Sam thinks of Dean every day. Not continuously – there are so many new and important things taking up his mind and his time – but not a day goes by where he doesn’t remember and worry about the little brother he left behind.
Dad made him stay away. Part of Sam had known the ultimatum would come from the first time he’d seriously thought of leaving. It’s why he is at least three years older than most of his class mates, why the applications to Stanford and a few others had lain dormant until Dean was a few weeks shy of eighteen. He’d hoped, though he’d suspected it was a futile hope, that Dean would want to come with.
Now Sam is in California and Dean is God knows where. Sam has no reliable way to reach him outside of a PO box in Kansas no one hardly ever looks into and the fragile lines of communication that run through Caleb or Bobby or Pastor Jim. More than once he's cursed his decision to take their joint cell phone. The map someone put up on the kitchen wall mocks him. His inability to track the Impala's path with a pin feels like a slap to the face every time.
Five weeks into the semester the phone calls start like clockwork.
The first time Sam puts it down as someone calling the wrong number. The second time he shrugs it off as a prank. He highly doubts he and Dean were the only teenagers to ever find out blocking your number is the best way not to get caught. But then it happens again and again, and Sam Winchester was taught at an early age to recognize patterns.
By the sixth time Sam needs those phone calls like breathing.
He goes to class, lives in the library most days, waits tables. He makes friends who have no idea what lurks out there in the dark. He meets Jess. He enters a steady relationship for the first time in his life because this time there is no chance that Dad will tell him and Dean to pack up, that he will have to leave her and what they might have had behind.
He writes Dean a Christmas card and sends it to Kansas. He takes his cell phone with him everywhere but on Tuesdays he constantly feels its weight in his pocket. The first week of winter break Dean misses a call, and Sam is beside himself with worry and this close to kicking up a storm in the hunting community by the time his phone finally rings.
He keeps hoping that one day Dean won’t disconnect the second Sam answers. He tries to speak really quickly a few times but he is never fast enough. He contemplates changing his voice mail message and ignore the rings until Dean has to listen to it. “Leave me your number, jerkface,” he records, but he remembers being a kid responsible for his little brother and unable to reach his Dad. If the sound of a ringtone and a dispassionate click are all they have then Sam will make damn sure they have it.
Every Tuesday night his phone rings. He always, always answers.
* * *
Bobby is fiercely glad the first time someone tells him John Winchester gave his sons an out of the hunting business. He and Jim have been hoping either Sam or Dean or ideally both would get the opportunity for years. If there’s truth to the rumor, and with Caleb as Rufus’ source there probably is, Winchester has come to his senses at last.
It’s a weight off Bobby’s shoulders. The relief lasts until Bill Harvelle calls him for back-up on a haunted house full of poltergeists and lets slip that Dean Winchester is still taking jobs. It gets worse when Winchester himself turns up in Bobby's kitchen and Bobby realizes the man hasn't spoken a word to either of his sons in months.
If it were Karen, if Bobby had come to hunting in any other way and he was out there and she at home, he would have found a way, any way, to stay in touch. Bill always finds his way back to Ellen and Jo. So does every other hunter with kids Bobby knows.
Turning Winchester away is a fast way to ensure people are going to die. Dean Winchester is eighteen, which is still too young for solo hunts but older than the kid Bobby remembers.
Bobby compares notes with Jim and decides Dean must have a home base somewhere in the New York area. He puts his feelers out until he gets an address that he encrypts and puts on his fridge, just in case.
Wandell reports in after a rare case in Brooklyn and tells him he got his car fixed by Winchester’s kid. No full time hunting, then, and a decent income.
Bobby doesn’t understand that Sam believes Dean is still travelling with John until Caleb comes by with a Christmas card among the other content of Winchester’s PO box.
For a moment he wants to do nothing more than climb into his car and drive all the way to New York or California and shake the stubbornness out of either boy, both boys.
“They’re adults,” Caleb says. Bobby sighs and goes to find an envelope and a pen and Dean's address. All the while, he thinks No, they're not.
* * *
For a long time the Winchester boy is Azazel’s most interesting and most frustrating case. He is the son born to a daughter of a long line of hunters and a man who knew nothing about the supernatural but became a hunter himself. What works on the other little lambs won’t work on him. He was not raised in innocence.
A grand entrance is the way to go, Azazel figures, an unforgettable scene of fire and ashes to announce his presence. And yet, ever since the boy’s family abandoned him, there is no one close enough to Dean Winchester whose fiery demise would make the… impression Azazel wants.
If John Winchester were to die in a nameless motel somewhere, word would get back to his son. If Sam Winchester were to die on the ceiling of his newfound apartment, someone would notify the priest if no one else. But either hunter, former or current, is too far away from Dean to have him witness it happening with his own eyes.
Dean is the one, he believes. Little Dean-o, who has oh so many insecurities but has trained and been trained to fight all his life, will survive the test planned for Lucifer’s potential vessels. Azazel believes this even if others aren’t as convinced. So he… encourages the dreams.
Mothers burning. He makes reality of the vision to entertain himself, rather enjoys watching John Winchester try and see patterns where none exist. For the sake of completeness he also burns fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts. It would only confuse Dean to see those too, though. While Azazel thinks about throwing in a fake glimpse of John or Sam Winchester somewhere to get his point across but likes the simplicity of his message too much. Charred bones of mothers, after all, have real significance.
He does, however, include a not-yet true one of Sam Winchester’s girlfriend.
It takes years. Azazel has collected almost all of the others, has a firm hold on Anselm and Lily and Ava and whatever the weaker ones’ names are. Dean is the last one, and Crowley has succeeded in planting the first seeds of doubt in his strategy when the boy finally, finally picks up his little one-man household and drives to California to reconnect with his brother. Azazel peeks into the car when he stops for gas just to make sure. There is a four year old post card pinned to the dash board.
It’s almost time.