge to defend their father and Sam was amazed. "Burial or cremation?"

Sam blinked.

"When he kills you," Dean said. "If I have to bury you, the casket's gonna have, like, a lacy pillow or something so everyone knows what a girl you were."

Sam shook his head and looked at the ceiling again, tongue shoved into one cheek. The blinking had become an effort to stave off the burning in his eyes rather than confusion. He felt like such a kid. Telling Dean to go fuck himself wasn't the best way to say he loved him but it had to do.

"Pink satin and shit," Dean said. "Some totally gay shiny lacquered coffin, and we'll play some Celine Dion, and in your eulogy I'll tell everybody about the time I caught you jacking off to - "

"I'll take cremation," Sam said.

"You'll be back, right?" Dean said.

"To haunt your wise ass?" Sam said. "Yeah."

"No, I mean..." Dean trailed off.

Sam lowered his eyes from the ceiling. Dean was gesturing vaguely in midair, and Sam knew him well enough to hear back to us.

"I'm not gonna hunt anymore, Dean," he said. "But it's not like you'll never see me again."

"Feels like it," Dean said, dropping his gaze to the floor.

Sam flopped backward on the bed. "It won't make any difference, if you're okay with this," he said. "But I want you to be."

After a moment, Dean said, "If you need anything - "

"I won't," Sam said, cutting him off. "I can do this myself." He paused. "Thanks, though."

Dean didn't say anything. Sam couldn't even hear him breathe.

"The only thing you gotta do for me is let me go," Sam said. "And don't let dad take this out on you."

"He - " Dean started.

Hearing the denial, Sam said, "He's got no one else to yell at and he won't even notice if you..."

He stopped himself from saying miss me. He didn't think he should. He stared at Dean for a moment and thought about how love meant wanting more for that person than you did for yourself. Dean would let him go and try and be everything to their father to make up for it and pretend he wanted it all. Sam was left with that one awful epiphany when the door slammed open.

Sam startled upright and watched Dean straighten like they'd been doing something wrong.

John looked at them for a moment, sensing something. He looked at the room in a moment's time, taking in the packed duffel and the body language between his boys. Sam could have sworn he saw something in his father's eyes for just a moment, something like resignation, but it didn't last long enough to be clear and he was too busy bracing himself for a fight to really register it.

Something was already changing, a dynamic shifting, things falling out of place. John watched Sam lift his chin a little and recognized the signs of a challenge. He watched Dean's eyes dart between them and reminded himself that of the two of them, only one really needed looking after.

No sense dragging it out. No sense making it easy, either. He'd always meant for it to happen, in another life, a life where he'd set up college funds for his boys, a life where salt stayed on the goddamn dinner table, a life where it was impossible that something unimaginable would try and run his boys down or slaughter them in their sleep. If he wasn't watching them, anything could happen to them. He only made it seem like he wasn't watching so they wouldn't feel crowded.

"You're supposed to be researching," John said to Sam without looking at him.

"I was," Sam said, standing.

"Then get back to it," John said and moved to step past him.

"I'll finish what I can," Sam said.

John paused, close enough to Sam that any other time Sam might have stepped back a pace. Sam had his full height and something even taller in his eyes, and he stood with chin still lifted. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"I got accepted to Stanford," Sam said evenly, keeping his gaze level. "I'm leaving in the morning."

There. There it was. No stammering or hesitation, just the whole bomb dropped in the middle of the room. It was all out. Soft and sure of tone, so adult and settled. Strung tight enough to play concertos on, but holding it together.

In that other life, it would have been pride and only pride in his son that painted John's thoughts into corners; amazement and joy and celebration. In this life, the one without salt on dinner tables, the life without dinner tables , there was nothing but fear. And a man who'd spent the previous eighteen years learning to ignore fear just didn't have the strength to fight down fear for his boys, even if it was irrational. After the initial flash of pride and awe there was nothing but a flood of he'll be in once place for too long and everything will find him and finally how do I go on without Sammy.

He'd always thought of Dean as the perfect mix and culmination of himself and Mary. Sam he'd always seen as his last true link to Mary and the life they'd had.

"No," he said. "Quit fooling around and get back to work."

The look Sam gave him then gave him all the cues he needed. There was some small moment of satisfaction in his youngest son's face.

Somewhere around the age of eight Sam had made his father realize he was raising an alpha male that was going to lock horns with him on a scale that Dean never would or could. Dean, who did everything to play the part but ended up caught between them more often than not.

"I don't think you heard me," Sam said, voice still low but faintly incredulous. "I'm leaving. I've got a scholarship to Stanford and I'm not a minor anymore, and I'm gonna do what I want to, now."

"Which is what, exactly?" John said, unable to keep the reflexive derision out of his voice. "Write papers and hang out with other kids? Conform like a sheep?"

Sam's jaw tightened and Dean's eyes rocketed between them, watching his heart and soul stand toe to toe.

"Spoken like someone who never tried college," Sam said.

"Watch your mouth, Sammy," John said in a low, warning undertone.

"Is that an order?"

Sam's tone was so soft and pitched toward respect that it was more of a call to arms than a sneer would have been.

"You don't just get to decide one day to stop being part of this team," John said. "You're done when I say you're done."

"When would that be, exactly?" Sam said, a skitter of laughter around the edges while he tilted his head with a shake. "I'm not asking your permission. You don't own me."

"This is one more stunt, isn't it," John said. "This is the length you'll go to just to piss me off."

Dean watched Sam pale. From the look on John's face, he'd just realized the level of childish insensitivity he'd reached while trying to crowd Sam back into line. No matter what it took to get into Stanford, for Christ's sake, something he'd never imagined or aspired to, something Sam deserved -

Well, shit. No taking it back.

Sam's temper - Mary's really, by all accounts - slipped. "Face it, dad," he said. "I'm a little old now to play Great Winchester Snipe Hunt. For all we know, you got drunk and started the fire yourself."

There should have been a shove, or a fist; for most other things John was still capable of grabbing either boy by the scruff of the neck and shaking until sense returned. What he resorted to out of pain and panic would reverberate for years and miles.

Dean flinched at the sharp, cold report of the slap as if he was taking it himself.

Sam was so pale with rage that it took only seconds for the imprint of John's hand to stand out in stinging contrast on the left side of his face.

The silence was full of enough emotion to make the room seem humid and stark enough that Sam and John both heard the hitch in Dean's breathing.

"Go ahead," John said, nodding toward the door. "And stay gone. Do you understand?"

Sam was breathing hard through his nose and flexing his hands like he meant for things to get more physical than they had. He didn't hear the unspoken parts of what his father said, please and I never wanted this. Too angry to face the fact that Dean wasn't equipped to handle what was going on in front of him, Sam felt the insult and little else.

"Not a problem," he said, voice still as calm as he was capable of making it. "Sir."

But neither of them would drop their eyes first.

"Try not to hold Dean hostage too long," Sam said.

John raised his hands to grab Sam, but Dean was already there, shoving Sam back several steps. Sam shoved him back out of reflex, still staring at John with raw emotion. Squaring his shoulders, he moved for the bed and jerked his duffel off it, still breathing hard. When he headed for the door he didn't look at either John or Dean, and neither man tried to stop him, each for the own reasons. John because he knew better and Dean because he was caught between.

Dean didn't see the regret on John's face. To him and his limited experience with anything but gruffness from his father, it looked like a challenge. It looked like which one of us are you more loyal to , and he froze in an agony of indecision. John watched him panic and didn't do anything to tip the balance, seeing too much of what he feared in his boys in such a short space of minutes.

Instinctive adoration finally won out and Dean bolted for the door.

John sagged in relief.

-|-

~Two days later

Sam had seen his dorm-mate twice but couldn't even remember what the hell the guy looked like.

Admissions and orientation and acclimation, dates and times and one syllabus after another, and he hadn't even unpacked yet because he was waiting for someone to stop him on the commons and tell him there'd been a misunderstanding.

Finally he was too exhausted to care.

Hoping for something familiar besides his own clothing, he pulled his bag across the narrow twin bed shoved against one wall and opened it all the way, taking inventory. Keepsakes. A couple of books and photos. He was going to find a frame for the one so carefully tucked into the pages of a decrepit, original hardback copy of Tennyson. It was a picture he never remembered being in; a lovely blond woman whose smile he'd never felt land on him, a father who wasn't obsessed or broken, a brother who wasn't frantic or forcibly pressed into a mold he could never withstand. The family he'd been born to.

He didn't cut himself, but it was close.

He opened the bag far enough to let light in, and he stared at what he could see of the curved blade he'd been carrying from the time he was fourteen until he'd left for school. He'd purposely left all his weapons behind, knowing he was done hunting. But he'd obviously been walking all over campus, blithely carrying something that would have earned him all kinds of the wrong attention.

Cursing, he carefully lifted the unprotected blade out of the bottom of the bag and tore a bit of folded notebook paper off the point. As he unfolded it, Dean's handwriting unfolded with it and a packet of salt dropped into his lap.

If you fuck this up, I'll kill you

It was just typical Dean.

Sam tucked the blade between the mattress and box spring of the bed and unpacked what little else he had while he was at it.

If he later briefly pressed the page to his nose to see if he could catch anything of his brother's aftershave or cologne off it before he folded it behind the finally-framed picture, hoping for a hint of the only home he'd ever known, he would never admit to it.

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