The sky is clear when Dean looks up, but he can still feel the pull of weather in his bones. It'll rain tonight, no mistake. Probably leave a coating of ice on the branches of the maple tree and turn the front walkway into a deathtrap, but Dean can't find it in himself to mind. It's mid October in Virginia, the mild weather took a nasty turn a week or so ago, and the sudden appearance of frost in the early mornings dug up memories Dean's not ready to face. Still, it's not snow. So long as there isn't snow on the ground, he's satisfied.
He's learned to be satisfied with a lot of things these days.
A flock of birds rises up from the brown field, chased into the air by Sparrow. Dean whistles and the dog wheels around, racing back to Dean's side with her tongue hanging out of her mouth. Dean pats her head absently as she leans against his legs, her body a warm weight, before she veers off to chase a rabbit down its hole, whining and thrusting her nose in the hole when the rabbit disappears.
"C'mon," Dean says, "let it go." He pats his thigh, then turns to head back to the house, listening absently to Sparrow's frustrated bark. She gets sassy when they walk the fields, excited by being the biggest predator on her own turf. Dean gives her free rein, usually, only calling her back when she leaves his sight or starts barking up a storm.
Today, though, she's full of boundless energy. Usually he walks the fields at dusk, coming back to the house in time to turn on the porch light, but today Sparrow had refused to settle, play-biting at Dean's arm and getting underfoot until he pushed her outside and followed himself. Even now, trudging back across the dry grass, she bounds ahead, pouncing and tugging at something a few yards away from the house.
He doesn't know what it is until he gets close and sees Sparrow loping back to him, a wooden stake clenched in her teeth, a limp strand of twine trailing behind. Ice settles in his stomach, a feeling he thought had been left behind in April when he'd finally started learning how to live on his own again.
Sparrow mock growls and paws at the trailing twine, tail held high to lure Dean into the game.
"Hey," he snaps. "Leave it!"
Sparrow backs onto her haunches, the wooden stake splintering in her grip, and skitters out of Dean's reach when he lunges.
"Sparrow." He uses the voice that always meant business to Sam, always got the shocked victims moving when they hesitated. "Leave it."
Sparrow hesitates, head bowed but watching him with her blue eyes. He holds her stare and after a minute she drops the stake, tongue flicking out to lick over her nose. Dean picks it up and wraps the mud-colored twine around it once, twice, before turning back toward the house.
The space where Sam had once mapped out a garden is barely recognizable, the stakes and twine trailing in the mud. It's not a memorial or anything, but Sam put it there with the intent to do something about it, and God help him, Dean's not going to get rid of it. He puts Sparrow's stake with the others and stands, hands on his hips, facing the fields they just walked through. Sparrow is still sitting where he left her, a white wolf-like shape with her head cocked as if she's trying to figure out whether or not he's drunk.
The anger is gone, quick as it came, and he jerks his chin to the back door. "Go on, get in."
Sparrow lopes into the house after coaxing one of her ever-present tennis balls out from under the porch. Dean follows, giving one last look to the sky. No snow, he thinks, then closes the door behind him. Please no snow.
A year ago Dean was working part-time at the garage and taking time off to check on Sam whenever he could. A year ago he was running backup for his brother while Sam fought off his powers, and later, reapers.
A year ago he hadn't been alone.
He hadn't known if he could do it again, but after Sam's disappearance in January and the first few weeks of numb silence, it had all come back to him, everything he'd learned since John gave him his first solo hunt and Sam was off at Stanford: turn on the radio for background noise, keep busy, keep moving, don't let yourself sit and think. It was like he was still twenty-six with Dad off somewhere and Sam-- Well, Sam was gone. Dean found that it didn't really matter where: the gaping hole Sam left was always the same.
He hadn't meant to stay in Pooles, but at the same time there hadn't ever been a question of him leaving. Bobby had shown up a day after Sam disappeared and stayed for a week afterward, no questions asked. He hadn't even asked about Sam, just taken Dean's broken, "He's gone," as gospel and didn't push, although Dean could see how badly he wanted to. In the end, it only took Dean two days and a bottle of JD before the whole story came spilling out, the last half of it mumbled into his pillow as Bobby pulled off Dean's boots and rolled his feet under the covers.
"You shouldn't stay here, son," Bobby's gruff voice had said, and while Dean could see the sense in that, he'd also felt the first licks of a feeling other than grief. It hadn't been a conscious thought but he'd already made his decision: he wasn't leaving the place where Sam had fought his last battle.
Bobby had left a few days after, leaving a newspaper with a hunt circled on the counter. Dean didn't give it more than a cursory glance. He had work at nine, four voicemails from the principal of the high school where Sam had tutored, and no plans to go anywhere.
Sparrow had shown up almost two months later, a ragged mess with a frayed piece of rope around her neck, so dirty she looked more brown than white. Dean hadn't even been sure she was real, thought maybe she was the product of his whiskey-soaked mind, when she turned up on the edge of the woods behind the house. He'd lured her from the tree line with a can of cold soup that day, then bits of meat the next, until two weeks later she decided he wasn't so bad and walked right into the house like she'd lived there all her life.
For a while he'd just called her Dog. After three weeks, though, he'd caved and bought her a collar and a basket bed to tuck in the corner of the living room. The next day, every tennis ball he'd ever given her was scattered in the basket with the dog perched on her cushion like a bird in a nest. After that, he called her Sparrow.
Carol is out in her yard raking leaves when he heads out for work the next morning. She's bundled in one of Dale's fleece jackets, which dwarfs her petite frame, and winces a little as she straightens to give Dean a wave. He lets the truck idle and rolls down the window, leans an elbow out to call, "What time do you want me to come over to put on your storm door?"
"Oh," she waves a hand, "any time is fine. I'm here all day, you know that."
"If the garage is slow I'll see if I can get off at four, come over and haul it up for you."
"Anytime, dear. Don't worry about it too much. I might not even need it this year, it's been so mild."
Dean's smile goes stiff at the reminder and he pulls his elbow in, shifts the truck into drive. "Yeah, all that snow was pretty bad. I'll see if I can come by around four. And leave the leaves!" he calls, pointing to let her know he means business. "I'll come by later this week, take me two minutes to rake 'em up."
He drives down the street with the sound of Carol's laughter echoing in his ears. But it's the sound of Sam's laughter that echoes in his head.
The day is slow but it's still fifteen minutes later than he planned before he leaves the garage and the sunlight is turning blue when Dean pulls up in front of Carol's house, raps twice on the front door, then opens it without waiting for an answer.
A year ago he never would have acted so familiarly, but Sam made them a niche in the town that ran deep enough to include Dean without question, and after Sam's disappearance, Dean found that he had friends he hadn't even known. Carol Finley had never played favorites, was just as amused by Sam's demands for holiday cookies as she was by Dean's distaste for kitschy decorations, and after Dale's death in February she'd been lost, an old woman in an empty house on the edge of town. It hadn't taken more than a day before Dean slipped over to shovel the snow off her front walk.
Now, eight months later, she isn't surprised when he walks in unannounced and he isn't surprised that she has a sandwich and a bowl of soup waiting for him on the kitchen table.
"Glass downstairs?" Dean asks, clapping his hands together.
"Hello to you, too," Carol chides him, soap bubbles covering her hands. She nods her head at the sandwich and goes back to washing dishes.
"Eat that first; the storm door can wait."
"Gonna be dark soon."
"I'll hold the flashlight for you," she replies calmly, and Dean grunts and sits. "You have a good day?"
"It went okay," Dean answers, mouth full. He swallows, then says, "Grant was telling me about this guy he saw in Stairway the other night."
"Mm. Did he just move in?"
"Nah, he's a drifter. Anyway, I just thought you should know. Keep the doors and windows locked, leave the porch light on--"
"I'm an old woman, Dean," Carol says with a wry smile. "I know the drill."
"Yeah, well, don't make me come over here with a shotgun," Dean grumbles, taking another bite of his sandwich.
Carol lets the water out of the sink and dries her hands on a dishtowel, a thoughtful look crossing her face. "When did Grant talk to him? The drifter?"
"A few days ago, why?"
"I thought I heard someone up on the roof the other night, but it was so windy I couldn't tell."
Dean sits up, eyes on Carol. "You heard somebody and you didn't call me?"
"Don't look at me like that. I told you, it was windy, it could've been anything."
"And it didn't sound like someone was walking around up there. I just heard a thump and I thought maybe it was a branch that had broken off, but I couldn't see anything the next day and none of the trees looked damaged, so..."
"Carol, I'm not kidding about this," Dean says firmly. "If you hear it again, call me."
She makes a face and holds up three fingers in a salute. "Scout's honor."
Sam's face lights up with the force of his grin and Dean quickly cautions, "This is not becoming a tradition, the great Winchester Christmas Fest."
"Scout's honor," Sam promises.
Dean swallows, wrenching his eyes away from the concerned look on Carol's face.
"Dean? Are you all right?"
"Fine," he rasps and pushes away from the table. "I'm gonna get the door."
It rains the next week, the week before Halloween. Sparrow is a nightmare, full of energy from being cooped up in the house, somehow ending up caked in mud when Dean lets her out to pee. He considers leaving her outside since she seems happy enough snapping at raindrops but she howls when Dean goes inside and she can't follow, then leads him on a muddy chase through the house when she sees him pull out the towels and soap. He's more than ready to call it quits when he finally grabs a beer from the fridge and goes out to the back porch, ignoring Sparrow's displeased bark when he closes the door without letting her out.
The porch is a new addition, something he started working on one weekend with a sort of manic desperation. Sam had been gone for three weeks, Bobby had left after two, and Dean knew he'd go crazy if he let himself sit. He'd driven a town over for supplies and started working. It had taken more than one false start and a few drunken rages before it looked anything like a porch, but now, a few weeks after the last coat of finish has dried, he's pretty proud of it.
Sam would have loved it, probably would have badgered Dean to hang one of those bench swings from the rafters. Maybe in the spring, when the weather clears and he doesn't have to worry about his fingers going numb while he's wielding tools.
He pops the tab on his beer, leans against the back of the house, and takes a lazy swallow. Sam had fretted about the rain last year, worried that it would ruin their plans to bombard kids with candy at the Finley's house, but in the end the clouds hadn't moved in until the next day. Of course, Sam had been sick after, had turned a corner that he never recovered from, but even now Dean doesn't regret it.
Thunder rolls in the distance and Dean looks out at the gray clouds stretching over the tops of the pines. Then he squints, keeping his movements nonchalant as he casts his eyes over the fields bordering their house and the trees edging them. Goosebumps prickle over his arms and the back of his neck, the way they always do when he feels someone watching him. He lifts his beer, a calculated movement, and sees something move out of the corner of his eye, something in the same spot Sam used to fix his eyes on when he came out to the field, but when he drops his arm there's nothing. He stays outside a little longer, but when the rain starts coming down in earnest he calls it quits and goes back inside.
"Stocking up for tonight?"
Dean's eyes flick over the girl working the cash register--young, interested, new to the town. Probably attending one of the nearby colleges and staying with a relative for the school year. She's staring at Dean with obvious admiration, and if this were two years ago in a bar in one of the million no-name towns he and Sam have passed through, Dean would be more than willing.
Tonight, though, the idea feels like a stone in his throat.
"Yeah, kind of," Dean says, giving her a bare smile as he pulls out his wallet. The truth is that Halloween is going to be a bitch to get through and the only thing Dean stocked up on is whiskey. The bags of candy the girl is ringing up for him were an impulse buy--one of the many he's made before remembering that there's no one to eat the cereal Sam likes and that if he picks up the detergent Sam always bought, he's the only one who's going to care.
"Do you have any plans?" the girl asks. "For Halloween?"
Her smile is open, friendly, and Dean glances at her name tag before answering. "Listen, Stephanie--no offense, but any plans you have will be a hundred times more fun without me, I guarantee it. But I hope you have a great time doing whatever it is you're doing."
To her credit, Stephanie's face goes sympathetic instead of pissed off. "No, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked. I know you've had a hard time what with your brother and everything. You're Dean, right? Campbell?"
So the town legends are true, Dean thinks, scraping his teeth over his upper lip. He'd never made an official statement about where Sam had gone, but most of the town knew he was sick long before Dean even admitted it to himself. The general consensus was cancer and Dean hadn't corrected the assumption. After January, Bobby had done the talking when neighbors and friends called or came by, giving vague details that supported the idea that Sam was gone and Dean was grieving. Nobody said dead but it didn't matter. Whatever deal Sam had made in the end, whatever arrangement he'd made with Castiel, Sam had known he wasn't coming back. And whatever he'd done had been done to make sure Dean didn't follow him to wherever he'd gone.
Stephanie is still waiting, watching him patiently. For a brief moment, Dean almost hates her. "Yeah," he gets out. "I'm Dean."
"Take care of yourself, Dean."
"Yeah," he says again, gathering up the bags. "Same here."
The wind picks up as he walks to the parking lot, slipping chilly fingers under his flannel shirt while he unlocks the truck. He'd bought the truck when they'd gone to ground last fall, the Impala too obvious when the goal was to hide from both the supernatural and the ordinary, hunters as much as angels. He could pull the Impala out of the garage now, though. Hell, he could stay at Bobby's if he wanted, no reason to stay in hiding anymore.
The engine starts on the second try, shuddering with the cold. He pulls out of the parking lot, the radio filling the silence with a Zeppelin ballad. The truck's musty upholstery is familiar to him, same as the play of the wheel under his palm. Sam is present here, too, but not as poignantly as he would be in the Impala. The Impala holds memories of their childhood and everything past. The truck only has memories of the past year. Dean can handle one year's memories.