When Sam woke it was still dark outside. Dark was a relative term, of course: the orange glow of the streetlights spilled through the window, giving Sam a clear view of Dean's rumpled but empty bed. Sam reached beneath his pillow for the .45 automatic he kept there. He'd slept with the gun since he was nine years old.
The house seemed quiet, but something must have woken him. Sam could hear someone moving around downstairs. It was probably Dean, or their dad. Sam kept still for a few moments, listening intently, but he couldn't tell who it was. Or, perhaps, what it was. With that thought, a familiar fear began to creep over Sam and he shivered. He checked the safety on his gun and climbed out of bed. He walked barefooted to the door, where he waited, listening again. He heard nothing.
Sam remembered his father's lectures on safety, on always being prepared to run if something was too big or too strong to fight so he put on the nearest pair of shoes. They happened to be the combat boots he wore when he couldn't get out of training with his dad. He must have looked ridiculous: a gangly teenager dressed in heavy combat boots and thin cotton pyjamas with buttons missing, creeping out of his room with a gun in his hand. Sam walked as quietly as he could toward the stairs so he could look down into the hall below.
There was a light on down there: not the hall light, which would have been much brighter, but light coming from the living room, Sam thought, which should mean it was Dean down there. The jerk probably snuck out of bed to watch porn.
Sam was about to call down the stairs when Dean came into view and the sight of him froze the smart remark in Sam's throat. Dean was stripped to the waist and barefoot, wearing only his pyjama pants. The pants were spattered with blood. So was his skin: chest, arms, there were even some red splashes on his face. Dean was carrying what looked like a bundle of blood-soaked towels. Sam caught only a brief glimpse of his brother as he crossed quickly from the living room to the kitchen. He didn't have time to see everything but he didn't think the blood was Dean's.
Sam felt cold with fear, his mouth dry, his heart beating in his throat instead of his chest, but it wasn't himself he was afraid for any more. He wondered if all that blood was his father's. He wondered if there was something wrapped in those bloody towels. He wondered if he really wanted to know.
Sam ran down the stairs to the kitchen. He found Dean frantically opening cupboards. The big first aid box stood open on the kitchen table. The bloody towels were in the sink.
"Dean!" Sam hissed from the doorway.
Dean whirled and when he saw Sam there was fear in his face. "What are you doing here, Sammy?" he demanded. His voice was a hoarse whisper; he was afraid of being overheard.
"I woke up..." Sam started to explain, but Dean gestured, cutting him off.
"Ssh! Go back to bed, Sammy. You don't want to see this." He turned away and opened the next cupboard. He moved some stuff around. He seemed to be panicking a little, but Sam was relieved. He could see for sure that Dean wasn't hurt.
"What are you looking for, dude?" Sam asked.
"On the dresser."
Dean threw an exasperated look over his shoulder. "No, dumbass, not scotch. Alcohol. For cleaning stuff."
"Oh. There's some iodine in the bathroom. Will that do?"
The relief in Dean's face was almost comical, or it would have been under other circumstances. "Get it for me, Sammy."
Sam didn't argue. He ran up to the bathroom as quickly as he could manage without making noise. Even in the heavy boots, he could move quietly: Dad's training. He found the bottle of iodine and ran back to Dean with it.
Dean was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. He took the bottle from Sam and added it to the box he carried.
"I can help," Sam said.
"No, you can't! Dad will be so mad if he knows you're up. Go back to bed, Sammy. Please!"
Sam wouldn't be deterred so easily. "Is Dad okay?" he pressed. "What's goin' on?"
"Sam, just go. I'll tell you tomorrow."
Sam turned and started back up the stairs. He glanced back over his shoulder. Dean was still watching him.
"Go!" Dean whispered again.
Sam returned to their bedroom, but he didn't get back into bed. Dean hadn't answered his question.
Sam dressed quickly: underwear, pants, t-shirt. He dragged the sports bag out from under Dean's bed and got out one of his combat knives with a black sheath and a thigh-strap. He put it on, tight to his leg where he could reach it easily. He pushed his .45 through his belt. After a moment's thought, Sam swapped his boots for sneakers - easier to be quiet - and pulled on a black sweater over his t-shirt. Then, quiet as a mouse, he made his way down the stairs again.
The door to the living room stood ajar and from where Sam stood at the bottom of the staircase it looked as if every light in the room was on. There was plenty of light at any rate, giving Sam a clear view of the shocking scene.
The furniture had all been moved, hastily shoved back against the walls to clear a space in the middle of the room. Sam saw three men there: Dean and John, and another man Sam didn't recognise. It was the third man he noticed first because his face was covered with blood, all but his eyes. It was like a death mask. Sam gasped and clapped a hand over his mouth to stop himself making any more noise. Had anyone heard him?
Dean was standing in front of John, trying to unbutton his father's heavy shirt. Sam saw blood on his father's shirt. Something terrible was happening. Unconsciously, Sam reached for the hilt of the knife he wore. He didn't draw it, but the hilt was comfortingly solid in his palm.
"John," the strange man said, and his voice was gravely and hoarse, the kind of voice a man gets from a 60-a-day cigarette habit. That one word was a plea.
John pushed Dean's hands away from him. "No. Carla first," John said, in that tone which meant it was an order and he expected instant obedience.
Dean shook his head and Sam watched in amazement. He'd never seen Dean defy their father, even for a moment.
John pushed his son away. "While you make up your mind, she's choking on her own blood! Help Sanchez. Now!"
Dean moved, and abruptly Sam realised there was a fourth person in the room. A body lay on the floor. His view had been blocked by Dean's body; when he moved Sam saw an arm, a shoulder and long, blonde hair. Then John moved, too, and Sam saw it all. He knew it was a woman because he'd heard his father say she, but he wouldn't have been able to tell by looking. Her body was stocky, the shoulders wide for a woman. Even her clothing was masculine: army-style boots and pants, a utility vest over a t-shirt. Everything she wore was black. Sam was grateful for that because it meant he couldn't see how much blood there was on that clothing. But the thick, coppery smell was almost choking him. There was a lot of blood.
John's movement had shown Sam something else as well. There were a number of things sticking out of John's chest and upper arms. They looked like thick, black thorns, but bigger and longer than any thorns Sam had ever seen. What protruded from his father's flesh was longer than Sam's hand. How much was inside John's body? God, that had to hurt! How was the man even functioning?
It explained Dean's panic in the kitchen. It explained all the blood. It even explained why Dean wanted Sam out of the way; just watching from the hallway, Sam felt nauseous.
The woman, Carla, had thorns in her body, too. There was one coming out of the side of her neck.
Dean had moved to kneel near her legs. He reached down as if to touch her and Sam saw that the man John called Sanchez was holding a belt as a makeshift tourniquet around her thigh. Dean took over from him without being told again. Sam could see his brother's face clearly now and he looked as scared as Sam felt.
John had a knife in his hand, a sharp kitchen knife. Sam watched him wipe the blade down with iodine. John looked up at the other man. "I wish you'd let us go to the ER."
"And tell them what?" Sanchez growled.
"That she's dying!"
Sanchez made an odd gesture with his hand. "Better here than there."
Better for whom? Sam wondered. He inched closer to the door, not quite believing what he was seeing. John laid the iodine-streaked knife against Carla's neck, point first, as if he was going to stab her. With his other hand he grasped the black thorn in her neck. He hesitated. Sam never saw his dad hesitate.
Sanchez snapped, "Do it, John."
Sam didn't see exactly what happened. John did something and the thorn came free. John jerked back. Blood fountained into the air, hitting John in the face. John wiped his eyes with his sleeve and uttered a single profanity. He covered the bleeding wound with his hand. "Bandage!" he snapped.
It was too late. Sam had watched enough late-night TV to know what that spurt of blood meant. John cut her carotid artery when he pulled out the thorn.
They tried anyway. John covered the wound with a thick white dressing and pressed down on it, hard. The white turned to scarlet in seconds. Sam watched in horror, torn between wanting to help (but what could he do except call 911?) and not wanting to risk his father's anger.
It was then that Dean looked up, his face already pale with shock. If it were possible, he lost even more colour when he saw Sam watching. Dean turned frightened eyes to his father. "Dad...?"
John moved back, his shoulders slumping. "I'm sorry, Sanchez."
Silence fell. Dean looked toward Sam again, telling him wordlessly to get the hell out.
Sam felt frozen in place. There was a dead woman on the floor of the living room. Her blood was soaking into the carpet where, six hours earlier, Sam had lain, finishing his schoolwork before supper. His mind couldn't make sense of it.
Sanchez broke the silence. "We need to move. Are you with me, John?"
Dean looked at his father, his eyes wide and scared.
After a moment, John answered, his voice dull and even. "She should be buried in hallowed ground."
"She's no more a believer than I am," Sanchez objected.
"That's not why I said it."
For the first time, Sam heard a real emotion in Sanchez's voice: distain. "Come on, John, you don't believe that old saw, do ya?"
The two men looked at each other across the woman's body. Sam felt something important was being said; not spoken but certainly communicated.
Finally John dug into his pocket and held something out to Sanchez. "All right, you can use the Chevy. I suggest the river. About five miles out of town the currents are strong enough to..."
Sanchez took the keys from John's hand. "You're not coming?"
John said, in a voice that brooked no argument, "I'm staying with my sons." He turned to Dean. "Dean, go and find a blanket."
Dean nodded uncertainly and stood. He swayed a little on his feet, as if exhausted.
John looked up. "Dean."
"You're doing great, son." Sam saw only his father's back, but he knew John was smiling when he said that. Not a happy smile, but what Dean needed nonetheless.
He saw Dean pull himself together and stride toward the door, and Sam. Dean grabbed the front of Sam's sweater, getting blood all over him, and shoved Sam against the wall. "What the fuck are you doing?" he demanded, quiet but furious. "I told you to go back to bed!"
"I thought you needed help!"
Dean looked as if he wanted to shove Sam right through the wall. "Sam, I oughta..." he began. He pushed against Sam's chest with his fists. "When are you gonna learn to follow orders!"
Abruptly he released Sam and left him there, striding across the hall. Sam couldn't follow: John would see him if he tried. Dean returned with a blanket in his arms. He passed Sam, stopped and turned around. He hissed at Sam, "We don't need help. Go back upstairs, now!" Dean was a terrifying sight, anger sparking in his eyes, blood drying on his arms and face.
Sam nodded, acknowledging the order even as he knew he wasn't going to do what Dean wanted. Dean said go back upstairs not go back to bed. Sam scurried back up the stairs but he stayed at the top, where he could watch the hallway unseen by those below. He heard movement and muffled voices. He fought down the images of what they were doing in the living room.
Finally, Dean came out, followed by Sanchez carrying the woman's body wrapped in the blanket. Dean opened the front door for him, which seemed a crazy way to go but no one was asking Sam, then closed it behind him.
When Dean walked back to the living room, Sam crept down the stairs again.
Now there were only two of them in the room, Sam could see the red stain in the carpet more clearly. They were never going to get that out.
Dean said, "Now will you let me get that crap out of you?" Sam had to smile at how much Dean sounded like their dad. He had a very determined look on his face as he reached for the first aid box.
John handed Dean the bloody knife. Dean wiped it automatically.
"Remind me," John said, "to add a scalpel to our medkit."
Dean held the knife, but he was looking a lot less certain. "Dad, I can't."
John reached out, touching Dean's hand briefly. "Son, she was already dead. We had to try but it was always too late."
"I know," Dean answered quietly."
"The spines are barbed, son. You have to cut in to get it loose. If you don't, it will break off inside me. You understand what that means?"
Dean lifted the knife. "If I do it wrong the poison could kill you. Dad, the ER is fifteen minutes away."
"Yeah, by car and Sanchez took it. You can do this, Dean."
"I can't believe you let him take the car, man." Dean drew a long, shaky breath. "You want something to bite on?"
"I don't need it."
At first, Sam thought that was John's bravado talking. Feeling sick, he watched his brother and his father kneeling in a pool of blood while Dean cut into his father's flesh. When Dean started to cut, John looked away but he gave no other sign of pain. It was as if he didn't even feel the knife. Dean had said something about poison. Sam knew a little about natural poisons and venoms, from biology class. There were some things that could paralyse a person, numb the nerves. Could that be what this was?
What the hell had his dad been hunting?
Dean hesitated earlier, but once he started work he showed no sign of nerves. He worked methodically, cutting out each thorn - or spine as John had called them - and covering each wound with white gauze and tape before moving on to the next. He was slowly peeling the shirt away from their dad's shoulders as he removed the spines pinning the material to his flesh. Sam watched it all with a kind of horrified fascination. How could Dean stay so calm?
John spoke through gritted teeth - maybe he did feel some pain after all. "You're doing good."
But Dean hadn't needed that reassurance. "What happens when the cops find Carla's body?" he asked.
John was silent for a moment. "If we're lucky," he answered, his tone very careful, "they won't."
"If they do?" Dean persisted.
"I don't know, son, but unless they find her tonight, there won't be any evidence linking her to us. Carla Sanchez lived totally off the grid. No drivers licence, no social security, not even a passport. Officially she's been a missing person since she was your age. Good enough?"
"I didn't think so." There was a note of pride in John's voice that Sammy didn't fully understand.
Dean pulled the shirt over to John's right arm. He seemed unaware of Sam watching, this time. There was just one spine left. With John's bare skin exposed, Sam could see the drying blood mottling his back, and fresh blood staining the gauze Dean so-carefully taped over each wound. John had lost a lot of blood.
Dean slowly extracted the final spine and John took a deep breath.
"Dad, what went wrong out there tonight?"
John looked sharply at his son. "We...miscalculated," he answered slowly. "Carla paid the price."
Dean nodded as if that explained it. Maybe it did for Dean, but Sam was still in the dark. He knew his dad never went into a hunt unprepared. The idea that something could have blindsided him as badly as this was terrifying.
John started to get up. Sam got out of sight quickly, heading back up the stairs.
John looked down at the carpet. "What a mess," he said, his voice very quiet. Sam, listening from the top of the stairs, didn't think he was talking about the damaged carpet. He heard John say, "Son, you did good tonight, but there's a lot more work to do. Are you up for it?"
Dean answered, "Think I'd leave you to clean up alone? Especially with you stuck full of holes?"
John clapped Dean on the shoulder. "Good boy. Now, Sanchez is going to be a couple of hours, so that's how long we've got to get everything back in place. Dean, I want you to..."
Sam heard no more. He returned to the bedroom, undressed and lay down. He didn't expect to be able to sleep but somehow, after a lot of tossing and turning, he did.
In the morning, Sam was still full of questions. He knew there would be evidence downstairs: it would give him a chance to demand answers without revealing how much he already knew.
On his way downstairs he smelled eggs cooking. He grimaced. Sam had no appetite. How could anyone eat after what happened?
He glanced through the living room door. The carpet was gone, but a large rug covered the floor in its place. All of the furniture was where it was supposed to be. There was no sign of the previous night's carnage. Nothing at all.
"Sammy!" Dean called from the kitchen.
Sam headed over there. The scene in the kitchen was remarkable only in its utter normality. John sat at the table, munching his way through scrambled eggs and toast, with the morning newspaper open in front of him. Dean was lounging at the breakfast bar, drinking coffee. Only a slight tightness around his eyes betrayed what he'd witnessed.
Dean smiled as Sam hesitated in the doorway. "Morning, Sammy. You want scrambled egg or Wheaties?"
Sam wanted neither. What he wanted was answers, but he knew suddenly that he was never going to get them. There would be some plausible story to explain the rug in the living room, and the rest would simply be denied. It never happened.
Sam glared at Dean, making sure their dad couldn't see it. "Wheaties," he said.