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Theophany: Thanksgiving

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Sam is sitting on the edge of the porch, in the same spot Dean sits in the evenings when he trades off drinking a beer and throwing balls for Sparrow. His fingers are plucking idly at a loose string on the hem of his shirt, the red plaid one that got ripped to shreds in Biloxi when Dean's arm went through a broken window and they needed a makeshift tourniquet. Dean sits down next to him, his breath steaming in the still night air, and folds his hands between his knees, elbows propped on his thighs.

"I like this place," Sam says. He looks very young, young the way he looked before he left for Stanford. His bangs sweep over his forehead, into his eyes, and Dean curls his fingers into a fist to resist the urge to push them out of Sam's face. He doesn't dare touch Sam. There's nothing threatening about Sam at all, not right now, but Dean has the feeling that if there's any sort of logic to Sam's younger self sitting next to him on a porch in Virginia, it's that he can't touch Sam.

For a minute, he's not even sure he can talk to Sam, but the words scrape their way out of his throat anyhow. "Me too."

Sam quirks his mouth, half of it lifting, but Dean doesn't know if he's laughing at him. He doesn't even know if Sam can hear him. He's had this dream two times before and Sam has never given any sign that he knows Dean is there. It's like they're both dreaming separate dreams of the same place and it's just chance that Dean can see Sam.

Chance or wishful thinking.

Dean shifts a little, hears the wood creak beneath him. He tosses his empty beer bottle a short distance away, waits for the clink as it rolls to a stop against the wooden stakes and moldering twine sitting in the yard. He blows out a slow breath and watches it dissipate in the night air. In the dream, his ring is heavy and cold around his finger, his amulet heavy and cold against his chest. Maybe if he tries to touch Sam, he'll find he's heavy and cold too.

The thought is uncomfortable enough to make Dean push to his feet. He casts a last lingering look over his brother, then turns away with a sigh.

"Night, Sammy."

He opens the back door, steps into the hall, and wakes up before he reaches the stairs.

--

The bell over the door rings when Dean enters the diner, the sound so familiar he hardly notices anymore. Beth waves at him from behind the counter, reaching behind her for the coffee pot and filling him a cup before whisking off to take orders. Dean takes the mug, then settles in his usual booth and opens the menu. He scans the glossy pages more out of habit than anything else, taking in the hum of conversation, the sound of pancakes cooking on the griddle, forks and knives scraping against plates as the morning crowd works through the process of getting fed and hurrying to work.

"You know what you want?"

Dean looks up with his lips pursed and hands Beth the menu. "I was thinking about shaking things up today."

Beth's mouth curls in a knowing smile. She brushes a stray hair out of her face and pulls a pen from her ponytail, flourishing the tip in midair. "Uh huh. Bacon or sausage?"

Dean's eyebrows pull together. "The oatmeal doesn't come with bacon or sausage."

Beth marks something on her pad, says, "Good thing you're getting eggs and hash browns, then," and turns away with a wink.

"Hey! I don't even get to choose my own sausage anymore?"

"Honey, you chose sausage before you walked through the door," Beth calls over her shoulder. She's back a minute later to slap a newspaper in front of him and top off his coffee. Dean nods his thanks, then unfolds the newspaper and spreads it across the table. He pins one corner with his coffee cup and uses his elbows to hold down the rest, pen clenched between his teeth as he surveys the obituaries with a practiced eye. 

A year ago he wouldn't have dared look for hunts. A year ago he'd had his hands full, all his energy focused on keeping Sam from going after anything and everything, from burning out like the time bomb he was convinced he was. Hunting had been the last thing on Dean's mind. Now, though... He reads one of the obituary entries twice over, something about it nagging at him. He flips to the front page to skim the side columns--a robbery, oil drilling in Alaska, some man's Rottweiler mauled by a bear. The usual tragedies, but hiding a connection that teases at Dean's mind.

A waitress comes by with his breakfast and Dean folds up the newspaper, tossing it on the booth beside him. He douses his eggs with Tabasco and digs in, mind turning over the obituary as he chews a forkful of hash browns. Five minutes later, he still hasn't made the connection and his shift is starting at the garage. He leaves a tip for the waitress and an extra five for Beth, then takes a cup of coffee to go. It's probably nothing, but he takes the newspaper, too. Just in case.

--

The garage is only six minutes away with stoplights, but Dean thumbs his phone open anyhow. Bobby picks up after the second ring, his voice cautious when he says, "Dean?"

"Hey, Bobby," Dean says, wincing as he waits for what's coming.

Yelling would be better than the careful way Bobby asks, "Everything okay over there? I left you a couple o' messages on Wednesday, never heard back."

Wednesday. November 2nd.

Dean licks his lips. "Yeah, I got 'em. Sorry."

Bobby pauses like he's waiting for an explanation, maybe hoping for one. When Dean doesn't say anything else, he says, "Well. So long as you're doing all right. It's good to hear from you, boy."

The quiet admission makes guilt curl in Dean's gut, but he's learned from experience that stopping to acknowledge pain can cripple. Last year, as hard as it was, he had had Sam. This year, Mary's anniversary was spent alone. Ignoring Bobby had been a choice between crumbling under the weight of grief or carrying on, and Dean's not going to apologize for a few missed calls.

"Listen, Bobby, I've got a question for you. You don't by chance know of a way to tamper with someone's dreams, do you? Like that dream root, or, I dunno, astral projection."

Bobby takes the change of subject in stride. "The short answer to your question is yes. But first I want to know why you're asking," he says in the same tone he used when Dean wanted to know how to make balloon bombs as a kid.

Dean chews his lip, then says, "I've been having these dreams lately. The same one, over and over again."

"Like a recurring dream?"

"Exactly. I keep dreaming about...me and Sam sitting out here on the porch. Sometimes he's a kid, sometimes he's older, but he never talks to me. It's like he doesn't even know I'm there, like--like we're dreaming the same thing but I'm not in his dream, he's just in mine."

There's a beat where Bobby thinks. Then he says, "I hate to say it, Dean, but that's probably because you're not. I don't--" The connection crackles, but Dean can hear the sound of Bobby running a hand over his beard, a nervous habit he'd shared with John Winchester. "I don't know that Sam is dreaming anything where he is. I mean, we just...we just don't know."

The words aren't different from any that Dean's told himself at night, angry and grieving and hating the unknown of what happened to Sam, of not knowing where he is. It hurts hearing someone else say it, though, and he clenches his jaw, one breath away from hanging up without a word.

Bobby must sense it because he concedes with a sigh, "I'll do some research if you want. See if I can't dig up anything."

"Nah, don't," Dean says, short. "I'm sure you've got a lot of other things to do. I just wondered." He hangs up before he says something he'll regret. He'll call back and apologize later anyhow, but he's short on sleep and the last thing he needs to hear is that his brother is somewhere that doesn't involve rest and dreams.

He takes the last corner a little sharp, and the newspaper slides off the seat as he pulls into work and parks behind the main building. He reaches over to grab it, then, after a moment's hesitation, he uncaps his pen, circles the obituary, then flips back to the side column on the front page and underlines a few key words. Whatever killed Paul Chambers's Rottweiler also took a bite out of Robert Mason--a bite that included his heart. The side column says bear and Robert Mason's family is blaming his death on a car accident, but Dean has read enough obituaries to pick up on what this one doesn't say.

Black dog, he decides, folding the newspaper back up and sliding the pen in his pocket. Or a werewolf. Either one could go for the heart, both are territorial.

A knock on the window almost has him jumping out of his skin. Grant grins at him on the other side and Dean flips him off good-naturedly. He gets out of the car and heads to the lockers with Grant, thoughts of the hunt pushed to the back of his mind.

When he gets home that night, though, he spreads the newspaper over the kitchen counter, double-checking the articles while Sparrow spreads her kibble all over the floor. The hunt's not far, a couple hours' drive at most, but he's not stupid enough to think he's ready for that kind of job right now. He's off his game, softer than he's been in a long time.

But he's also tired of waiting--for Sam to come back, for something to happen, for some sort of direction in life.

Sparrow finishes the last bite of her kibble and plunks down on the floor to chew on the hem of Dean's jeans--a clear signal that she's ready to head out for her evening walk in the fields. Dean shakes her off and folds the newspaper up, sliding it beneath the glass of feathers he keeps on the counter. His eyes linger on their green-blue barbs, and the decision comes to him like a lightning strike.

He's going to start hunting. Starting with whatever's in the woods.

--

Dean wakes up the next morning with his hands clenched into fists. Sam had been sick in his dream, coughing and shivering on the back porch, and he hadn't said a word to himself or Dean. It had taken all of Dean's self control to keep his arms at his sides, and even the heat from the shower isn't enough to soothe the soreness in his shoulders. Bending to drag the battered army green duffel out from under the bed has him wincing, but he shakes off the stiffness and spreads his supplies on the bed while Sparrow plays with the hawthorn stake he saves for vampires.

It's grounding, laying everything out with the beginnings of a hunt forming in his mind. He's not ready to commit to the life--not just yet--but the feathers in their glass, physical reminders that the supernatural hasn't left him behind, have been scratching at the back of his mind, the itch building with every day he stays quiet and goes about his business, and he can't ignore it anymore.

He's interrupted by the hawthorn stake rolling out from under Sparrow's paw and lodging under the bed. Sparrow crawls halfway under the bed frame, whining like she expects Dean to get down there with her, before giving up and scooting back out, making a groaning noise as she looks at Dean with guileless blue eyes. Dean puts down the rope he was packing and utters a short curse, hands folded on his head.

"Well, crap."

Whatever was on the roof is corporeal--it pushed Dean to the ground and left a fistful of feathers behind--and he'd been counting on trapping the thing. Which means the only thing he'd be sure to catch is Sparrow. He could keep her in the house... Dean abandons that thought almost immediately. It'd be miserable for both of them and there's no guaranty it would work, especially if this thing is as smart as Dean suspects. A trap that could seize on the creature's supernatural aspects, if it has any, would be better, but Dean doesn't even know where to start with that. Sam would find a way. The thought comes quietly, accompanied by grief, squeezing his lungs with its force. He blinks away the image of Sam poring over a dusty book, heartrending in its familiarity, and sucks in a deep breath.

Sam's not here and if Dean's going to do this, he'll have to be hunter and researcher both.

--

Sparrow must sense that he's not exactly in fighting form because she doesn't shove her way to the back door when Dean leads them both downstairs and only gives his bootlace a stray nip before taking off into the dry grass of the field. She comes easily when he whistles, ears pricking when he reaches the edge of the woods and keeps going, EMF meter in hand. It doesn't so much as make a sound, but it feels good to hold it, concrete. He hasn't exactly missed hunting in the year he's been out--he's had enough on his plate with everything happening to Sam--but he has missed the sense of purpose that comes with it. Even now, staying along the fringe of the woods and doing nothing more than keeping an eye out for anything unusual, a sense of calm settles over him, like he's been racing around trying to settle somewhere and has finally found a niche that doesn't make him feel like he's missing something.

Which isn't exactly true. But he made his peace long ago with the fact that without Sam he's never going to be fully-functional in the way most people are.

Sparrow's head lifts, suddenly alert, and Dean raises the EMF meter and puts a hand on the gun at his back. The meter doesn't make a sound, and a moment later Sparrow scampers off to sniff at an old hollow log. Dean shakes out the tense line of his shoulders, taking a deep breath and letting it out slow. Then, frowning, he does it again.

The air is fresh, almost icy, and his breath fogs in front of his lips the way it always does right before it snows. Dean does a full turn, watching the EMF meter as he rotates. Not a blip. A quick look through the tree branches reveals a pale blue sky without a single cloud. He breathes deep again, hissing when an electric shock shoots through his ribs. He digs a hand in his jacket pocket, stilling as his fingers close over the dark blue feather he left there from the coffee shop the week before. His fingers tingle from touching it, like blood returning to a dead limb, but the feeling soon fades, replaced by warmth that moves up his arm and across his chest the longer he holds it.

Sparrow prances into the clearing, a branch of pine needles between her teeth like a prize. She settles on her belly, branch between her paws, and starts stripping the bark from the branch with surprising daintiness, looking up curiously when Dean crouches in front of her and slowly pulls something caught in the needles.

A long feather, gleaming midnight blue.

--

He pulls up the weather forecast when he gets back to the house, then crosschecks it with a couple other websites. It's not supposed to snow for another week and even then there's more than a faint chance that it'll turn into rain instead. Which confirms Dean's suspicion that the fresh snow feeling he got out in the woods is not natural. Coupled with the new feather, which has joined the one from his pocket and the other three already in the glass on the kitchen counter, the whole thing has Dean convinced that whatever he saw on Halloween hasn't left yet. If anything, the air in that part of the woods is a sign that it's settled there, or at least has spent a large amount of time there.

Dean rubs a hand along the back of his neck and resists the urge to peer out the window. He's traipsed through every inch of the fields and most of the woods with Sparrow. He knows that that spot allows for a good view of the back of the house while still providing decent cover.

So. Corporeal, clearly supernatural, observant and smart. Dean considers the bunch of feathers on the counter, gleaming under the kitchen lights like some sort of exotic bouquet, and grits his teeth.

He's had just about enough of angels.

--

He'd planned to pack up and head out to the woods the next day after work, see if he couldn't figure out some way to trap the angel who has decided to make his backyard home, but in the end Dean leaves the woods alone for almost a week. Life catches up to him in a way that would have been utterly foreign to him a couple years ago but which seems commonplace now. The garage is busy. Carol Finley's dishwasher breaks down. Sparrow eats something that mixes with her digestive system in a bad way, and Dean spends more time than he would like cleaning up dog vomit in the living room before he moves her into the kitchen and cordons off the rest of the house until the coast is clear.

As soon as it looks like life is back to normal, it snows, the weather moving faster than the forecast. Dean wakes up to a blanket of white outside and grins, turns to Sam's empty bed--and spends the rest of the morning heaving into the toilet.

He takes a day off from work, cleaning up around the house. After half a sandwich for lunch, he works up the nerve to shovel the driveway, his jaw clenched tight enough to crack. Afterward he marches around the back of the house and paws in the layer of snow until he finds the wooden stakes and twine that are all that's left of Sam's attempt at a garden. He rolls them up and tosses them in the trash.

An hour later, he digs them back out again and sets them on the edge of the porch, the same place Sam sits in his dreams.

Dean had known it would be like this back in October when the weather started turning and Sam's last season edged closer. What he'd forgotten was the way he wouldn't be able to ignore it, even if he wanted to. It's the blessing and the curse of living in a small town: everyone knows your business and most likely wants to help.

He's at the grocery store picking up coffee and vacuum bags when someone taps him on the shoulder. He turns around to see Joanne Hubert, blond hair piled haphazardly on top of her head.

"Long time, no see, stranger," she says, and Dean can't stop the smile breaking over his face.

"Joanne, hey. The bar run out of pretzels again?"

"Always," Joanne says. "Plus Kara has been begging me to pick up popsicles, Lord knows why."

"The snow's not enough for her, huh?"

"Beats me." Joanne tilts her head, brushing a stray curl out of her eye, and gives him an assessing look. "How're you, hon?"

Dean shrugs, eyebrows lifting. "Fine."

"Rick came in to Stairway the other night, said you'd called in sick to work," Joanne presses.

Dean rolls his eyes. "Can't a man get sick in peace around here?" he mutters, and Joanne pats his arm consolingly.

"No, honey. It's Pooles."

"Yeah, well. Sometimes a man needs his privacy."

"That why you haven't come by the bar?"

Dean freezes at the pointed question, but Joanne eases him through it like she expected that reaction. She squeezes his arm and steers him to the checkout line, then waits for him with her bag of groceries while he's counting change. She follows him outside and watches while he unclips Sparrow's leash, praises her for waiting outside, then lets her go after a quick glance at the mostly empty parking lot.

"Dean," Joanne prompts him gently. He winces. She's so much like Ellen, soft and unrelenting the way he's always imagined mothers to be.

"I can't." His voice sounds like it's been scraped through his throat. "I'm sorry I haven't... But I can't."

"Why not?"

I'm raw, is what he wants to say. This week has been crap. I puked up my guts first thing this morning, just like I did yesterday.

Sparrow is a white shape in the distance, her tail waving like a flag as she burrows in the snow, snapping at the chunks she sends flying. The memory hits so fast, it's like a kick to the gut.

Sam on his back in the snow, laughing so hard tears are running down his cheeks, his nose dripping and red. Everything Dean has ever loved sprawled out with ice melting in his hair, choking on laughter while Dean shoves a handful of snow down his shirt.

Dean doesn't even know he's hunched over, eyes watering like he's been punched, until he feels hands pushing at his shoulders. He straightens, wheezing in a breath, and Joanne's face comes into view, her eyes worried. "Dean? Honey? You okay?"

"I'm fine," Dean says, swallowing when the words come out hoarse.

"You don't have asthma, do you? Because Kara's got an inhaler, I can--"

He lifts a hand, backing away. "I don't, I'm fine. Just--" Trying to function without something vital. "Got dizzy for a second."

Joanne doesn't buy it, not completely, Dean can tell, but she lets him go after giving his shoulders a quick squeeze. Sparrow is nosing around in a grocery bag a few feet away and she sits guiltily when Joanne walks over and picks it up. "Well. I'd better get back to the bar." She gives one of Sparrow's ears a gentle tug, then fixes Dean with a look. "You need to get back to bed, young man. You want me to drive you and the dog home? It's a long walk."

"No, we've got it. Honest, I feel fine. We're good."

"All right. Listen, why don't you stop by Stairway sometime this week? I'll save you a cold one. On the house."

"No," Dean says, a little too quickly. "I can't, Joanne, I've got..." He stops himself, shakes his head. Joanne doesn't deserve excuses, not when she helped Sam through his first seizure, not when she knew when no one else did. He stares at his boots, at the asphalt-flecked chunks of ice on the edge of the parking lot, then clears his throat and tries again. "I think Sam left one of his jackets on the shelf behind the bar."

It takes a minute, but then Joanne nods, understanding soft in her eyes. "He did."

Dean blinks rapidly, dragging in an icy breath. "Keep it there for me?"

"Honey, no one's touching that jacket. I promise."

Dean nods. "Good."

"Come by next week. Thanksgiving. You can take it with you if you want."

It's not about the jacket--the jacket is the least of his problems. It's about the fact that Dean can hardly stand driving down the main street of town because he remembers picking up Sam from tutoring at the high school, can't go into the grocery store without seeing Sam pushing his ridiculous cart, can't shovel the drive without being assaulted by memories. And Stairway--Stairway would be worse. The two of them spent hours there, shooting pool, playing cards, Dean fiddling with the jukebox in the corner while Sam finished up his shift. It was more than one of the bars they used to stop at because it was their bar, one of the first places they had gone to in this little town, the most familiar.

"I don't know if..." he starts.

"Dean." He glances up at the firmness in Joanne's voice. "You need to spend Thanksgiving with someone. I couldn't sleep at night if I knew you were spending it alone."

"Okay," Dean says. "I'll come."

The thing is, he doesn't mind spending Thanksgiving alone. It's being alone every other day that's hard.

--

On Sunday morning, when the rest of the world goes to church, Dean gets up, slings his duffel over his shoulder, and goes to the woods to hunt an angel. It doesn't take long to pinpoint the place he sensed it last time, and when he gets there he turns and faces the back of the house, jaw tightening at the clear view he has. Then he gets to work.

Trapping an angel in holy oil is risky. Trapping an angel in holy oil on snow-covered ground when you have no idea from what direction they'll be coming is even riskier, but Dean figures that even coming out here for a friendly conversation mano a mano is a sign that he's a few cards short of a deck. He doesn't even know if holy oil will hold this thing. He's seen angel wings before and has always held the impression that they're essentially shadows, but this thing's wings he's actually touched, reached up and pulled down a handful of feathers. Even if it is mostly angel, it's not like the rest, which means it might not play by the same rules. 

Dean caps the holy oil and surveys what he can see of the circle, reviewing the little he knows. Essentially he's trapping a maybe-probably angel with wings and who knows what else that are unlike anything Dean's seen. Sam would call him an idiot. Dean shrugs, pulls out his angel blade, and settles on the edge of a stump. And waits.

--

He waits an hour and a half. A breeze kicks up halfway through, bringing him to his feet, angel blade ready, but nothing comes. He sits back down, thumb resting on the edge of his lighter, for another forty-five minutes before he throws caution to the wind. He stands up, stamping feeling back into his numb feet, and tosses the angel blade into the duffel at his feet.

"All right. You got me," Dean calls, spreading his arms. "I'm sick of waiting here and I figure if you're hanging around it's because you know who I am, which means you know I'm not real patient and I want answers." He waits, listening. "Guess I'm going to be doing all the talking. Fine. Here's the thing: A couple weeks ago something showed up on my roof. I get the feeling you know something about that because since then I keep finding these feathers everywhere, which either means you're sloppy or you want me to find you. Now, I figure you're an angel or something close because angels are the only stuck up pricks I know who are pompous enough to have feathers that practically electrocute whoever they touch. So, listen up.

"My brother Sam made a deal with Castiel. I'll bet you were briefed on that because getting him as Heaven's holy Terminator was pretty high on the angelic to-do list, so I'm gonna tell you how this is going to go. I want information--I want to know where Sam is and what the hell he's doing--and I want to talk to Cas. You make that happen and I don't hunt you. You don't and all bets are off."

He waits, looking up at the branches of the pine trees, hoping for some sign that whatever was out there is listening. A squirrel leaps from one branch to another, chittering. A bird calls faintly in the distance. No voice answers. Despair sinks over Dean, dragging at his chest, and he bows his head, closing his eyes. "Come on. I've lasted this long. I just want to know what the hell happened to my brother. Please."

The breeze picks up again, dying almost as quickly, and Dean shakes his head. If he wanted words, he's not getting them.
He figures he should be used to it by now.

--

Sam is quiet, hands folded and elbows propped on his thighs. Dean drags a hand down his face and settles next to him wearily, the porch creaking underneath him like it's years old instead of a few months. Snow is scattered in patches on the ground and Dean is cold, breath fogging out of him like it always does. 

"So how was your week?" he asks, not looking over at Sam. "Mine was awesome. Super great. Seriously, you're missing out."

Sam's foot scuffs along the ground and he shifts, curling his hair behind his ears. He looks drawn, Dean realizes, shadows forming under his eyes the way they did in the very beginning, just after they moved to Pooles. He doesn't say anything, doesn't glance at Dean, and Dean swallows thickly.

"I miss you, man. I don't know what the hell's going on these days, but it'd be a lot easier to handle if it wasn't just me, I know that."

Sam sits up, abruptly enough that Dean sucks in a breath, but instead of looking at Dean, he gets to his feet, eyes fixed on the dark line of trees ahead of them.

"Sam?"

Dean follows Sam’s gaze, trying to see what Sam’s looking at, and is mildly surprised to see that the snow has gone from sparse patches to rolling drifts, blue and violet in the falling dusk. Sam takes a step forward, then another, pausing long enough for Dean to clamber to his feet. Then Sam takes off, long legs eating up the distance from the house to the woods. The snow doesn’t melt beneath his feet but somehow he’s clearing a path faster than Dean can see. In a few seconds they’ve reached the border of the woods, silent and ominous. Dean’s out of breath, heart squeezing painfully in his chest. Sam’s never done this, never done anything like this before. As painful as they are, Dean has gotten used to these dreams, even looked forward to them. To have them change now…

Hope rattles in the back of his mind, demanding to come out of the box he locked it in.

"Sam?" Dean says again.

Before Sam can do anything, Dean wakes up.

--

His mind is absolutely clear when he jerks awake, like he's simply been transported from one world to another instead of waking up from a dream into reality. His cell phone is buzzing and he glances at the time before answering it. 4:46 pm.

"'Lo?"

"Dean? It's Carol."

Dean sits up abruptly and pats down his pockets. His fingers close over the truck keys and he stands, grabbing his jacket from the hallway. "Hey, I'm driving you to the airport."

Carol laughs. "Well, that was the plan. Does that still work for you?"

"Yeah, sorry, sleeping on the job. I'm coming over right now. Don't mess with your suitcase, I'll get it for you."

"All right."

Dean shakes some food out into Sparrow's bowl, then locks the door behind him. He drives the truck to Carol's and leaves it idling as he jogs to the door. Carol opens it before he can knock, dwarfed by the suitcase she's trying to maneuver down the steps.

"I got it," Dean says. He rolls it down the walkway and slides it into the bed of the truck, then closes the door behind Carol.

"You locked up?"

"Checked and double-checked," Carol affirms as they drive away. "But if you could collect my mail..."

"Done," Dean agrees. "I'll send Sparrow over."

Carol laughs. "That dog could do it, you know. Smart as a whip."

"Too smart for me." Dean shakes his head. "Maybe I could put her on the plane with you, let Libby and Ron take her."

"I don't know about that. Libby has her hands full."

"Right, I forgot. What's the new baby's name?"

"Katherine June." A fond smile crosses Carol's face. "She'll be five months now."

"That's right. Well, I bet they're gonna be excited to have you for the holiday."

"It'll be good to see them," Carol agrees. "The house has been so empty since Dale... I guess Ron offered to move them down, but Libby still has a year left on her teaching contract and it'll take that long for Ron to transfer. But who knows? Maybe they'll move down sooner. A lot can happen in a year."

Dean barks a humorless laugh and gives a small shake of his head. "No arguments there."

As if sensing his turned mood, Carol twists in her seat so she can look him head on. "I heard you're going to the Huberts' for Thanksgiving."

"Yeah," Dean grimaces, "kind of got roped into that one."

"I'm glad," Carol says firmly. "If Joanne didn't twist your arm, I was going to."

"You know, some people like spending the holidays alone."

"But not you," Carol says knowingly, seeing Dean more clearly than he would like. "And with your brother gone... I wouldn't have agreed to fly to Maine if I knew you were spending the day by yourself."

"Well, I'm glad you're going to Maine. And Joanne was nice to invite me."

"You will go, though, Dean," Carol says, a half-question. "I'll call Joanne in the middle of dinner, you know I will."

Dean gives a long-suffering sigh. "I solemnly swear to go to the Huberts' and eat them out of house and home."

"Good." Carol pats his leg and turns back around. "That's what I wanted to hear. Make sure you do."

"Yes, ma'am."

--

Thanksgiving isn't as painful as he expects. Javier, the cook at Stairway, joins them for dinner. So does Ashley, one of Kara's friends from the high school who apparently knew Sam and is more than a little awed by the idea of talking to Sam's brother. At first Dean thinks her shyness is because of him, but over pie and ice cream it becomes clear that Sam Campbell was more than a man to the high schoolers of Pooles. He was a mystery--the guy who left Stanford to road trip with his brother, who knew more about guns and knives than any deer hunter, who had apparently been fighting cancer but still managed to do a kick-ass demonstration for the martial arts club (and isn't Dean upset that this is the first time he's heard about that one). 

It startles Dean at first, but after a minute of thought it makes sense. It's kind of fitting, after all--Sam as a legend. Dean just never thought it'd be because Sam disappeared instead of all the other things he'd done that counted far more: defeating Lucifer, saving countless lives, hell, earning a free ride to Stanford in the middle of John Winchester's training regime. There were so many other things Sam was legendary for.

Dean takes another bite of pie and shakes his head at Joanne's worried look. It doesn't hurt, not like he thought it would. Stings a little, in the petty way that comes from not wanting to share something with someone else, but more than that it soothes, to know that there are other pieces of Sam out there that other people hold close. And if Sam lives on as a legend in Pooles, who is he to stop it? Dean can't count the number of times that he and Sam have gone looking for ghosts, only to find that they've underestimated the power of the human mind to make myths out of the mundane. It's just ironic that, for once, they've got it right. Sam was more than met the eye, just not in the way they're guessing.

When the evening is over and the dishes have been cleared, Dean bends down behind the bar and pulls Sam's bundled coat from off one of the shelves. It smells like Sam, still--like the bar and beer and the tiniest bit like Sam's deodorant, but underneath all that it smells like Sam. Dean tucks it under his arm, picks up his plate of leftovers, and makes sure to give Joanne a hug on his way out. "Thank you," he says, "this was nice." She gives him a searching look, then squeezes his shoulders and lets him go. "It's good," he says with a firm nod, and he thinks she understands that he isn't talking about the meal.

--

Of course, Sparrow is a hyper mess when he gets back, tearing up and down the stairs and through the rest of the house until Dean opens the back door and puts her out. She rolls around in the snow, barking and growling at the soft flurries beginning to fall, and does a couple laps around the yard until she comes back to the porch where Dean is standing, her tongue lolling out. "You're a menace," Dean says, but leans down to scratch her head anyway.

That's when he sees the feather.

Long and sleek, it's resting in the outline of a footprint in the snow, somehow untouched despite Sparrow's escapade. Dean's eyes snap to the woods, searching for movement as he steps off the porch and bends to pick up the feather. He's almost used to the electric feeling that zings up his arm at the first touch. He turns to look for Sparrow and is surprised to see her turn to go into the house, leaving him standing outside alone.

"Sparrow?" he calls. When she doesn't return, he whistles, a high piercing note, and waits. 

The only thing that moves is a shadow across the field, half hidden by the trees. 

Dean looks back at the footprint, then at the feather in his hand, and mutters a curse. Sam would call it a trap. John would call it stupid. Dean just thinks it's polite. After all, he did ask for information and he's holding the angel's calling card. The only wrong choice here is to ignore it.

--

The air tastes clean when Dean steps under the branches of the trees, and although there's no sign of the creature, he knows he's on the right trail. It continues deeper in the woods than he expected, past the clearing where he set the trap the other day. To anyone else it would be almost invisible, the disturbed branches and fresh scent he follows difficult even for him to read. He wasn't raised by John Winchester for nothing, though, and a few minutes later he lifts his eyes from a track in the snow and swallows through a throat that's suddenly dry. 

A figure is crouched at the foot of a pine, a dark feather in its hand identical to the ones mantled over its back. At Dean's shouted, "Hey!" it stands, stretching tall, taller than Dean is ready for. A wind sweeps up, sending icy fingers up Dean's shirt, and the angel turns. The moon is pale, its light muffled by the falling snow, but Dean catches sight of dark hair, a sloped nose, the sharp jut of cheekbone. The air tastes bright on his tongue, and Dean blinks, stunned. 

"Sam?" Dean whispers.

"You can't," Sam had said, his warm palm covering Dean's eyes. "Not at me."

The wings snap out, filling Dean's gaze with midnight blue. He takes a startled step back, and then the figure and the woods are gone, replaced by the gray light of dawn coming through his bedroom curtains.

--

Bobby picks up the second time Dean calls, his voice scratchy and slow. "Singer."

"Bobby." Dean's voice sounds wrecked even to his own ears.

There's the creak of bed springs, then Bobby's voice sounds clearer. "Dean? What's wrong?"

Dean laughs, the kind of laugh you hear from crazy people, people in over their heads. "Bobby." I wanted to see, he thinks. "Bobby, something's messing with Sam's field."

"Son," Bobby says, "how much you been drinking?"

"Nothing," Dean says quickly, "not a damn thing. Something's out there, Bobby, Sam-- Sam's out there."

There's the rasp of stubble, then Bobby's weary voice says, "Dean," like he's the one broken, alone.

"Bobby, I swear." Dean's voice breaks and he swallows, staring out in the dim light at his footprints in the snow. "I swear."

"Why don't you come to Sioux Falls, son? Come to the house, you can make it in two days. You get here safe, we'll get you a good night's sleep, and we can sit down and talk about this."

"No, you don't get it, Bobby, I'm... I'm not going anywhere."

Bobby sighs and Dean knows what he's going to ask because he's heard it a hundred times already. "Why do you stay out there, kid? Why won't you come home?"

Dean blinks back the unexpected tears and shakes his head, even though Bobby can't see. "I can't. I'm not leaving Sam out here. I'm not going to leave him."

--

The sky is clear in Dean's dream that night, the setting sun casting violet shadows over the snow. Dean sits down next to Sam like always and feels something inside him unclench at the familiar sound of Sam breathing, the porch creaking under his weight. They're drinking coffee this evening, Dean's hot and a little sweet, the way Sam always makes it for him. Sam has his wrapped in his hands, his thumb rubbing around the rim of the mug, and Dean watches him take a sip and then nod to something in the field.

"I'm glad you have her," Sam says. Dean turns to look and sees Sparrow sitting in the snow, a solemn white statue with ice blue eyes. She lays down on her belly when Sam nods to her and Dean shakes his head in wry amusement. Sparrow's well-behaved but she's far from perfect--any version of her that lays down and stays without a command is one that only exists in his dreams.

Then it hits him.

"Sam," Dean says through numb lips. He stares at his brother, resisting the urge to wave a hand an inch in front of Sam's face to see if he'll react. "Can you hear me?"

Sam turns his head and looks Dean in the eye. "Sparrow," he says, as if he's always been able to talk to Dean, as if Dean has always been there. 

Dean coughs a laugh, rubs his face with shaking hands, and looks at Sam again. Sam, who is looking back. "Yeah. Her name's Sparrow. Couldn't think of anything else so I named the poor dog after a bird."

Sam tips his head, a smile quirking his mouth. "C'mon, Dean. You know better than that."

"What?" Dean says. "What do you mean?" Sam waits, his eyes fixed on Dean, gaze warming him from the inside out. I'll wake up, Dean thinks and his stomach clenches in fear at the thought. Sam is looking at him, Sam can see him--going back to a world where Sam isn't there to look at him sounds unbearable. The fear pushes honesty up his throat, and Dean swallows before saying, "Spero. It's Latin."

Sam looks pleased, content, like Dean has done something really hard and Sam is proud of him.

"Spero," Sam echoes. "That's right."

--

Dulles is busy. The baggage claim is packed with people either returning from holiday trips or picking up others who are, and Dean is hard-pressed to find five-foot-four of elderly neighbor in the throng. Luckily, Carol finds him, red scarf tucked under her chin, and she fills him in on the details of her Thanksgiving while they wait for her luggage, then walk to the truck.

"So Maine was good," Dean says as they pull onto the highway, bumping up the heater and pointing the vents toward her.

"Maine," Carol says decidedly, "was far colder than anywhere I would like to live. I didn't venture outside much and I left the Black Friday shopping to Libby and Ron, but I did get to stay in and take care of the little ones. And that I enjoyed very much."

"The little rug rats weren't too much for you?" 

Carol swats his arm. "You watch your manners, Dean Campbell. And tell me what you've been doing while I've been away."

"Oh, the usual," Dean says easily. "Chasing Sparrow around the house. Eating leftovers. Resigning myself to the Christmas music that has taken over every radio station." Dean glares at the radio where Burl Ives is singing about having a Holly Jolly Christmas.

"Did you go to the Huberts' for Thanksgiving, then?" 

"I promised I would."

"And?"

Dean slows down as he takes the exit for Pooles. "It was good. Really nice. Joanne made these sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top." He puts a hand on his chest like he's taking a pledge. "Don't tell anyone else, but it was almost--almost--better than pie."

"Well, good," Carol says warmly. "I'm glad to hear it. I was worried you'd chicken out at the last minute." At Dean's affronted look, she continues, "I only say that because I know Dale hated any type of social obligation around the holidays. He never wanted to go anywhere he didn't decide on himself. He was stubborn as all get out." Fondness colors Carol's words. She sits for a moment in silence, staring out the window as they pass through town. Then she shakes herself out of her reverie and says, "Well. It'll be nice to be home. So nothing exciting happened while I was gone?"

Dean folds his lips and shakes his head, thinking fleetingly of the woods. "Quiet as a graveyard," he says. "It's good to have you back."

--

It starts to snow when Dean pulls down their street, flurries eddying down like the weather's been holding out for them. Dean pulls Carol's suitcase out of the truck bed and stands with an outstretched hand while Carol unlocks the front door. Snowflakes thread through his fingers, delicate as lace, and Dean swallows back the tightness in his throat. 

--

The next week Dean waits in the woods every evening after work, sitting on a stump in the same clearing where he'd seen the figure--where he'd seen Sam--and watching for any sign that he was right, that he hasn't finally lost it after all. Sparrow goes with him, and after the first couple of nights it becomes routine for her to settle at his feet, either dozing or chewing on a branch.

Sam doesn't show. Dean doesn't dream.

--

Until, he does.

They're not on the porch, this time. They're not even in the woods. Instead, they're standing under the maple in the front yard, its dark branches limned with that eerie light Sam let him see last year, reflecting the tracery of that same light in the snow. Sam is watching Dean, eyebrows lifted like he's waiting for Dean to answer a question.

Dean wants to make a joke, something about taking a picture because it'll last longer, but instead what comes out is, "I didn't think you were coming back."

"I don't always get a choice," Sam says, that earnest look on his face that always breaks Dean's heart. He lifts his shoulders, up and back, and looks at the sky, at the moon shining down on them, like he's bracing himself to do something hard. "I don't regret it, though. I want you to know that."

"Regret what?" Dean says automatically. He tries to take a step forward and finds himself rooted to the spot. Panic settles in his stomach and he reaches a hand out to catch Sam's sleeve only to find that he can't. Sam is standing there, his hair falling in his eyes, solid and sure and just beyond Dean's reach. "Sam. What are you doing? Don't do it."

"I already did, Dean," Sam says. He takes a step back. "It's already done, remember?"

"Hey, no. Wait."

"You let me go. You did what I needed you to."

"Yeah, but now you're back. You came back." Keep him talking, Dean thinks manically, as if Sam's losing consciousness and they're waiting for the paramedics to show. Keep him talking. He can't leave if he's talking.

"Dean," Sam says in a quiet whisper. "Not to stay."

"No, but..." Refusing is a knee-jerk response. Dean's mouth works as he searches his mind, looking for anything he can do to convince Sam. "But could you? Stay?" 

Sam's mouth twists, the same way it used to when he was holding back tears. "I'm not even really here, Dean. Not really. Not completely." He lifts a hand and Dean closes his eyes, waiting for the touch. His eyelids flutter open when it doesn't come. Instead, he's alone with something soft and delicate clenched in his closed fist. Dean swallows. He doesn't have to look to know what it is, but he looks anyway, blinks the welling tears back so he can see. 

A feather, dark blue. One of Sam's.