Disclaimer: Supernatural and its characters are the property of Eric Kripke. Sadly, I do not own any of these guys.

"I said no, Sam. You're not going and that's final." John didn't even look up from the knife he was sharpening on the whetstone, not interested in seeing the anger that was sure to be etched into every feature of his youngest son's face – and seemed to be every time they spoke to each other these days.

"It's graduation, Dad!" Sam shouted, his eyes boring holes into his father's forehead from across the shaky motel table. "You know, that night most parents wouldn't dream of missing because they're actually proud of their kids for getting through high school? I know you're not like everyone else's parents, but I'd think you would want to get to see at least one of your kids graduate in your lifetime."

Across the room, Dean winced from his seat on the foot of the bed, hating to have his failure to graduate brought into this argument once again. This wasn't about him anyway, so why did Sam always have to bring that up? To make him look like a failure or something?

"That's enough, Sam," John growled, finally looking up and placing the knife and whetstone down on the table so he could focus all of his attention on his youngest. "You can miss this one little ceremony if it means saving more lives. It's not like they'll keep your diploma from you."

"That's not the point!" Now Sam was standing, palms pressed against the tabletop as if to give him strength. "I'm the damn valedictorian, Dad. That means –"

"You think some high marks on a few high school tests make you smarter than me? I damn well know what a valedictorian is, Sam! Don't you dare talk down to me!" John shouted back, the creases around his eyes deepening as he stared daggers at his son.

Dean rolled his eyes. Great, now they were both yelling. He wasn't sure he had the energy to play mediator tonight.

"Yeah? Well you sure don't act like you know what it means! I would've thought my having the highest scores in the entire school would mean something to you."

"Sure it does," John said acidly. "It means you spent all your time reading some useless social studies and math books when you should've been studying exorcisms and Devil's Traps. It means I was right to think your heart isn't really in this. It means, Sam, that you're a slacker."

Sam's eyes widened for a second, and he swallowed hard, obviously fighting to keep his composure. Then he stared up at John, wet eyes hard and cold, and pulled a small piece of paper out of the pocket of his hoodie. John snatched the letter from Sam's hands, eyes narrowing further with every word he read, and Sam spoke again, his tone full of spite and pride.

"Would a slacker have gotten a full ride to Stanford?"

"What?" Dean said from across the room, leaping up to take the letter from John's trembling hands. "Sammy, you… College?"

Sam nodded, obviously itching for a fight with either of them and silently daring his brother to challenge him right now. Dean just stared at him, heart pounding somewhere in the vicinity of his throat and making it very difficult to breathe. So Sam was really thinking of leaving them after all?

"When?" Dean asked, suddenly feeling a lot smaller and less powerful than he was used to.

"Classes start in August," Sam answered calmly, his eyes meeting Dean's and softening for a fraction of a second. "I'll probably leave at the end of July so I can get settled in there."

"The hell you will," John spat, finally managing to find his voice again. "School is done for you, Sam. You're gonna get your head in the game and start training harder than you've ever trained before. I need you focused if you're ever going to catch up to me and Dean."

"I wasn't asking your permission," Sam hissed back, snatching the letter back from Dean and stuffing it in his pocket. "I'm going to graduation tonight, and I'm going to college whether you like it or not. You can't hold me back anymore, Dad." A half-hysterical laugh bubbled up from his throat as his red-faced father advanced a step toward him. "What are you gonna do, huh? Hit me? Force more training on me? Sorry, Dad, but frankly there isn't jack shit you can do to keep me under your thumb anymore."

John's left hand flew out so fast Sam didn't even have time to defend himself, and he staggered a few steps away from the force of the backhand to his face, stars dancing in his eyes where his father's wedding band had struck his cheekbone. Dean immediately stepped between them, pushing John back and glaring at his father while he listened to Sam steadying himself behind him.

"Enough, Dad," he said firmly. "Enough."

John pushed past him, grabbing Sam by the collar of his shirt and pinning the taller man against the wall. "Now you listen here," he snarled, becoming angrier with every second Sam stared coldly back at him instead of averting his eyes. "You'd better get your shit together before I kick you out on your useless ass. You don't want to be a part of this family anymore? You want to forget all about your mother and disgrace her memory every day of your miserable life? Then go. I won't stop you."

He quickly let go of Sam, shoving him toward the door and his duffel a lot more roughly than necessary. His next words were calm, almost detached.

"But you'd better think carefully about whether this is what you want. If you walk out that door right now, Sam, don't you ever come back."

Dean gasped, staring at his father and wishing he could get words to come from his suddenly dry throat, praying he could communicate exactly how crazy the man was being right now. You can't tell Sam to leave, Dad! You can't! We need him! I need him!

Sam nodded slowly, reaching down to pick up his bag and staring mournfully at his older brother. "Sorry, Dean…" he seemed to say with just a look.

Sammy, no…

And then, without even a backwards glance at his father, Sam was gone, slamming the motel door behind him and leaving the room that only minutes ago had been full of noise in bitter silence.

An hour and a half later found Dean screeching into the school's parking lot in the Impala, sliding into a parking place and barely putting it in park before he was out the door and dashing toward the auditorium. Sam's graduation ceremony started at seven-thirty, and it was already almost eight; hopefully he hadn't already missed his brother's speech.

It hadn't taken long after Sam left for Dean to decide he was going to the graduation whether John did or not. If Sam was leaving for real this time – and Dean knew his dad had been dead serious, so more likely than not Sam wasn't coming back – he was going to at least see him off with a smile on his face, not sit in silence while his father berated Sam like he was nothing but trash. Ten minutes ago he'd flung open the motel door, telling John he was going out for a drink. If the older hunter had suspected he was lying, he hadn't said anything to stop him.

At three minutes 'til eight, Dean plunked himself down in one of the few empty seats left in the very front. He wanted to be able to see Sam as closely as possible, especially because no matter what John might say, being the student with the highest grade-point average out of his entire class despite bouncing around from school to school his whole life and hunting as well, was pretty damn impressive.

Dean was beginning to worry that Sam had already spoken when a lone student stood up from the crowd of about a hundred seniors, walking to the stage at the front and standing a little awkwardly behind the enormous wooden podium. Even in the long maroon robes and strange-looking graduation cap, his shaggy-haired giant of a little brother was unmistakable. And, Dean realized with a sinking feeling, so was his brother's poker face, the one no one else in the room but Dean would know meant he was unbelievably upset and determined not to show it. One of the teachers introduced Sam as the Class of 2001's valedictorian, and then the mic was turned over to Sam.

"Hi, everyone," he began softly, a nervous smile ticking in the corners of his mouth. "Like Mrs. Roberson just said, my name is Sam Winchester. A lot of you probably don't know me very well, and I feel like those who do probably don't know me as well as I'd like them to." Dean swallowed nervously, but Sam didn't elaborate on that topic any further.

"Anyway, I'll make this quick, because I know you all are just as ready to get out of here and get on with your lives as I am." That got a small chuckle from the assembled students and parents. "When they asked me to do a speech about what high school means, I wasn't sure what to say. It's kind of impossible, when you really think about it. Everyone here has had a different experience from one another. Some of us have lived here since we were born; some of us haven't. For some, school is a playground; for others, a prison. Some people come here to learn, and some people just come here to sleep." Another chuckle, louder this time.

"Some of us made a lot of friends here, and some of us lost a lot of friends too. And for some people like me, high school has been the place that helped me decide where I want to go, what I want to do with the rest of my life. It helped me realize that you don't always have to be who everyone thinks you should, just because they say so. I have innumerable people to thank for that, but right now I want to name just a few. My teachers, for helping me gain the knowledge I needed to be successful in college and beyond. My friends and fellow students; even though none of you have known me very long, you've always helped me fit in here and welcomed me more than a nerdy new kid like me deserves.

"And lastly, but most importantly, my big brother. He's probably the biggest role model I'll ever have, and he's been almost like a father to me for as long as I've been alive." Here Sam's voice cracked a little, and Dean's heart along with it. "He, uh… He couldn't be here tonight, but… I know he wanted to." Sam cleared his throat roughly, wiping a stray tear from his eye before it could fall and ruin his mask of control, and then sniffed once, regaining his composure. A few women beside Dean whispered how sweet Sam was to think so highly of his older brother. Dean agreed wholeheartedly.

"Anyway, I'm not a great speaker by any means, but I'd like to leave you all with one last word of wisdom before we get out of here for good: Life is like a blank canvas. We may not all start off with the same colors of paint or the same quality fabric, but we all have the ability to make it into a masterpiece if we use our resources right. Thank you, everyone. I'm proud to be part of the class of 2001."

A roar of applause broke out in the room, and Sam smiled softly, stepping down and returning to his seat in the very back row of chairs. Dean swallowed hard, willing himself not to start crying in this group full of strangers. He was so proud of Sam right now he could barely stand it, and if Dad was anywhere in reach right now he'd probably punch him for making his brother think neither of them cared on a night this important to him. If there was one thing Dean would always care about, it was his little brother.

There were a couple more short speeches by some of the faculty that Dean barely paid attention to, and then they finally started calling the students' names to come up and receive their diploma covers. For a moment, Dean cursed his last name, since it meant Sam would be one of the very last to go up and collect his. He tapped his foot impatiently, politely applauding the other eighty-five or so students that came before Sam, and then he saw his brother walking up toward the stage again.

"Go, Sammy!" he shouted right before Sam's name was called, but Sam couldn't hear him; there were too many other families cheering for their kids, and he was only one person. That was not okay – Sam had to know he was here. "Think, Dean, think…" He found a solution with only seconds to spare, and the moment Sam's name was called, Dean put his fingers to his lips and whistled, three high, sharp notes in quick succession that John had trained the two of them to use as a distress signal whenever they were too far apart to see each other.

That signal was so ingrained in Sam's memory he reacted to it purely on instinct; his head snapped toward the audience, his eyes wide, and he nearly fell off the stage when he saw Dean's face. He stumbled, saved from a face-plant by two helpful teachers who caught him under the arms and steadied him, and then the younger Winchester hurriedly accepted his diploma and got off the stage, striding back to his chair and tapping his leg impatiently while he waited for the last three names to be called. He tossed his cap into the air with everyone else when the ceremony concluded, and then he was up and out of his seat, rushing over to Dean as the older Winchester hopped over the railing at the front of the spectator seating to join him. When Sam reached him, Dean grabbed his brother into a tight hug, patting his back as Sam squeezed him back.

"Congrats, bro," Dean said as he released Sam, smirking at the hat-hair created by the graduation cap. "Looks like at least one of us has some brains, huh?"

"You… you made it," Sam said quietly, beaming but still obviously in a little bit of shock.

"You're damn right I made it."

"But Dad –"

"I don't give a rat's ass about Dad right now. You let me deal with him; this is about you."

"Yeah… Dean…" Now Sam's expression had returned to sad and borderline-teary, and Dean knew what he was going to say before he even said it. Dean held up a hand to silence him, waiting until they'd walked out of the building and over to the quiet corner of the parking lot where the Impala waited before speaking again. Sam had grabbed his duffel from his locker on the way; apparently he had stored it during the ceremony since he couldn't leave it at the motel.

"You're not coming back. I know," Dean said in a monotone, not looking at Sam now as he leaned on the Impala's hood.

"And you're okay with that?"

"Honestly? No. But if this is what you need to do, I'll deal. I'll miss you like hell, but I'll deal."

"Thanks," Sam said quietly, knowing there was so much more they had just said without needing to speak. "Well, I guess I should get going. I, uh… I sort of figured Dad might react like this when I got the letter a week ago, so I had already made plans to leave after tonight. Bought a bus ticket and everything. I already have reservations in the dorms, too, because of the scholarship. I was gonna tell you, but…"

"Yeah, I understand. Anyway, how about I at least give you a ride to the bus station? I know you took a city bus to get down here, but they don't run this late at night and it's kind of a long way to walk."

Sam nodded, and they spent the entirety of the short drive to the bus station in silence. Dean didn't even turn the radio on; it was much too solemn an occasion for rock music. When they got there, Sam got out quietly, his eyes averted from his brother's as he found the bus ticket in his bag and checked to make sure he could see which one he'd be boarding. Then he turned back to Dean, eyes shiny as he watched his big brother checking the Impala to make sure none of Sam's things were still lingering in the seats or floor. He wouldn't be riding in that car anymore, not ever again.

Seeming to read his thoughts, Dean finished his inspection and turned to Sam, pulling him into another, longer hug and patting his back again.

"Make me proud, Sammy," he said softly, beaming as he pulled away from the younger Winchester. "You're such a nerd, I know I don't really have to worry, but keep me posted anyway, huh? Just a text now and then so I'll know you're having at least a little fun between classes?"

"Yeah," Sam croaked, feeling his throat getting tight. "I promise."

"Good." Dean reached into his pocket, dropping something into the pocket of Sam's duffel and zipping it up before he could see what it was. "No peeking 'til you're on the bus." Dean sighed, took one last look around, and then looked back at Sam. "Well, I guess you'd better get going. Don't wanna be late."

"Yeah. Thanks, Dean. For everything."

Dean nodded and smiled, and Sam flipped his bag over his shoulder, crossing to the other side of the bus and finding a window seat at the back where he could still see the outline of the Impala under the faint streetlights. He watched as Dean got in and slowly pulled away, his face glued to the glass until even the taillights had faded out of sight, and then opened the bag as the bus started pulling out of the station.

A lump formed in his throat as he pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills, totaling almost two thousand dollars – all of the money Dean had earned at his minimum-wage part-time job for the last two months. He really did owe his brother more than he could ever repay, and finally it began to hit him that he was leaving Dean along with his father and the hunter's life.

It was only then, sitting on his own at the back of the bus, that Sam finally let himself break down and cry, covering his face with his hands and weeping softly as he was taken farther and farther away from the only family he'd ever known. And a few miles away in the other direction, in an abandoned parking lot he'd pulled into only moments before, Dean laid his head on the steering wheel of the Impala and did the same.