Hunger had brought him this far. He'd not been born with it. He'd not been so fortunate as that, but he'd found ways of igniting hunger within himself. Of forcing himself to consume. 'A growing boy needs to eat.' His mother had told him as much, and he lived now by those words. Her last words.
Because he might have come from her womb, but he was his father's child, and he was growing, still growing. His mortal shell had reached its limitations, and the truth of his bloodline was there, beneath the surface: he needed to devour.
His last…acquisition had done nothing to help chip away this human shell, but the next would be full of what he needed. Full of life. For now, though, he could continue his regiment with the warm meal waiting for him in the basement.
Black curves outlined in white light, scalding to the touch, and all his. Dean could ignore the slight whine of her heavy door opening and the stifling humid heat caught inside, so long as she welcomed him home with a roar. It was always a comfort, having his baby waiting for him. He'd not had enough time with her lately, what with the whole trip to Purgatory getting in the way, and the douche-nozzle Leviathans forcing him to store her for a turn. But there she was, always loyal and willing to take him back.
Such a comment, though, would lead to side-eye from Sam, some reading-between-the-lines about said-loyalty that would push them straight into an argument they'd already had. So, instead, Dean forced his focus back on the job and what they'd seen in the building behind them. It was easy to pretend that this was just like old times.
"People, man," Sam muttered, obviously on the same track.
Dean shook his head, disgusted, but he knew Sam read the agreement in his expression as they both sunk down into the Impala. Dean could feel his stomach settle as he relaxed. On instinct, he reached up as soon as Baby rumbled to life and loosened the tie around his neck, as if playing the part of a Suit was what had put him on edge instead of the sight of the corpse. And maybe the gesture wasn't entirely a lie. He'd felt more than a bit out of place since returning to the real world.
Dean put the car in reverse and gave Sam a sideways glance, more than ready to fill his head with thoughts of anything other than the too-vivid image they were leaving behind. "Is it wrong that I'm still a little hungry?"
Sam's nose wrinkled, but the huff of amusement that followed was enough to cut the tense air.
Dean chuckled. If it sounded a bit forced, so be it. "I know you had your heart set on it, but I think we should go with anything but Mamma Rosa's burrito shack if I'm going to be stuck in the car with you all night."
"I didn't want to eat at-" Sam's voice cut off, as if he'd caught himself taking the bait, and he muttered, "Screw you." He frowned, scratching at the back of his neck. "I guess this was a bust."
So much for changing the subject. Dean shrugged the comment off. "Hey, I thought it was our kind of gig too, or I wouldn't have hauled ass to friggin' Tennessee of all places. Even the locals thought it was a weird one."
Until they'd examined the knife marks left in the bones and cartilage, until they'd realized the work was far too precise to belong to something with sharp claws and teeth. Dean hated the fact that he didn't feel any of the things he should have felt, any of the things a normal person would have felt, when he saw the skinned, bloodless cadaver laying on the examination table. That his first reaction was to piss off the coroner by asking if it was found riding a skinned horse. He really, really should leave the museum jokes to Sammy, he'd mentally noted. The Buffalo Bill one would have been more his speed.
Normal people didn't stare at carved away cheeks and wonder why they were taken with the skin. Granted, normal people didn't look for signs of witchcraft and supernatural creatures, either. But, that wasn't what made Dean hate himself just a little. What made him sick was that he'd been glad to see it. Glad it wasn't a floater. Glad it wasn't molded and bloated. Glad the body didn't have much of a chance to decay before it was found. He hated that he'd seen worse.
It wasn't until Sam had pulled him aside and agreed with the coroner, that a person with at least a basic knowledge of anatomy had removed the skin and neither of them could think of a spell that required those particular parts, that Dean's stomach twisted into knots.
People, man. Yeah, those were the ones that got to him every time. Why couldn't monsters just be monsters?
"So we're agreeing on this: garden variety psycho?" Dean asked aloud.
Sam sighed, eyes downcast. "Likely. The organs taken weren't the ones commonly used in witchcraft, and if someone had been collecting parts, they did a horrible job. All the damage in the muscles seem to point toward pieces being removed in small strips."
"Jesus, guess we can rule out making a body suit, too?"
Sam ignored the comment. "The removal was so clean though. If they'd found the skin instead of the body, I'd have thought it was a shifter … I'm still going to put in some research, check all our bases, since we came this far. We've already got a room for the night."
"Because why not stay in Earth's ass-crack another day?" Dean replied, wiping a trail of sweat off his forehead. Unseasonably warm and humid; thanks, Dan-the-Weather-Man, didn't notice. "So, what are you thinking? Drug cartel?"
"The teeth were still intact. Would have wanted to slow down the ID on the victim if it was drug related. Maybe gang?"
Dean snorted. "Doesn't look like that sort of town, but then again, this doesn't look like the sort of place where skinned bodies pop up at the city park either. Which brings us back to psycho? Unless your gut was right and shifters have a completely different idea of streaking."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Back to psycho," he echoed. "But we need to make sure. Plus we barely know anything about the victim."
"Dude worked for a local insurance branch, was single, loved animals. What more is there to know?" At Sam's glare, Dean relented. "Fine. Let's stay the night. See if the insurance salesman had a skin-peeling kink in his closet. But we're still skipping the burritos."
Sam's huff was the intended reaction, and Dean smirked a bit at it, hoping his unease didn't show on his face. He glanced in the rearview mirror, but he couldn't see the reason why the hair on the back on his neck was standing. He could have sworn that someone was watching him.
She'd slid off the scorching hot seat of her Triumph and taken approximately two steps when she'd spotted the Impala, just a block down and parked in front of her next destination, the county medical examiner's office. Braeden was glad instinct had kicked in before rationality, because if she'd had any time to think, she would have reasoned that one classic car didn't equal a pair of hunters scoping out the same dead body she was looking to find. So much for that logic. Thankfully, she'd slid into the shaded side of a neighboring building, helmet still in hand, a split second before the glass door had opened and two tall men had walked out.
Back against brick, she waited, giving her bike and the hidden weapons in her saddlebag a longing look. Her ride, she knew, wasn't as familiar to her particular circle of "peers." After a second, she chanced a glance, seeing the two men disappear into the car. They sat there a few long moments, talking.
Braeden took a shallow breath but it did nothing for the thundering rattle in her chest. Normally it wouldn't have bothered her, seeing hunters on a case. After all, her mercenary work in the past had her side-by-side with this type on a weekly basis. But this was not a normal situation.
"Just my luck," she whispered. Then, with a wince, she revised the comment. "Just his luck."
Any other time, if she'd run across the famed Winchester brothers, she would have approached the situation with curiosity or high-tailed in the opposite direction if there wasn't a job on the line, but at the moment, she found herself frozen in place. She couldn't just leave knowing that the latest victim might be tied to Derek's disappearance.
She had to find Derek. If he was still alive. And if he wasn't…Well, she needed to know one way another, and if she wanted to pretend that it was for the sake of the pack he left behind in Beacon Hills and not because he was the only man who'd proved a decent distraction in recent years, that was her own business.
Braeden pressed her head against the wall, scowling to herself. She wasn't sure who she was angrier at, herself for leaving to find the Desert Wolf, or Derek for taking the out she gave him.
I should never have left him alone. If I'd asked for his help, he wouldn't have stayed in some hole-the-wall town, pretending to be normal. Idiot.
It didn't really matter, though, who was to blame for their last face-to-face. What mattered was Derek was gone, and she needed to remedy that in a hurry. When she'd picked up the clue that led her to this town, she'd hoped there wouldn't be any hunters able to follow the creature's tracks, and she hadn't anticipated that anyone might have already beaten her to the punch.
Still. The Winchesters had a reputation, or they did, before they seemed to fall off the map. Multiple reputations, actually. On the one hand, they seemed to leave a trail of blood wherever they went. On the other, they had people, good people, who vouched for them. Said they were fair. Decent guys. Not just good at hunting. Which meant there was a chance in Hell they might hear her out before deciding their hunt needed to involve wolfs-bane.
Already regretting the action, she stepped out from behind the wall, pushing her helmet down over her long black hair. The Impala was making a turn out of eyeshot, but she'd be able to track them.
"Hold on, Derek," she said.
She hoped to God that she was betting on the right rumors being true.
It comes back.
It comes back.
Derek doesn't want his eyes to open. He wants to pretend he's still out, but his brain is moving slower than his instinct and the voice seems so loud after he's spent most of his day unconscious or listening to the creak of the old house, the soft footsteps on the floor above, the drip of his blood onto the floor.
The light above is probably dull to humans, but it's too bright for Derek. He flinches, then grimaces as he becomes fully awake to his surroundings. So long down here, and yet the smell was always a fresh assault on his nostrils. The cement floor held on to the decay. He moved his head to the side, as he always did, as if he could press his nose into his shoulder, but it only served to send a fresh shock of pain through his damaged arms. He didn't have to look up to see how horrible his wrists looked, tendrils of black bleeding into the cuts the brutal manacles left behind. The wolfsbane his captor was using might have been too mild to kill him, but it was enough to keep Derek from shifting.
The monster didn't seem bothered by the smell or the sight of him.
"Bit by bit," it said, almost singing. "Bit by bit, I'll eat you up."
Derek guessed it wanted to see terror on his face; he gifted it with annoyance instead. He'd gone through all the stages by this point. Anger had always been a strong suit for him, so he'd held on to rage the first few days, then he'd tried reasoning. He wouldn't admit the fear part, even if it had shown on his face. A part of him had gone numb for a while, but when he'd circled past that phase, he'd moved straight on to frustration.
"Where's the shifter?" Derek asked.
His voice came out hard, and he almost choked on the words when he pushed them out, but it was worth the little frown that appeared on his captor's face.
"The leftovers were spoiled."
Derek hated the sound of that voice, its slight southern twang, its almost lofty lilt. It didn't sound even slightly aggressive, and, for that matter, the monster wasn't in any way monstrous looking, slim in his fine dress shirts and pressed trousers and wearing a bright white grin. He looked like a small town politician, young and convincing. The name he'd given, as if making polite introductions, was Jasper. Derek wouldn't have liked him under any circumstance.
"You killed him," Derek answered for him.
"He died. Honestly, I thought he'd be a bit more … durable."
Derek closed his eyes and wished he hadn't. He could see it even clearer behind his eyelids, what the monster had done to the shifter. Peeled him, like fruit, then complained that the taste wasn't right. The taste.
Derek swallowed down bile, not for the first time since he'd arrived.
He blinked to awareness and tried to stifle that sudden panic clawing at his insides. He couldn't remember how many days it had been. He'd been so diligent, trying to count them, trying to measure them by visits and the little slip of sunlight or moonlight that reflected from the upstairs rooms when the door at the top of the basement stairs opened. But now he couldn't pull together the information. He couldn't remember how many days he'd counted. A month, he knew. One month, because the pull of the full moon had come and gone and been more damned painful and frustrating than the filleting blade that slid across his flesh at every "meal."
It wouldn't matter. One month, two. How many could he last? He didn't want to find out. And biding his time wasn't going to help him, not when he'd left Scott, the pack, behind. Someone would miss him, eventually, but he didn't have a reputation for answering phone calls. They wouldn't have a clue he was actually missing until it was too late.
"If I don't fill you up, why do you keep me?" Derek asked. The question came out more curious than defiant.
Jasper smiled, almost softly. "Oh, my poor little mutt is feeling down about himself today."
Derek tried to push himself back when Jasper came closer, but the only result was a squeal from the chain above. Jasper reached out, running his blunt, human-like fingers over Derek's flank. The skin there felt fresh, too sensitive, from where his healing had done its best to try and mend the wound. Soon it would stop, soon his body would be too weak to bother with growing new flesh.
"You do fill my belly," Jasper insisted, "like corn mash for a starving man. But you're just not what I crave. It's not your fault, of course. You're just not quite … right."
Those roving fingers slid lower, over Derek's hip. The wolf in him had growled and snapped at first, when Jasper had stripped him down. Derek had shut down, mentally, that day, preparing himself for what was coming. But Jasper had only wanted easier access to his flank.
The knife's bite was expected, but Derek still flinched before he could steel himself against the pain. The monster wasn't greedy today. It was over quickly, a slice across, another down, another across. Somehow, the heat from the blood sliding down his hip made Derek shiver uncontrollably. When his eyes closed, he wasn't sure, but when they opened, he was staring at Jasper, who now held a triangle of flesh over his lips. He opened wide, dropping it down his gullet with a sick, wet slurp.
Jasper pulled out a handkerchief, dabbing at the corner of his mouth. "I can feel it," he said, as if to himself. "Every taste brings me closer to what I am." His eyes narrowed slightly as he watched Derek, but there wasn't any menace there. Instead, there was almost fondness in his expression. "And I have you to thank for that."
Derek winced, already knowing this part of the story. Jasper was a talker, and as much as Derek wanted him to shut up, he listened on, hoping there would be something new there, something to be learned. Something that would let him know when this would end.
"After my dear old momma did her part, folks were lookin' a bit too close," Jasper tutted, as if disappointed. "Would've been difficult, pickin' off the denizens without raising suspicion, and, well, I'd already started the processes of bettering myself, so I just couldn't stop. What was a fella to do? But then I had not one, but two, little freakish out-of-towners wander by, one chasing the other. Oh, mutt, when I watched you fight, watched you heal ... Mercy, it was like a light bulb went off."
Jasper wiped at his bloody fingertips. "Here is my miracle, I thought," he said, grinning, "here is my feast."