Dean jerks awake, fingers clenched around a feather that he knows isn’t there. The image of Sam still burns the back of his eyelids, the branches of the maple tree limned with eerie light casting shadows over Sam’s shoulders.
Stay, is what Dean always asks Sam in the dream, every night for the past two and a half weeks, and every night Sam disappears, leaving Dean with the phantom feeling of feathers in his grip.
He pushes up on an elbow, punching his pillow into a more comfortable shape, then punching it again because he can. “Damn it,” he whispers, the sound coming out weak in the dark.
It’s mid-December and the only time he sees Sam now is in his dreams. A storm blew in at the beginning of the month—Sam’s doing or not, Dean doesn’t know. But afterward Sam was gone, and no matter how deep Dean searched the woods, he didn’t find any evidence of his brother. No feathers. No footprints.
Just dreams. The same one, over and over again.
By the time Bobby calls, it’s 7:34 and Dean’s on his second cup of coffee. He tucks his cell phone into his neck and pours himself a bowl of cereal. “I swear, you call earlier and earlier,” he says.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did the servants not bring you breakfast in bed?” Bobby’s voice sounds tinny and far away, and Dean can hear the sound of something sizzling, probably the ham scramble Bobby swears by. “Some of us have been up since four with work to do.”
“Hey, I was up at four,” Dean says, mouth full of cereal.
There’s a scrabbling noise, and then Bobby’s voice sounds clearer, the background noise muted once he takes Dean off speakerphone. “Dreams again?”
“Yeah. Same dream, no Sam.”
“I’m guessing that means you ain’t seen hide or hair of Castiel, then, either.”
Dean stabs his spoon at the cereal in his bowl. “Nope. Typical. The guy’s a master at turning a deaf ear.”
“He might still be listening, Dean.”
“Then that’s worse,” Dean says levelly. He pours the remains of his cereal out in the sink, suddenly not hungry anymore, and rinses out the bowl.
Over the sound of running water, Bobby clears his throat—always the sign of something Dean’s not going to want to hear—and says, “I don’t suppose there’s any point in me asking you to come to Sioux Falls for the holidays, is there?”
Dean turns off the water and resists the urge to sigh. “This you asking?”
“Just for the week. You get here and you want to leave, that’s fine, I won’t stop you.”
“Bobby,” Dean rubs a hand over his forehead, “I can’t take that chance. I’m not saying never, but until I find out what the hell’s going on with Sam, I’m staying put.”
There’s the clatter of a dish on a counter and the scrape of a spatula. “Well. Can’t say I’d do different. Guess that leaves me coming down to Pooles to visit you, then.”
That surprises a smile out of Dean. “And ruin our plumbing? No thanks.”
“Shut your damn mouth,” Bobby growls, but there’s no heat in it. “You’d be lucky to have me.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks anyway.”
“Well. You change your mind, offer stands.”
“Thanks. I’ll let you know,” Dean says, but it’s an empty promise and they both know it.
It doesn’t matter where Sam is. Dean’s not going anywhere until he comes back.
On Fridays, after work, Dean goes to Stairway. Not every week, but more often than he used to. He still can’t look at the bar without seeing Sam puttering on the other side of it, but it gets easier each time. He’s quiet, mostly, sits in the back corner by the jukebox and makes small talk with whoever comes in. He orders fries from Javier and quizzes Kara on her homework. He never stays long.
Tonight he arranges peanut shells in a staggered row on the table, his mind conjuring up Sam’s snowy footprints, while he finishes his beer. Joanne swings by with another, but he pushes his chair back and leaves a ten on the table. “Got an early start tomorrow,” he uses as an excuse. It’s transparent as glass, especially when both Cary and Grant shoulder their way through the door a minute later, stamping snow off their boots, but Carol smiles anyhow.
“See you next week?” Carol asks, like always.
“Don’t know yet.” Dean shrugs on his jacket. “We’ll see. Keep the light on for me.”
The night is dark when the door to the bar closes behind him, the sounds of coarse jokes and the clatter of the pool table muffled. The blank emptiness of the house rises in his mind and for a minute he wavers, tempted to go back in.
It’s the image of Sam standing behind the bar, holding up a hand to let Dean know he still has five minutes left on his shift, that decides it for him.
He opens the door of his truck and jams the keys into the ignition, gassing the engine until it turns over. The truck’s headlights flip on, illuminating the dark street with drifts of dirty snow shoveled to either side. The town turns in early during the winter and most of the stores are closed, the lights off and the shades drawn. It doesn’t look abandoned, exactly, but it’s a near thing.
“Cas, you bastard,” Dean mutters under his breath. He puts the truck into gear and starts the short drive home, not knowing if he’s waiting for an answer or not. At the edge of town, Dean clenches his jaw and says, “I’m not gonna keep doing this.”
He waits a minute longer, listening as the truck’s tires crunch over asphalt and salt and snow.
“I don’t know if you can even hear me anymore,” he finally says, “or if you just don’t want to listen. But here’s the spiel again. I know Sam’s part angel, okay? I know, I’ve seen him, I’ve got my brother’s friggin’ feathers sitting in a glass in the kitchen.” He stops, biting the inside of his cheek until his voice isn’t so hoarse. “I just want to see Sam. I need to know he’s okay. I’m not asking for the moon or explanations or apologies, I just want my brother back. Just for a little while.”
He pulls into the driveway and turns the truck off, waiting in silence as the engine ticks in the night air. As usual, there’s no answer.
When someone knocks on his door the next morning, he half hopes it’ll be Sam, his prayers answered, Cas apologetic about the delay. Sparrow gives a sharp bark and runs to the door, twirling in anxious circles in the hallway, and Dean’s chest clenches.
It’s not Sam, though. Because why would it be? Instead it’s Abby, red hair pulled up in a ponytail, her smile as brilliant as sunshine on snow.
“Surprise,” she greets him, a dimple popping in one cheek at the stunned look on Dean’s face.
It takes a minute before he can get his lips to move. “What are you doing here?”
“Nice to see you, too.” Abby lifts the plastic bags in her hands. “Can I come in?” She slips inside before he can do more than nod dumbly and dumps the bags on the kitchen counter. Packages of Christmas lights spill to the floor, and Sparrow noses at them. “Home Depot was packed. I basically had to arm wrestle someone for these.”
“Wait, aren’t— Aren’t you spending Christmas with your family? I thought you moved to Oregon.”
“I did,” Abby says, “but they’re going on a cruise for Christmas and I have the New Year’s shift at the hospital.” She makes a face. “Lucky me.”
“So you’re visiting your aunt and uncle,” Dean guesses, grinning in spite of himself.
“And apparently saving you from becoming the Grinch. You helped Carol Finley put up her lights and bought her a tree but didn’t get one for yourself? What happened to all the decorations you and Sam had last year?”
“They’re in the garage.”
Abby raises her eyebrows. “Yeah, we’re going to have to do something about that.”
Dean lets the cardboard box fall to the coffee table with a thunk and dusts off his hands. “There you go. Think that’s the last one.”
Abby turns, her long ponytail swinging behind her, and smiles brightly. “Perfect, start unloading.”
Dean shoots Abby a glare, which only seems to make her happier, and obediently starts pulling ornaments out of the box. “You know, this is nice and all, but you really didn’t have to do this.”
“It’s the middle of December. You didn’t even put your lights up. There was no way I wasn’t going to do this.” Abby picks up a handful of bells strung on ribbons and disappears down the hallway to hang them on the doors. When she returns, she’s carrying the plastic bags of dangly icicle lights. “Also, just so you know, this is your Christmas present this year. Don’t expect anything else from me.” She drops the bags in the corner and tilts her head as she surveys the bare living room. “And I was serious about getting you a tree.”
Dean grumbles, but apparently Abby learned his weak spots from Sam. That, or Dean is going soft. Either way, an hour later he and Abby are unloading a Christmas tree from the truck bed. Ten minutes after that, Dean finds himself back in the garage, rooting around for another box of lights at Abby’s request.
All in all, it’s better than he thought it would be. He complains, sure, but if he’s being honest he’s been dreading December since summer ended. Sam had loved the season, had wanted it with a fierceness that reminded Dean of the Christmas before his deal, and Dean had gamely gone along with whatever Sam asked. Putting decorations up without Sam, though, would have been like volunteering for torture. He’s pretty sure either he or Abby would die of embarrassment if Dean expressed how grateful he is to have her there.
“Your star is crooked.”
Dean glares down at Abby, who’s sprawled on the floor, and nudges the tree topper in the other direction.
“Perfect. No, now you bumped it again. Just a little…”
Dean jams the star on the branch and gets off the ladder. “There. Done.”
“Mm, yes.” Abby tilts her head. “The forty-five-degree angle is so avant-garde.” She has red glitter on her sleeve and a sprig of pine needles caught in her hair, but she looks satisfied when she gets to her feet and steps back to survey their work. “Not bad. You need a tree skirt.”
“I am not putting a skirt on that tree.”
A helpless smile crosses Abby’s face. “It’s not… You know what, never mind. You’re right, it looks great.”
“Damn straight,” Dean says, picking up empty plastic containers and stuffing them into a trash bag. Abby rolls her eyes and catches his arm.
“You didn’t even look at it,” she protests. She stands him next to her and gestures grandiosely. “Well?”
It does look good. The tree’s not as tall as the one he and Sam wrangled last year, but at least they can fit the tree topper on this time. Abby outdid herself with the lights, winding them to the tip of every branch so they reflect off the red and gold ornaments. Even the tiny Matchbox Impala that Sam tied a ribbon around last year is hanging up high, swaying gently as if Sam placed it there just a second ago.
Yeah, Dean thinks. It looks great.
“Think he’d like it?” Abby asks quietly.
“Yeah,” Dean says. His voice comes out mostly steady. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he would.”
They order in Thai food for dinner. Abby beats Dean to the door and elbows him in the gut when he tries to sneak a twenty-dollar bill past her. “I told you, I’m paying,” she says, then smiles sweetly at the delivery guy. They spread the plastic cartons out on the coffee table and turn on the TV for background noise while they eat. Sparrow lounges in her basket bed, gnawing on one of her tennis balls until they finish and Dean flicks leftover pieces of chicken to her from his plate.
When they’ve decimated the pad thai and spicy beef, Abby stretches, leaning back against the couch cushions and gazing up at the Christmas tree. “I can’t believe it’s Christmas already.”
“What are you talking about? We’ve still got, like, two weeks left,” Dean says. He pushes his plate away and reaches over to pet Sparrow’s head.
“No, I mean the season. It’s my favorite holiday, you know? I wait all year for this. For the snow and the pine trees and the eggnog.” She suddenly sits up and points at Dean. “Oh my god. Eggnog. We need eggnog right now.”
“Yes.” Abby pushes to her feet and rummages around in her purse for her keys. “It’s tradition, we decorated the tree, we totally need eggnog.”
“No,” Dean says again. It comes out harsher than he intends and Abby freezes, watching him. “No,” he says, and this time it’s almost apologetic.
“Okay.” Abby finally nods. “No eggnog.” To Dean’s surprise, she comes back to the couch, facing him with her back to the armrest and her arms looped around her knees. “What do you want, then?”
Dean laughs dryly, staring at the remains of their dinner. “Man, if the big guy in red was real, would I have a list for him.” He shakes his head once and pushes to his feet. “In the meantime, I’ll settle for a beer.”
He ducks into the kitchen, feeling Abby’s eyes on his back, and grabs the six-pack from the fridge. Abby joins him a minute later, dumping their abandoned cartons in the trash. She slides the glass of Sam’s feathers to her and perches on a stool behind the counter, finger tracing the rim of the glass.
“I’m sorry,” Dean says. “I just…”
“Bad memory?” Abby tips her head.
“No. Good memory,” Dean admits. “Bad timing.”
“I get it, it’s fine.”
Abby’s smile is soft, forgiving, the kind of smile that probably makes her a favorite with her patients. It makes Dean want to curl his hands into fists. Sam could have had this, he thinks blindly. We could have. He huffs a breath and digs his palms into his eyes until he sees stars. He drops his hands when he feels fingers tug at his arm.
“Hey,” Abby says. “Talk.”
Abby nudges Dean’s beer closer to him. “Tell me how you’re doing. Tell me about life right now, with the holidays and all.”
“Without Sam, you mean.”
“Honestly?” Dean plants his hands on the kitchen counter and studies the white tiles. “It was better. A few weeks ago it seemed better. But recently it’s worse.”
“Ups and downs like that are natural,” Abby says. She squeezes his hand when Dean shakes his head. “Really, they are. He was your brother, Dean. The grief’s not going to just go away.”
Dean’s smile is so raw it hurts. “Why not? That’s what he did.”
Abby searches his face with wide blue eyes, and after a few seconds Dean looks away. He doesn’t move when he hears the stool scoot back, although his eyes flutter shut when he feels the soft press of lips to his cheek. “You’re going to be okay, Dean. I promise,” Abby whispers, then steps back. Dean can hear her putting on her coat in the hall, giving him the space he needs to clear the lump in his throat and put up a brave front.
When he opens the door for her, she’s smiling the same as she always does, bright and open, with dimples like Sam’s.
“Listen, I don’t know if you’re interested or if you have plans, but it’s just me and my aunt and uncle for Christmas this year. My aunt’s making pot roast, and my uncle has bourbon because apparently he always has bourbon on Christmas. And you’re welcome to come, if you want. You don’t have to dress up or anything, just…show up.” Abby’s voice turns wheedling. “I’ll make sure there’s pie.”
Dean cocks his head. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”
“So you’ll come?”
Abby gives him a look as she heads into the crisp night air. “I’m counting on you, Dean Campbell. Don’t you dare make me eat all those pies alone.”
That surprises a laugh out of Dean. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
What he does dream of is Sam. They’re standing by the maple tree, like they always are in Dean’s dreams these days, but this time it’s different. Sam is hunched over, his arm curled around his ribs, and when he moves Dean can see his shirt sticking to his side with blood. Dean curses, trying to step forward and finding himself rooted to the spot, as always.
“Damn it, Sam, where the hell are you? What happened?”
“I made a choice,” Sam says. He grimaces as he presses a hand to his side, but his face smooths over a moment later, as if he’s not covered in blood and dirt and looking like something used him for a chew toy.
“Sam,” Dean says, “man, come on, give me some answers. Something’s going on. Let me help.”
“I made a choice,” Sam says. His eyes fix on Dean, solid and determined, but Dean’s had a lifetime of reading his brother and even in a dream he can see the exhaustion flickering in Sam’s eyes. “It was my choice to make.”
“What was? You leaving? What, Sam?”
He tries to reach out again and can’t, his limbs held back by an invisible force. He tries to get Sam to talk to him, but Sam repeats the same phrase to every one of Dean’s questions, the sound of it echoing in Dean’s head when he wakes up.
Maybe it’s because the dream changed, maybe it’s because Christmas is around the corner, but the next week is one of the worst Dean’s had. The truck is hesitating for no good reason, and it snows all week, which leaves Sparrow cooped up inside where she decides to rip up a corner of the living room carpet. Worse still, the dreams become constant, playing each night on an endless loop with Sam looking more desperate each time.
When Castiel shows up, Dean almost isn’t surprised. Work at the garage that day was a bitch: Dean signed off on a shipment of parts that later turned out to be wrong, they were short-handed, and Sam’s whispered my choice had driven Dean to skip lunch and try to catch a nap in the truck, only to have the dream play out more vividly than ever.
So, of course there would be an angel waiting on his doorstep.
Castiel is wearing his familiar suit and trench coat, each item painstakingly arranged as if Jimmy Novak’s wife had just pressed them. He squints in the glare of the truck’s lights, but remains by the front door even after Dean turns off the engine and gets out of the truck, slamming the door behind him.
“Hello, Dean,” Castiel says.
“The next words out of your mouth better be about my brother, Cas, I swear to God.”
“They are,” Castiel says, eyes leveled on Dean as he strides to the door. “I’ve come to ask a favor.”
“A favor,” Dean spits. “After you’ve been MIA for the last year, you show up at my door with the balls to ask for a favor? What the hell does Heaven want now?”
“To give Sam back,” Castiel says, and Dean’s world spins. “Just for a little while—a few weeks at most.”
Dean curses, passing a hand over his mouth. Finally, he says, “I’m not buying it. You keep him under lock and key for a year but he gets to come home for Christmas break?”
“It’s not like that,” Castiel insists. “Sam came willingly. And he stays willingly. But even the best soldiers falter. Sam needs some time to recover, regain his strength, to rest for what lies ahead.” Castiel’s face grows pinched, a line forming between his brows. “Sam is not…doing well, at the present time.”
Dean’s spine goes stiff as he remembers the blood on Sam’s shirt. “Not doing well, what does that mean? You said you’d take care of him.”
“I have,” Castiel says, “as much as I can. But it is rare that I have cause to go to the front lines—I am a strategist, a negotiator. Sam is the muscle, as you call it. He often goes on missions unaccompanied. And lately there have been signs that he’s tiring. He’s been granted a temporary leave of absence.”
“And you think letting him sleep in and eat cereal for a couple weeks is going to solve that? Cas, he’s not meant to be up there. He’s human.”
“I know,” Castiel says sharply. He sighs and rubs his forehead. “I do know that. A few months ago I believed that Heaven’s influence enabled Sam to strike a balance with his powers. But recently he’s been struggling again. He can control his powers but he has yet to commit fully to the cause. Indecision can make any soldier falter.”
Dean fights the urge to grab Castiel by the lapels and shake him. “That’s because it’s not his cause. He’s still Sam. I don’t know why no one can get it through their heads but, powers or no powers, Sam has always been Sam. He wasn’t a demon before, he’s not an angel now. So let him come home.”
Castiel takes a breath. “I can’t. Human or not, he’s still useful to Heaven. He’s won us many victories. I don’t want to do it, Dean, but we can’t let him go yet. All he needs is some time to rest. So he can return to the fight with new purpose.”
“Dean,” Castiel says, and his voice is deeper, holding echoes of the angel he was when they first met. “I didn’t come to argue with you. This isn’t a debate. It’s a request.”
Dean shakes his head, jaw clenched so tight it aches. “Fine,” he finally grits out. “What do you need?”
“Dean,” Castiel repeats, with a solemnity that suggests he’s reciting a contract, “do you agree to take Sam?”
“Is that even a question? Yes. Yes, damn it.”
“Do you agree to care for him to the best of your abilities and to enable his swift return to his post?”
Dean glares. “Yes.”
“Good.” Castiel’s shoulders drop. “I will bring him to you tomorrow. But, Dean,” he cautions, “don’t forget. The agreement is that Sam returns to the war once his leave is over.”
“Yeah, I heard you the first time,” Dean snaps. “Believe me, I know the agreement.”
“You have to uphold the agreement.” Castiel fixes Dean with a look. “It would only make things more difficult if you tried to convince him to stay.”
Dean lets the silence hang between them, then says in a low voice, “You've known me long enough to know that I don't do well with threats, Cas. No matter who they’re from.”
Castiel holds his gaze, then finally dips his head. “I also know you don’t like advice, but it would be easiest if you didn’t tell anyone about Sam.”
Dean spreads his arms. “Who would I have to tell?”
“Bobby Singer, for one. Your friends in town.”
“Fine,” Dean bites out.
Castiel observes him carefully. “Keep watch for Sam,” he says, then disappears, the sound of wings echoing in his wake.
Dean’s breath clouds in the air as he barks a humorless laugh. “I always do.”
Dean calls in sick to work the next day. It’s a weak excuse and he’s ninety percent sure that he’s already used more than his share of whatever sick days they’re given, but Rick must hear something in his tone. He gives a dry chuckle at Dean’s request and Dean can picture him shaking his head, squinting through the office window at the rest of the guys working in the garage.
“I don’t remember you being this sick last year,” Rick says.
“Yeah, I’m a little off my game. Gotta invest in chicken soup or something.”
“Listen, Dean.” Rick’s chair squeaks as he leans back. “You sure you’re doing okay?”
Dean rolls his eyes and gives a couple short coughs before he answers, “Of course I’m not okay. I’m sick.”
Rick gives a skeptical snort, but Dean can hear the smile in his voice. “All right,” he says reluctantly. “Take the day. You’ve gotta make it up, though.”
“I will,” Dean promises. “Thanks.”
He hangs up and drums his fingers against the kitchen counter. Sparrow huffs from her place at his feet and Dean looks at her.
“Want to play cards?”
Dean has been on stakeouts since he was twelve. He can practice patience when he wants to, but Sam was always the one who had a knack for tucking himself away and keeping quiet. Dean could handle waiting, so long as he had something to keep him busy.
Which means that waiting for Castiel to bring Sam is close to torture.
It takes him thirty minutes to clean and categorize their weapons, then another thirty to let Sparrow outside to burn off excess energy. Finally, in a fit of desperation, he pulls a stack of rags out of the linen closet and gets to work, cleaning the house from top to bottom with Sparrow nervously following him from room to room. At lunchtime he calls it quits and slides one of Carol’s frozen dishes—enchiladas—in the oven, then stands by the timer and watches the numbers tick down.
Sam still hasn’t come.
When the enchiladas are done, Dean pulls them out of the oven and dishes up two plates, then checks the yard for the hundredth time. Still nothing. He sits down to eat by himself at 1:15, the enchiladas long gone cold, but gives up after a few bites. Sparrow whines from her place under the counter, anxious and fidgety, and Dean curses, shoving his plate away. It knocks into the plate he’d made for Sam and nearly sends the glass of feathers—Sam’s feathers—to the floor.
Feathers. Sam has wings.
Sam is coming home.
Dean fists his hands in his hair. A glass of whiskey—hell, a bottle—sounds perfect right about now, but the last thing Dean wants is for Sam to show up after a year as Heaven’s whipping boy to find his brother drunk off his ass. He pushes up from the counter and scrapes his uneaten enchilada in the trash, chiding himself mentally. He’s a hunter with almost two decades of experience under his belt. He’s put down things other hunters don’t even know exist, has tangled with angels and demons, has bargained and bartered and baited until both he and Sam have been to Hell and back.
He can wait. He knows how to wait.
It’s late afternoon before Castiel shows up. Dean is in the garage, roughly organizing the boxes he and Abby rummaged through the week before, and he nearly drops a box of Carol’s old china when a jolt runs down his spine. Sparrow’s ears perk up and she gives a sharp bark, but she doesn’t move until he does, flicking off the garage light and closing the side door of the garage with exaggerated care. It’d be a lie to say his hands aren’t shaking.
He goes inside the house and locks Sparrow in the bedroom, then grabs one of Sam’s coats from the hall closet and opens the back door. The field stretching behind their house is empty, snow-covered and still, but Dean tramps through the drifts anyway, stopping a few yards from the porch to wait for the sound of wings.
Then it comes, and whatever he was expecting, it isn’t this.
In between one blink and another, Castiel appears, looking the same as he did the night before, the same as he always does.
And next to him is Sam.
Sam. And yet, not Sam.
The hopeful feeling rising in Dean’s chest dries up as he takes in the figure standing next to Castiel. The shaggy hair is the same, the line of his jaw and the slope of his nose just as familiar. But Sam’s eyes are distant, tracing Dean’s face with only the faintest spark of recognition, and the wings spanning Sam’s shoulders stop Dean in his tracks.
He knew Sam had wings. Hell, he’d kept the feathers Sam left lying around like they were some kind of trophy. But to see him like this, alive and there, with midnight blue pinions rising over his shoulders… Sam looks powerful, Dean decides. Unearthly. Like something John Winchester would hunt.
Dean clenches his jaw, willing his eyes to stop burning with tears. “Hey, Sammy.”
Sam’s eyes sharpen, something moving in their depths. "Dean," he says quietly. He looks bigger than Dean expected. Not at all like the beaten-down kid Dean was expecting.
Dean shakes the unease from his shoulders and turns to Castiel. “How we doing this?” he asks gruffly. “You need me to sign a permission slip or something?”
“No.” Castiel’s mouth turns up. “Your word that you will return Sam at Heaven’s bidding is enough.”
“Yeah, okay.” Dean looks at Sam. “You ready?” he asks, suddenly aware of the three feet of space between them, like some invisible line has been drawn in the snow for Sam to cross. Sam doesn’t answer, but he takes a step forward, eyes sliding past Dean to survey the house.
“I’ll return to collect him after the year’s end,” Castiel says. He reaches to shake Dean’s hand solemnly, like they’re closing a deal. Then, with the sound of invisible wings, Castiel is gone, leaving Dean alone with his brother.
Dean clears his throat and holds up the coat he got from the closet. “I didn’t know if you’d have…but, uh, I guess you do.”
Sam looks down at his clothes, then says, “I do.”
“You, uh, wanna come in?” Dean asks. He tilts his head to the house.
Sam nods, moving past Dean, and Dean’s vision is suddenly filled with Sam’s wings.
The fistful of feathers in the kitchen couldn’t do anything to prepare him for seeing Sam’s wings in their entirety. He’d caught a brief glimpse in the woods, a quick snap of sapphire, before waking up in his own bed with the wings nothing more than a vivid memory. They look different now. Mantled, they cover most of Sam’s back, the longest primaries stopping at his calves. They’re dark but clearly blue, the tips of the feathers lighter than the true midnight found at the base of each shaft, and they cover Sam’s back like a cloak, heavy and powerful. Dean’s reminded of thunder, of the dark indigo of rainclouds.
He doesn’t even know he’s staring until Sam stops on the porch and turns around to wait for Dean, his face impassive.
“I like the porch,” Sam says, tipping his chin to the smooth-sanded boards that Dean put more tears into than sweat or blood.
Dean watches Sam’s face as he comes up the steps, searching for any sign that Sam really did share his dreams, that he remembers sitting out here while Dean nursed a beer and prayed that the brother next to him was real.
“Summer project. I got a dog now, too,” Dean says.
A small smile tips Sam’s mouth. “Spero,” he says. “I know.”
Dean opens the back door, letting Sam go in first, then shuts the door behind them. For a brief moment, seeing Sam in the hallway of the house, Dean has the sudden urge to take Sam on a tour, as if he’s never been in the house before, as if Sam wasn’t the one who had said it was perfect for them.
Sam glances in the living room, eyes widening slightly at the Christmas tree in the corner. He turns to Dean, eyebrows raised, and Dean grimaces as he waits for the expected taunt.
It doesn’t come.
Instead, Sam says, “It’s December?” with more uncertainty than Dean thinks a guy with seven-foot wings should be able to muster.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “Almost Christmas.”
Sam nods, face like it’s carved from stone.
“You didn’t know?” Dean asks.
“They didn’t tell me.” Sam says it quietly, like he’s admitting an offense. He turns and Dean can tell when he glimpses the feathers on the kitchen counter. He stiffens, then a smile breaks over his face—quiet, solemn, but so Sam that Dean feels the knot in his stomach begin to loosen. He hasn’t lost his brother. Not yet. “You kept them,” Sam says, sifting a hand through the long primaries in their glass.
“What can I say?” Dean says. “Always picking up after you.”
Sam gives him another smile, then sits down at the counter with twice his usual grace, despite the wings branching out on either side.
“So.” Dean clears his throat, fingers idly drumming on the counter to fill the thick silence stretching between them. Sam watches him inscrutably and Dean finally shakes his head and plunges in. “What the hell happened, Sam?”
“Sorry?” When Sam doesn’t say anything, Dean continues, “You make a deal without telling me, without giving me any idea about what you were going to do? You were supposed to say no, Sam.”
“I was,” Sam says. “I did. Until the choice wasn’t mine anymore. I had to decide before my powers decided for me. I waited as long as I could.”
“And you said yes,” Dean says.
“I didn’t want it to weigh on you.” The furrow in Sam’s forehead digs deeper, like he’s concentrating to be understood. “It was my choice to make. It was the best I could do. I knew you wouldn’t have left me dead and kept on living. And that’s what I wanted most—you still out there, being stubborn and maybe hunting and—and alive.” Sam’s eyes shift lower, looking past Dean’s shoulder, and his voice drops, like the sentences that have been pouring out of him have taken all his effort. “It made my tasks easier, thinking of you out here. Probably doing your best to cause all kinds of trouble.”
A strangled laugh is pulled from Dean’s throat. “I swear to God, Sam, I almost didn’t. I almost…wasn’t.” He waits until Sam looks up again before continuing. “I thought about getting into the Impala and just ending it more times than I could count.”
“But you didn’t. You started working on the porch instead.”
Dean scrubs his neck. “Yeah, well. I wasn’t clocking out without knowing what the hell happened to you. And then out of the blue you started showing up. You know, I almost thought you were a hunt back in October.”
Sam ducks his head, hair sweeping over his eyes—an unconscious habit that reminds Dean of the kid he used to be. “I probably would have been if you’d gotten too close. I don’t remember everything. Bits and pieces." He looks up and gives a little nod. "I wasn’t myself, exactly. But I’m getting better.”
Dean ventures, “Been pretty rough up there, huh? Cas said.” Sam’s face goes still, closed off, and Dean changes the subject. “How’re your powers doing? You seem…better. All things considered.”
“Better,” Sam echoes. "You could say that. Yes."
“The last time I saw you…” Dean’s throat closes up and he swallows past the knot. “You were practically at death’s door. Honest, Sam, I didn’t think you were going to make it much longer.”
“I wasn’t,” Sam says. “It’s why I did what I did.”
“But things are good now,” Dean prompts. “You’ve got ‘em under control.”
Sam thinks for a minute, then admits, “I get lost up there. Sometimes everything is just like normal, and other times it’s like—” Sam breaks off, searching for words. When they come, they’re quiet, as if there’s someone else in the room besides him and Dean. “I think sometimes I’m losing my mind. I’m not like I used to be. I’m not….” He trails off. Dean watches his hands curl into loose fists. “I can handle the powers, now, physically.”
"And mentally?" Dean prompts.
“I need a break, some time to recover. My…balance.” Sam’s brow furrows and Dean realizes he’s searching for words. Struggling for words, really.
“How do you guys communicate up there?” Dean asks suddenly. “Or is that top secret information.”
Sam’s mouth curls. “Enochian. Sometimes Latin.”
Dean nods to himself, then eyes Sam. “You’d tell me if something was up, right? Commanders or no, big brothers have rights.”
The corner of Sam’s mouth lifts and he huffs a breath, shoulders and wings curling inward. “I remember.”
He looks hollow, Dean realizes. Like he’s been pressed out to take up even more space than he did before, but it’s left him empty on the inside. There are circles under Sam’s eyes and his skin looks brittle, far from the perpetual tan Sam seemed to carry with him from Stanford.
“What have you been doing up there?” Dean asks, mostly to himself. Luckily Sam doesn’t take offense, just props himself up against the counter and drags a hand through his hair.
“Nothing I can talk about.”
“I can’t,” Sam says. “I mean it. I couldn’t tell you if I tried. And right now, I only want to sleep.”
“Okay,” Dean says. “Yeah, okay. Good idea.”
“Is the room still the same?”
“Yeah, everything’s still up there. Let me just let Sparrow out so you guys can meet.”
“Wait.” Sam stops Dean with a hand on his arm, then pulls back again almost instantly, movements jerky like he’s forgotten how to touch. “Later. If I could.”
Dean blinks. “Sure, yeah,” he says, studying Sam’s face. “Okay. Let me go get the dog.”
Upstairs, Dean closes the curtains and puts an extra blanket at the foot of Sam’s bed, then collars Sparrow to take her down. Sam might have come back, he reflects, but even a stranger could see that the Sam downstairs is not the Sam he knew.
The addition of wings might be the most obvious change in his brother, but they aren't the only one.