Sam raced around the corner into the alley where the hodag had pinned Dean down, its forepaws on either side of his shoulder. It was too close for Dean to make another shot.
"Shoot it!" Dean jammed his shotgun sideways into the thing's jaws. The creature's snarls grew muffled. "Shoot it!"
Next to Sam, Sheriff Bennett, who looked about ten years too young for his job, raised his handgun, aim more than a little shaky.
"No!" Sam pushed Bennett's arm down. "You might hit Dean." Bringing his shotgun up to his shoulder, Sam aimed carefully, waited for the second that felt right, and fired. He got the hodag in the side.
The creature made an angry sound of pain in its throat and Dean kicked it, yanking his shotgun free at the same time. The hodag staggered as Dean brought up his shotgun and fired into its face.
The hodag fell over sideways with a thump of flesh on concrete. It lay there, eyes wide and unblinking. It hardly looked real – like it was a replica of that monument they had over in Rhinelander.
"That doesn't look like a coyote," Bennett said.
The leaden knot in Sam's stomach eased, while his heart kept on racing in a way that made him wonder if he'd ever reach thirty. Sam slumped back against the brick wall, lowering his gun just for a second, then ran over to help Dean up.
He was surprised when Dean let him. There'd been no faltering at all when Dean shot the hodag. He'd done it with the cold, hard calm Sam had seen his brother do killshots with a hundred times before. But Dean still looked pale, and the shadows under his eyes were worse than they'd been the day before.
Not that Sam felt much better. Sam's fingers stayed tight around Dean's elbow until well after he was on his feet.
"You guys aren't really pest control, are you?" Bennett holstered his gun.
"Not exactly," said Sam. The uniforms Dean had stolen were stiff and scratchy. At least they wouldn't have to keep wearing them now that the local law grokked what was going on.
"But we can take care of your infestation problem, sheriff." Dean nudged the dead hodag with his boot. "You just keep up your end: get people to stay off the street for a few days."
Sam kept one eye on the level of liquid in the whiskey bottle Dean nursed throughout the evening, one eye on his research.
By 10 p.m. Sam had to bite his tongue to keep from saying Hey Dean, save some of that for later or You know, there isn't a whiskey shortage that I know of. That always led to the same place, a deflection. Dean didn't argue with him, but he'd developed an astounding skill for changing the subject that made all his previous ability in that area look like he'd only been practicing.
Seated at the table, Sam peered at Dean over his laptop and watched him pull out his cell phone, stare at the display, thumb hovering over a button, before his face went a little too blank and he put the phone away again.
From across the room, Sam couldn't see which number Dean had been looking at, but he'd bet an evening's worth of pool hustling it was the same one Sam had caught Dean looking at yesterday, and last week, and the week before that. Remembering how Dean's face had looked outside the hospital, what Dean had said, Sam hadn't mentioned Lisa and Ben once. But Sam was starting to wonder if the silence was only making their absence weigh more heavily on his brother.
Then there was Castiel – or what used to be Castiel – and the hodags were only an excuse, like the revenant they'd hunted all those years ago had only been an excuse. Like all the other hunts that were, sometimes, only an excuse, even if there was a real purpose as well. Sam could see how losing Cas was devouring his brother from the inside out. Once Castiel consumed the Purgatory souls, it was like a switch had been flipped in Dean, too, and everything that had happened, the whole last year, was hitting him all at once. It was as if Castiel had held back some kind of tide.
Thinking about Castiel brought a burning ache in Sam's chest, a toxic mix where Sam couldn't even sort out which was hurt and grief, and which was anger. They talked about Castiel: what to do about Castiel, the logistics. Attempting to go beyond that never seemed to go well when he tried to get Dean to talk; and if he was honest, it was easier for Sam as well to keep him in the category of a puzzle to be solved. It wasn't their friend they hunted; it was a strange new being that shouldn't exist.
Sam wanted that thing's head on a platter.
He got up and took a glass from the dresser, then walked over to Dean. Sam held out the glass and Dean poured whiskey into it. Sam didn't actually want any whiskey at the moment, but better some of it burn down into his gullet rather than even more of it go down into Dean, since asking Dean to stop wouldn't work.
Sam wondered what would happen, if the next time Dean got his hands on some booze, Sam took it into the bathroom and poured it out into the sink while Dean's back was turned.
"Hey, I've got something," Sam said, more brightly than he felt. He went back to the table and sat down again. "This is from the official marker in Rhinelander Park – Shepard claimed to have discovered the animal in the woods near Rice Creek. He 'captured' it by blocking the mouth of its den with rocks and rendering it unconscious with a chloroformed sponge on a long pole."
Dean snorted. "That's a tourist attraction. Shepard made it up."
"Except hodags are real, and it's not a bad plan. Bobby says Shepard was in with a couple of hunters and was playing off their stories. Maybe we could lure all of them somewhere, a warehouse. We don't even need chloroform, just trap them and then pick them off."
"How're we going to lure them?"
"I'm not sure yet."
"Well, you let me know when you figure that part out," Dean said, turning over, index finger holding his place in one of his hunting journals.
"Anything in your notes?"
"Nope, and Dad only killed the one, that time in Iron River." Dean poured another half-inch of whiskey into his glass.
They kept at the research until Sam's eyes went grainy from staring too long at the computer screen, and Dean eventually put down the journals and flipped on the TV to some old black-and-white horror movie that involved a lot of stunt guys in rubber monster suits and a lot of girls wearing bikinis and screaming.
It was late into the night when Sam again looked over to check on Dean and saw he was out cold, sleeping on top of the covers still wearing his jeans and shirt and shoes. His chest rose and fell deep and slow. Dean hadn't dropped off to sleep merely from exhaustion; the whiskey had helped to knock him out and he'd be difficult to stir before morning.
Rubbing his eyes with one hand, Sam closed his laptop, got up, and found the extra blanket from the closet. He shook it open – it smelled of mothballs and detergent – and then put it over Dean, carefully tucking it over his brother's shoulders. Sam untied the laces of Dean's shoes and pulled them off. He took the bottle and dirty glass away from Dean's bedside.
It took Sam a while to fall asleep.
The sand was cold between Dean's toes, wind cutting through his t-shirt and sweatpants. At one end of the tiny spit of land, a lighthouse rose like an exclamation point. The sky was an unkind gray, and Dean took a step back away from the tide as it rose further, dampening the cuffs of his sweats.
He turned, startled at the voice behind him, and saw Castiel standing a few yards up the beach among the sea grass, coat flapping in the wind. The relief that rushed through Dean was so intense he almost dropped to his knees, the memory of their new God burning Cas up in the dream still raw. It took Dean more than a moment to stop looking at Castiel, to notice the tide had risen again, the ocean gradually devouring the sandbar.
Castiel's face was tight with worry and he turned towards the ocean with a wary movement. "Follow me," he said, voice taut, and began to walk towards the lighthouse, pausing to look over his shoulder to make sure Dean followed.
In the corner where the curve of the lighthouse tower met the rest of the building, the wind was a little less, but not by much, and it was still friggin' cold. Dean folded his arms, trying not to shiver too hard.
"You came back to do more dream-walking around in my noggin, and you couldn't have picked somewhere nicer than this?" Dean said, raising his voice over the sound of the waves and the wind.
But Castiel only shook his head. He moved closer, shoulders hunching as the wind gusted, and he looked at Dean like he needed to ask for something but wasn't sure how. Dean wondered if Castiel could speak – maybe the three words he'd said so far had been a triumph over something.
For a moment Dean thought Castiel was going to reach out to him, was going to grab onto Dean as if he was afraid they'd both blow away if he didn't.
Maybe they would. Castiel still didn't speak, and he didn't reach out to Dean. He gave Dean a long stare that tracked over Dean's face, down and then back up to his eyes again. Dean had no idea what Castiel was getting from doing that but Dean couldn't stop looking at him back, re-learning the familiar line of his jaw and his nose, the creases at the corners of his eyes, his mouth.
Dean put his palm against the curve of the lighthouse wall, moving until his body blocked the wind for Castiel. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the tide had gotten a whole heck of a lot closer, eating away more of the sand, swallowing the thin sea grass.
"Cas," he said, and then, "what—"
They were almost touching. Castiel's breath warmed Dean's face.
The shock of cold water hit Dean's feet, then curled around his legs. The wind pushed Castiel back towards the ocean, away from Dean.
Castiel shot Dean a tight-lipped expression of despair, water up to his waist. Dean reached out to him, and Castiel was gone. The lighthouse and spit of land vanished.
Dean blinked awake on the motel mattress to see pale early morning light filtering through the curtains while Sam slept quietly in the other bed.
His head throbbing, the light hurting his eyes, Dean turned over. He drew his knees up, pulling the blanket tighter around him, chest aching like a son of a bitch. The memory of that final look Castiel had given him stung, reverberating like the aftermath of a punch.
Castiel was trapped in that thing, with the souls. He was fighting for his life – and Dean had no idea how to help him.
He sat up in bed, rubbing his hands over his face, then walked to the bathroom, his legs almost but not quite shaking. Putting his hand on the wall, rough texture of the ugly-ass brown wallpaper against his fingers, Dean waited until the unsteadiness went out of his muscles. In the bathroom he splashed cold water on his face, brushed his teeth three times to chase away the aftertaste of the booze, and ignored the slight bloodshot in his eyes in the mirror.
"Hey," Sam said. When Dean walked out of the bathroom he was standing there in his sweats and t-shirt. "You okay?"
"Yeah, fine," Dean said, edging around his brother. Damn, he could feel Sam wanting to say something else – he'd bet anything his mouth was open to speak. "We should start looking for a good place to trap those things," Dean said quickly.
"Sure," said Sam. "Breakfast first, though."
"Whatever you say, Sammy." Dean picked up the blanket that had fallen to the floor.
"Because you should probably eat something," Sam said, before he went into the bathroom and shut the door.
Dean got dressed quickly, ignoring the way his stomach lurched.
At the diner down the road from the motel, Dean forced down some breakfast, dousing his scrambled eggs with hot sauce.
"Orange juice," Sam told the waitress. "No coffee."
"What the hell," Dean glared across the booth at him.
Morning sunlight shone through the slats of the blinds, hitting Sam's face and torso in horizontal lines, and Dean thought he looked tired, too young. He wondered if they could go a few days without Sam having a seizure.
Dean put his fork down, feeling a little queasy.
"You want some Alka Seltzer or something?" Sam's eyebrows rose.
"Would you quit fussing, already?"
"Dean, I think maybe you—" Sam's cell went off. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the display. "It's Sheriff Bennett. Hi, Sheriff," Sam said, holding the phone to his ear. "Oh…uh-huh…yeah, that sounds like it could work." He pulled out a pen and scribbled an address on a napkin. "Thanks…no. Don't. Keep doing whatever you're doing."
"What'd his sheriffness have to say?" Dean swallowed some of his orange juice, longing for the bitterness of coffee.
"He knows a place that might work to trap the hodags. A warehouse down by the river. We should go look at it. Unless you want to sleep a few more hours…"
"Sam," Dean said, warning him off.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Anyway, we'll go look at it and if the logistics look right, we could set the trap tonight."
"And how do you propose we lure every hodag in town, genius?"
"I'm working on that."
Dean added more hot sauce to his eggs, and then pushed them around on his plate with the fork, not really hungry.
"You want to…talk…about…anything?" Sam asked, the hesitancy in his voice like he was trying to verbally defuse a bomb.
"Don't," Dean said, and he didn't snap; he said it softly. "Just…don't. Not now."
They got the check and went outside. The sound the door made when a gust of wind caught it and made it difficult to close had a familiarity that made it hard to breathe for a moment.
At the truck Bobby had loaned them, Dean almost handed the keys to Sam. The sun was bright and his head hurt, although not as much as it had when he first woke up. Instead of asking Sam to drive, Dean put on his sunglasses.
The truck was sturdy but rattled in all the wrong ways. Dean missed the scent of the Impala and the sound of her engine. Progress in getting her fit for the road had been slow. The damage Dean had done wasn't all that tough to fix – he'd made sure of that – but the work had felt sluggish, his hands tired.
The damage Dean had done, undoing the perfection this new God wearing Castiel's face and voice had offered, that was Dean's choice, and it would be him that made her road-worthy again, not whatever had devoured Castiel.
The warehouse was abandoned, cement floor broken in places, graffiti all over the walls, names or symbols. Some Dean recognized, the obligatory anarchy mark, and he was pretty sure the one on the far wall was for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. It all looked more like the work of kids messing around than gangs or something of demonic – or angelic – origin.
Dean made himself stop looking at the shapes scrawled in spray paint, burying another jab of familiarity.
"So what do you think?" Sam looked up towards the catwalk, at the symbols clustered near the ceiling.
"Nah, too open," said Dean. "Let's check out the other rooms, we need a space with only one exit."
The air smelled musty, a mix of rust and rot. A pigeon startled from the rafters and flew out through a broken window. Dean headed for a door where someone had painted a fairly elaborate rendition of the logo for Bon Jovi. Sam was right behind him.
As with the other times, there was no warning, only the sound of Sam's body hitting the floor. Dean's heart jerked with it, the snap of adrenaline leaving the warehouse around him less real. Everything else faded as he turned, everything narrowing to Sam's long body sprawled on the dirty warehouse floor as Dean ran over like his legs belonged to someone else.
"Sam?" He knelt and touched Sam's shoulder, gently shook him. "Sam!"
Sam's body arched, arms and legs flailing before he settled again, eyes still staring wide towards the ceiling. Dean put his fingers to the pulse in Sam's neck – no, he didn't look dead,` but he needed the reassurance all the same, that too-fast, agitated flutter of Sam's pulse. From experience Dean knew no amount of yelling or touching would bring Sam out of this – all he could do was wait and keep Sam from choking or hurting himself.
Sitting back on his heels, Dean crouched, hands dangling uselessly, catching his tongue between his teeth against the impulse to pray for Castiel to appear.
"Come on, Sam," Dean said. "Come on, come on…"
He kept on talking. Maybe it wouldn't do any good, but Dean didn't know what else to try.
Sam found himself on a field covered with broken pieces of rock, everything washed out and gray, reaching to a pale amber sky that swirled with furious, thick, yellow clouds. He blinked and the rocks became torn pieces of skin mixed with sharp bits of bone.
"Dean?" Sam shouted. He turned, but Dean was gone.
The light was dim. There was blood on the ground beneath his shoes, seeping up from among the rocks and bones and skin.
He spotted the other one, curled up nearby with his knees drawn up to his chest. Sam started towards him.
A high-pitched note filled the air, growing in intensity until Sam crouched with his hands over his ears. Another joined the first as the air shimmered and broke like it was made of glass, glittering sprays of light that joined the mess on the ground. Some of the shards struck Sam, cutting through his jacket, stinging his skin.
They weren't alone. The Others were there, fierce and bright, their whispering voices filling Sam's head. Sam fell to his hands and knees, blood soaking through his jeans, hot against his hands.
He couldn't see the other one any more, the blaze of light washing everything out until the blood appeared almost bleached of color, made it so he couldn't see.
Threaded through the voices, he heard a familiar voice shouting, angry and hoarse.
Sam tried to crawl in its direction, but it was above him and to the left and to the right. It was below him, and it was in his head along with the whispering and the high-pitched squeals of sound. He found it difficult to move, a force pulling on his body, holding him in place, pressing him down into the blood and scattering of bones.
Sammy, come on, Sammy, come on…
The voice rose to a shout, drowning the other sounds.
Damn it, Sam!
Sam sucked in a breath so hard it hurt his lungs. The strange light, the rocks, the blood, Adam, the archangels, they were all gone. Above him a face appeared, blurred, then focused into Dean.
His breath still shaky, Sam inhaled with Dean's palm on his chest while Dean said, "Breathe, just breathe, that's it…"
It was the expression on Dean's face, caught raw and clear for an instant, that almost knocked the breath out of him again: fear and loss and a desperate mix of hope and despair. It was frightening to see Dean looking like that.
"I'm okay," Sam said quickly. He started to sit up, and Dean put his palm against Sam's back and gripped his arm, helping him. "This headache sucks ass, though."
"Headache, we can deal with. Let's get you out of here." Dean dragged Sam to his feet and Sam, truth be told, needed his brother's grip on his arm.
"It's all right, I'm all right," Sam said, pulling himself free. The room swayed a little, but steadied, and he could walk and see. Anything not to leave that kind of fear on Dean's face.
Dean had shut it away and now wore the flat, hard look he wore when he was trying to be all business and in crisis mode.
"So you think we could use one of the other rooms here?" Sam asked.
"We'll talk about it later," Dean said, back of his hand giving Sam's arm an impatient tap. "Now we should go back to the motel so you can rest."
"Dean, we're here now. I can wait here a minute while you go look."
"Please," Sam said. "I just need to – I don't want this to own me."
Understanding flickered into Dean's face. "I'll be right back. Sit down before you fall down while you wait," he said, pointing angrily before he jogged off towards a rusty door on the western wall.
Sam didn't sit down – he didn't need to, honestly he didn't – but he leaned against a pillar. His heart stopped racing.
It wasn't that his legs were shaky, or his head felt like someone had hit it with a pair of cymbals. He couldn't shake off the images – the bones and the blood, Adam huddled up like a wounded animal.
A door slammed, and Dean came back out into the main warehouse room. "Yeah, it'll do," he called out.
At the warehouse exit, sun hurting his eyes, Sam stopped and blinked a few times while Dean halted, stepping closer. "You good?"
"Yeah. I'm…well as good as I can be." They headed towards the truck, dry grass and weed growing up between the broken pavement. "Hey, Dean–" Sam said, as Dean opened the drivers' side door with a creak. "After you got back from there. Y'know. The nightmares, the flashbacks. How did you–" Sam paused, watched how Dean's thumb nervously started to play with the edge of the door, how his gaze went towards the warehouse, down, everywhere but on Sam. "I mean besides marinating yourself in Jim Beam. How'd you just…keep going?"
"I don't want to talk about this, Sam."
"Maybe we should!" Sam took a step, wanting to go around the car and face Dean, but he stayed where he was instead. "I don't mean to push or stir up stuff that should stay quiet, but…it'll help me, man, and maybe…maybe you've been shoving everything down too hard."
"That's sometimes the only way to keep moving one foot in front of the other." Dean ducked his head and slid into his seat.
Sam climbed into the car and leaned his head back, rubbing his forehead. "So you're saying put on a show? Yeah, because that always worked out so well."
He expected an argument or a shut-down. Instead Dean turned the key in the ignition and as the truck started, he said quietly, "No, it hasn't."
"You yahoos want to do what?"
"What, it's a decent plan!" Dean held his cell phone a little away from his ear. "Even if that dude's story was a hoax, Sam and I think we can make the trap work." He glanced over at Sam, who was stretched out on the bed nearest the window, asleep. It was still early, the setting sun leaving a vivid red color beyond the rooftops and trees.
"If they fall for the bait."
"They will," Dean said with as much off-hand confidence he could muster. "The sheriff's got the whole town on lockdown, garbage cans sealed, family pets inside, and Sam found out about the development going on out in the woods – the hodags have lost a lot of their usual hunting grounds. Explains why they've been wandering into back-yards. They'll be hungry."
"Well, just don't let 'em eat either of you, okay?"
"So–" Dean licked his lips, mouth dry. "What's the latest on his Almightyness?"
"Relatively quiet," Bobby said. "A genocidal dictator in a small European country and his entire personal squad of soldiers were found immolated in his mansion. Two-hundred thousand square miles of rain forest were mysteriously restored. Oh, and tell Sam that del.icio.us has suddenly regained its former functionality. I'm up to my ears in arcane texts here and nothing helpful on how to take down God. Or an angel so hopped up on purgatory souls he thinks he's God."
Dean's stomach twitched, burn of acid making its presence known in his gut. "Keep digging, Bobby. We'll check in tomorrow morning."
"Hey, Dean," Bobby said before Dean could hang up. "Everyone screws up. And I liked the guy. He was a pain in the ass in some very familiar ways once you got to know him, but I'm trying to be practical here. We've never dealt with anything like this before." He paused. "I know he was your friend. I'm sorry."
Bobby hung up, sparing Dean the need to try to speak around the fullness in his throat and the shake he knew would be in his voice.
Instead of putting away his cell phone, Dean scrolled through the list of names and stopped on Lisa's. He'd never call, knew he never would, and if he did she wouldn't even know who he was. (And whose fault is that? a voice in his head muttered). She'd had a knack for listening and seeing stuff other people couldn't. He'd told her a few things about who and what Castiel was, one or two stories about him – Lisa'd seemed intrigued and amused, her eyebrows quirking up in that way she had. Dean felt an odd sense of regret that now they'd never meet.
"Hey," Sam said, startling Dean. Sitting up, Sam rubbed his hand through his hair and yawned. "I miss anything?"
"Not really," Dean said. "Ca–God fixed del.icio.us, burned up some genocidal dictator, and replenished the rainforest."
"Oh. Uh-huh," Sam said, with a weird look on his face that said Sam couldn't decide if all this was good news or bad news.
He nodded towards Dean's hand holding the phone. "Who you calling?"
"No one." Dean tossed the phone aside onto the bed.
Sam lunged and snatched the phone before Dean could stop him. He looked at the screen. Great.
"You want to punch me, punch me," Sam said, turning the phone so Dean could see he'd left it with Lisa's name up. "But if you want to talk about them…any of this. You can."
"There's nothing to talk about," Dean said, his chest going cold, knowing he sounded brittle and abrupt, but it didn't matter.
"We should check on them, when this hunt's over," Sam said. "Do a drive-by."
"Bobby's got this friend…" Dean said. "I asked Bobby to have her check on them as much as she could. She put wards on their house where they won't find them."
"It's not enough, Dean," Sam said, and Dean knew he was right.
Dean got up, and, just for something to do, started neatening up, putting things away in his duffel bag.
"It ever occur to you they wouldn't want to forget you?" Sam said.
"Stop it," Dean snapped.
"Did you even try to talk to them ab–"
"No." Dean spun around to face Sam, and hell if he might punch him after all. He took a deep breath. "You didn't see the look on Ben's face. How he looked at me. Like I could fix it and he was wondering why I didn't and hating me for letting this happen at all."
Sam cleared his throat. "I remember what went down, you know. With the vampire thing. If I hadn't let that happen to you, maybe things could've been better for you with Lisa and Ben, maybe things wouldn't have—"
"It's done, Sam," Dean said flatly. The hurt was still there but the resignation dulled it. "There was no way. It just…wasn't my life. Maybe not the one I'm meant to have. They're better off."
"Maybe." Sam went over and sat at the table while the last light of sunset died. "No one's ever really safe but I can see why you think this is easier for them. But don't think they're better off just because they no longer know you. They aren't."
Dean's cell going off made them both jump. Flicking on the light first, he and Sam blinking in the sudden brightness, Dean answered.
"It's Sherriff Bennett, Dean. There's four hodags trotting down Main Street, bold as you please, like a pack of stray dogs. Or deer. We've had trouble with deer like this, only deer don't eat people's pets and people."
"Keep everyone out of the area," Dean said. "We'll be right there."
The darkness gave the hodags the advantage despite the illumination of the street lights. Like a lot of animals, their night-vision appeared excellent. Sam took the shotgun Dean handed him out of the duffel bag as the two of them crouched in the gazebo in the small park at the center of town.
By the time they'd gotten there, the hodags were nowhere in sight. They probably spread out to hunt for food. He hoped people would listen to the Sherriff and keep themselves and their pets inside tonight. The poor guy had a tricky job on his hands – he couldn't reveal what the things were or it would cause a panic, but apparently a few people had seen them and were asking a lot of questions.
Sam told him to tell them it was wild boars with rabies and leave it at that.
Dean gripped his shotgun and peered over the railing of the gazebo. "There's one at the trash can near the playground."
"Another one over here," Sam said, peering through the slats in the gazebo's white-washed railings. The creature was near the edge of the park, a large shadow in the darkness that could've been an unusually large boar or bear or wolf to a layperson's eye. Look closer, and there were the ridges on its back, the shape of its jowls, the relative size being unnaturally large.
It really was almost a relief, focusing on this instead of having his mind free to think about his memories of Hell, the whisper of archangel voices in his head, to watch Dean slowly unravel or stay still long enough that Sam had to feel the full force of what had happened with Castiel. This was work they knew how to do.
They each aimed at their target. Once they fired, it would alert the other creatures to their location, and they'd have to be ready. They'd each loaded a second shotgun and had them lying near their feet within easy reach.
Sam fired first and the hodag yelped and jumped, but he hadn't brought it down. The bang of Dean's gun followed, and Dean cursed. The two hodags ran at the gazebo from either direction, paws thudding on the grass. Sam and Dean fired again, and the beasts finally went down, twitching, then stilled.
In the pale glow from a street light at the edge of the park, Sam wasn't sure if Dean's fingers were shaking slightly as they gripped his shotgun. Maybe they were – hodags were too suggestive of hellhounds and Dean had a dog phobia ever since he got out of the Pit, even for the little ones.
"That's two," Dean said, business-like. "We got two more to track down tonight."
"Let's go, then." Sam got to his feet, turned, and heard the snarl just before the weight of a hodag barreled into him, knocking him against a gazebo pillar.
The thing must've been crouched below their line of vision, waiting for the moment to leap. Its jaws snapped inches from Sam's face, the weight of the creature keeping him from getting his gun up.
Another shotgun blast and the thing yelped and went limp. Sam shoved it off and slid down to the gazebo's concrete floor, his head throbbing.
"You okay?" Dean was there, holding out his hand.
Sam accepted it and let Dean pull him to his feet. "Yeah. I think so. It—"
As with all the other times, the here and now flicked away, his mind snapping to a blank with a rushing noise in his ears before it resolved into somewhere he'd seen before. He found himself chained to dry, broken ground, chalk-white and stretching to a red-hazed horizon, the links cutting through his flesh. Nearby he saw Adam, similarly bound. Adam struggled, which only made the chains cut worse.
Stop, Sam turned his head, trying to make him hear. Lie still, it'll be okay, it'll be okay. But Adam wasn't listening and wouldn't even turn towards Sam, caught in some frenzy of panic and pain.
The wind was stinging, hard with particles of dust, burning Sam's eyes and over his skin.
All the while he heard the archangels arguing. Lucifer's whispering voice around him and inside him, worse than the chains, inescapable, and knowing far too much about him.
This time Dean managed to catch his brother as he fell, easing him down to the floor of the gazebo. He knelt with Sam's head on his knees, keeping one hand curled around the shotgun. One more hodag was prowling around, and those sonsofbitches could move more quietly than Dean would've thought possible for such heavy creatures. Dean kept his focus on the hodag and on watching the darkness, because otherwise he'd get pulled down into the same cycle of panic while Sam rode out his seizure.
He'd come out of it. He always did. He had to come out of it.
"Sam," Dean said, his fingers gripping tightly around Sam's shoulder. "C'mon, Sam. Hey. Fight your way out of it." It seemed to help to talk to him – or maybe because Dean had talked him through it other times, he was afraid if he didn't, Sam might slip away and be lost forever. It seemed like the thing to do. "Got one more hodag to kill. We've still got work to do here. Wake up, Sammy. Wake up, you asshole, don't do this, okay? Don't. Sam?"
It was hard to tell how long he waited, time stretched and contracted and had little meaning.
"Sam!" Dean yelled.
And Sam's body jerked, his eyes fluttered open. He coughed, gasping for breath, stuttering awake.
"Oh, crap," Sam said, once he realized where he was. "Not again."
"What the friggin' hell are you apologizing for? You okay to get up?" Dean put down the shotgun, and shifted to get a grip on Sam's arms.
"I think so."
Dean hauled Sam to his feet – not an easy task, even with Sam doing a lot of the work. Sam inhaled the night air in deep gulps.
"We should get you back to the motel," Dean said.
"There's still one more."
"I'll come back and kill it."
"No, Dean…listen. What if it eats someone's favorite pet while you're gone, or what if it gets bold, tries to get into one of the houses?" Sam slid down to sit on the floor with his back against the gazebo railing. "What if it kills a kid?"
"Okay. You sit tight, we wait, and I'll shoot it. If the other three were here, chances are the fourth one is, too." Dean began to walk the perimeter of the gazebo, watching the shadows with his shotgun raised.
Sam drew his knees up and crossed his arms, leaning his head down. Stopping his patrol a moment, Dean looked down at the top of Sam's bowed head, worry and something else rising, remembering Castiel putting his fingers out to touch Sam's forehead, Sam collapsing. The sharp sting of bewildered hurt that Castiel would do that in the first place – not this crazy new God, but Castiel – was as fresh as when it had first happened. The new God had offered to fix it, and Sam had refused. As terrifying as this was, a small part of Dean was relieved Sam had done it this way. Whatever fixed Sam would be Sam, not the monster who had Castiel's voice and Castiel's face but was not like Castiel.
His mind cycled back yet again, no matter how many times he tried to avoid it, to wondering why – why hadn't Castiel asked for help. Why hadn't he just asked? If he'd come to Dean during that year so many things would've been different. Dean remembered the dream Castiel had shown him, of Castiel appearing to Dean in Lisa's backyard and Dean rejecting him – a vision of an event that had never happened, could never have happened, not that way. Dean would never have turned Cas away. But Castiel had never come to him.
A hollow jab of loss went through Dean.
Better to not think about any of this now, keep his gaze trained on the darkness, waiting for a monster to show, waiting to make the kill. This was something he knew how to fight; this was something Dean could do. Every creature he killed beat back the hurt a little, channeled it from himself and into something else. The sense of grim satisfaction coursing through him was as good as cold beer going down his throat. The memory of Alastair murmuring in his ear surfaced, and Dean shuddered, shoulders twitching to shake it off.
He went to the gazebo steps, watched as a sprinkler switched on, sending a sparkle of water against the darkness, turned and walked back. He watched Sam until he saw how steady his breathing was, his head still down.
"Hey, Dean?" Sam said, voice muffled against his arms.
"When you were in Hell…" Sam raised his head, the light from the street lamp leaving half his face in shadow. "What'd it smell like?"
"What did it smell like?" Dean had a weird flash of déjà vu – some things never changed, it was like Sam at three, asking questions out of the blue.
"What does that matter, Sammy?" Dean said tiredly.
"I want to know."
"Burning," Dean said. "The smell of sulfur and burnt flesh. I guess it wasn't really flesh since no actual bodies were down there, only souls, but…that's how it smelled. Like the way it smells when we do a salt'n burn, only it was…all the time. Mostly it smelled like demons." Dean didn't want to talk about this, wasn't sure where the words were coming from. He's never told anyone about that.
"In the cage," Sam said slowly, while the sprinkler made a soft snap-snap-snap, "I could smell my own flesh burning, when they did that to me. Mostly – it smelled too clean. It was…there was nothing. Just nothing. No food cooking, no exhaust, no gasoline, no wet grass…and you know that ozone scent that sometimes was there when–" Sam broke off. "Not demons."
"You know what sucks?" Dean said, catching a movement near the swing sets and moving the barrel of his gun that way. Turned out it was nothing, only the wind stirring the bushes.
"Lots of things suck." Sam snorted. "Anything in particular?"
"Being in Hell sucks. Particularly."
"Screw Hell," Sam said.
The last hodag didn't show, even though they waited hours. They drove through town, doing a sweep to make sure it wasn't still wandering around, and Sheriff Bennett said no emergency calls had come in.
Feeling strangely deflated, Dean drank two fingers of whiskey. Sam was asleep immediately and without his hovering and worrying, Dean was tempted to have another drink, but he decided against it. There were a bunch more hodags to hunt down, and he didn't like what the morning-afters were doing to his body and mind.
He sat on his bed turning the glass, glow from the bedside lamp deepening the traces of dark liquid. Dean put down the tumbler and turned off the light, then fell asleep on top of the covers wearing his jeans and t-shirt and socks.
Dean stood on the dock, the trees almost bare of leaves, the sky a strange silvery color filled with dark streaks of clouds that almost seemed sentient in their movements. Water slapped loudly against the pilings, the lake gone rough.
Closer to the shore, the wood of the dock was intact, but out over the water the boards were broken, jagged, turned dark with rot. Castiel stood with his back to the lake, facing Dean, fists clenched and body tensed as if he were resisting something that pulled at him. It was windy, blowing in the direction of the water, but nothing fierce enough to make it necessary for Castiel to do that.
Something was happening, and Dean knew he needed to focus, but he let himself the luxury of staring.
"Cas?" Dean found his voice, finally, and stepped closer.
Another board snapped off, spun in the air, and struck the water.
"Stay there," Castiel commanded, and Dean froze.
"I can't…" Castiel's jaw tightened, eyes bright blue in contrast to the silver around him. He took a pained breath, coat flapping out behind him. "I keep trying but he won't let me. I don't have time. He's going to cut me off."
Overhead, the dark cloud streaks thickened, deepening the silver of the sky, tarnishing it. There was a hum beneath Dean's skin, unpleasant, the sense of a presence far too intent upon him, the interest not malevolent exactly, but creepy as all heck and suffocating. It made Dean want to yell at nothing, to warn it off, to tell it to go screw itself. Castiel wasn't there for the taking, and neither was Dean.
Despite Castiel's earlier command, Dean stepped closer when another board cracked, one closer to Castiel's heels. "Take it easy," Dean said. "Tell me what you need me to do."
"I don't know yet. But I'm not–" Another board snapped away behind him.
The wind increased, along with the waves. The water rose with unnatural speed, and there was nothing to explain it – no rain, no flooding. It lapped onto the dock now, as yet another board slid free and vanished beneath the lake.
Castiel's face was wet with lake water, coat splattered with it, drops clinging to his hair. Dean was close to him now, only a few feet away, his t-shirt and jeans growing damp. The wet boards were cold against his bare feet.
"I'm not gone," said Castiel, before the boards beneath his feet gave way.
Dean lunged, grabbing Castiel as he went down, wrapping his arms around his torso and yanking him back. He felt the hard, wiry muscle beneath layers of Castiel's clothing and the trenchcoat, and that Castiel was shaking with the strain of whatever he'd been resisting. Because it seemed right, because the need to do it rushed through him with a startling intensity, Dean tightened his grip, keeping his arms around Cas, pulling him close as another board snapped. Castiel was tense as if thinking about pulling himself free, fleeing – and Dean had the feeling it wasn't to get away from Dean, but to keep Dean away from him and whatever force was tearing the dock apart. But then Dean felt Castiel's arms tighten around him, his nose brushing Dean's jaw. For a moment it seemed the strange sky and the slap of water lapping closer to their feet were the only things in existence, but then the strange sky diminished, and there was only Castiel and the way he held onto Dean as if it was the most important thing he'd ever done. He smelled real – like Cas – of damp trenchcoat and a hint of something clean and cool and remote, like stones, and regular old soap and sweat.
The boards beneath them began to give – Dean felt the dip. He started to tug Castiel back, closer to shore, but the wood snapped relentlessly and some force – furious and possessive and absolute – ripped Castiel out of his arms.
The jolt of loss and shock and outrage barely had time to take hold before the dock was gone.
Sam woke up before Dean. He was startled that he'd slept – that always startled him now, because every time he started to slide towards sleep, he feared what waited there. But apparently Sam's nightmares were mostly when he was awake – and the visions of the Cage drained him to such a degree that mostly he seemed to go under and stay there until his body was rested.
Feeling a little shaky on his legs, Sam got dressed, moving carefully so he didn't wake Dean.
He was about to go across the street to get egg sandwiches and coffee, had his jacket in his hand, when Dean let out an incoherent yell. Dean scrambled out of his bed in a flail of arms and legs, body tensing into combat-ready lines.
"Dean!" Sam ran over and grabbed his shoulder.
Dean's eyes, off somewhere else, focused on Sam's face. "Crap," he said, and sank down on the bed as Sam let go. He lowered his head, burying his face in his hands, the next words coming out muffled. "Goddamn sonofabitch."
Sitting down next to his brother, Sam wondered if he should ask, or if Dean would tell him. It hadn't gone well the last time Sam had tried but whatever was going on, it didn't seem like an ordinary nightmare.
But then Dean stood up and strode into the bathroom, door closing a little too firmly after him, and that was the end of that.
Sheriff Bennett called in some favors, and by noon had arranged for the butcher to deliver a few hundred pounds of meat to the room in the warehouse, no questions asked.
The visions left Sam drained and shaky, so he spent most of the day lying on his bed with his laptop researching hodags, checking message boards for leads on another hunt, and then, reluctantly, looking for ways to kill a god. He almost hoped they'd keep finding nothing, except the stakes were too high on this. They couldn't afford not to find an answer. A heavy, dull weight settled into Sam's chest as he read a scan of an old text that might have a few clues.
Dean was restless, varying between watching TV, and doing something on his own laptop he wouldn't let Sam see, but Sam caught a glimpse of the screen a few times. Dean was deep into some kind of research of his own, something about telepathic communication and possession. When they went to get food, Sam saw a webpage related to angels before Dean snapped the laptop lid shut.
After sunset they went to the warehouse to wait for the meat delivery and got things set up.
In the room Dean had chosen, Sam and Dean waited on the catwalk.
"What if they don't take the bait?" Dean muttered, sitting cross-legged with his shotgun across his knees.
"They will. Eventually, once the scent gets to them."
They didn't use lights because they didn't want to do anything to scare off the hodags. Sam kept trying to work up the best way to ask Dean about his nightmare, but Dean still seemed so on edge, and Sam thought it might be too much like putting pressure on a recent wound, making it hurt more.
Sam was used to doing this with Dean, not pushing, not asking, just sitting with him in comfortable quiet, waiting. This was routine for them – hunting was a lot of stake-outs, hiding in darkness for something frightening to show up so they could kill it.
He'd learned patience, most of all, in dealing with his brother.
Finally they heard the tell-tale padding of claws on concrete, snuffling noises in the dark, low growls. The hodags' eyes glowed as they entered the room, catching the moonlight.
It was about a dozen in all. Dean got to his feet quietly, Sam doing the same, and when all the hodags were chowing down on the meat, they opened fire. The beasts ran around in confusion, or were too intent on eating, and Sam and Dean managed to pick them off quickly, one by one, the musty warehouse air filling with the smell of hot gunpowder and dead things.
They got back to the motel a little past three in the morning. Sam was so exhausted that his vision was blurry. He fell back onto his bed, not bothering to take off his shoes, and stared at the ceiling.
Dean couldn't seem to wind down, started cleaning the guns. It wasn't unusual for him to be like that after a hunt, but Sam knew that wasn't it, not this time. Dean went to the dresser and got a fresh glass, picked up the bottle of whiskey, stared at it, but didn't open the cap and pour.
"Castiel," Sam said, sitting up. It was a flat statement more than a question. "Your nightmares, they're about him. I'm just guessing."
"Might be, yeah." A harder edge crept into Dean's voice.
"I'm sorry," Sam said. "I wish there was some other way, here. You have no idea how much."
"Well, we're all sorry," Dean said, still just holding the bottle and the glass as if he'd forgotten what they were for. "Bobby's sorry, you're sorry, I'm sorry…how's your research on how to kill God going, by the way?" The bitterness in Dean's voice made something clench in Sam's chest.
"Nothing new." It was a relief being able to say that, to have the inevitable put off. "But I saw you were looking at a few things that seemed a bit outside what I would've expected. I just wondered what that was about."
There was a long stretch of quiet, broken by the rumble of a truck going by on the highway. "The dreams," Dean said. "They're not mine. They're really him. Not some god. Cas."
Staring down at the glass, Dean went frighteningly still. Then, with a swift snap of his arm, he threw the glass hard against the wall. The tumbler didn't shatter – it struck with a snap, bounced, and rolled away under Sam's bed.
"Tell me what's going on," Sam said. "Please."
Dean leaned against the dresser. "I thought they were only nightmares at first. But it's Cas, somehow he's gotten into my head."
"I'm sure," Dean said, in a tone that left Sam no doubts. "He's been trying to tell me something." Sam waited while Dean rubbed his index and middle finger over his chin. "I wasn't sure what this was at first. But now…I know for sure."
"Sure of what?" Sam thought that now was when Dean would back away from this, change the subject, tell him it was nothing after all.
"He's not gone."
"He's alive, Sam. He's trapped in there. Inside with the souls, struggling, and he's been trying to tell me and something keeps happening where he's always pulled away. He could barely speak at first – still almost can't. It's getting worse." Dean flapped his hand angrily. "Whatever's going on."
A sting of adrenaline, a leap of hope and fear, went through Sam and he clenched his fingers around the bedspread, willing the visions of Hell to stay down. Not now. Not now.
"Dean, the things Castiel…or all those souls…the things they're doing…"
"I know that," Dean snapped. "You think I'm not turning all that over in my head, everyday? The costs? That we might have to take him down like one of those hodags out there? But he's still alive, and if there's even a chance of getting him back, we have to take it."
Sam thought of the first time he'd met the angel, the way he'd grasped Sam's hand. Back when Sam still believed, back when he still prayed. He'd stopped praying to God a while back, but eventually felt comforted knowing Castiel was out there and on their side at least.
"Dean, he was our friend. I get how you feel. But I'm not sure about this. Even knowing he's trapped in there. Especially knowing that."
"Look, I know you're pissed at him. I am, too."
"No." Sam held up a hand. "That's not it. I mean yeah, I am pissed, but that's not what I'm talking about. Those souls, that thing walking around that looks just like him – that's what destroyed him. I know what it's like to be possessed, and what it's like to let power in that maybe shouldn't be there, thinking it was right and by the time you realize it's not, it's too late. If Castiel is still alive, he's suffering. This isn't like demon possession. We can't oust those things with the rituale romanum. I don't think he'd want to stay trapped like this. And if we can end it, and give him peace, then maybe we should." Sam swallowed hard, waited until he was sure his voice would be steady. "He wouldn't want to be something he's not."
He only caught a glimpse at the hurt in Dean's expression before Sam had to look away.
"Screw that," Dean said, voice too low. After a moment he came over to sit by Sam. "We get him back. Whatever we have to do. We figure it out. When we've got him back, then I'm going to punch his lights out."
"He was trying to stop another apocalypse." Sam felt obligated to say it.
"Yeah, and you and I both know about doing stupid shit thinking that's the best and only option. I want the chance to be angry at his stupid face for the crap he pulled. I want the chance to – I want him here." Dean's voice went a little strange, choked and too quiet. "First, we get him out. Then we'll deal with the rest. Okay?"
Dean said the last word casually, but the tension in his voice was sharp as stretched wire, and Sam could read the plea radiating from his brother, even if he was trying to hide it.
"Yeah," Sam said. "Okay." With that, Sam felt lighter than he had in weeks, as something cold in his chest lessened its grip. "You want to tell Bobby the new plan, or should I?"
Dean sighed, then lifted his hand, and Sam lifted his.
For once, Sam lost. He called Bobby, and filled him in.
"You idjits," Bobby grumbled. "Dean's certain about this?"
"A hundred and ten percent," Sam told him.
Over at the table by the window, Dean was deeply immersed in some research database he'd found.
"You're both crazy."
Sam couldn't argue with that.
"You're all alike, all you Winchesters. Jesus H. Christ."
"Fine. I guess plan B is off the table, then." Bobby let out a long sigh. "If there's a way of savin' that dimwit angel, then we should try it. Not like he hasn't gone out on a limb for us a time or three. I'll hit the books, see what I can find."
"Oh, shut it," Bobby said, and hung up.