He's eighteen when Sam leaves for good, and he has a Colt Peacemaker his father gave him and the high school diploma Sam made him earn. Sam says he wants to be normal, and Dean can't even imagine what normal is like. He knows he wasn't born in the Impala: he knows he had a mother once, a home once, a family and a future. Knowing isn't the same as believing.
He's spent his whole life training to fight beside his father and Sam, waiting to be big enough, fast enough, smart enough. But with Sam gone things are different, and Dean isn't enough and maybe he never was. Three weeks, and his father leaves him in a motel in western New York, with a hundred dollars in cash and a handful of bullets. "What do I do?" he asks.
"Get a job," his dad says. "Keep your head down. I got something to see to, and I'll be back for you."
Dean watches the reflection of the taillights in the window. He plays pool, he plays poker, he makes just enough money to live on but not enough to attract attention. He eats hot dogs and ramen noodles and Oreos. He waits. His cell phone never rings. He wakes up every so often, thinking he's heard the roar of the Impala's engine. It's always a dream.
He gets a job working for a mechanic. He buys a secondhand Thunderbird and rebuilds it on the weekends. He makes friends, the kind of guys he can drink beer with, ask to watch his back while he dances with blonds who have boyfriends. He gets an apartment over a bar, and falls asleep watching neon lights play on his white walls.
He doesn't hunt at first because his father told him not to, but there are articles in the paper. Conversations with strangers passing by. Phone calls from other hunters who've tried and failed to reach his dad and Sam. Small things, werewolves and poltergeists and mournful ghosts on lonely roads. One man jobs, in New York, in neighboring states, because he has to be back for work in the morning.
Four years go by, fast as a dream, slow as a lifetime. He meets a girl. He fucks her for the first time on the Salvation Army sofa in his living room, and holds her after, while she cries. He kisses her tears away and rolls onto the carpet with her on top of him. He calls his father first thing every morning, last thing every night, and listens to his father's voice on the voicemail. He calls Sam once a week and hangs up if Sam picks up.
There are nightmares he can't explain, can't even quantify. Mostly of women he doesn't know, burning. Sometimes he thinks about research, cross-referencing, looking for pictures. But he doesn't really want to know. When the car's finished he drives it to California. He doesn't tell Dad's voicemail. He doesn't hurry. It takes him two weeks and he stays off the main roads mostly out of habit.
He has Sam's address, written on the back of a a credit card offer for Angus Young. Sam sent him a Christmas card via the Kansas post office box, and someone whose handwriting Dean doesn't recognize --Bobby Singer, maybe, or Pastor Jim, forwarded it to Dean. It wasn't Dad, but it's one of the little things that makes Dean think maybe Dad's still alive and out there somewhere.
Maybe after he left Dean he drove straight to California. Maybe he's been holed up with Sam ever since. Dean doesn't know any more. Sometimes he tells himself he doesn't care. It's hard to believe himself when he's parked outside Sam's apartment building in the T-bird, fingers clenched so tightly on the steering wheel that he thinks he'll never get them unbent. The Peacemaker is a reassuring bulge in the small of his back, the only thing that feels right.
He's seen this building before, even though he doesn't think he's ever been to Palo Alto. He knows how it will look burning. When Sam knocks on his window, he reaches for the key. He almost drives away. But Sam saved him when he was six months old and Sam was four. Sam saved him a thousand times over in the eighteen years that came after that, because if Sam hadn't been there, Dean knows that Dad wouldn't have stayed.
Sam saved him from foster homes and orphanages, from growing up alone and unwanted. Sam loved him--Sam left him to go to Stanford-- Sam is standing in the street looking more and more pissed off. Sam is all Dean has, and this time it's his turn to save Sam. He opens the car door. "Dude," he says, "did you get taller?" and Sam smiles, and it's like the last four years never happened.