Four days after Dad disappears, Dean knows he's coming back.
Four weeks after he doesn't, Dean holds onto Sam's hand in the back of a car pointed toward their new foster family. He doesn't know how far they're going and he doesn't know if it's for good, but they're together, and he knows they'll be okay.
Four months and four families later, Dean rides back to the group home alone, and he doesn't know anything anymore.
He'd left everything that mattered back at that big house — Dad's shirt and their photos and his heart — but it's only Sam he misses. Sam, who can't sleep without the stuffed frog he was willing to give up just so Dean wouldn't be alone.
Dean is nine years old, and he can't sleep without his baby brother. They've been sharing cribs and couches and motel mattresses since he was four, and even folded on the floor between the bed and the back wall, hands locked around his knees, his arms still feel empty.
The Field Museum, Sammy. We'll meet there on your eighteenth birthday; that way, no one can tell you no.
Four years after that first sleepless night, all Dean knows is a date. May 2, 2001.
He can sleep on his own now, but he's never given up on Sam.
The first one is a fucking disaster.
It's a squat splotch of green on the back of one arm, brand new and somehow already faded. He can only make out what it's supposed to be if he squints one eye and tilts his head to the right, and even then the thing still looks like road kill, which probably serves him right for getting tattooed in some guy's trailer. But Sammy is ten today, honest-to-god double digits, and Dean is fourteen and has spent as many years without Sam as he ever did with him and has to do something to make the ache a little easier.
For all he knows, that damn frog is at the bottom of a landfill by now. But once upon a time, it'd been the only thing Sam loved that he was allowed to keep.
Two days later the tat is more red than green, and no one at Mercy Home lays eyes on it until he's scratched himself bloody and passed out doing the dinner dishes. He watches the lights streak by from Mr. Porter's passenger seat, dizzy and delirious and dreaming of the frog in Sam's five-year-old fingers. Can you keep him since you can't keep me?
In the ER, when he shivers and cries and covers the patch of hot skin with his palm, begging them not to take it away, the nurse smiles and puts a hand on his cheek and swears that it's just the fever talking.
He hitches his way to Hammond, where the legal ink age is eighteen. He's still three years shy, but his brother is eleven now, and losing him has made Dean older than he'll ever look.
The guy behind the counter is too geeked that Dean's feigned interest in the other hobby on display — a tank full of iguanas and a massive albino python — to bother checking his ID. And Dean doesn't have to fake it in the industrial garage across the street, the one that houses a pair of snow leopards, a fleet of classic cars, and, behind a side door, a baby black bear eating a steak the size of his head.
Back in the shop, there are samples and a set of gloves and an actual swab of disinfectant. The outline only stings in the long line below his bicep and the color feels like feathers on his skin, and then he's staring at Oatmeal through dots of blood and a layer of Saran wrap. As close as he can remember, anyway. He hasn't seen Sam's stuffed bear since the werewolf thing in Mississippi.
Oatmeal had been missing an eye even before Dad needed an impromptu silencer for a silver bullet. Sammy had slept with the stuffing and cried for a week, until Dean used his leftover lunch money on a battered old frog from the Salvation Army that Sam had refused to name.
There's a smaller square of cellophane south of the frog, covering the shadow of Oatmeal's missing eye. Tony the tattoo artist had shaken his head at the former ("That is a goddamn Greek tragedy, right there," he'd muttered), but hadn't asked about the latter. Which is fine by him. The eye is for Sam, and Sam will understand.
All lost things don't stay that way.
They're supposed to be working on some theorem or other, but all the shapes on Dean's paper are made up of the same three points.
He's holding a solid C in Geometry, the lowest grade he can get away with and stay in good standing with social services. Mr. Duncan is watching him like he knows what Dean's doing, managing to look disappointed and drone on about parts of congruent triangles being congruent all at the same time, but concentration was never in the cards. Not today. So he spins the sheet in infinite directions, layering one dot on top of the other and connecting them with lines of dark ink, and keeps an eye on the clock, counting down to twelve like he has been all year.
Ten minutes after the bell he's on a bus to Boystown, where a wink and a smile will get him just about anything.
Angel has a spike in his lip and a shirt made of mesh, with a set of wings across his shoulder blades and a trail of dark arrows disappearing beneath his waistband. He squints at the sheet of jagged-edged wide rule and smoothes it out on the table, painted fingers pressing all the folds flat.
"This is pretty, honey. Is it tribal?"
Dean figures it is, in a way. Sam's the only tribe he's got left. But something about explaining it seems wrong — too complicated, too compromising, too much — and he shrugs and smiles wider to cover. "Couldn't tell you. Pretty's good enough for me."
"Mmhmm." Angel shakes his head. "And don't you know it." But he grins back before he gets to work, tracing through tissue-thin transfer paper.
The blackwork hurts like a bitch and the custom job costs half his rent. But when it's done, it's a maze of swirls and space and the specks of Sam's moles, like a fingerprint on his forearm, and it's worth the pain and every fucking penny.
Angel's boyfriend Wade whistles when he sees it, slips an arm around Angel's waist and pulls him close. "It's good," he says. "It's really good. You should snap it for your book."
Dean blinks at the long line that follows the vein under his wrist, the one that won't stop bleeding, and Angel takes a deep breath.
"Love to," he answers. "But that one's not even a little bit mine."
John Winchester had put a lot of stock in the power of one number.
He'd tried to explain it once, after he'd caught Dean clutching a flashlight and flipping through his journal in a fort of faintly-mildewed sheets, trying to make out the chicken scratch. How there are thirteen turns to a noose and thirteen steps to the gallows. Thirteen witches in a coven, thirteen long calendar counts before the end of the world. Thirteen letters in Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy and Jack the Ripper. Some of the stories sounded cool enough, but Dean had mostly been looking for monsters. For all the things Dad said they had to hunt, to keep them from taking another boy's mother.
John Winchester left their last motel on Friday, May 13, 1988, and Dean had never seen his Dad again. And the number still hadn't meant shit to him until he had thirteen years to wait for his brother.
The Thursday of Sam's thirteenth birthday, Dean has a late shift and a date with a dinosaur. He's just the shop apprentice — they pay him to clean and take calls and canvas Clark Street with a sandwich board, for chrissakes — but he gets a discount, and he gets to watch, so it's a pretty sweet setup.
Come closing time, he preps a station while Angel puts the finishing touches on some guy's Cinco de Mayo job — a dancing skeleton with a sombrero and a six-shooter — and goes to toss the paper Benny's last customer had left behind, when a story catches his eye. The whole thing is about ten lines long and shoved into one corner below the fold, just a few dry facts and a toll-free tip number and a headline that leaves his head numb.
He stays silent while Angel shades Sue's skull on his shoulder, winds her spine down his arm to etch each curve of her tail into the crook of his elbow.
Sam discovered dinosaurs at two and spent the entire summer roaring like a T. rex, even in his sleep. Dean thought about adding the real thing to his arm, skin and scales and the whole shebang, but Sue had been the biggest and best of her kind. Maybe the last. The museum has just put her skeleton on display, their museum, and if that's not a sign, he doesn't know what is.
Besides, it's turning out to be a good night for bones.
"Somebody's quiet tonight," Angel says. He smoothes oil over the new ink and snorts. "Even for you."
In the mirror, his shoulder is slick and red with short claws and sharp teeth. Sue stares back at him with empty eyes, and he wonders what in the world could be powerful enough to kill something like her, something larger than life.
Herrick Lake Hiker Discovers Human Remains.
Five years on the road, another eight living in limbo, and that's what it comes down to. Dean can't even remember what the hell had been hiding in those woods. What thing Dad had been hunting, that had only taken him, too.
He clears his throat and crumples the paper in his fist. "You got someplace to be right now?"
Angel raises an eyebrow. "Besides my bed? Not a one."
The gun goes in along the inside of his upper arm, two digits making up the trigger and "Winchester" written down the barrel. For Dad's bones, and Sam's blood, and what Dean owes them both.
He's not the biggest and he'll never be the best, but he isn't the last, either.
It's his first Friday off in months. But Sam is fourteen now, the same age Dean was when the tat bug had bitten him (along with a shitload of staph), and that calls for something special.
He flips through flash sheets for over an hour and comes up with exactly squat, and suddenly there's a sharp slice of panic. There's always been an idea in his head, some spark of a memory he can make flesh. But maybe his memories are fading.
The last time he'd seen Sam, Dean had hoped he wouldn't remember the life they led once. The running, the tracking, the hunters and the hunted. Sam had a clear shot at normal, at being a little boy instead of a little man, and it had taken everything Dean had to ignore Dad's voice in his head, to keep himself from making Sam swear to salt his windows every night. He'd drawn a picture instead, before the social worker had dragged him away — four stick figures all in a row, like those stupid stickers showing up on the back of minivans everywhere. So Sam wouldn't forget that he'd had a family before it all, a father who'd fought for him and a mother who'd died for him and a brother who'd wait for him forever.
He'd drawn Sam a picture.
And on the back, he'd written a date.
There's a stack of napkins on a desk in the office, under Wade's spare pack of American Spirits. His fingers form the shapes over and over again, try to put each line where it's supposed to be, but it always looks just as it had then. Like the shaky scrawl of a nine-year-old boy who has to tell his whole world goodbye.
He jumps at the sounds of Angel's voice, and something spills from one eye and rolls down his nose and lands on one corner of the paper, leaving a wet spot behind.
Angel tilts his head a little and takes a step forward. "You okay there?"
"Yeah," Dean grunts. His voice sounds hoarse and his throat feels thick, and he turns to swipe at his face and shove the napkins toward the trash. "Thought you took off."
"Please, I have you programmed into my Palm Pilot for the next decade." Angel drops his bag and claps his hands together and pointedly ignores the whole scene, which bodes well for the future of their friendship. "For the record, if whatever vision you've got in that pretty little head is anything like last year's, we need to talk Starbucks and a Swedish masseuse."
"For the record, fuck you very much. No way you get a hot boy and a hot beverage." Dean scrounges up a blank napkin, scribbles a series of steadier lines, and shoves it across the desk. "That's all I need."
The lines get blacked in in block letters on the left side of his chest, each one the same forwards and backwards.
It goes by in a blur, and he barely feels a thing. Then Angel is pulling off his gloves and picking up his bag, and Dean slides his shirt over his head and stops him at the door.
"Hey," he calls, quietly. "Thanks, man."
"Anytime. Which I assume will be right around a year from now." Angel smiles and adjusts the strap around his neck. "You know, one day, you're gonna have to tell me what all this means."
Dean's already waited nine years, and it only feels like forever. But he's finally eighteen — done with school, free of the system. All he has to do now is wait for Sam to catch up, and hope to hell that he hasn't forgotten.
May second, two thousand and one. Say it, Sammy.
He pulls his shirt down and puts a hand over the new line above his heart. V-II-MMI.
"If it ends up meaning anything," he says, "maybe I will."
His roommate's graduating and heading to grad school in the fall, and Dean takes a tiny studio on Sheridan that's closer to the shop. It's got an ancient elevator and no AC and a view of a brick wall from the bathroom, but he can walk to work and sleep in when he's closing and crank up his music without getting glared at.
He's stiff as shit after the move, still feeling a truckload of stuff and twenty trips up the stairs everywhere that can ache, but it's Saturday night, the shop is packed, and somewhere, Sam's turned fifteen.
It's a hard thing to wrap his head around. Sammy at five, the Sammy in his head, had loved the Berenstein Bears and bubblegum ice cream and gone to bed with a stuffed animal in his arms. Dean had already been all about Black Sabbath and Bad Company, known all about bullets and bloodshed and things that went bump in the night. His bedtime stories came from the back of Dad's journal, and he'd slept with a KA-BAR under his pillow.
After a decade, Dean is still his father's son. Doesn't know how to be anything else. But he hadn't been sweet and smart and just shy of six, starting from scratch as some couple's new kid, and he can't help but wonder how much of his Sam is left.
The book is full, the phone is covered, and the sound system CD is giving him hives, so he heads to the back and puts on his headphones and gets the autoclave going, letting Led Zeppelin drown out the douche rock.
He's unpacking the new needle shipment to the string chorus from "Kashmir" when Wade comes in, Angel right behind him.
Wade slumps against the wall, pressing his fingers into his eyes. "I've been working on that back piece for five hours."
Angel puts a hand on the back of Wade's neck and squeezes. "By all means, feel free to switch with me. Chris is back for a collar, he's still got his Hawks beard, and it has not seen shampoo. I'm pretty sure there's something living in there." He screws up his face and waves a hand in Dean's direction. "Honey, we can hear that. And not only are you headed for hearing loss at that volume, it's like guitar gumbo with what's going on out here already. I really can't take a migraine on top of man stench and Puddle of Mudd and whatever it is that you're mumbling."
"Physical Graffiti," Wade says with a smile. "Nice." Dean grins while Angel glares, and Wade puts his hands up and shrugs. "What? I'm just saying, it totally works in context."
"Go smoke your cigarette." Angel shoves him toward the door and points a finger at Dean. "You. It's two in the morning. I am sleepy. I am sore. I spent my entire day off hauling your crap up the stairway to hell — a reference I only know how to make because of the ear-splitting soundtrack — and I still have the May Second Mystery to tackle. So as soon as I finish with beard boy and can breathe through my nose again, we're going to put up the closed sign, put your butt in a chair, and put on some Sondheim like civilized people. Capeesh?"
Dean blinks. "What the hell is a Sondheim?"
Angel's lip curls in disgust, and Dean snorts as the door swings shut. Civilized people. Like the ones that had taken his brother and left him behind.
Sam at five had played his first air guitar to "Houses of the Holy," after watching Dean do it the day before. He wonders if Sam at fifteen would know Zeppelin from a hole in the wall.
The computer in the office takes forever to connect, but he finally finds the sheets online. They close up shop and set up a station, and he slips his headphones over Angel's ears so he can feel it the beat of it in his fingers while he works.
"Still sounds like a hot mess to me," Angel says, setting the gun aside, "but god, does it look gorgeous."
The staff spans the back of Dean's forearm from his wrist to his elbow, five lines filled with notes and ties and the curl of a treble clef. It's just a snippet of the song, just the first third of the first verse, but right now, it's the most important part. Then, as it was, and again will be…
"Ten years gone."
He sings the words under his breath, so soft it sounds like a prayer. Angel looks up, and Dean looks away.
One day, maybe Sam will sing the rest.
The shop opens late on Sundays, so when he makes Angel meet him long before business hours, he has sense enough to show up with Starbucks. Angel stares over dark sunglasses, looking expectant and exhausted, and Dean shrugs.
"Hey, one out of two ain't bad."
He pulls the flash out of his bag, a full sheet he'd commissioned from some kid at Columbia. It'd taken two rounds of revisions to get it just right, but this one, at least, he's been planning for a while.
"Okay," Angel says. "Seven o'clock on Sunday morning, and this is what I'm working with. I gotta tell ya, honey, for a guy with a teddy bear tattooed on his arm, I think you're overcompensating." He eyes all the gradient work and groans. "I'm gonna need more coffee."
Dean takes a last look before they get started, and lets himself remember. The gleam off the chrome and the growl from the engine and the groan of the driver's side door.
It has to suck to turn sixteen on a Sunday. Dean had only gotten a license to look better on paper — he's as big a gearhead as his father had been, but gas is expensive, parking's a bitch, and his feet are totally free. He hops a bus wherever he can't walk. But for a normal kid growing up in a normal family in some normal northwest suburb, it's probably not the sweetest sixteen.
There's no room on his arm anymore, not for something like this, and Angel inks it in from shoulder to spine. Dean contorts like a Cirque performer to see it in the full-length mirror, and the forced perspective makes it all front end, but it's a black beast on his back, down to the last detail — twin headlights and high beam cages and heavy grill below the hood, tiny letters on a Kansas plate. So good he can see everything that isn't there. The blood on the bumper and the gun in the glove compartment and the arsenal tucked away in the trunk.
Dad had let him drive it once, just to pull into a parking spot in some backwoods motel lot. Dean hadn't been tall enough to push the pedals, toes just touching the brake, but he'd turned the wheel like a pro.
Sam had barely gotten as far as the front seat. Sliding across the bench on his big brother's lap, little hands gripping the steering wheel and Dean's arms locked around him like a seat belt. Most days he was buckled up in the back, swearing it was a space ship, saying someday he'd fly it to the moon.
Dean thinks of Sam, sixteen and suburban and driving some safety-rated piece of shit, and feels a twinge of sadness.
Then he thinks of Sam, happy, healthy, normal in a way he never would've been, and gets the fuck over it.
When he'd told the guys what he needed the week before, Angel had seemed a little off.
"Great, more sleep for me," he'd said, and sniffed. "Well you know I'm shit at it, but if you're up for a trek…" He'd gone digging through his bag and come out with a card, holding it out in two fingers. "Ask for Charlie. Best in the business."
Dean's been on three buses and a Red Line train, he's standing in some hole-in-the-wall shop on Stony Island, and Charlie is a chick. A hot one, with close-cropped hair and caramel colored skin and a copper stud in one cocked eyebrow.
"Yeah," she says, "your face right now? Exactly why I go by Charlie."
She sits him down on a couch in the corner, a big pad balanced on her knees. "So. Tell me."
It starts off stunted, stumbling over the shape of his face and the color of his eyes, the moles that seem to move every time Dean dreams. She tilts her head and smiles in places, her pencil sweeping and stroking and scratching while he speaks, and soon he's spilling his guts, making excuses — why he doesn't have any photos, why the only pictures in his head are twelve years old, why this matters so much.
When she puts the paper in his hands, his brain forgets how to breathe. Sammy stares back at him, all round cheeks and freckled nose and hair falling into his eyes, and he tries to imagine living with this face on his flesh for the rest of his life if he never actually sees Sam again.
"Jesus," he chokes out. The pad falls to the floor as he tries to find his feet. "Fuck. I can't —"
"Whoa, hey." Charlie slides from her seat to kneel in front of him, hands in the bends of his elbows. "It's okay. Lots of people think they want portrait work done, but it's not easy and it's not for everybody. It's fine."
Dean takes a breath and tries to swallow, closes his eyes so the room will stop spinning. "This was the plan," he chokes out. He's not sure if he's talking to her or himself. "I have to get something for him."
"Then we wing it. You can talk, and I can listen, and we'll meet somewhere in the middle."
Everything is warm — her eyes and her voice and her palms on his arms — and he nods before he can stop himself. Her hand finds a drawer in the side table, pulls out a pen with a paintbrush beneath the cap. She looks at his arm and presses her lips together, but the laugh falls out anyway.
"So," she says, "who exactly killed Kermit?"
He tells her about his first bout of bad judgment and his close encounter with a baby bear, about diner food and dive motels and his Dad's classic rock habit, about the brother he had once and hopes he will again, and she finally tugs off his shirt and sketches directly on his skin, stopping between stories to blow the brushstrokes dry.
Dean talks until the sun goes down and the staff goes home and he doesn't recognize the sound of his own voice, and by the time she's gone over it all with dye and a gun, it's barely Sam's birthday anymore. But all the blanks have been filled in — she's wound every town into the road up his arm, mapped the new flames on his wrist to the old bones on his shoulder, and there's a path crawling over his collar bone, from the back of the Impala to the front of the museum, a line of Roman numerals at its steps.
She sends him home with the portrait, rolled up inside two paper towel tubes, but he'll never use it now. It'll take a year for him to know if he can look at it again.
It's done. Every inch of his arm is covered, and he doesn't have the space for anything else.
He's only saved room for Sam.
The sun is coming up over the lake, and Dean is sitting at the museum's front door.
He'd always thought about today in big, broad terms — in months and years and decades. Now that it's down to hours, maybe minutes, he's a little lost. There'd been no specific when or where, just here, and now, and no telling what either might be. So he's camped out at the crack of dawn, just in case this hasn't all been for nothing.
The first guard out front shoots him a strange look, even after Dean's said that he's meeting someone, but he can't give a crap about that, because the crowd's starting trickling in, and his eyes are combing their faces without a clue what he's looking for.
It gets overwhelming fast, searching every face for spots he last saw when Sam was five. There's the occasional lingering look or slow smile or giggling gaggle of girls, and one bold, balding dude who offers him more than directions.
"Seriously, man?" Dean says. "Who trolls for guys outside kiddie land?"
He starts getting antsy just after noon, when the sun coming off the cement makes him regret his black raglan. There's no other asshole out here in long sleeves — which may be why the guards still have eyes on him — but on the off chance that Sam actually shows up, Dean doesn't want the first impression to be his life story as told by some stranger's left arm.
It's crazy to think about how long he's carried Sam on his skin, and even now, when the day is here, he can't shake the feeling that he should be in a shop somewhere, finding some detail he'd forgotten.
He reaches for his right wrist and finds the little spot that's smoother than the rest, where Charlie had pressed a temp tattoo sheet at three this morning. "For luck," she'd said, and slid the backing paper free.
It's a four leaf clover, filmy and fake and already flaking off at the edges, but it's something that wasn't there yesterday, and it's enough for now.
The sun rounds the other side of the building, changing all of the shadows, counting down all Dean has left. He's never thought past today. All these years, he hoped he wouldn't have to.
A throat clears to his left. "Um, excuse me, are you waiting for somebody?"
Dean glares at the new guy, who's long and lean and the third person who's tried this in the last hour. "Do I look like I wanna be picked up right now?" He hooks a thumb to the north. "You know what, Clark Street is that way. Pride central. Go get your hump on and leave me the fuck alone."
He shifts on his feet and peers carefully into Dean's face, like the world's biggest puppy, but his eyes are a hazel Dean knows well, and something clenches in his chest.
"Sorry, I just…"
No way can this be Sam. He's too tall, too broad, too grown. But his hair is half swallowing his face, and there's a dimple where his mouth is clenched too tight, and —
"Is your name Dean?"
There are three moles on the guy's face, none of them where they're supposed to be, but everything's going so blurry that he can't be sure of anything anymore.
"Sammy?" he says. He waits for a nod, or a yes, but confirmation comes when Sam's face crumbles, and then Dean's nose is pressed into Sam's shoulder and he's holding on for dear life. They stand that way for fuck knows how long, two grown men clinging to each other in front of a curious crowd and some poor class' field trip, but Dean just closes his eyes and clutches Sam closer, his arms finally full again.
Sam pulls back after awhile, sniffling and swiping at his eyes, and Dean hangs onto a handful of his jacket, half-afraid it'll all disappear if he ever lets go.
There's a rip at the collar of Sam's shirt, which is soft and stretched and so faded that it's barely blue anymore. A worn piece of paper is folded in his hand, and something green and floppy pokes out of his pocket, and when Dean looks up into his face, it's flushed so red that his freckles are back.
"I wasn't sure how this was gonna work," he says, fingering the frog at the edge of Dad's shirt. "I mean, if you hadn't remembered, you wouldn't be here. I just thought, it couldn't hurt, right?"
Dean nods, because there's five years' worth of memories under his clothes, thirteen years of ink that came from the same fear, and every inch was worth it.
Sam smiles, giving him a glimpse of the boy he had been way back when.
"You wanna meet the rest of my family?"
The rest. As if Dean's still a part of it. As if he'd never left.
"Yeah," Dean says, "I do." And maybe Sam can meet his own makeshift bunch — Angel's protective fussing, Wade's pack-a-day habit, Charlie's endless peace.
He ruffles Sam's hair, a little for old time's sake, mostly just to touch him again. It's strange to reach up, but he'll get used to it.
There's a lifetime of new memories to make, and he has a whole lot of skin left to fill.