You’d think Sam would know better than to touch anything in the batcave whose provenance he was in any way unclear on. That doesn’t stop him from picking up the feather lying on the bookcase shelf. He holds it by the shaft and rotates it between his thumb and forefinger. It’s a little shorter than the span of his hand, mottled brown, in good condition, most of the barbs zipped neatly together. Dean must have brought it in from outside, he figures. It’s from a hawk’s wing, or maybe a duck; he’s seen mallards in the pond he passes on his morning runs. Or passed, rather, back when morning runs were a thing he could do.
One summer he spent keeping a record of every animal species he saw, from flies and white socks all the way up to a herd of elk, spotted from the car one hazy Montana dawn. It was the last time he can clearly remember enjoying road trips. He had just turned eight.
In honor of that summer, Sam sticks the feather behind his ear and goes on scanning the shelves for the grimoire he knows he saw last week. It’s hours later, when Dean makes an enquiring noise, twisting his thumbs together and making flappy hands, that Sam remembers and reaches for the feather. It crumbles in his hand. It must have been older than it looked. More fragile.
He knows the feeling.
Eventually he drags himself to bed, his arms swinging from his shoulder like lead. That night he dreams of flying: of lifting on air currents rising from the day-warmed earth, of passing over meadows and between trees. Weightless.
He wakes just after noon, and before he can even put his feet to the floor he has to reach for a tissue to cough blood into. The iron-salt tang of it suddenly casts him back years, to memories of putting his mouth to Ruby’s arm and licking what leaked from it. For a half a second, the old hunger grips his throat and squeezes. The next moment he’s himself again, here, surrounded by cool and disinterested brick.
Shakily he wipes his mouth and goes in search of breakfast. Lunch. Whatever.
What he finds are corn flakes supplemented with sausage links and orange juice. He chews on the meat of unknown origin and daydreams about yogurt and fresh fruit. If he wants them, he’ll have to go to the store himself; somehow his grocery lists always go awry when he gives them to Dean.
He can go tomorrow. He’ll feel better then, probably.
There’s nothing new on any tablets, and last time Kevin sounded ready stab Sam through the phone the next time he called to ask.
Sam goes back to bed. He doesn’t dream.
He rides the air on silent wings, scanning the ground passing beneath him and alert to every sound of rabbit or mouse. They scurry or lie still, but they can’t escape him. He chooses a meadow mouse and plucks it from the earth, and it squeals.
Sam finds a newspaper while stuffing bloody tissues to the bottom of the waste basket. He fishes the paper out, because sometimes he likes to read things less than fifty years old, and if he stares at his laptop screen too long these days he gets a headache.
It’s already folded open to a page, and the words stare Sam in the face: Accident at Molsby Farm. He scans the article, picking up the salient details. Molsby Farm outside North Platte has been abandoned for thirty years now. Two overly venturesome teens trespassed, got spooked, ran, but one of them fell off the stairs of the old farmhouse and broke his leg. He lay there alone for half an hour before the EMTs arrived; the other one refused to go back inside.
“Something pushed him,” T.J. Engmeier insists. “Scott was in front of me, and he was fine, and then something shoved him right through the railing.” T.J. declines to speculate what sort of invisible force it might have been. Scott isn’t available for comment.
Sam finds Dean down at the firing range. “What’s this?”
Dean barely glances at him. “It’s a newspaper.”
“It’s a hunt.”
“Not our hunt.” Dean squares his shoulders and aims. Sam barely has time to cover his ears before Dean fires. His shot clips the target’s ear.
“What do you mean it’s not our hunt? Did you call Garth?”
“I’m sure he saw it.” Dean lines up another shot. Sam jams his palms up against his head, and Dean fires.
“Dude,” Sam says. “Can you just hold on for a minute?” He catches Dean’s arm.
It’s a fraught moment before Dean lowers the revolver. “Fine. What?”
“Is someone taking care of this?” Sam asks. He rustles the paper in Dean’s face.
“Okay, well, if you don’t know, then why aren’t we taking care of it?”
Dean eyes Sam and snorts. “What, like you’re going to? You gonna go out there and cough blood all over the malevolent spirit? Take a nap at it? You spent more time asleep yesterday than you did awake.”
Sam would argue, but he can’t muster the energy. He rolls his eyes and heads for the stairs. “I’ll tell Garth,” he calls over his shoulder.
Garth’s tied up at the moment – with what, Sam chooses not to guess, especially given the feminine giggling in the background – but Garth promises to put someone on it. He ventures that it sounds like it could wait a day or two. Sam agrees that likely it could. Whatever’s there at the old farm has probably been waiting at least thirty years.
The sky is clear and cool and moonless. His wings tirelessly cut the air in steady, even strokes.
He’s hungry. He glides through the night, searching for prey, and when he finds some, right out in the open and waiting to be caught, he strikes.
Someone shakes Sam awake. He blinks at Dean, who’s staring back at him, wide-eyed. “Dude, what?” Sam slurs, pushing himself upright.
“I wasn’t sure you were going to wake up.”
“What?” Sam rubs at his eyes.
“You wouldn’t before.”
Sam blinks at him. “What time is it?”
“Ten o’clock. You’re sleeping the day away, dude.” The tone teases, but Dean’s eyes are worry-lined.
Whatever. This is what Sam does now, apparently. Sleeps until whenever, coughs up blood. “So, what?” he asks. “What do you want?”
Dean hunches down on the bed. He looks tired. It hasn’t occurred to Sam recently, since from where Sam stands most everyone looks to be in the peak of condition, but now he sees: Dean looks tired. His shoulders are slumped, and he hasn’t been getting enough sleep. Sam wonders whether he’s been eating anything, either.
“About that hunt,” Dean says.
It takes Sam a moment to place what hunt that might be; that was days ago, and he’s slept since then. A lot, apparently. “Yeah?”
Dean stares down at his hands. “I guess you were right. We shoulda looked into it. There’s been a string of ‘em now.”
“At the farmhouse?”
“No,” Dean says, loud and frustrated. “No, one in a ghost town off 183, and then another in abandoned campground out at Lovewell State Park.”
“Another one what? Broken leg? Poltergeist?”
“Another unexplained coma patient, Sam. Scott, the kid who broke his leg? In the article you read? Yeah, he hasn’t woken up yet. Both of the other two are out for the count, too.”
Sam blinks. “Dean, that’s not a poltergeist. Or any kind of ghost.”
“Nope. We’ve got a brain sucker on our hands.” Dean doesn’t look even mildly gleeful about this, which is a very bad sign. He pushes to his feet. “Anyway, I’m gonna go suit up, talk to the locals, call in Garth if I have to.”
“Uh, okay.” Sam watches Dean go.
It’s not until long after Dean walks out the door, clean-shaven and respectably non-descript, that Sam puts two and two together. He’s in the middle of research – just because he’s too sleepy to even think of suggesting that he go along with Dean doesn’t mean he can’t research - and he has the regional road map spread out across the table. He marks the locations of the three incidents, and suddenly the pattern is obvious: they cluster all around the bunker, and they’re getting closer.
No wonder Dean bothered to wake Sam up, just to tell him he was going out. He thought maybe Sam wouldn’t wake up.
However, as Sam has no intention of trespassing through long-abandoned structures of any kind, he decides to take a nap.
Sam misses Dean’s phone call, but he finds a message the next morning, stuck on top of a less-than-entirely-frozen dinner: Another hit north of Waconda Lake. Might be out late. Eat this.
Sam picks up the dinner and makes a face at the wet spot the condensation leaves behind. It probably won’t kill the food value if he freezes it again, so he sticks it back in the freezer. He wasn’t really hungry even before seeing the puddle.
He spends the day reading up on things that haunt abandoned places specifically. He comes up all ghosts until he tries biblegateway.com on a whim. ‘Abandoned’ is all about people, not places. Halfway through the results for ‘ruins,’ though, he pulls up short.
He cross-checks across the major English translations, and while there’s some disagreement, the consensus seems to be for the translation he found. He calls Dean.
“It’s owls,” Sam says. He reads out, “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”
“That’s nice, Sam.” Dean’s bewilderment comes through clearly despite the poor reception.
“But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. In the Bible, owls lived in ruins. And in a lot of parts of the world, they don’t symbolize wisdom; they mean death and decay. Bad things.”
“So do a lot of things, Sam. Granny’s crocheted doilies probably symbolize death and decay somewhere, unfortunately for us.”
“But I’ve been dreaming about them. Owls.”
Alarmed, “You what?”
Sam tries to gather his thoughts. “I’ve been dreaming about owls for weeks. Well, an owl.”
At the end of a long pause, Dean says, “You figure it’s your demon powers again? Visions, like from old Yellow Eyes?”
“Maybe?” Even as Sam says it, he knows that isn’t it. No headaches, no gruesome deaths, the same dream night after night. This is different. “I don’t think so.”
“Right. So that means you’re going to be a victim.” That doesn’t sound right, either, but there’s no point in Sam saying so; Dean’s clearly in full panic mode now. “ You keep the salt and the iron in reach and keep looking up ways to gank the thing. And you see an owl, you shoot that son of a bitch right through the skull, right?”
“I’ve got one more witness interview, and I’ll be there.”
“Okay,” Sam agrees.
“You damned better still be awake when I get back.”
Sam stays awake, and he researches, and he doesn’t see any owls. Nonetheless, he collects various other protections against malevolence and evil and piles them up on the work table.
Dean gets in eventually, out of breath and grumpy with ill-hidden fear. Sam rolls his eyes while Dean looks him over and splashes holy water in his hair – closer to the dreams, Dean claims. Then Sam goes and gets them both dinner: two of those frozen things. Dean ends up eating most of Sam’s.
It’s nearly dark when Sam says, “I am beat. You gotta give me a few hours’ sleep, man.” Dean’s mouth opens, and Sam just knows he’s gearing up for a solution involving lots and lots of caffeine. “Look,” Sam says, “I’ll pull one of those cots out from the storage room, and I’ll put it right here. Sit watch with your shotgun or whatever, but I have got to get some sleep.”
It takes some more talking, but eventually, grudgingly, Dean nods. He even goes for the cot and grabs blankets and a pillow from Sam’s bed.
The skies are his, and the mice hiding in the meadows, and the songbirds huddled away in their nests. This tree is his, this broken ruin, lightning-torn and wind-bent and diseased.
Tonight he feasts. His meals squeal and wriggle and ultimately lie still in his talons. He swallows them down whole and is sated.
He perches in the twisted branches of his tree and preens. One feather of his wing is too far gone, only half-attached and more a nuisance than a help when he flies. He pulls it out with a jerk, and it flutters to the ground.
He closes his eyes and waits for dawn.
Sam wakes up to silence. He stands up and stretches out the kinks that always come of him trying to jam himself on a cot sized for ordinary people. He glances around the library. Dean’s nowhere in sight, although the table is still spread full of books.
He heads towards the kitchen, where Dean will surely be, and something squishes unpleasantly under his bare foot. He crouches and squints at the thing. It seems to be... hair. And small bones, too new to have turned white. And a dog tag, the knock-off, first-name-only kind he’s seen at Wal-Mart. He plucks the dog tag from the mess with his fingertips, as lightly as he’s able, and stares at it. It’s badly bent, but he can just make out the letters.
Sam can’t breathe. He slumps ass-first onto the floor, and he stares at the tarnished metal between his fingers.
“Sam?” Involuntarily, Sam looks up to Dean, standing in the doorway. “You want sausage, right?”
Stuck behind Dean’s ear is a feather, boldly patterned in bars of brown and white.
Dean catches Sam staring. He grins, reaching up to pat at his ear. “Yeah, found another one of those feathers. I figure the Men of Letters must have kept a stash, huh? Or else we have a bird problem.” His eyes narrow. “Sam, are you okay?