Category: Gen
Characters: Sam, Dean
Word Count: 3500
Summary: Dean finds closure on an old job, and new worries about Sam's psychic abilities. Melancholy and angsty, except for a brief misunderstanding about Sam's candy cane. Dean POV.
Author's notes: This is the third fic in my "The Woods Are Lonely" 'verse. You'll need to know the events of the first story, "The Woods Are Lonely, Dark and Deep," to follow this one. The second fic, called "Promises to Keep," is recommended but not necessary to understand this story. Both may be found here or on my lj, linked through my profile page.
More author's notes: I began sketching out stories for this 'verse back during Season One; the show's development has since taken my version of Sam's psychic abilities off-canon. This series incorporates no events after "Devil's Trap."
Beta done by hyperactivegirl.

Wisconsin State Highway 70
October 10, 2006

They dug her grave together, in silence, their work lit by the dim light of a camp lantern and the occasional shaft of moonlight breaking through the clouds. 'Not near any trees,' he had said, so Sam nodded and picked out a spot in a back corner of the graveyard. They didn't need to worry about anyone seeing the newly-disturbed earth: the lumber town that the cemetery had served was another ghost of the forest, abandoned decades ago when it signed its own death warrant by felling the last of the great timbers surrounding it. No ladies' club came here to uproot the weeds growing between the cracked headstones; no amateur genealogist ever walked through them in search of his own name among those of the dead. It was a grim place to bury a little girl, but in the end, one grave is as good as the next.

"I'm not sure about this, Sam," he said when they'd finished.

"I am." Sam looked down at the blanket-wrapped bundle at the side of the grave and worked his jaw. "C'mere. I want to try something."

He watched Sam settle down cross-legged against the nearest upright tombstone, his back to the grave, and close his eyes. Sam shifted, hesitated, then stretched out his hands. "You, uh..." He cleared his throat. "You love me, right, big brother?"

"Sam!" he protested. There's etiquette, dammit, guy etiquette, even at a time like this. Especially at a time like this.

Sam cracked one eye open and glared at him. "Work with me here, man," he said, nodding toward the blanket.

He'd fought side-by-side with Sam, grown up with him, taken care of him since he was six months old...okay, got it. He'd raised his baby brother from the cradle, acknowledge it or not, and he loved him more than life.

"Ready," he said, taking Sam's hands and concentrating. He didn't miss the way Sam's body relaxed at the touch.

"Now, hold it." Sam closed his eyes again and his grip went slack. He knew the instant she was there by the way the warmth bled from Sam's skin like water spilling from cup.

Pressing one of those cold hands to his cheek, he smiled. "Hi, sweetheart," he said.

Minocqua, Wisconsin
November 13, 2006

He didn't recognize her, though he'd fooled himself into believing he would. He'd even drawn up a mental image to search for as he scanned through roll after roll of microfilm in the local library. Still, the unfamiliarity of her features wasn't the reason he'd doubted it was her; rather, it was because the odds of finding her were astronomical, and she'd probably never had a drop of good luck in her life. But she matched Sam's description—cute, heart-shaped face, freckles across her nose –and he knew the signs of hidden suffering too well to miss, so he let himself hope.

"Did a tall guy come in here?" he asked the matronly waitress when he got the diner near their motel. "Plaid shirt, brown jacket?"

"Just walked in. Corner booth," she said cheerfully, too cheerfully for someone spending her declining years in crepe-soled shoes and pink polyester. Then again, they usually were. He had a theory that someone had cryogenically frozen a cheerful, matronly diner waitress back in the fifties, and had been cranking out clones ever since.

"A word to the wise, though, hon," she added as he craned his neck in the direction she'd indicated, "it looks like someone licked the red right off his candy cane."

He whipped his head back around. "Excuse me?"

She smiled and nodded sympathetically. "Just thought you should know."

"Never heard it put like that before," he answered gamely. "Thanks."

Spotting Sam's bowed head, he stomped to the back of the diner. "Dude! What the hell did you say to the waitress?" he hissed.

"Not a word," Sam mumbled, tapping the laptop keyboard with his left hand and scribbling in a notebook with his right. "Why?"

"She tried to tip me off that you're cheating on me," he whispered, tossing his bag onto the seat opposite Sam.

"Dean, could you just once try telling people, 'I'm looking for my brother?'" Sam sniped. "It'd save us all a lot of angst over your sexual identity."

He slid onto the bench and waited.

Sam's head jerked up. "She did what?"

"Warned me you're cheating on me," he repeated. "She said you looked like you'd just gotten a blowjob."

Sam glowered at him, all pinched lips and hollowed cheeks. "And do I?" he demanded, way too bitchy to have gotten anything licked right.

He made a show of studying his brother's face. "Actually, you look more like someone peed in your cornfl—" Oh. So that's how they said 'pissy' in the fifties. "Sam, you look like someone licked the red right off your candy cane," he amended.

"Dean!" Sam squawked. "That's disgus—" He wrinkled his forehead. "Oh."

Mollified, he slouched back. "Yep, no one steps out on this," he said, gesturing toward his own face.

Sam looked back at the screen, lips still tight. "You sneak out for eight hours without leaving a note again, and I might start seeing another brother on the side," he said.

"The muskies were biting, and trust me, you needed your beauty sleep," he answered lightly, turning his coffee cup upright to signal the waitress. He hadn't left a note when he left Sam sleeping off a nightmare, hadn't even said why they'd stopped here last night, but they both knew it wasn't for the fly fishing or the quirky tourist attractions. Some days Sam just got bitchy on principle; his brother would've guessed exactly where he had been.

Sure enough, Sam was already gazing at him mistily. "You didn't have to go alone," he started.

"Coffee, hon?" the waitress asked at his elbow. Gratefully, he pushed his mug in her direction. "Anything for you, young man?" she asked Sam.

Sam flashed her a fake, impatient smile, not the one he usually used with a waitress. Or the waitress, depending on the clone theory. "Ginger ale," he grunted, flinching when she leaned in to catch the words.

She lifted her eyebrows before turning back to fill his coffee cup from the carafe and give him a commiserating glance. "I'll be back for your orders in a few minutes."

He looked Sam over for real as soon as she left. Ginger ale, pissyness, and twitchiness when someone got too close added up to one thing. "When did it hit?"

"About an hour ago." Sam evaded his gaze. "I'm fine."

He didn't call Sam on the lie—that never got him anywhere. "Anything useful?" he asked instead. The visions left Sam's head splitting and his psyche banged up, but they weren't always coherent enough to follow these days. They didn't know what to make of that.

"Only if you own stock in Tylenol." Sam rubbed at his eyes and pinched his lips: subject closed. "But I was working on the internet, and I'm pretty sure there's a nekomata in Fresno." Sam paused significantly. "Can you believe it?"

He searched through his mental database and stalled for time. "Why wouldn't I believe it?"

Sam gaped at the mysteries of genetics that made them related. "Because it's on the wrong continent?"

Bingo—his mind supplied the reference. "So Japanese demon schools don't teach geography. Shocking." He reached for the menu. "Write to the school board."

Sam huffed. "It didn't just swim here, you know," he pronounced. "Customs is doing a shit job."

He gaped right back. "Sammy, nothing will top the time in eighth grade when you wondered if werewolves were 'homo lupus' instead of 'homo sapiens'"—exaggerated air quotes here—"but that's one of the top ten dumbest things you've ever said." He shook his head, relaxing a little. Needling Sam was good. Comforting. "Come to think of it, that might have been the first sign that something was really wrong with you."

"I was just curious. It's not like I was going to pencil them into the textbook." Sam tapped his pencil eraser against his notebook and pursed his lips again. "All I'm saying is, if Customs isn't catching forked-tailed demon cats, they're not catching chickens with bird flu either."

He slapped down his menu and stared. "Please tell me that's codeine talking."

Sam smirked and kicked him under the table. "And if that was the first sign, you weren't paying attention," he added.

"Bitch," he grumbled, picking the menu up again.

"Are you boys ready to order?" came from beside him. Sam's smirk broadened.

He shot his brother the stink-eye and scanned over his menu as the waitress set down Sam's soda. After eight hours in the archives he'd kill for a cheeseburger, except after a psychic attack, Sam's stomach and nose were as sensitive as a pregnant chick's. "Uh...,"

"He'll have a cheeseburger, medium rare, side of fries." Sam informed her. "Nothing for me."

"Is that right, hon?" she asked him, clearly doubting that Sam wore the pants in this relationship. Smart gal.

"Sammy, did you eat today?" he asked, like he couldn't guess. "Sweetheart, maybe you could bring him some applesauce?" He leaned toward her and confided, "Morning sickness. It makes him cranky, you know."

"Yes, I do," she agreed. Sam had picked the wrong broad to be rude to today. "Anything else? Some nice dry toast, maybe?"

Sam kicked him again. "No, ma'am," he said, earning himself a forgiving smile. He wrinkled his nose and swallowed as another waitress passed them with a platter of double-decker burgers. "Uh, could you bring mine first?"

"Sure thing, hon," she said, and headed off.

"Cute, Dean," Sam muttered as he jabbed his straw through the ice chips in his glass.

"What can I say?" he chortled. "Never be rude to the diner lady."

His brother rolled his eyes. "I keep telling you, man, if they were cloning waitresses, it wouldn't be the middle-aged diner kind," he said, taking a cautious sip of his drink.

"A lot of Hooters girls look alike too," he pointed out.

Sam grimaced at either his taste or the soda's. "Not if you look them in the face."

The waitress was as good as her word—Sam's food arrived almost immediately. He dumped a packet of protein powder into it and started spooning it up mechanically, keeping his mind off his stomach.

"So, did you find anything?" he asked.

He took the photocopy from his bag and slid it across the table. Sam looked at it without expression for a few seconds, and shook his head slowly. Damn. There were other places to look for her, but here was the best shot.

"Children are a gift, you know?" Sam murmured. Sam had been saying a lot of weird things like that lately, and he didn't know what to make of them either. He steeled himself for disappointment and waited.

"And he just threw her away." Sam shook his head again. "That's her."

His jaw dropped. "Really?"

"Yeah." Sam's eyes softened as he looked down at the photo. "You found her, Dean."

"Jesus." He lowered his head to his hands and covered his face against the shock of relief. He'd done it. A hundred years too late, but he'd found her.

When he raised his head, Sam was tracing his finger over the paper without quite touching it. She'd been a pretty child, but her features were too soft and young to show how she would have looked as an adult. Maybe she'd have grown into a beauty, maybe she'd always have been cute and freckled. Maybe she would have learned how to smile.

Maybe someone would have given her a reason to.

"She would've been a real looker in a few years, yeah?" he said as Sam studied her face. "I think she would've been a real looker."

"She would've been gorgeous." Sam slid the paper back across the table. "What was her name?"

He tucked the paper back into his bag without answering. He had no right to be possessive of her, not after Sam had given up his body and taken her place in the world of the lost dead so that he could hold her hand again, brush his lips over her forehead and promise that the grave they'd dug for her was nothing to fear. But it wasn't his secret to tell.

Sam nodded with way too much understanding and fired up the Empathy Eyes again. "I know you think it's stupid, man," he said, "but I'd like to go back there."

He lifted an indifferent shoulder, masking his gratitude that Sam had brought it up. "Your hormones won't give me any peace until we do, right?"

Sam played along. "Yeah, something like that."

"Okay," he conceded. "If you finish your dinner."

Sam rolled his eyes again and polished off his applesauce just before the cheeseburger arrived. Eyeing it queasily, he got up and clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll meet you back at the room," he said. Nodding cheerfully at the waitress, he added, "We can do your scenic drive tonight, baby, but we're not leaving town tomorrow until you take me to see the World's Largest Penny."

He curled his lip at Sam, smiled thinly at the diner lady, and started plotting out how to put dish soap into Sam's toothpaste.

Wisconsin State Highway 70
November 13, 2006

Sam hesitated when they got out of the car at the cemetery gates. "Point the EMF over there, would you?" he asked, leaning on his door and staring across the road.

"Why?" he responded, reaching into the back seat for his jacket and the paper-wrapped cylinder he'd hidden beneath it.

Sam shut the door, eyes still fixed on the meadow opposite them. "There might be something over there. I —." He made an incomprehensible gesture. Sam was still searching for a non-New Agey psychic vocabulary, and he hadn't grasped that flapping his hands around wasn't the solution. "I noticed it when me and her switched."

They walked up to the end of the driveway together. He pulled the EMF reader from his pocket; Sam scrunched up his face like a Muppet sensing a disturbance in the Force.

"Dude, does the Yoda face really do anything?" he demanded.

"Uh..." Sam experimentally relaxed his face until he looked more like that Scottish guy playing Sir Alec Guinness. "No."

"Then don't do it anymore." He switched on the sensor, muttering under his breath, "At least, not when you're standing next to me."

A couple lights flickered when he pointed the device across the road, low enough that he'd have written it off as background noise if Sam hadn't—whatever—earlier. "If there's something there, it's weak," he said.

"It's there." Sam chewed his lip. "I checked afterwards and didn't find any history on this stretch of road, but there's something."

"We'll take another look before we leave." He tucked the sensor back into his jacket and steered Sam towards the gate. "So you ended up here when you switched?" he asked. "I figured you'd be back in her woods."

"It was here, sort of. The graveyard was there, but beyond that, it was all blurry. Unfinished, like her world was just what she'd seen." Sam shrugged. Neither of them tried to figure out the cosmology; that way lies madness. "Whatever's there was outside the borders."

"Christ, Sam." Stuck in an abandoned cemetery with an unknown something lurking always out of his sight. That explained why Sam had woken up in a cold sweat every night for the next week.

"I don't think it was on the same plane as me." Sam handed him the flashlight and gestured for him to lead them in. "But I didn't go exploring."

He caught Sam when he stumbled over a thick, exposed root on their way through the plots. "You tripped over that last time," he commented. "Coming and going."

"I did?" Sam blinked down at the root. "Must be getting clumsy."

"Getting clumsy?" he asked, because Sam would never learn to watch where he put his enormous feet, or stop leaving himself open for shots like that. Sam snorted and bumped their shoulders together. It felt almost like normal, except that they were going to visit a grave instead of digging one up.

Sam bowed his head when they reached the spot. Praying, maybe, because apparently he did that these days. The act was still pointless as far as he was concerned, but at least someone was doing it for her. He shuffled his feet, unsure of what to do with himself. Sam was the one who got sloppy in cemeteries, not him.

"She wasn't scared anymore, you know," Sam said, on cue. "Did I tell you what she said to me?"

"You didn't say anything," he responded. Technically Sam had said, 'I'm fine, Dean,' before he staggered to his feet and picked up a shovel, but that didn't count because it was a total lie.

Sam knelt next to the grave. "She said she was going to heaven to be with her mommy," he relayed. "And yours."

"I didn't say anything about heaven," he answered. He wasn't about to lie to the girl.

"Yeah, but she knew that's where her mother is." Sam skimmed his fingertips just above the grave's surface, same as he'd done with her picture. Like he was afraid to touch it. "She's okay, Dean."

He tightened his lips, thankful that Sam wasn't looking at him. "You really believe that, Sammy?"

No response—his brother wasn't as sure as he wanted to be. Instead Sam bowed his head again and pressed his hand to the dirt at the head of the grave. "Good night, sweetheart," he murmured, and rose. "I'll try to get a read on whatever's across the road," he said. "Take your time."

Belatedly, he realized that Sam hadn't remembered that root, hadn't even remembered where she was buried, but he knew the exact location of an entity that had been in a formless void when he first sensed it. "Sam, when you said you"—he fluttered his hand in imitation of Sam's earlier gesture—"you mean you"—flutter—"now too?"

"Well, yeah," Sam replied, blinking at him like he'd just failed the midterm for Psychic Sign Language 101.

"There's no tense on that"—sarcastic flutter—"verb," he pointed out. "Why can you feel it now?"

"Sorry." Sam grinned sheepishly. "The cracks haven't all closed up from this afternoon, is all. It's okay." He turned to go again.

"Sam, was it malevolent?" he called automatically. They spoke in code these days: 'Watch out, be careful, if you can sense it, it can sense you.' Sam hated it, hell, he hated it, but things were different now.

Sam's tight grin of acknowledgement was as fleeting as it was bitter. "I'll stay on holy ground."

His brother's footsteps faded away, and it was just him standing awkwardly at the graveside with a flower already wilting in his jacket. Unwrapping it, he crouched down where Sam had knelt a moment earlier. He laid the white calla bloom, the only marker he could give her, across the grave as he leaned forward and whispered the dead girl's name into her earthen bed. Then he stood up and turned to follow Sam, boots crunching in the snow as he walked away from the child they'd been too late to save, back towards dangers that he couldn't see.

Additional Notes:
The phrase 'ghost of the forest' comes from a book entitled Ghosts of the Forest: Vanished Lumber Towns of Wisconsin, by Randall Rohe. (No, I didn't read it. I'm obsessive about details, but not that obsessive.) The world's largest penny is in Woodruff, next to Minocqua, and the muskie, or muskellunge, is a sport fish and the official state fish of Wisconsin.