It's been over seven weeks since Dean picked Sam up from Stanford. Sam and Dean are still getting used to hunting together again, and Sam doesn't want to admit how good it feels. It's different from the days when they hunted with their dad, before Sam left for college. Now it's just the two of them, and it's a definite improvement over being under Dad's thumb all the time. Sam doesn't want to think about how much better things are now, if only because he thinks he should still be grieving Jessica's death, and it bothers him sometimes that he doesn't miss her more.
Hunting with Dean is fast becoming Sam's new normal, and it isn't as terrible as he'd feared it would be. Dean's easier to get along with than he used to be, more cooperative, almost like he's grateful for Sam's company. Dean seems appreciative of Sam's skills, and as much as he teases Sam about being a "college boy," Sam can sense that Dean's proud of him. He boasts about Sam's research abilities and natural empathy to witnesses and law enforcement, even when he knows Sam's listening. He calls Sam his "partner," instead of his "little brother," which makes Sam's chest swell with pride even while he tries not to show it.
But most of all, Dean seems genuinely glad to have Sam with him. Dean seems surprised every time he looks up to find Sam next to him, as if he's forgotten how good it feels to have someone he trusts by his side. As if Sam's taller and stronger than Dean expected. As if Dean's become accustomed to hunting alone too often and it's an enormous relief to him just to have Sam next to him.
The brothers are quickly becoming a team, and after seven weeks, Sam's finding it hard to remember how it felt to be on his own. He's pretty sure it was the hunting life he'd never wanted, not Dean. Teaming up with Dean is definitely the least-worst part of that life. He'd never meant to leave Dean. Not really.
"It's an onikuma," Sam announces after spending half-a-day at the public library looking at old news articles and reading up on all the lore he could find.
Dean's spent the time talking to the locals at the Bear Paw Diner, hearing stories about a local legend that's part bear, part man. It's been killing and eating animals and a couple of farm-hands across Central Montana for the past twenty years or so, but what finally got the Winchesters' attention was when it went after a family on a hike a week ago. Mother, father, two brothers, all eviscerated and half-eaten. Animal attack, according to the local authorities. Except no animal they ever heard of took only the internal organs of its victims: heart, liver, kidney, spleen.
"Same M.O. as those farmhands ten years ago," Sam comments as he looks through his notes.
They set up shop in the Crossroads Motel just outside Shelby. It's getting cold outside as winter closes in, and the room's electric baseboard heaters keeps fritzing out. Dean just came back from his fifth trip to the manager's office to complain, and he's clearly about to give up and insist they move to another motel.
But Sam's deep in it. He has his timeline all neatly taped up on the wall along with a map showing the creature's hunting area with pins and yarn, and he's not going anywhere. He throws an annoyed glance at Dean as his brother stomps his feet and blows into his hands, then shoves them under his armpits for warmth.
"Its lair has to be somewhere in the Kootenai National Forest," Sam continues.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Dean asks, shifting from foot to foot in an obvious effort to keep warm. "Let's go talk to the forest rangers. There must be a cave or a mine up there somewhere. We can find it, kill it, be back before nightfall. Case closed."
"Now?" Sam feels a shiver go up his spine at the thought of creeping into another dark mine so soon after their encounter with the wendigo in Colorado. Just the night before, Sam had a nightmare of finding Dean strung up in the creature's nest, bruised and bleeding and close to death. It's not a scenario he's anxious to repeat.
"Yeah, now," Dean says. "It sure beats freezing our butts off here for another night."
Sam has to agree with him there. Which is how they end up on the road within the hour, headed into the mountains to the designated ranger station. An hour after that, Sam and Dean are driving along back-woods mountain roads, then hiking up an unmarked logging track, following the map provided by the forest rangers who directed them to a series of caves deep in the mountains.
It takes them a while to find the right cave, but when they do, that's when things go to hell.
One minute, they've got the thing cornered at the back of its cave. The monster is a big bear-like creature on two-feet with huge fangs and claws. It growls unintelligibly yet glares at them with a cunning that can only be malevolent intelligence.
The next minute it's got Dean as he dives for his gun, raking its claws down Dean's backside as he hollers bloody-murder and struggles desperately to free himself. Sam fights down his panic so that he can take steady aim; he's got one shot at the creature's head or it'll be on him. Only head shots take this thing down. The farmers and game hunters who've shot at it over the years can attest to the onikuma's resiliency, to the way it shrugs off bullet-wounds like they're mere bee-stings.
"Shoot it, Sam!" Dean screams, and Sam shoots; he can't stand those desperate cries one more second.
So of course he misses, clips the creature's right shoulder instead, and now the thing's coming for him, damn it. Fuck, he's such an idiot. Why can't he shoot straight when Dean's in pain? What the hell's the matter with him?
Then it's on him, growling and grabbing, hot breath in his face, and it smells terrible. Really bad. Dead rotting things bad. It's got one claw wrapped around Sam's neck, just squeezing the life out of him. Everything's fading to black and Sam's brain is screaming at him for being such a fuck-up and getting them both killed.
"I'm sorry, Dean," Sam would say if he could, stupid, helpless, pitiful last words, he knows, but it's all he's got. He's failed again. Can't do a simple thing like shoot the monster that's attacking his brother.
Just before he loses consciousness Sam hears a gunshot.
Dean was always the better shot. When they were kids and Dean was teaching Sam how to shoot, he took Sam out back behind Bobby's place or across the field behind some random hunter's cabin and lined tin cans on stumps or fence posts.
"Go on, Sammy," Dean would say. "Show me whatcha got."
Sam would concentrate, grip the gun the way Dean had shown him, and miss every damn can.
"Aw, come on, Dean," Sam would complain. "They're too far away. Nobody can hit that."
Which was Dean's cue to lift his own gun and put a perfect hole in the center of each can. He seemed to be able to do it without making any real effort, without even breaking a sweat. Then he would smirk at Sam and shrug, and Sam would feel the rage boiling up inside him because it wasn't fair. Dean was better at everything. Sam was useless and stupid and little and always would be.
"Sam? Sammy? Come on, man, wake up! Sam!"
His head feels like it weighs a thousand pounds and it's pitch dark, but Dean's calling his name so he tries to focus.
Which is how Sam figures out his eyes are closed, because opening them feels like a Herculean task. His eyelids are so heavy they could be made of lead, and Sam's head is throbbing, filling his ears with the sound of rushing water, or maybe blood, drowning out Dean's urgent pleas.
There's not much light in the cave, and it smells. That rotting meat smell is right there next to him, and it takes Sam a minute to realize that the onikumi is lying almost on top of him, its dead weight holding him down.
"Dean!" Sam gets his hands under the creature's body and pushes, using the force of his concern for his brother to heave the monster off of him and onto the floor of the cave.
"Sammy." Dean's voice is laced with relief. "You okay?"
Sam flexes his aching limbs, winces at a couple of bruised ribs as he turns onto his side, away from the dead monster and toward his brother.
"Yeah, I think so," Sam growls. His throat's sore and probably bruised, making his voice hoarse, and his head is throbbing like a son-of-a-bitch, but he doesn't seem to be bleeding much. No broken bones. "You?"
"Yeah, I'm peachy," Dean says, but he's not moving, which is how Sam knows he's in bad shape.
Sam half crawls, half scoots across the cave floor toward his brother's voice. In the near-darkness he can barely make out Dean's shape, and when Sam gets a hand on him he feels the blood soaking through Dean's jacket immediately.
"Easy, Dean, I got you," Sam murmurs as Dean flinches away from his touch, moaning and shivering in pain.
"Jesus, Sammy," Dean gasps as Sam's hands skim over his back. Dean's sprawled out on his stomach, his arms stretched up over his head, still clutching his gun. Sam takes the gun out of Dean's hand and slides the safety on, slipping it into the back of his own waistband for safe-keeping. He's already recovered his own gun on his crawl over, and it's back where it belongs in his pocket. Recovering their weapons is an essential part of cleaning up a job, and Sam's grateful that part's done, at least.
"Okay, okay, can you move? What hurts?" Sam asks as he slides his hands down Dean's arms, then over his blood-soaked back and down his legs.
"Everything!" Dean gasps as he flinches away from Sam's touch again. "Shit, fuck! My leg!"
"Okay," Sam feels shredded denim and blood where Dean's left calf should be, where the onikuma first grabbed him, and Dean screams with pain so Sam's pretty sure it's broken. Or worse.
He needs more light, damn it. What happened to their flashlights?
"Okay, let me try to find some light, see what's going on," Sam mutters as Dean whimpers pitifully. "You're okay. You're gonna be okay. I Just need to find some light."
Sam's babbling, keeps up a steady banter just to keep his growing panic at bay. The situation is bad, and they both know it. They're in a cave in the mountains, at least twenty miles from the nearest ranger station, and it's getting dark. Dean appears to be injured beyond a simple broken bone, so getting him out of here may be more than Sam can manage on his own.
And to make matters worse, it's late-December and winter is definitely coming. When they left the motel this morning the National Weather Service was predicting a blizzard to hit the area sometime before midnight.
Sam's got to get Dean to safety, then come back and clean up the mess here before that blizzard hits.
Oh yeah, and lest Sam forget, they left the Impala at the end of a logging road and hiked their way in here from almost a mile away, just to make things a little more fun.
Sam is so screwed.
Finding a flashlight in the midst of Sam's impending panic attack is such a small victory he can't help taking a moment to breathe out a silent prayer of thanks.
Then he gets a good look at the mess that used to be Dean's leg and immediately wishes he hadn't.
"Okay, we gotta get you outta here," Sam mutters, and Dean moans. "Can you walk?"
"No. Can't," Dean gasps. He's shivering violently now, and yeah it's colder than hell in here, but Sam knows it's more than that. Dean's going into shock.
"Okay, I'll just have to carry you, then." Sam sucks in a breath, steadying himself as he starts to roll Dean onto his right side, away from the majority of his injuries.
Dean screams and fights him for a moment, then the pain overwhelms him and he passes out.
Good, Sam tells himself, fighting down his panic as the dead weight of Dean's body sags against him. This is good, He'll be easier to carry this way.
He maneuvers his body under Dean's, manages to lift him onto his shoulder, ignoring the sticky, slippery slide of Dean's blood coating everything, making it hard for Sam to get a good grip on him. He tries not to think about internal injuries, about how he might be making Dean's injuries worse by moving him. Sam doesn't have a choice. He can't leave Dean here while he goes for help. He just can't. It hurts to think about Dean waking up in this cave alone and in pain, even though he would probably understand. He would get it. But he would feel abandoned, too. It would fill him with loneliness and despair on top of the pain and the cold, and Sam just can't do that to his brother.
Plus, who is he kidding? Sam couldn't bear it if he got back and Dean was ––
No, not even thinking about that right now.
The hike back to the car is exhausting and traumatizing. After the fight with the onikuma Sam's barely upright, but his fear for Dean keeps him moving, and he's grateful his brother doesn't wake up as Sam stumbles and staggers under Dean's weight, following the path they made earlier through the undergrowth. He holds tight to Dean's body, slung over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, and tries not to think about how much blood he's lost. How far from a hospital they are. How dark it's getting as the first few flakes of snow fall around them.
Once he's got Dean settled across the backseat of the Impala, blanket tucked around him and the heat blasting, the snow is falling fast and thick. The unpaved logging road they parked on is over three miles from the highway, bumpy and rutted, and by the time Sam makes it to the slippery main road there's at least a couple of inches of snow on the ground. The car fishtails and spins out as he turns onto the slick surface, and Sam panics as he struggles to keep the car on the road in the growing gloom of the late-December evening. The snow falls thicker and faster, beyond the car's ability to maneuver, beyond the wiper-blades' ability to clear. Snow falls like ash in the headlights, silent and deadly, and after only about twenty minutes Sam has to slow down or risk spinning off the road or sliding into a drift.
When a young doe darts into the road in front of him, freezing in the glare of the headlights so Sam has barely a moment to respond, it feels almost surreal. Sam slams on the breaks, knowing full well not to, knowing he should pump the breaks instead but then he'd hit the deer for sure and he just can't do that. He won't, not if he can help it.
Time seems to slow down as the Impala fishtails ninety-degrees, then slides sideways toward the deer. Sam turns the steering wheel in the direction of the skid, hoping beyond hope he can keep the car on the road and avoid the deer at the same time.
But of course the road under the snow is a solid sheet of ice, and Sam quickly realizes he has no control as the car slides sideways off the road and into the ditch, coming to a hard stop in deep snow. Sam's head slams into the steering wheel, or maybe the windshield, and for a moment after the impact he sees stars and probably loses consciousness.
When he finally lifts his aching head, all Sam sees outside the car is a solid wall of white, whirling snow. The car's heater is still blasting, but he can see one less pool of light shining from the front of the Impala, telling him that one headlight is out, probably smashed. Dean's gonna kill him, Sam thinks nonsensically.
Then he remembers.
"Dean!" Sam bellows as he turns and twists on the bench, managing to pull himself up to look over into the backseat. Dean has slid off into the footwell, and he's not moving. Sam reaches over the back seat and pulls the blanket away, then presses his fingers against Dean's throat, over his carotid artery.
Dean's pulse is weak, but it's steady.
Sam quickly assesses his next move, deliberately ignoring his aching limbs, his throbbing head. The car is stuck, buried in the ditch at an almost forty-five-degree angle. He knows right away it would be useless to try to dig her out and get her back on the road without help.
Walking is out of the question; the snow is blinding and the storm is quickly gaining force. Neither of them are dressed warmly enough to survive more than a few hours outside in a blizzard, and Dean's condition makes it impossible anyway.
Their best bet is to hunker down, wait out the blizzard, then go for help.
If Dean makes it that long.
On an ordinary mountain road, there would be snow-plows and tow-trucks going by regularly after a blizzard like this, seeking stranded sportsmen and pre-season winter-vacationers, ready to help pull the Impala out of the snowbank, maybe even give her some chains to help her make it down to a more drivable road.
But of course this is a road that was clearly marked "Closed between December 1 and May 1" for a good reason. And of course the Winchesters ignored the sign when they drove into these mountains earlier because that's just the way they roll when they're on a hunt. Natural dangers are the least of their worries.
Sam feels the old familiar grip of entrapment that has haunted his nightmares for as long as he can remember. Sam's life is a cage that has held him entombed since he was old enough to understand it, and this most recent natural manifestation is just another reminder that he can't ever escape. He guns the engine in a last ditch effort to free the car, but it's a token gesture and he knows it. The Impala is stuck, just like the Winchesters.
Of course there's no cell service up in these mountains. They'd already established that as part of their final weapons check, before they went into the cave that landed them here, at the end of everything. Rookie move, going into this hunt on the verge of a blizzard without cell service. They knew better, but figured they could get the job done and get out before the storm hit. Brimming with bravado and competitive to a fault, the brothers had thrown caution to the wind as soon as that ranger told them about the cave, the likeliest place for the monster to hide out within range of the campground where the most recent attacks had occurred.
The snow has drifted up to the doorhandles and the world is deceptively bright in the darkness outside by the time Sam figures out what he has to do.
He can keep them warm by running the car and the heater at intervals, at least until the car runs out of gas. The car's battery will die soon afterwards, taking the heat with them. Then Sam will crawl into the backseat and curl his body around his brother, giving him whatever heat he can for as long as he can.
Dean moans softly in his unconscious state, probably feverish by now, and Sam lets himself feel a momentary gratitude that at least Dean doesn't know what's happening.
For Sam, what's happening is darkly ironic. The brothers may be able to keep each other warm for a few hours or even another day, but eventually, they will freeze to death. Not tomorrow, probably not for another two or three days, when thirst overtakes them and they start eating the snow which will bring their body temperatures down dangerously until they can no longer function.
Dean will die first, since he's the weakest and he's already suffering massive blood loss. The cold may stave off infection, but eventually his body will give out, sooner than Sam's.
Sam will live on, but not much longer.
The thought of leaving his brother and trying to go for help just isn't on Sam's list of possibilities. He won't leave Dean to die alone. He can't.
Sam could try to carry Dean out, and maybe once the storm has stopped that's what he'll do. It's not like them to just lie down and wait for death. Better to die making an effort to live. Dean will hate him for leaving the car, but he'll understand. And if they make it, they'll come back for her.
The next few hours are agonizing. By running the heater at intervals, the car stays relatively warm. Dean doesn't regain consciousness, and Sam worries about that, but decides it's for the best. Sometime in the early morning, the darkest part of the night, the car finally dies. Sam takes a deep breath, watches it freeze in the cold air inside the car, then he rolls over the front seat and into the back.
Sam curls around Dean's body and drifts off to sleep, reminding himself that at least they killed the monster. At least they did their job. They rid the world of one more nasty thing that was killing people and ruining families, and if they die with their boots on, well, that's part of the job, isn't it? Their dad would be proud.
Sam wakes with a start a couple of hours later. It's still dark, although the white-out of the blizzard makes everything seem lighter than it should be for the time of night. Dean's moaning softly again, and Sam's body is aching and sore from head to foot. He shifts as well as he can to allow Dean more room, but it's basically hopeless. They're both big guys, and even with the front bench pushed all the way forward, there's no room for Sam back here and he knows it. His body knows it. He's never been so cramped and stiff in his life.
Besides, he's laying half on top of Dean, and that's not just uncomfortable. For Dean, it's downright painful.
"Hurts, Sammy," Dean chokes out, and that's how Sam knows Dean's in real pain. No way would his brother ordinarily admit to pain.
"I know," Sam shifts his weight, trying to take his bulk off his brother's injured leg. "I'm just trying to keep us warm."
"Well, it ain't working." Dean's shivering violently, and his teeth are chattering. Sam adjusts the blanket, tries to tuck it around Dean, but that only makes him grunt and squirm more. "What the hell, Sam? Where are we?"
"We're stuck in the snow," Sam answers, trying to ignore his own shivering. "The car's out of gas and this blizzard isn't letting up anytime soon." And you're seriously injured, he doesn't add because it's obvious. He also doesn't mention the dead battery because that's obvious too.
"When it stops snowing, you need to get out there," Dean says. "Follow the road till somebody finds you."
Sam says nothing, and after a moment Dean growls, "Sam?"
"Not going anywhere without you." Sam knows he sounds like a pouting teenager, but he doesn't care. "When the snow dies down, I'll make you a sled, pull you down the mountain with me."
"My leg's busted, Sam," Dean says. "I'll never make it. I'll just hold you back."
"Not going anywhere without you," Sam insists, more vehemently this time.
"Not gonna make it till morning anyway," Dean says, and his voice is weaker now. He's gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering. "Too much blood loss."
"Don't say that," Sam says gruffly, fighting down the panic Dean's words make him feel. "You'll be fine! You're tough, Dean. You've had worse and come through just fine. Remember the chupacabra in New Mexico back in '99?"
"Yeah," Dean huffs out a trembling laugh.
"That thing pulled your hip right out of its socket," Sam goes on, more to keep Dean awake than anything. "Dad popped it back in, then made you walk out of there four miles back to the car."
"Yeah, carrying you," Dean says, his voice a tortured whisper now.
"I killed that thing," Sam huffs indignantly. "Sank my knife clear through its heart and out the other side."
"Then you fainted," Dean starts to chuckle, but it comes out in a coughing fit instead. Sam waits none-too-patiently for it to pass, worry and fear making him clench his fist in the front of Dean's jacket, just to have something to hold on to. If he doesn't, Sam knows he'll start running his hand over Dean's hair, trying to comfort him as much as to reassure himself, and he knows Dean won't want that.
Finally, Dean recovers his voice enough to say, "You always fainted at the sight of blood in those days."
"Not anymore," Sam answers, reminding them both that they're covered in Dean's blood at the moment. Probably a little monster blood, too.
"No, Sammy, not anymore," Dean agrees, and now his voice sounds ragged and tired.
Sam wishes he could see Dean's face, wishes he could see Dean's expression.
"I'm proud of you, Sam," Dean whispers. "You did good."
Sam gasps. They never say that to each other. Hell, Dad never says that, although he should. It's the kind of thing that might only come out when one of them is dying, and there is no way in hell that's happening on Sam's watch. No way.
"Shut up," Sam orders, then realizes Dean isn't moving. He's passed out again, damn him. Sam wishes again that he could see Dean's face, hopes he's not grimacing in pain even when he's unconscious. Sam's fingers find Dean's carotid artery again. Dean's pulse is weaker now, unsteady, and it makes Sam's heart hurt, makes his chest clench like he's being strangled. He closes his eyes, squeezing tight against the tears threatening to slip out of the corners, and mumbles words to a prayer he learned long ago and couldn't recite consciously right now if his life depended on it. Sam's on auto-pilot, hoping for a miracle he has no reason to expect, given the course of their lives so far. Jessica's dead, Dad's in the wind, and Dean's just as likely to die tonight as anything, especially anything good.
Sam's life is cursed. If he ever doubted that, he doesn't anymore, and there's no reason to expect anything but the worst.
PART TWO | BACK TO MASTERPOST