The sun was low in the sky by the time Sam found a motel that looked like it would work for them.
"Wait here," he told Dean, who gave a sleepy murmur of assent from the passenger seat. He'd been dozing on and off since they'd crossed into Colorado, and Sam was just glad that the drive had given Dean an excuse to rest up for a bit. They were both running on empty after their last hunt, but God knew how much Dean hated admitting to anything even remotely resembling weakness.
The guy at the counter hardly even glanced at Sam as he walked in, and accepted Sam's request for the room at the end of the row without interest, which suited Sam just fine. He let Billy Dee Williams pay for the room, then collected his key and went to get Dean, ignoring the 'no pets' sign with the ease of long practice.
The parking lot was just as deserted as it had been when they'd arrived and Sam was wearily unsurprised to see Dean sitting beside the Impala and doing a fantastically bad job at looking innocent. Sam rolled his eyes and headed over.
"I told you to stay in the car."
Dean's ears twitched in amusement. 'No you didn't,' his voice said in Sam's head. 'You told me to stay here. And look at that! I did.'
"You're not nearly as funny as you think you are." Sam unlocked the trunk to grab his duffle. "What if someone had seen you Houdini your way out of the car, huh Dean?"
Dean snorted. 'Give me some credit, Sam. Humans don't have anything on me.'
"Big scary supernatural wolf, I get it. Doesn't stop people from getting weirded out by you magicking yourself out of locked cars."
'Blah, blah, bitch, bitch, whine. You gonna open the door before someone catches you arguing with your dog and calls the loony bin? '
"You're a terrible person," Sam told him, even though it wasn't, strictly speaking, true. Dean acted enough like a human for Sam to consider it a valid statement.
Dean called him something insulting that Sam ignored as he led the way over to their door and unlocked it.
Dean immediately set about exploring the room, nose down to the carpet and ears pricked at attention. Sam left him to it, fighting the grin that always wanted to tug up the corner of his mouth when he caught Dean engaging in such blatantly canine behaviour.
'Clear,' Dean said, and sat back on his haunches.
"Hooray," Sam said, dumping his bag on the floor and swaying in place for a bit while the world resolved itself into something with solid edges.
'Jesus Christ, Sam. Sit down before you fall down. You've been driving all day.'
Sam felt the insistent butt of Dean's head against his leg and sat on the edge of the bed. Dean gave a satisfied huff and settled down directly on top of Sam's feet, which was his way of saying that Sam was staying right where he was whether he liked it or not.
For once, Sam didn't care enough to object - it was too late in the day to get started on their next job, anyway; he could handle sitting still for as long as it took to make Dean feel like he'd done his due diligence for Sam's health.
It was a good twenty minutes or so later that Dean roused himself. 'If all you're going to do is catch up on your beauty sleep,' he said, as though cuddle time had been Sam's idea, 'I'm blowing this popsicle stand.'
"Wait, your collar," Sam said, turning towards his bag.
'Oh come on, Sammy!' Dean protested, giving a little whine for added effect. 'It's not like I'm going to get lost.'
"Dean," Sam said, in his best no-fucking-way voice. "I am not going to bail you out of the pound again. Come here."
'Yes, you would,' Dean muttered, but sat obediently still while Sam retrieved Dean's collar and buckled the heavy leather around his neck. The tags jingled as Dean shrugged it to a more comfortable position and the faint light still streaming through the windows winked off the carved letters that spelled out Sam's name and his current cell number. Bobby's address was on the back, just in case, along with the most powerful protection charm Sam had been able to find. Dean still teased him about that one.
The thing was, no one with half a brain should look at Dean and think 'dog'. He was too large, for one, and the shape of his head was all wrong - too long, too broad. He didn't move like a dog, either: he stood too still, loped when he ran and when he grinned it was nothing less than the baring of a mouthful of very sharp, very long teeth. He asked a question by cocking his head, reacted to threats by pricking his ears forwards, laughed with his eyes rather than a lolling tongue, and pretty much the only times he ever bothered wagging his tail were when he wanted to spar or was suckering some pretty girl into giving him attention.
Luckily, most people - as Dean so eloquently put it - were frigging morons and automatically looked for a more logical explanation than 'psychic supernatural wolf'. No one expected to see a wolf wandering casually around town, after all, and there were enough dog breeds that looked like wolves for people to assume that that was what they were looking at. Dean could be good at downplaying his oddities - when he felt like it - which was usually enough to convince people that they were imagining all of the little hints that didn't quite fit with the lie they were telling themselves.
Which meant that the collar was a necessary evil, no matter how much Dean bitched about it.
'Are you done admiring me or did you need to bask in my glory for another few minutes?' Dean asked and Sam cuffed his ear before pushing himself to his feet.
"Don't go too far," he warned, though both of them knew full well that Dean wasn't about to pay him the slightest mind. "You want me to leave the door unlocked?" he asked. Dean had more ability to get out of rooms than anything without opposable thumbs should have, but he wasn't as good at getting back in without breaking the door down.
Dean flicked his ears dismissively. 'Don't bother. I'll be sure to wake you up if I need an emergency cuddle, mother.'
"Of course you will. Try not to get yourself killed," Sam said. He headed for the restroom, ignoring the insult to his manhood that Dean hurled after him.
Motel restrooms were the same the country over: cramped, dingy and generally dissatisfying. Unbothered by the state of the amenities, Sam wasted no time in stripping off his clothes and getting into the shower. The water made a brave but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at reaching a temperature higher than tepid, but Sam couldn't bring himself to care. He scrubbed off the grime of a day's travel and hauled himself out of the shower, then spent a moment in front of the mirror, assessing the damage. The cut above his eye was healing nicely and the claw marks across his ribs were all but gone. So, about as ship shape as he ever got.
The bedroom was empty when Sam emerged fifteen minutes later, one towel wrapped around his waist and the other across his shoulders.
He salted the windows and doors - it wouldn't stop Dean, for whatever reason - then dragged himself over to the bed and collapsed onto it.
The sheets were warm under him and Sam caught the faint whiff of fur, loam and winter air that meant Dean had waited here while Sam was in the shower, keeping watch and keeping the bed warm until Sam was ready to use it. Alone in the room, Sam permitted himself a small smile at that.
His brother had always been such a mother hen.
Dean was Sam's older brother.
Dean was also a wolf.
It wasn't uncomplicated.
Sam couldn't remember a time when Dean hadn't been there for him: at his side and in his head. His earliest memories were of Dean curled around him in their bed, his black fur warm and rough like raw silk under Sam's fingers while his high, childish voice murmured soothing nothings that only Sam could hear.
As a child, Sam hadn't really understood Dad's insistence that he not refer to Dean as his brother around anyone who wasn't them or Uncle Bobby. Dean very obviously wasn't a pet and he acted just like an older brother was supposed to: playing with him, tormenting him, helping him with his homework, taking care of him et cetera. And sure, brothers were supposed to be human-shaped, but Sam thought that Dean seemed like a much better brother than the ones his classmates complained about.
It took longer than perhaps it should have for Sam to start asking questions - how the hell he could have a brother who was a psychic wolf, for starters - but not even the embarrassing case of hero worship he had for Dean could keep Sam's curiosity at bay forever.
Of course, secrets were practically a Winchester institution, so wanting to know didn't automatically translate into knowing anything.
Dad and Bobby refused flat out to tell Sam where Dean had come from and Dean was so good at talking circles around the issue that it made Sam want to pull his hair out.
Eventually, Sam had stopped asking. It just wasn't worth the effort and irritation of being constantly denied. He'd still wondered, of course, but there were plenty of other things in Sam's life more worth spending his time worrying about.
Because, in a lot of ways, it didn't matter whether Dean was a wolf or not: he was just Dean. Reliable, infuriating, loyal Dean. The only constant in a life that was anything but.
Their dad came and went, as did any number of 'family friends' who looked after them while Dad was away on a hunt, but Dean was always there - whether Sam wanted him there or not, which became more and more an issue as the years passed and Dean got older and more irritating in almost equal measure. Because that's what brothers did, apparently.
Which hadn't stopped Sam from running as far away from his dad's crusade as soon as he could, in the hopes that he'd find a real life at Stanford, even when it felt like ripping off a limb to leave Dean behind. The first time he went an entire day without hearing Dean's voice nagging him in the back of his head was agonizing and very nearly enough to make him go crawling back to beg Dean again to come with him. But Dean had already refused once and Sam had his own future to think of.
So he'd thrown himself into his new life at Stanford until the pain of Dean's absence had faded into a throbbing ache in the base of his heart that was nearly easy to ignore. And, slowly but surely, Sam had built his own identity, without his brother.
Until the fire. And Jess. And teeth marks left in Sam's shirt from where Dean had dragged him out of the burning building, even though Dean should have been anywhere in the country besides Palo Alto.
Yet another secret that Sam suspected Dean would never give him an answer for.
Dean was still missing when Sam woke the next morning, feeling gummy-eyed but refreshed.
Sam pushed lightly against their bond, but he couldn't feel more than a ghost of Dean's presence in his head. It wasn't a surprise; the connection got weaker the further apart they were, and Dean got restless if he spent too much time in one place.
Still, they had to get started at some point, and Dean would be snarky at him all day if Sam ate breakfast without him.
'Come back,' Sam sent down the shining thread of light that connected Dean's consciousness to his own. Then he hauled himself out of bed and staggered for the restroom.
Dean resurfaced while Sam was out getting breakfast and was waiting for him when he got back to the motel room door, a rolled up newspaper in his mouth.
"Good doggie," Sam said, just to be an ass. He juggled the coffee tray and fast food bag into one hand so that he could unlock the door and wasn't surprised when Dean immediately dropped the newspaper on the floor so he could snap at his fingers.
"You do realize that you're literally biting the hand that feeds you, right?"
'I'll bite more than that if you don't give me breakfast,' Dean said, which in no way stopped Sam from smirking as he put their breakfast down on the table.
"Got you three bacon and egg McMuffins," he said. "And there's a grocery store around the corner where I'll pick up some roast beef for later."
Dean had never been keen on dog food and it often cost more than fast food, which said really depressing things about the quality of some people food. Sam was damn lucky that Dean didn't need to eat as much as a regular wolf did - they'd never have been able to afford it if Dean packed away a third of his body weight in a single sitting.
Dean nosed against his leg. 'Coffee,' he demanded.
"Only dog in the world that drinks coffee, I swear," Sam said, but obligingly retrieved Dean's bowl and poured the second cup of coffee into it.
'Not a dog,' Dean said. 'Also, screw you.'
Sam rolled his eyes and started in on his own breakfast.
'So,' Dean asked, a little later, after he'd polished off his coffee and two muffins. 'What are we doing here again? Because as much as I love Colorado, I kind of fucking hate Colorado.'
"A hunter friend of Bobby's passed this one on," Sam said, ignoring the second half of that with the ease of long practice. "She was working the job but had to cut out before it was finished."
'Slacker. What are we looking at here?'
"Couple of hikers have gone missing."
Dean snorted. 'It's always fucking hikers. More proof that the great outdoors is bad for you.'
"Says the wolf."
'What can I say? I'm a city boy at heart. What makes this our kind of thing? Hikers go missing all the time.'
"The usual: tents ripped open, bodies missing, vague reports of a monstrous beast in the distance. Bobby's hunter friend already did most of the legwork; she's pretty sure it's a wendigo."
'Oh, goodie,' Dean deadpanned. 'Cause that worked so well last time. This is going to be ever so much fun.'
Their last encounter with a wendigo had ended up with Dean nursing a couple of broken ribs and Sam nearly getting eaten. It hadn't been one of their finer moments.
"We know what we're up against this time," Sam said. "The flare gun in the trunk ought to be enough to deal with it."
'So does that mean you're going to be the FBI agent with a heart of gold making understanding faces during interviews while I sit in the motel twiddling my non-existent thumbs?' Dean asked. 'Because that sounds like a blast.'
"Actually," Sam said, with a touch of asperity. "I figured we'd just go in and kill the damn thing. I've got the location of its most likely hunting ground and we've got plenty of daylight left."
'Now that sounds like my kind of plan,'Dean said, teeth baring in a wide grin.
"I figured it might."
Whatever else could be said about him, there was no denying that Dean was absolutely invaluable on a hunt.
'This way,' Dean said, loping soundlessly through the brush. Sam followed along rather less silently - by wolf standards, anyway - a gun loaded with silver-tipped bullets shoved into his belt and a flare gun held at the ready.
They'd been traveling through the forest for the better part of two hours, getting incrementally further away from the normal paths. Dean had his head lifted high as he scented the air, ears pricked forward to catch the faintest hint of sound.
'Here,' Dean said abruptly. He stopped, statue-still, every inch the waiting predator.
Sam glanced around at the patch of forest they were standing in. It didn't look appreciably different from the rest of it. "Here?"
Dean nodded. 'If it's not here now, it'll be back. The whole place reeks of it.'
"Okay." He pointed to the left. "I'll take this way?"
'Gotcha,' Dean said, and all but melted into the trees in the opposite direction.
There was something odd about this, Sam couldn't help but think as he walked. Wendigos usually inhabited caves and dark places where they could store their victims, not out in the open. He trusted Dean's tracking skills completely, so if Dean said that this was the place, then this was the place. But that didn't quiet the sense of wrongness jangling down his spine.
Something out of place caught his eye and Sam paused to look at the trunk of the tree he was next to. There, burned directly into the bark, was the impression of a large clawed hand, much bigger than Sam's own. Intrigued, Sam stepped closer, reaching out to touch.
The bark was brittle under his fingers and flaked off in thin sheets that stained his skin charcoal black.
'Hey,' he said, half-turning towards where Dean had gone, but Dean wasn't listening.
'Come on, you cannibalistic son of a bitch,' Dean was murmuring, still close enough for Sam to hear him speak even when he wasn't talking directly to him. 'Come out, come out, wherever you- holy shit!'
Dean growled, a low, terrifying sound that made Sam's hackles rise in primal fear even as he ran in the direction of that sound. He dashed through the trees without an attempt at stealth and skidded to a shocked halt when he saw what Dean was squaring off against.
It sure as hell wasn't a wendigo.
The monster was a good seven feet tall and generally humanoid in shape, with fingers and toes that ended in wickedly carved claws. Its mottled skin - a gray so dark it was almost black - bulged unevenly over lumps and crevices that shifted and cracked as it moved. Its entire body looked like it had been carved out of granite, broken by vein-like fissures that glowed orange-white with liquid fire. The face wasn't much more than a craggy mass of bald, misshapen rock that looked vaguely serpentine. When it breathed, steam curled out to wreathe around its black teeth.
Well. Suddenly the flare gun didn't seem like such a great idea.
Dean was squared off against the monster, his hackles raised with open aggression, making him look nearly twice as large as usual, and his lips peeled to reveal his teeth - brilliantly, frighteningly white against black fur and pink gums. Even in the light of day, his eyes glowed a brilliant, violent green.
He looked like something out of a nightmare and it said something about Sam that the sight of Dean like this always made him feel safe.
'Really not the time for fly gathering, Sam!' Dean barked, not breaking his staring match with the thing's slitted eyes.
The monster lunged, ungainly but focused, and Dean snarled as he darted in to meet it. They collided with a heavy thud and Dean yelped in surprise when his fur started to smolder with the contact.
"Dean!" Sam dropped the useless flare gun and yanked out his gun, taking a brief moment to aim before putting a bullet right between the thing's eyes.
It did precisely fuck all.
"Well shit," Sam found himself saying, when the monster didn't so much as reel with the impact. It did, however, turn its attention away from Dean and towards Sam. Which wasn't exactly the kind of improvement that Sam had been hoping for.
It took a step forward and Dean darted between it and Sam, growling savagely. 'Could use a good idea round about now, Encyclopedia Brown!'
"I don't even know what it is!" Sam protested. More tree trunks got crisped by the thing's dragging hands; Sam was distantly pleased that its touch somehow managed to char things without setting them ablaze. He really wasn't keen on dealing with a forest fire right now. "It's a fire creature of some sort. We could douse it?" he tried.
'Except we haven't got a lake.'
"You think of something then!" Sam yanked free the knife in his boot, even though he doubted that it was possible for him to get close enough to use it without getting himself immolated. This one was all on Dean.
The monster didn't quite seem to know what to do with the fact that Dean was in its way; it lumbered clumsily forwards, which Dean had been expecting. He dodged one swinging fist and snapped at its leg to keep it at bay. Sam had to admit that it was a nice change to be facing an enemy that wasn't fast, for once.
A heavy sigh at the back of Sam's head. 'You are such a pain in my ass. You brought the holy water, right?'
Sam's hand went to his pocket. "Yeah, but it won't do a lot to something that siz-"
Dean snarled and sprang forward, darting past the thing's reaching arms, and clamping his jaws down hard on the meaty part of its thigh. Sharp teeth sank in deep and the monster roared in pain, struggling to escape Dean's grip.
Sam could have told it that it was useless. He had watched Dean tear apart all manner of supernatural creatures apart with his teeth and claws, powerful things, things that should never have been harmed by them.
It was a baffling but welcome advantage in battle.
The smell of burning fur filled the air but Dean refused to back down; his teeth snapped and his claws flashed over and over again, ruthless and focused. Great gaping rents appeared in the monster's rock-strong skin, revealing innards that glowed liquid hot and red.
The monster apparently didn't have enough brain cells to rub together to realize the way the tide was going, and continued flailing at Dean instead of trying to get away. Sam choked on a throttled yell when Dean clamped his jaws around the thing's shoulder and got a raking fist of sharp claws down his side in response.
"Dean!" Sam yelled. He lunged in and slashed at the thing's right leg, ignoring the heat he could feel rising off it.
The blade barely left a scratch, but it distracted the monster long enough to give Dean an opening.
Strong jaw clamped down on the monster's neck, crunching through skin as Dean tore a great chunk of flesh clean away.
'Now!' he snapped, and Sam mentally crossed his fingers as he darted in and flung the entire contents of the flask at the gaping hole in the thing's neck.
The effect was instantaneous.
The thing let out a bloodcurdling shriek and collapsed, the ground burning black beneath it. It shuddered once, then stilled, and Sam watched in fascinated horror as the entire monster crumbled to pieces, turning to ash and flaked-off scales of black char.
The noises of the forest reasserted themselves into the stunned silence, and Sam turned away from the gruesome spectacle when Dean padded up to him, limping just slightly.
"Okay?" he asked.
Dean jerked his head in acknowledgement. 'What. The fuck. Was that?'
Sam stared down at the smouldering pile of embers that had just been a monster. "I have no freaking clue."
Sam forced Dean to let him tend to his injuries before they did anything else, which Dean whined about, as usual. Dean always healed unnaturally quickly, but Sam wasn't about to take chances. Dean was reckless enough without adding poor medical attention to the mix. Dean's singed fur had fared surprisingly well, all things considered, though he was still muttering under his breath about the fact that he looked like he had mange when they piled into the car and started the trip back into town.
"You look fine, Dean, stop being such a princess." Sam glanced over at Dean, who was staring right back at him, his tail lashing against the seat with a violent sort of satisfaction. "We need to figure out what that thing was. Where it came from."
'How about you do that and I strangle the fucker who thought it was a goddamn wendigo,' Dean said, sounding quite pleased with this plan. 'Seriously, did no one notice the freaking handprints?'
"Somehow, I don't think anybody was looking for evidence of flaming dinosaurs, Dean."
'Is that what that thing was? Because that would be awesome.'
Sam rolled his eyes, smiling a little despite himself. "I think dinosaurs in the twenty-first century are outside even our definition of reality."
'You live to ruin my fun, don't you?'
"Yes," Sam deadpanned. "That is exactly what I do."
'You are a miserable excuse for a biped. So where to next? We haven't been to Montana for a while.'
Sam sighed. "I'm serious, Dean. We need to know what we're dealing with. I've never seen anything like that thing."
'You think it's some kind of spirit god, or something?'
"Maybe," Sam said dubiously. "Doesn't make much sense that we've never come across one before, though. And it didn't look much like a forest spirit, did it?"
Dean huffed and lay down on the seat, ears pricked forward attentively. 'So I guess this means that you're going to barricade yourself in the library for the rest of the day?'
"I don't see that I've got much choice. Where do you want me to leave you?"
The library was about the only place they couldn't sneak Dean into, if only because Sam couldn't claim to need a seeing eye dog when he was reading. Dean always whined about being left outside, even though Sam knew the research was Dean's least favourite part of the job. Sam thought it was probably the enforced distance, for some unfathomable reason.
He'd long since given up trying to understand how Dean's mind worked.
'Outside the building's fine,' Dean said.
"Collar," Sam reminded him
Dean flicked his ears dismissively. 'Yeah, yeah. Just call when you're done, research monkey. And don't take too long.'
Sam leaned over to cuff him around the ear, and Dean barked out an amused laugh.
An hour and several too-large cups of coffee later, Sam had an answer.
'Packing up now,' he said to Dean. He collected the sheaves of photocopies he'd made and left the building, breathing a sigh of relief at the gust of fresh air.
Dean was waiting on the sidewalk outside the door, somehow managing to radiate impatience while staying completely still.
'About time. You read every book in the place? What'd you find?'
Sam started to answer, then thought about the dual facts that they were standing in the middle of the street having this conversation and that breakfast had been far too long ago for his stomach's liking.
"Come on," he said instead, starting down the sidewalk to the Impala. "There's a diner around the corner. I'll explain while we eat."
"It's called a cherufe," he told Dean, once they were both settled, him in the booth and Dean at his feet. Sam had his Bluetooth hooked over one ear, his standard method of talking to Dean in public without looking like a lunatic. "It's a creature made of living rock that's supposed to live in volcanoes and devour virgin sacrifices. There are some connections to dragon mythology, obviously. It's a myth from Chile."
'Chile?' Dean repeated. 'The fuck is it doing here?'
Sam spread his hands helplessly. "Imported religious cult? Some sort of summoning spell? I've been trying to research the area, see if there's any history of strange magma lizards eating people,-"
'Can't imagine that came up with a lot of Google hits.'
"-but most of their city records aren't accessible online," Sam finished, ignoring him.
'Gee, now there's a shocker,' Dean said dryly. 'Imagine, a little Podunk town in Nowheresville, Colorado not having their archives backed up online.'
"Shut up," Sam said, just as the waitress came over with a chicken salad for Sam and a chopped up hamburger patty for Dean. Dean preferred them with all the trimmings, but Sam wasn't about to suffer the 'you're a bad dog owner' conversation just because Dean wanted ketchup.
"I'm heading over to city hall after this," Sam continued, after a brief silence as they tucked into their food. "See what I can get out of their archives." He wasn't surprised by the exasperated huff that Dean gave him in response.
'Can't we just chalk this one up as a Winchester win and go do something more fun? Like get run over by a train?'
"Dean," Sam said, a little testily, but Dean wasn't listening to him anymore.
Another customer had walked in with a yappy little purse dog while they were eating. Dean was staring at it fixedly.
"Dean," Sam said again, under his breath. "Stop it."
The yappy dog whimpered and ducked away from Dean's stare. Its owner started cluing into the fact that something was wrong about the time that the dog tried to bury itself into her handbag, making sounds like it was having its intestines pulled out.
Because one of the many side effects of being a supernatural wolf was that Dean could scare the ever-loving shit out of domestic animals just by staring at them. Which Dean, of course, thought was hilarious.
Sam hurriedly threw down enough money to cover his meal and grabbed Dean by the collar. "We're leaving," he growled, and dragged Dean out.
Dean gave in without much urging, which was good because it was all but impossible to move him by force when he was being obstinate. He threw a smug look at the other dog on their way out.
"I cannot believe you," Sam hissed, as they marched back to the Impala. "Would it kill you to pretend to be a normal dog once in a while?"
'That smug fucker had it coming,' Dean said, sounding thoroughly pleased with himself. 'And who said I did anything, huh? Maybe he just had a nervous disposition.'
"You do realize that you sound about five years old, right? And it's not like we don't both know that you don't need to 'do' anything to be a complete menace."
'Whatever. You might as well leave me here,' he added, as Sam went to unlock the car door. 'I'll scope out the town while you're getting your geek on. See if there's anything our kind of weird going on.'
"Let me know if you find anything," Sam said, mostly redundantly. This sort of thing was old hat for them, after all.
As he slid into the driver's seat, trying to remember how to get to City Hall, Sam could only hope that at least one of them found something.
"This makes no sense," Sam said hours later, staring at the useless spread of notes and printouts in front of him. He'd been forced to abandon City Hall when they'd closed for the night, and was now camped out in their motel room with the fruit of his labours.
All of which were absolutely no help whatsoever.
"Monsters don't just appear out of midair," Sam said, mostly for the comfort of hearing it aloud. "There has to be something in here."
But there wasn't. No history of unusual deaths. No obvious - or less-than-obvious - ties to Chilean culture. No suspicious animal warnings in the local area, for Christ's sake.
This was the point where he could have used Dean's input, as someone to bounce ideas off if nothing else, but Dean still hadn't come back even though it had been hours since Sam had let him loose outside the diner. Sam had given him a quick buzz around dinnertime, but all he'd received back was a disgruntled touch of 'stop worrying, Sammy' and a prickling curiosity that meant Dean thought he was on to something. Which had made Sam press for an explanation, only to have Dean ignore him.
If it turned out that Dean had just been chasing tail somewhere, Sam was going to kick his ass.
Sam cast a last, despairing glance at the explosion of paper on the table before concluding that there wasn't anything new to find. He heaved a sigh and stood, some vague idea of watching TV filling his mind. It wasn't like he had anything better to do until Dean got back and they could figure out where to go from here.
Of course, he'd hardly settled on a rerun of CSI when Dean's presence in his head got louder, more insistent.
'Come here,' it said, more a feeling than words at this distance.
'Wait for me,' Sam sent back, shutting off the TV and snagging his jacket off the peg near the door. 'Don't do anything stupid.'
Dean thought something irritable and vulgar in his general direction, which made Sam shake his head.
The steady pulse of Dean's - increasingly impatient - presence at the other end of their bond led Sam right to the edge of town. He spared a hope that Dean hadn't gone tromping around the forest in the dark.
Luckily, the forest was still a good mile off when Dean's pull veered off at an oblique angle to the road, and Sam pulled the car over. All he was getting from Dean was irritation and curiosity, no aggression, so whatever had his attention probably wasn't trying to eat his face, at least. Which didn't stop Sam from pulling a shotgun and a fresh flask of holy water out of the trunk, but that was because he wasn't an idiot.
There was no warning.
One minute, Sam was slamming the trunk closed and the next a bolt of pain shot through his brain and he was digging his fingers into cold grass before he'd even realized that he'd fallen to his knees. His head was a swirl of panic and - horrifyingly - fear, and Sam knew immediately that none of it belonged to him.
The emotional transference ended abruptly, which made Sam's pulse spike in sudden panic.
"Jesus fuck," Sam gasped. And then inside his head, 'Dean?'
There was no answer, which was more than enough to make Sam freak the fuck out. Dean always answered and, even if he didn't, it had always been impossible to erase the weight of his presence somewhere in the back of Sam's head where he hardly noticed. Even at Stanford, Sam had never been able to escape every trace of Dean's presence. But now there was nothing.
For the first time in his life, Sam was entirely alone in his head and it was terrifying.
"Dean," he slurred, the shocky aftereffects of Dean's emotions rendering his tongue awkward and his limbs sluggish. Shoving the pain away, Sam forced himself upright and staggered in the direction he'd last felt Dean. He was more than aware that he was going off half-cocked at best, but nothing mattered right now besides finding Dean.
He didn't know how long he walked, just that it felt like an eternity had passed before he wandered right into trouble.
Sam rounded a copse of trees and staggered back immediately when he realized that there was someone - something - lying on the ground in the middle of a magic circle, thrashing against some invisible restraint that Sam couldn't see.
Werewolf, Sam's mind supplied automatically, but he was rejecting the thought before it had even fully formed. Transformed werewolves looked essentially human, albeit rather pointier, but this looked more like the half-man half-wolf combo of shitty pop culture movies.
Its head was human, from what Sam could see, except for the pair of tufted ears poking up through a shaggy head of dark hair. The body was likewise normal, aside from the tail. The tail was decidedly not part of the standard human package. It hung limply against the back of the creature's thighs, a long spill of inky black fur that was impossibly familiar.
Cautiously, Sam edged closer, blinking against the light from the magic circle. Dark shadows twined across pale skin, thickly enough to make it hard to make out any individual features. The creature was still struggling, but weakly, and Sam realized that the shadows were moving, twining tighter and tighter with every passing moment. They weren't shadows at all but markings, etched right into the skin.
As Sam watched, more darkness coiled up the back of the creature's neck and its head snapped back on a blood chilling howl; a mouthful of wickedly sharp teeth flashed in the darkness, along with the glint of bright eyes.
Which should have been another tick in the werewolf column, but they were green, not yellow. Green like glass and the ocean. Green like Dean's eyes.
And it was impossible, there wasn't any way it could be possible, but since when anything in Sam's entire goddamn life made any sense anyway?
Sam didn't think before scoring a deep groove through the outside edge of the magic circle with his foot. The faint light of the spell flicked out of existence and the person in the middle shuddered with open relief when the magic stopped crawling across his skin.
Sam stepped carefully closer, shotgun raised. "Dean?" he called.
The half-man blinked at him and, in a voice that Sam had only ever heard inside his head, mumbled, "Sammy?"
Then its eyes rolled back in its head and it slumped to the ground, unconscious.
"Well," Sam said, in the absence of anything better to say. "This is new."
"…turned into a human!" Sam all-but-shouted into the phone, fighting the hysteria clawing up the back of his throat. "With wolf ears! And a tail! What am I supposed to do?"
"Calm the hell down, first of all," Bobby said. "Now you're sure it's Dean?"
Sam nodded. "Absolutely. I know Dean's voice. And I've never heard of a supernatural creature that can mimic a sound that it's never heard."
Bobby made a thoughtful sound. "He said anything useful?"
"Er," Sam said, eyes darting towards the motionless body on the motel bed before skittering nervously away. "He's, um, still unconscious."
"Hmm," Bobby said. "Guess changing species takes a lot outta a person."
"Yeah, cause that's the issue here," Sam said, laying the sarcasm on thick. He huffed out a sound that was only slightly hysterical. "What am I supposed to do with him, Bobby? I can't take him out in public like this! He's got a tail for God's sake!"
Bobby sighed. "You bring him here, idjit, what do you think? We'll see if we can reverse the spell. Now, do you have any info on the spell that hit him?"
Sam shook his head. "I've never seen anything like it. I took a picture of the magic circle, though," he offered. Honestly, Sam was lucky he'd remembered to do that much amid the panic of trying to drag Dean out of it and back to the Impala before whoever was responsible for casting it showed up. "I'll email it to you."
"I'll start checking my library. You get him here as soon as you can, y'hear me?"
"Got it," Sam said. "Thanks, Bobby."
Bobby grumbled wordlessly and hung up, which was typical of him when he thought Sam was being an idiot.
Sam breathed out a shaky sigh and sank into the chair at the desk. With nothing to distract him, he could no longer resist the urge to stare at the body on the bed.
Dean was sprawled belly-down, out cold. His ears twitched every now and then in a way that would have been completely familiar if not for the very human body they were attached to. Sam found himself tracing the lines of human-Dean's face with his eyes, trying to see something lupine in them, something he recognized.
But the only things that the body on the bed had in common with Sam's Dean were the tail and ears; the rest of him just looked foreign.
The lack of similarity wasn't helped by the markings on Dean's skin. Though Sam had expected them to vanish when he'd broken the spell, the harsh light of the motel room told a different story entirely.
An intricate whorl of tattoos covered every inch of Dean's skin, making him look more like a djinn than a person. The lines were blue and oddly graceful - some strange mix of Celtic and Native American symbolism that Sam couldn't even begin to try and parse. A brush of Sam's fingers against the marks had been enough to determine that they were flush against the skin, but warm to the touch.
Human Dean wasn't all that much heavier than wolf Dean was usually, Sam had noticed with some surprise, and he'd learned while wrestling Dean into and out of the Impala that his new body was thick with corded muscle. He had a scattering of freckles across his shoulders and his hands were broad, uncalloused.
"Ngh," Dean said, fingers twitching against the bedspread.
Sam straightened. "Dean?" he said, feeling unaccountably nervous.
Dean made another garbled sound of protest and shifted enough that Sam could see his eyes peeking at him over the fall of his forearm. "Sam?" he asked, then paused, ears flattening to his scalp with open confusion. A frown flicked across his face, furrowing his brow and pinching the edges of his mouth in a way that was completely human.
Dean's eyes tracked deliberately along the slump of his own arm, watching his fingers wiggle in time with the flex of his muscles. They continued to his shoulder and he rocked onto his side so that he could look down the tattooed length of his new body.
There was a long moment of silence.
He looked up at Sam. "Uh," he said, which Sam thought actually summed up the situation fairly well.
"You fell into some kind of magic circle and it turned you into a biped," Sam said, leaning back against the wall with all the nonchalance he could muster. "Congratulations, you've been upgraded to demi-human."
"Demi?" Dean asked.
Sam looked pointedly at Dean's tail, which was kind of awkward, considering that it was attached to Dean's very human, very naked ass. Dean followed Sam's gesture and watched his tail thump against the bed in response to his mood. "Oh."
"Yeah. Ears too."
Dean swallowed hard. "I can't feel you," he said, with a desperation scrawled baldly across his face that Sam was sure he didn't know how to hide.
"I know," Sam said, doing his best to sound calm. He'd had an entirely silent drive back to the motel during which to have his own freak out; he supposed it was Dean's turn.
Dean's jaw tightened and he looked down at the bed for a long moment. "What are we doing about it?" he asked finally, his voice ruthlessly controlled.
"I called Bobby," Sam said. "He's looking for a reversal spell. We'll drive up there tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Dean repeated, with a definite whine.
"Yes, tomorrow. It's like 3 o'clock in the morning, Dean, and I'm not making that drive without getting at least a few hours of sleep. It can wait-"
"What do you mean 'it can wait'?" Dean demanded, spreading his arms wide. "Sam, look at me! I can't stay like this!"
"And whose fault is that?" Sam asked, with irritation of his own. "The hell were you thinking, going off like that?"
"Our job!" Dean shot back. He sat up properly, trying to make himself look bigger as he glared back. "And I don't really think now is a fair time to be reaming me out, what with the whole mystery transformation thing."
"I was right there, Dean! Would it have killed you to wait five more minutes?"
"You were taking too long," Dean said, with a defensive sniff. "There was something weird on the air. I wanted to check it out."
"So you wandered right into a magic circle?" Sam snorted. "Great plan there."
"Get off my ass already, Sam." Dean struggled to his feet and nearly ended up on his face when his knees promptly buckled.
"Jesus, Dean," Sam said, grabbing for Dean's arms and wrestling him upright. The body underneath his hands was completely unfamiliar and Sam felt a sudden wave of disconnect. When was the last time he'd been this close to a stranger?
Dean looked up at him and his face unfamiliar immediately creased with irritation. "You're taller than me? Lame. I call a do-over."
And just like that, he was Sam's pain in the ass older brother again.
"Try pricking your ears up," Sam suggested. "That ought to make up the difference. I'm letting you go now. Try not to fall over again."
"Bitch," Dean said. He wobbled a little when Sam stopped supporting him, but stayed upright. "Wow, this is weird. No wonder your back always hurts - this cannot be an efficient way to stand."
"That's more because of how often I get thrown into walls." The words broke around a yawn, and Sam ruefully acknowledged just how much of a bitch this day had been. "I'm going to sleep," he announced, and hesitated for only a moment before adding, "bed's probably big enough for both of us if you're still tired."
"Maybe later," Dean said, without a hint of self-consciousness. "Wanna try and get used to this body."
"Okay," Sam said, and fell asleep to the steady metronome of Dean pacing in unsteady circles around the room.
The sound of the door woke him the next morning, and Sam squinted into the mid-morning light to see a stranger in oversized jeans and a hoodie walking in, carrying two cups of coffee. Sam was on his feet with a knife in his hand before his memories of the night before rushed back and reminded him that he knew that strange, tattooed face.
"Chill, dude," Dean said, setting one cup down on the table. "It's just me. Nice reflexes though."
"Dean? The hell are you doing?"
Dean rolled his eyes and Sam had the vaguely hysterical thought that he might have practiced that in the mirror until he got it right. "Can't say I think much of your fancy college education. I was getting coffee." He took a noisy slurp and made a thoughtful face. "Different. But not bad."
"You went outside like that? Are you insane?!"
"Unbunch your panties, Francis. No one noticed." He gestured at his outfit. "Everything wolfy is hidden. Totally normal."
Sam snorted. "Yeah, because everyone's head looks like that under a hood. And your tail's lashing inside your pant leg." He shook his head. "First the spell circle and now you're just daring someone to take a photo of the freaking wolfman. Can't you be sensible for one minute?"
"Well, this is an absolutely riveting catalogue of reasons why I make terrible life choices, but I'm starving and I can't wait to find out what bacon tastes like now." He snagged Sam's keys off the desk and flashed him a decidedly wolfish grin. "Can I drive?"
"What?" Sam said. "Oh, no no no, you're not going anywhere looking like that. You'll start a riot."
Dean's breath escaped in a growl. "Nobody noticed! People are dumb, Sam. And I can kind of forgive them for it, if all of you have such shitty senses," he added, rubbing at his nose as though that could make it work better.
"You may not have noticed, Dean, but the hoodie isn't helping and humans don't generally have tails, wolf ears or full-body tattoos."
"That last one is kind of debatable," Dean pointed out.
"The point," Sam said, teeth gritted. "Is that there's no way you can go out to a diner without someone crying blue murder. So shut it."
Dean huffed, ears flattening into a pout and making the shape of his hood even stranger. "Who pissed in your cheerios? Cause I'm pretty damn sure it wasn't me, this time."
Sam took a deep, calming breath. "Look," he said. "I'll get you something to eat, okay? And I'm sorry if you're going stir crazy, but the last thing we need right now is attention. The person who cast that spell is probably looking for you. Just lay low for now and when we get to Bobby's you can wander around to your heart's content. Okay?"
"Fine. But only if you stop somewhere to get me clothes that actually fit a size other than redwood. And no, that's not a request. No way I'm going to look like a reject from a rummage sale until this gets fixed."
Sam sighed heavily, but he had to admit that Dean had a point. If they had to get anywhere at speed - which, given this was Sam's life, was almost certainly going to happen - Dean needed clothes that weren't going to trip him up. "I'll pick something up."
"Good. And one more thing."
Sam's mouth tightened in impatience. "What now?"
Dean gestured at the knife Sam still had clutched in his hand. "You need to cut my hair."
"What? Me? Why?"
"Because I'm not walking around looking like a member of a hair metal band. One sentient hairdo is more than enough between us."
"I think I liked you better when you were unconscious," Sam told him.
Dean just grinned. Because he was a jackass. Who needed a haircut, apparently.
"How is it," Dean asked, almost conversationally, " that you can gank a monster at fifty paces but you can't manage a fucking haircut?"
"You're the one who wanted one so bad," Sam said, only a little petulantly. He watched Dean giving his reflection in the mirror a critical once-over and wondered what the big deal was. So what if the ends were a little ragged? Sam dared anyone else to manage an even cut with a hunting knife, especially when there was a massive pair of ears in the way.
Dean combed his hands through his hair. "That was before I knew that I'd look like a hedge afterwards."
"Stop being such a girl," Sam said. "It's not like anyone's going to see you, remember?"
Dean pouted at him, ears flicking back sadly. "I can't believe you're depriving the world of this handsome face."
"I hate you so much. You wait here while I get food and some clothes. We'll leave tonight - less chance of being seen."
"No plaid!" Dean said, and Sam was absolutely going to bring him back nothing but plaid.
"Please don't get carted off to some top secret government facility or join the circus or anything while I'm gone," Sam said. The sad part was, he was only half-kidding. It was never a good idea to underestimate just how much shit Dean could get himself into.
Sam came back with lunch and clothing that Dean bitched about enthusiastically but at least mostly fit. They had to cut a hole in the seat of his jeans for his tail, which was for awkward affair that Sam never wanted to have to deal with again. Dean napped through most of the afternoon, body curling in on itself in a vague approximation of the way he usually slept. It looked terribly uncomfortable, but it didn't seem to be affecting Dean's sleep any so Sam left him to it.
They got on the road just after nine and Sam forced himself to drive at a reasonable pace. This seemed like an even worse time than usual to get pulled over for speeding.
Despite Dean's best efforts, Sam refused to let him drive, but he settled in before long, tail thumping against the seat in time with 'The Best of Bad Company'. Sam had never quite bought Dean's claim that shotgun got to pick the music, but it beat listening to Dean whine and bitch about Sam's taste in music for hours at a time.
It was a ten hour drive to Bobby's, which was a long slog to make in one go, but Sam didn't care too much for stopping in this situation. Dean fell asleep again about six hours in and Sam couldn't help but cast sidelong glances at Dean's slack face, still trying to reconcile this not-man with his brother. It was undoubtedly him, but that didn't make it any less weird.
The silence in Sam's head was deafening. He turned up the music and kept driving.
Dean started awake just as they pulled onto Bobby's property, ears perking and tail lashing with a panic that eased immediately when he looked over to find Sam looking back.
"We there?" Dean asked, his voice rusty from sleep.
"Yeah," Sam said, his own voice thick with fatigue. Driving all night sucked. A glance towards the house revealed that Bobby had come out onto the porch and was waiting for them, grim-faced. The grin Sam offered Dean was a little tight. "You ready for this?"
Dean's shoulders squared. "Yeah," he said, and was out of the car almost before Sam had turned it off.
Bobby was silent as he watched them approach, though Sam could see the complicated mix of shock, exasperation and something that looked almost sad that flicked across his face.
Dean came to a stop a few feet away. "Hey, Bobby," he said, in a tone of voice that Sam would have been tempted to call shy if he'd thought that Dean even knew what that meant.
To Sam's surprise, Bobby didn't immediately douse Dean with holy water or hand him a silver knife.
"Damn, boy," he said instead, with whole layers of meaning that Sam couldn't even begin to parse. "What sort of mess have you got yourself into this time?"
The cocky grin that Dean offered in return was already a familiar sight. "You know me, Bobby. There's always more trouble to get into."
Bobby humphed. "God save me from crazy Winchesters." He eyeballed Sam. "And don't think I'm not counting you in that, Sam."
"Me?" Sam protested. "He's the one who ran off on his own."
"And you're the one who looks like he's about to keel over dead from exhaustion. When's the last time you slept?"
"A couple of hours last night," Dean said promptly, ignoring the stink eye Sam sent him. "But we'd just come straight off another hunt before that."
"That's what I thought. Come on," he said to Sam. "You're going right upstairs and I don't want to see hide nor hair of you until you've had some rest."
"Is just fine. He can take care of himself. Now move your ass."
And Sam would have protested more, except Dean chose that moment to put his hands on Sam's shoulders and steer him forcibly into the house, then up the stairs to the bedroom Bobby had set aside for them when Sam was a kid.
"Snitch," Sam muttered under his breath, and got to hear Dean chuckle for the first time. It was kind of a nice sound.
Their room was just as they'd left it: the too-small bed neatly made and the massive, threadbare pillow that Dean usually slept in its normal place by the window. Sam had the inane thought that they were going to have to sleep in shifts; he barely fit on that bed these days - no way was there room for Dean too.
"Alright, Sammy," Dean said, easing him down onto the mattress. "Into bed."
"I can do it," Sam said, when Dean crouched down to unlace his boots.
"That's nice," Dean said. His fingers were clumsy but careful as he pulled free the laces and pulled them off. "Now go to sleep."
"Bossy," Sam told him, and got a smack on the knee for it.
"God knows you need someone looking after you." Dean shoved him none too gently down onto his back. "Sleep. I will knock you out if I have to."
Sam grumbled at him, but he had to admit that, now that he was lying down, sleep sounded like a great idea.
He heard a quiet "G'night, Sammy," which was probably the most familiar part of this entire situation. He couldn't help a quiet sigh of contentment as he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
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