When Dean is nine, Dad vanishes.
He goes out on a hunt, standard and normal, and tells Dean that if he doesn't call in a week, Dean needs to call Pastor Jim or Uncle Bobby.
A week comes and goes, and Dean doesn't call. He knows that Dad will be back, he will.
The days go by, and the people at the front desk are starting to get impatient when Dean says Daddy's in the shower and can't talk.
Ten days after Dad leaves on his hunt, police knock on the door because there wasn't enough rent for more than a week, and Sammy needed food, so Dean bought them ice cream cones when they went to 7-11.
The group home they get taken to is big and clean and scary. Dean pulls Sammy into his lap, and they sit in a big, sunken-in, blue chair while the man behind the desk writes down how many t-shirts they have and tries to figure out how much Sammy's stuffed frog is worth.
It's the first house Dean remembers being in since Aunt Kate and Uncle Mike. He hopes they let him and Sammy share a bed. Sammy's never slept alone before, and Dean doesn't want to. He's scared, and he wants his Daddy, but Dean knows he has to be brave for Sammy. Sammy's little; he doesn't know what's happening, and if Dean acts like it's okay, then Sammy will think it's okay.
The man behind the desk is Mr. Kim, and he lets Dean and Sammy sleep on the couch in the living room. Dean curls around Sammy, tucks him between his chest and the back of the couch, and keeps him safe.
They stay there for a couple of weeks, and then they get moved to a foster home, some place with a real family and not people who get paid to stay and watch the kids.
That lasts about a week. They try to make Sammy sleep in another room, and when Dean yells and screams, they decide that they would prefer "a more agreeable child."
It goes like that for months. Sammy doesn't belong in the group home with all the difficult kids, and their case worker keeps moving them to foster homes, but families don't like Dean, and they send him and Sammy back.
One day, their case worker comes to the foster home. She takes Dean aside and tells him that the family they're with really like Sammy and want to keep him. Make him their son. But they say that Dean is too much for them. Dean doesn't know what rambunctious means, but he promises he'll stop being it, and he'll ask before he uses the stove, and he won't be loud, and he'll do anything, just don't take Sammy away.
She tells him it's not up to her, and he tries not to cry too much, in case Sammy can hear. She tells him he has to be brave for his brother, that Sammy need him to be strong so that he doesn't get scared. Dean asks if he can tell Sammy, and she's quiet for a moment, just looking at him, before she nods and says he can.
Sammy cries. He clings to Dean's chest and sobs, burying his face in Dean's neck, begging Dean not to go, telling him he wants to stay with Dean. He doesn't care where they go, he won't complain, and he won't follow Dean around all the time, and he just wants to stay.
Dean tells him no. He tells Sammy that these people are nice, and good—which he knows isn't the whole truth because nice people don't take little brothers away from their big brothers—and that if he stays with them, he can have better things. He tells Sammy that this is the way it has to be, and he's not going away forever, just for a little while.
"The Field Museum, Sammy, the big one with all the World War Two stuff. We'll meet there on your eighteenth birthday; that way, no one can tell you no. May second, two thousand and one, say it, Sammy."
Sam sniffs and tries to wipe away his tears. "May second, two thousand and one."
"Where? Sammy, where?"
"Field Museum," he says, face buried in Dean's shirt.
He gives Sammy his favorite shirt, the big one of Daddy's that he always wore to sleep when he missed him. He tells Sammy that if he gets sad or scared, he can hug the shirt, and it'll be just like hugging him or Daddy. Sam tries to give Dean his frog, but Dean knows Sammy can't sleep without it. Sammy gets his purple shirt out of
the his dresser, the shirt with the big teddy bear on the front and actual fuzz.
"I don't need it," Sammy tells him. "I got yours."
Dean leaves Sammy a picture on his bed, the one he drew last night when he thought of this. It's got the museum on it and the date so that Sammy doesn't forget. He tells Sammy he loves him, tells him this has to happen, and tries not to worry about Sammy going with people who are so nice they only want one little boy to keep. Dean knows how it works. No one wants a nine-year-old, and the ones who do don't want one like him.
That doesn't change. He goes to a few more foster homes, but no one wants a kid who doesn't talk and cries too much. He misses his Sammy, and he misses his Daddy, and he misses his Mommy, and it hurts, and he just wants someone to make it better. But none of them can, and no one really wants to try, so Dean gets used to the missing feeling and starts a countdown in his head.
Dean likes the group homes better, anyway. No one there tries to make him call them Mom or Dad, and they don't get mad when he won't. They give him chores he has to do and rules he has to follow, and the people who work there let him help out extra, just not with the stoves or the knives.
Some of the big kids call him a suck-up, but he doesn't care. He helps them out because it makes him feel good, and because if he's good at the group homes, when he gets in trouble at school—always for fighting and always because he beats up some bully who was picking on a littler kid—they're nicer to him, and he doesn't have to move as much.
He doesn't like school. He tries and tries and tries, but it's boring, and he doesn't care about some bunch of kids a hundred years ago who used to deliver newspapers or something. He spends most of his classes drawing pictures of Sammy so that he doesn't forget, so that he remembers what he looks like.
Dean gave Sammy their photographs, the one of Mom and Dad in front of their old house, the one of him holding Sammy when he came home the first time, and the one of him and Sammy and Dad from right after Sammy started walking because Sammy's little and doesn't have a good memory like Dean—that's why he drew the picture for Sammy, so he doesn't forget.
When Dean's fourteen, he has his first brush with tattoos. The result is not pretty—a particularly horrible frog that looks more like a deformed green blob with green sticks stuck in it—but it's the beginning of an amazing love affair with ink.
It's really bad, and it gets infected, which Dean didn't realize was possible, and Dean gets in so much trouble that he actually thinks for a moment that they're going to find a way to throw him in juvie. He gets phone and TV privileges revoked for two months and his allowance taken away, and he's confined to the grounds for no less than two months.
It's probably a really effective deterrent for most of the kids, but Dean hates talking to people, especially on the phone, and he only watches TV incidentally, and pretty much everyone at school thinks he's either a psycho or a fucking weirdo, so it's not really a big deal to him. The money thing, though, that kinda sucks.
What really gets to Dean is when his caseworker tells him, "This could really hurt your chances at emancipation, Dean."
Dean only knows what emancipation is in the broad sense: freedom.
He learns more about what it means for him—his own place, a job that he can work full-time, something good to show Sammy. Emancipation means he can get all this faster, sixteen instead of eighteen. Only two years to wait instead of four years under everyone else's rules.
His caseworker tells him the facts; he needs letters from as many people as possible stating his maturity, a long-range goal, a good school record, a plan for how to survive with money, and a good work history.
The work history is gonna be tough, what with only being fourteen, but Dean will figure something out for that.
Dean's entire life is a series of events leading to May 2, 2001. He starts trying harder in school so he can see Sammy again. He stays away from the wrong crowds, even though they're the only ones who want to talk to him, because he can't be in jail on May second. He stops getting into fights, but he still doesn't let anyone pick on the small kids because he'd want someone to do the same if Sammy were getting bullied.
He still hates school and still thinks it's boring, but it turns out he's not a complete idiot because his grades start to rise once he actually starts trying on his work.
It's two years of hard work, taking every part-time job he's allowed, biting his tongue when he wants to give someone a piece of his mind, walking away when some punk calls him a name, and ten thousand other little things Dean has to rein in to make his goal, but he succeeds.
The day Dean turns sixteen, he has his caseworker file the petition, and three months later, Dean Winchester is no longer a ward of the state of Illinois. He moves into a two-bedroom apartment he shares with some sophomore at Loyola, and the rent is steep as hell, but he's got a full-time job and two part-time ones, including one at a tattoo shop not too far from the apartment.
All Dean has to do now is wait.
It's the day.
Dean's there an hour before the museum even opens.
Now that the day is here, he can't ignore all those thoughts anymore.
He knows that it might be for nothing. Thirteen years is a long time, and Sammy was little, so he might not remember. And, even if he does remember, he might not be able to come, he might not be in the state anymore.
Or he might not want to.
Dean might be nothing to Sammy. He might not even remember he has a brother, much less that he's supposed to meet him at some random fucking place when he turns eighteen.
God, this was such a bad idea. Dean never even said a time or where to meet, and the museum is so gigantic that Sammy could show up and be here for hours and Dean might never even know.
In theory, he knows that he was nine and that something like a specific time or the size of a really famous museum is not really something a nine-year-old thinks about. In practice, Dean is standing in front of the middle doors of the north entrance to the Field Museum, hoping that at some point between now and five o'clock, he will see someone who was three feet tall the last time he saw him.
Dean is pretty sure he's going to throw up.
This is everything to him. Everything.
Dean's not really sure that he can take it if Sam doesn't show. Everything from his tattoos to his GED to the fucking place he lives revolves around Sammy, and Dean doesn't know what to do without that. He doesn't really know where to go from here, but he knows that without Sam, it's probably gonna be really messy.
He feels like a freak now, like some kind of creepy, weird, obsessive stalker. Sam probably barely even remembers him, much less thinks about him, and Dean has an entire sleeve of tattoos on his body dedicated to him. It's a good thing he's too much of a big, freaky creep to leave the front doors because if he had any food in his stomach right now, he'd probably be throwing up.
There are a couple of close calls, a few guys who he thinks are Sam, but none of them have Sammy's moles. Everything else—hair color, height, skin color—is subjective to an extent, but Dean remembers those moles. One of Dean's only memories of his Mom is waking Sammy up in the morning with her, kissing the moles on his face because Mommy said the "dots" were there to show mommies and daddies and big brothers how to wake up the babies.
A few guys try to pick him up, and a few girls, and some freak show with a really bad comb-over offers him twenty to go back to his motel, which is just insulting because Dean is so much hotter than a twenty. And the security guards keep eyeing him, but they haven't come up to him directly yet, so he's pretty sure that first guard he talked to this morning spread the word that he's not a robber, just a loser who can't take not showing for an answer.
Dean can't leave, though, won't let himself until every last person has come and gone from the museum, and he'll fight anyone who tries to make him.
By four, Dean's starting to think that maybe the stupid thoughts he's been having all day aren't so stupid. He feels irrationally hurt and angry and fucking pissed off at himself for being so stupid, and he maybe snaps at the next guy who asks him if he's waiting for somebody.
"Do I look like I want to be picked up right now? You know what, Clark Street is that way." Dean points. "Gay Pride Central, go get your hump on and leave me the fuck alone, okay?"
And because Dean's life is insane, and because somebody out there somewhere loves him, the guy stares at him, big eyes wet and round, and asks, "Is your name Dean?"
The guy has moles, but they aren't in the right spot; there are supposed to be two by the eye and one by his nose, and Dean swears, swears he remembers right, but he asks, "Sammy?"
The guy—Sammy—inhales a shuddery breath, and tears fall from his eyes. Dean's suddenly got an armful of Sammy, bigger than Dean could ever imagine that tiny little toddler growing into, and all he can do is wrap his arms around him and squeeze, cling tight to Sammy and press his face tight into Sammy's neck.
Thirteen years, and it doesn't feel like a day. Sammy is healthy and whole and healthy, and Dean would do it all again in a heartbeat.
After not nearly long enough, Sam pulls back. Dean can't let him go, though, and he keeps hold of Sam's jacket in his fists, and, God, he knows what they look like, but he doesn't care because it's Sammy, he's really there.
Sammy's smiling at him, sniffling a little and wiping his face before asking, "You wanna meet the rest of my family?"
Dean can't really think of much he wants to do more than thank those people for keeping his Sammy safe for him and making him happy. "Yeah, I do."