"Dad, when're we gonna get there? You said we'd stop in Valcosta, and we're almost in Florida," Dean said, trying really hard not to sound whiny. John Winchester did not deal with whiners very well. Once upon a time, he would have touched Dean on the shoulder when he'd been complaining, and say something like 'whiners aren't winners', but now he'd just give him a look and turn back to whatever he was doing.
"I know, kid, I said Valcosta, but we'll stop soon. It's a little farther than I expected. You can choose where we eat, okay?"
"Alright!" he said, perking a little, Usually, they ate at whatever diner John stopped at, but maybe there would be something like an A&W's, or a Sonic when they stopped. For a moment, Dean felt a little guilty, because Sam loved Sonic's shakes, but then he remembered that Sam was probably scarfing down Papa Murphy's, popsicles, and his favorite kind of lemonade.
Sam normally would have been with them, but he had come down with the flu, and so had been left at Uncle Bobby's for safe keeping. John had heard about a monster killing people in Georgia, and had deemed both his son's health and the public's safety both too important to compromise. So Sam had stayed behind, and Dean and John had continued on down to Georgia. Dean was twelve, and it was the first time he had gone on a trip with his father alone.
Dean tried very hard to focus, and not distract his father with how excited he was.
"So, what're we gonna do after this?" Sam asked, flicking the air vent open and closed and open again. Dean rolled his eyes, because for an uptight Dean's list wannabe, Sam Winchester was a freakin' child.
"I dunno. Nothin' nearby, it's all swamps and rednecks for hours," Dean sighed, leap frogging around a semi.
"You said it's almost in Florida, right?"
Dean gave his brother a look, and heaved another eye roll.
"You wanna go to Disney World."
"Or Universal Studios," Sam added quickly. "We don't have to go to the Magic Kingdom, we can go to Epcot, or the Animal Kingdom. That's got some cool rides."
"Animal Kingdom," Dean scoffed, sudden imagined of Rafiki dancing around him and shrieking "The Circle of Life".
"No, it's really awesome. It's got roller coasters, a legit safari, and sections of the park look like the wildernesses of the five continents, the African desert, the Asian jungle, stuff like that."
"But Universal's still on the table?"
"Okay, fine," Dean sighed, trying to smother his smile at the whoop Sam let out. They had decided to take a break, to do the old fashioned way of running across a monster and taking care of it, not searching for trouble the moment their hands were still. They were going to take care of this monster, and then they were going to do whatever the hell they wanted.
"Oh hell," Sam sighed, sagging a little and lowering his shot gun. Bela was giving them a pert, well-imagine-how-we-both-showed-up-here look, like breaking into a dead man's home was just common practice around those parts. She had a pack slung over her back, and a utility belt full of all sorts of strange things around her waist. Dean was silent, but the ugly scowl on his face showed he was just as excited to see the woman as Sam was.
"Hello, there, you two. Come around this mud hole often?"
"Why're you here," Dean spat. "No one to rip off here, unless Alan Ramirez was a magic hoarder."
"No such luck, but the thought it quite intriguing. I suspect we're after the same thing, actually. Well, at least, the same sort of creature."
"You know what it is, killing all these people?" Sam asked, hopeful despite all of the aggravation this woman had and would cause them.
"Oh, yes. It's a näcken."
"A what-ken?" Dean asked, his shot gun still pointed at her chest.
"A näcken, or a neck, depending on whether you prefer Scandinavian or German."
"How about English," Dean grumbled, but Sam focused on what she had said earlier.
"A neck? What's that?" He couldn't remember mention of one in their father's journal, but then, there was a lot in there. Plus, the farther they went into the journal, the more disorganized it became. Some sections were even in code, or were composed in cryptic notes that indicated John had been paranoid about some enemy learning too much about whatever it was he had been hunting.
"It's a water monster," Dean said, scowling and finally dropping the muzzle of his shot gun. "It shape shifts and can lure people into the water. Think a PMS-y Ariel."
"How charming," Bela said, smile becoming a little less enchanting. "But yes, something akin to a shape shifting mermaid."
"What do you want with it?"
"Nothing much, just some tears."
"Tears? You want the tears of a water monster?"
"People want what they want, and they'll pay whatever I want to have it. Who am I to disagree with that?"
"How do you expect to do that?"
"Team up with whatever hunters come after it. It's started killing people, so clearly one of you lot were to show up."
"And you want us to hold 'im down while you tell it sob stories and then snag a tear whenever one shows up?"
"If that turns out half so amusing as it sounds. No, just hold off in killing it, if at all possible. I can get the tear on my own."
"No," Sam said automatically, turning to Dean. Instead of agreeing and berating Bela a little more, though, Dean had a tired, unhappy look on his face.
"Dean," Sam warned, hating the resignation in his brother's eye. "Dean, no, she's—"
"She's another body, and if we're lucky, this neck will be so busy drowning her, that we can take a hatchet to its brain. Two birds, one stone."
Bela gave a flinty smile, but didn't protest.
"Dean," Sam said, facing him full on. "She just gonna screw us over, like all the other times. This thing's killing people. We can't risk—
"I'm not going to stop you," Bela said, sounding impatient. "Do whatever you want, but I'm after those tears. We'll be running across each other, anyway, so why not run beside each other, rather than step on each other's toes?"
"Fine. Maybe you'll have something up your sleeve to help stop this thing. It's gonna be a stubborn mother to kill."
Sam shot Dean a frustrated look, but stayed quiet. He had a lot of questions, mostly like 'why the hell are you letting Bela tag along?', but also 'when did you fight a näcken?'
Dean picked at the hole in his jeans, waiting for his father to finish speaking to the brother of the latest victim. Dean thought his name was Cole, but he didn't really been listening when his father had been explaining. He'd been too caught up by the warning that this monster, this neck creature, could drown its victims by luring them in with enchanting music.
It was a good thing Sam hadn't come. He tried to hide it, but he liked pretty things. And if that thing started singing, he would have been in extra danger.
John and Cole appeared from inside the apartment, pausing within the doorway. John gestured at Dean, and Cole's eyes took him in for a long minute, unhappy. He nodded, though, and said something. John clapped him on the shoulder, then walked down the stairs to the Impala and his son.
"Can't see a connection," John grumbled once he had gotten into the car, and started driving along. "It's not after a certain family, not targeting people in certain places, not even for things they eat...You see anything?"
Dean started at having been addressed, then shook his head.
"What—what else does this neck do?"
"Shape shifts. It's only got a couple of forms, though. Far as I can tell, it's stuck to mostly just one form, as changing drains it. And once it's changed, you can't detect it. Just have to wait for it to drown you."
Dean nodded, trying not to think about the photos his father had snapped of the latest victim. She had been so, so pale when she'd been found in the swamps. There had been hand shaped bruises on her ankles, making the police look for foul play. John had warned Dean not to say anything about why they were there, even though Dean knew that. This time, John had said, people would think John was the murder, in addition to the both of them being crazy. Dean had ever realized that they might be suspected of monster's crimes, and it made him hate them even more.
"But they've all been dragged under in the swamps, though, right?"
"Yeah, but this thing could be anywhere, and I wouldn't...I wouldn't...dragged under," John repeated. He looked at Dean, a light showing up in his eye. "You said dragged under, right?"
"Uh, yeah? There were hand prints on the girl's ankles, right?"
"Yes, yes, they were dragged under! It was a man that did it, or at least the shape of one, not just them refusing to swim," John said, grinning at Dean now.
"It was a man. The hand prints on both victims, they were big. One of its forms is a man." John clapped Dean on the leg, and rove a little faster to the motel.
"So this thing is the one you and Dad hunted when we were kids?
"Yeah, I think so. Only, it was a ways over, a few towns to the east. Might be a different one, or a relative, or some crap."
Dean kicked off his boots as he talked, scowling as he remembered.
"Me and Dad trudged the swamps for ages 'fore we found the thing."
"Maybe that's it,the swamps. It could have drifted down here, and recovered and gotten strong."
"No, that thing was dead. Dad cut that thing open, no way it could come back from that."
"Okay, so maybe it is a relative. But that's a long time to wait for vengeance, fifteen years.""
"I know. Either way, we gank that thing and get the hell outta here."
"Like I said, she's a body."
"And you seem to like messing around wit her. Whatever thing it is you have, don't do it here."
"Screw off," Dean said, but he was too tired to give it much feeling. He just wanted to kill that thing for good, and then watch little kids toss their cookies after some crazy roller coaster in Disney World.
"I had him," Bela snarled, clambering off of the truck cabin she had been using a a sniper's roost. Her rifle was clutched tight in her hand as she stalked up to Sam. "I had him, you bloody prat, he was right there and you threw off my shot!"
"Yeah, well you also had Dean, so sorry for not letting you shoot him."
"My job could have been done now," she spat, craning her neck to glare at him full on in the face. "I could have been gone, out of this white trash rubbish heap, but no, now, the näcken knows we're hunting it, and it's on the alert. Thank you, Samuel, so glad I teamed up with you."
Bela stalked away, shouldering past him. Sam scowled after her, then turned to Dean.
"Yeah, just a little bruised. I, uh, I think it drooled on me," he said, smearing off some of the monster's gunk onto his over shirt. Sam huffed out a laugh, and cast an eye to the man that had nearly been the next victim. He had fainted once they had showed up and the näcken stopped singing. It was certainly one of the creepiest monsters Sam had faced, looking like a rough conglomeration of mud and rotting weeds, slopped in uneven patches over the thing's skin
When it had left the water, it eyed them for a long moment, its eyes glinting in the Impala's headlights. Then it pivoted sharply, trying to return to the water, Sam had thought, but then it shrieked, a ragged, hideous sound like grating metal and a piano smashing. It scream at the water, possibly calling for reinforcements, but then Dean had launched at it, trying to cut into it with a steel knife, like their father had used the last time.
Dean was on his feet again, and headed back tot he Impala. Sam followed, allowing the would-be victim to think he had wandered out to the lake in his sleep.
Sam climbed into the passenger seat, and cast another look at Dean. He had used his over shirt to wipe off the worst of the gunk, but both shirts were absolutely caked. He looked alright, though, if a little gross.
"Yeah, Sam, I'm alright. Would you lay off my dick?"
Sam rolled his eyes as Dean backed up, and returned to the main road. They were quiet as they drove away from the lake, Sam pointedly not commenting on the smell of the lake slime.
"Thanks for that, by the way," Dean muttered as they joined the highway traffic. "With Bela, I mean."
"It's fine. I didn't think she'd try to out and out shoot you, through."
Dean gave a hard laugh, like that was exactly what he had expected. There was another pause, then Dean said, "But, you know that was, I dunno, you gotta admit that was kind of hot. It a really annoying, Talia al Ghul sorta way, Bela leaping onto cars and slingin' around guns."
"Oh my gosh," Sam groaned, thwacking his head against the head rest. Yes, Bela was hot, but she was also a back stabbing, evil conniver that saw them as tools, so he wasn't about to get hot and bothered over her.
"I'm just saying," Dean protested, sounding defensive. "I still don't trust her, at all, but it just—"
"Please, shut up," Sam said, thinking that of course it was Dean that could get horny while wrestling with a muck monster.
"That thing was way uglier than last time," Dean commented a while later, the edges of town whizzing by.
"Mm-hm, last time it always looked clearly human, not half chewed up and spat back out."
"Maybe it isn't the same thing as last time, then," Said said, quietly noticing the hard edge in Dean's voice.
"No, it's definitely the same thing. Lured that guy in with the same type of song. Probably just what it really looks like."
"Weird that it hasn't changed, though. Last time, you said it was a man?"
"Yeah, a guy with a violin. That's the form it used to drown people, and then sometimes it was a girl on the swim team to hide. It's weird," Dean repeated, but didn't look at Sam.
"How do you know it's in the swamp?" Dean asked, his father, once they were out of the hardware store. John shrugged, digging in the paper bag.
"S'where all the victims turned up. And music's been coming from there, so. It's in the swamp."
"And the bolts?
"The neck doesn't like steel," John said, dropping some into Dean's hand. "It'll burn it, if it comes after you."
"Okay," Dean said, weighing the steel in his palm. "But you'll take care of it, if it gets close?"
"Yep. You hold it off with these, then I'll come gank the son of a bitch."
"Okay," Dean repeated, still eyeing the bolts. He put them in his pockets, then glanced up in time to avoid walking into a girl on the sidewalk. He did not have enough time to avoid her sneeze, though, receiving a fine spray across the side of his head.
"Oh, gol', sorry, sorry, shoulda covered my mouth," she drawled, waving her hand, as if she could fan the spit from Dean's hair. Dean smeared it off, vaguely disgusted, but kept walking.
"I just wanna go back home. Sammy's probably watched Back to the Future already."
"It's almost over, kid," John said, squeezing his shoulders. "You said you wanted to come out hunting with me, and this is what it's like. It's all worth it when you get the monster."
Dean nodded, still feeling his skin crawl as the wind caught a bit of the girl's spit he had missed.
Dean flipped through the limited motel channels, settling on some Mexican soap that seemed interesting enough to listen to, but still in rapid enough Spanish that he couldn't understand it (he had made himself skip by Doctor Sexy, MD, because he was not about to have that conversation with Sam). He'd had a shower, so he didn't wreak like lake shit anymore. He had a Philly cheese steak, and fries that didn't seem too soggy, and Sam was insisting on doing all of the legwork for finding the neck again, so he was feeling alright. Except, Sam was still muttering things about Bela under his breath, the stupid neck wouldn't stay dead, and Sam refused to let him turn up the air conditioner any more, even though it was really freakin' hot in the motel.
Dean set into his Philly cheese steak, stuffed the remaining spaces in his mouth with fries, and topped it all off with lemonade. He emptied his mouth, then took another drag from his straw. And, of course, pulled some of his drink down the wrong pipe.
"You okay?" Sam asked, drown from his brooding.
"Mm-hm, fine," he coughed, waving him away. Sam tuned his eyes back to their papers.
"I dunno, what do you think?" he asked a while later. Dean shrugged, eyes still on the screen (Alejandro had been caught after trying to switch his baby with Miguel's, which was ironic because Maria wasn't even the mother, but no one knew about that but the estranged doctor that had helped her give birth). "I mean, it's injured, those shells had steel in them. But I dunno if it's going to stay in the lake. I mean, it'll bleed out more easily, right? Right? Dean?"
"Hn?" Dean grunted, finally tearing his eyes from the show. Sam was staring at him, as if uncertain what he was looking at.
"I turned it of for white noise, but it just—it's so weird. I mean, people watch this?" he lied, and Sam gave a shrug that said 'the hell would I know?' Dean hurried got up, and looked at Sam's papers.
"Bela got it in the arm, so it can't really swim. Plus, the steel's gonna drain it of energy."
"Mm-hm," Dean said, suppressing another residual cough. He could still taste the lemonade from where he had choked earlier.
"And I don't think it'll change again, pretty obvious give away, a screwed up arm."
"Yeah, but it might also have a home on land."
"You think this thing is making mortgage payments?"
"It might be squatting in one of its' victim's homes."
"Okay, yeah. But how do we know where to find it? I mean, the lake's big. We couldn't cover all of the shore, even with three people. Plus, it's connected to the swamps."
"It'll go back to the same spot," Dean said, trying to speak through another cough. Sam was glancing at him, now, eyes concerned. Dean ducked away, letting the cough really come so he could clear his lungs. It sounded heavy and wet, rattling in his lungs.
"I don't think..." Sam began, and then Dean was bracing himself against the wall, trying to cough out something that didn't seem to exist.
"Dean," Sam said, voice strained as he got out of his chair. One hand was braced on Dean's back, while the other compulsively checked his forehead.
"I'm fine," Dean wheezed, even as Sam gasped, "Holy crap, Dean, you're burning."
"M'fine," he repeated, then spasmed again with coughs. Dean blinked, and then he was on his hands and knees, staring at the floorboards as he head swam and he tried to paw back his breath.
"I'm calling Bela," Sam said, his feet crossing the room and his voice saying, "Bela? Yeah, Dean's not good."
"Dad, I'm okay. I've probably just got what Sammy's got," Dean said, hoping his father would stop looking at him like he might break.
"No, that was slow, took a couple days. You just—"
Dean broke into feeble coughs, and John fell silent.
"I'm fine," Dean said, torn between disappointment and relief that he would probably be unable to continue helping his father hunt the neck.
John sighed through his nose, considered Dean for a little bit, then declared, "I'm calling Bobby."
Dean slumped back against his headboard, and let himself doze as his father rang up Bobby.
"...yeah, he's fine...not hurt, but...I don't know, seemed weird...I know more about werewolves than sick little...mm-hm...ean?...'s not respo...Dean?!"
Dean gasped upright as his father's hand jerked him forward. Instantly he started that rattling cough again, the convulsions hurting his chest and throat.
"Dean, holy hell, Dean, you're burning up, son, hey, are you okay?"
"S'hot," he mumbled between coughs, even as John's hands inspected his forehead, neck, and arms.
"Bobby, I'll be right back," John said, voice hard and quick. Dean barely registered his father hoisting him up, then suddenly they were in the bathroom, the shower was on, and then the two of them were sitting on the floor of the shower, freezing water streaming over them. Dean wheezed for breath as he listened to his father breathe, his lungs almost as noisy and unsteady as his own. He knew the water was cold, but Dean just felt hot, a bundle of coals in his belly eating away at him.
John held Dean to his chest as the shower seeped through their clothes and spilled out onto the floor, trying to soak away Dean's sickness. John rested his head against the shower wall, eyes closed as his shoulders shook.
Dean couldn't remember the last time his father had held him like that, and now it was because he was too sick to even breathe right. And not even Sam had gotten more than a quick hug as John had said goodbye before the trip.
Dean turned his father into his father's chest, face drenched by the shower spray. He let his shoulders shake, too.
Sam stared at Bela, as if he expected her to have the answers perched in one of her pockets. She gave him a rude look, then continued packing more ice into Dean's shirt.
She had shown up a few minutes after Sam's call. Sam had thrown open the door, babbling something about coughing and magical illness, and the näcken showing back up at the lake. She had taken a moment to register that Dean quite frankly looked like hell, and then Sam was shoving an ice bucket into her hand and blurting out, "Fever." Five minutes later, she had filled the bucket and was helping Sam stuff ice into his brother's clothes. Dean at least still had enough pep in him to make an off comment about her not getting handsy with him, which was responded to by the ice bucket accidentally being dropped on one of his more choice areas. Same had let out a stressed laugh, Dean gave a pathetic moan, and Bela heaved a sighed, because she wanted one, simple, stress free tear, not a lake monster that played dirty, a fretting puppy, and his invalid brother.
"So you think the monster did this to him?"
"Yeah, I don't know how, but after he fought it—"
"Its spit," Dean mumbled. He was trying not to speak too loudly, for fear for starting another coughing bout. "It drooled on me, that's what caused it."
"How do you—"
"Happened last time."
"Last time?" Bela asked, pausing with a handful of ice above his navel. "You've hunted this thing before? Doesn't that seem like something to share?"
"Not now," Sam said, shooting her a look, then turning back to Dean like he wheezed the holy word of God. Those two needed a few lessons on codependency, and the avoidance of.
"Last time, the thing sneezed on me, and I got sick like this," Dean continued. "Went away when we killed it."
"But you didn't kill it, if it's done it again," Bela pointed out, stuffing some more ice against Dean's side.
"It's different, now," Dean rasped. He broke into more coughs, then said, "Looks like it's falling apart, last time it always looked human."
"So what happened? What did you do to it?"
"Dad—he cut it open, from head to legs."
"Lovely," she sniffed. Hunters were far too brutal for her line of work. Last time she ever worth with them for free. Really, she ought to pump Dean for all the information he had, then slip away, but she continued packing ice into his shirt, listening to him wheeze. She didn't do sick people, she really didn't. The moment he vomited onto the floor, she was gone, information be damned.
"So how'd it survive?" Sam asked, changing on the rag on Dean's forehead. "This thing doesn't have special healing."
"What do you know?" Bela demanded, slamming the ice bucket down onto the bed. Sam gave her another filthy look, and returned to putting ice up Dean's pant legs. A small trinket fell out of his rolled cuff, caked in mud and brightly colored.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing.
"What's what?" Dean slurred, trying to prop himself up, but failing. He was getting weaker, too.
"I don't know, it just..." Sam picked it up, frowning. Bela took it from his hands, and stared at it, smearing away the mud.
"It's a voodoo charm," she murmured, turning it over.
"Must've picked it up when I fought the neck," Dean mumbled.
"Not much of a voodoo population around here," Sam murmured, reach back for the figure. "Weird that it would be in the dirt."
"Or maybe it was in the monster," Bela corrected, eyeing the disgusting mud that now filmed her fingers. Sam looked up at her, eyes widening.
"It's mixed," Bela continued. "The näcken must have mixed with voodoo somehow. If it didn't die when your father attacked it, it could have drifted from the swamps to the lake—"
"Okay, okay, that would make sense," Sam said, a light sparking in his eye. "If it had happened before, then the steel wouldn't have killed it, and then it could have healed, somehow."
"Taken a new body, perhaps," Bela supplied, caught up in Sam's eager glow. "A few monsters may transfer themselves to their victims."
"So we just have to take care of it and the voodoo messing with it."
"How do we find it, though?"
"It'll be back at the lake?"
"How do you—"
"It screamed at the water," Dean mumbled. "That means—"
"Someone's going to die there," Sam said, excitement dropping. "The victim, most likely, will die there in the water."
"Yeah," Dean said, closing his eyes.
"Okay, just stay there, Dean," John said, clapping Dean on the shoulder. The fever had peaked, but the cough was still there, deep and heavy, like the swamp itself had gotten inside his lungs.
"Dad, I don't want to—"
"Hey, Dean, it's alright. I know you don't feel good, I know, kid, it's alright. You just wanna lay down, right? Right?"
Dean nodded, reluctantly. John had a much softer tone than he was used to, and and if John was saying it first, then it wasn't really whining.
"I know you just wanna go back to the motel, yeah? But just hold tight, I'll kill this thing, and we'll be fine, you'll be all better, alright?"
"But why-why can't I stay there? I know you could—" He broke off as more coughs shook him, each darker and a little scarier than the last. He could barely breathe, standing was a chore, mud was seeping through his sneakers and mosquitoes were attacking his face. He wanted to go home.
"I know, I know, but I couldn't leave you. You're too sick to—it's gonna be alright. Now, I'm gonna go after it, alright, and I need you to stay here. Stay on land, because the snakes and leeches are in the water. Just stay here, you'll be fine."
Dean coughed again, and John wiped Dean's mouth. He stared at Dean for a long moment, then gave him a quick, fierce hug.
"I'll be quick, just stay there. I'll be quick."
"Stay safe," Dean whispered, and John looked at him for a long moment, then nodded.
"I don't get what the problem is!" Bela shouted. Dean imagined her throwing her hands in the air, weirdly upset over a pair of tools she kept screwing over.
"The problem?" Sam asked, probably doing that big, frenzied hand wave thing he did when completely frazzled. "How about Dean's life being in danger?"
"It always was! It always is! That's what happens when a pair of toss pots like you try to hunt monsters!"
"As opposed to what, stealing everything before anyone notices?"
"I've never been cursed by a swamp monster!"
"Guys," Dean called from the bed, not bothering to open his eyes, "I can hear you. The whole town can pro'lly hear you. Quiet-quiet-qu—" He broke off into a coughing fit, one that lasted much longer this time. Instantly Sam was there, all puppy dog eyes and scared concern.
"He can't breathe," Sam said, panic still bucking up in his voice. Bela made a 'tch!' sound, and walked to the door.
"I have an aqualung in my car. Maybe the oxygen will help."
"Yeah...thanks," Sam said, the looked back at Dean. Bela left, and then Sam was pushing Dean onto his side.
"Hey, Dean, you need to stretch, give yourself as much room as possible to breathe...yeah, that's right, give plenty of room for your diaphragm to expand." He was using his soft voice, the one he used for balk-y normal people and the seriously injured.
"The hell...you gotta use...diaphragm for?"
"Because that's what it's called. You even know what that is?"
"Yeah...muscle helps you...helps you breathe."
"Yeah, but it's not really a muscle."
"Friggin' nerd," Dean sighed, and then Bela was coming back, making brisk talk about 'aqualungs' and their intended use.
"Here," she said, forcing the end into his mouth. Dean took a weak breath, and suddenly felt a little better. His chest still felt like a smoothie was in it, and his throat hurt, and he still felt hot and tremor-y, but at least he was making a little more of his breathing.
Bela and Sam were quiet for a beat, then Bela said, "If we take Dean out there, we know it'll come for him. We can kill it and fix him."
"Or, Dean might end up dead at the bottom of the lake!" Sam snapped, then quieted. "There's gotta be some other way. I'm gonna call Bobby, see what he knows. Maybe this voodoo thing will help us crack it."
"Go call him," Dean managed, then went back to sipping air from the air tank. Sam nodded, cast both of them a look, then walked back out of the motel room. Dean could see his silhouette through the curtain, big and broad, but still hunched and a little defeated.
"Why d'you have this?" Dean asked, shaking the mouth piece weakly.
"It pays to be prepared when chasing a water monster, my dear."
Dean focused on breathing, then looked at Bela.
"Why're you still here."
"I like seeing things through to the end."
"Right," he sighed, then started coughing again. Bela pulled the mouth piece away from him as he hunched, watching him fight something she could not help. He pressed his hand against his mouth, trying to hold the coughs in, then slumped back.
"Son of a bitch," he moaned, reaching for the towel that had been discarded once his fever had reduced.
"What?" Bela asked, but then gave him a tight look when she noticed the water that had spilled from his lips onto his clothes and hands.
"Don't tell Sam," Dean sighed, too tired to give her a menacing look. "Just don't, he'll freak out even more."
"It's not really my business," she said, but she didn't have any of that arrogant snootiness from before.
"He needs to focus on killing that thing, and he can't with me."
Bela nodded in agreement, and nearly said something, but then Sam was coming back in.
"So get this. Apparently, the voodoo can do something for us. He said that if we can get a certain charm, then mix it with the steel, the näcken should be killed for good."
"Okay, so?" Bela asked, helping the mouthpiece back into Dean's mouth.
"The thing is, the only witchdoctor he knows that will help is in the town next over."
"How far away is that?"
"Almost an hour's drive, one way."
"Alright. Alright. What kind of charm is it?" Sam quickly described the charm they needed, and Bela nodded.
"From what I know about voodoo, it won't be easy to get, especially on short notice. If you're going to use Bobby's name, then you'd best go."
"I'll stay here, make sure Dean doesn't snuff it while you're gone. Can't have a Winchester chasing after me, as well." Sam gave a tight nod, then backed to the door.
"Take care of him. Call if anything changes. I'll be back as soon as possible."
"Don't you—don't you dare get a scratch on my baby," Dean murmured, making Sam smile.
"Of course not. She'll be the exact same, next time you drive her."
Dean shifted on his small patch of dry-ish land, listening to the creatures around him. The swamp was loud, with cicadas, birds, and frogs all making noises. His dad had been gone a while, and he hadn't heard a single gunshot or sound of a struggle. But that was okay, he was probably just stalking the neck.
Dean coughed again, each harsh exhale and ragged inhale painful in the muggy air. He hunched over, almost falling to his knees as he clawed for breath. His vision swam a little, but Dean was fairly sure water splashed out of his mouth and onto the ground. When the coughing stopped, he braced himself against some tree roots, too miserable to care about spiders or rats or snakes.
A soft note reached him, kind of like a reed pipe. Dean paused, then straightened, trying to her better. This time it was louder, just a little, then dropped back. He glanced around, worried that normal people might trip across his father fighting the neck, but he couldn't see or hear anyone. Just the faint snatches of the song.
Dean heaved himself to his feet, staggering from tree to tree as he followed the music. It was pretty, or at least, what little he could make out of it, and it seemed to make everything else better, too. The trees weren't as eerie, the mud not as gross, the fire in his lungs and throat not as awful. It was pretty.
Dean froze. It was pretty—and seemed to be come from the water. The neck, it was calling to him, luring him. Where was his dad, why didn't he hear the music and come splashing back to save Dean? Why wasn't he right there, ready to defend—
Stay there. That was what John had said, had told Dean repeatedly to just stay still. He had thought it was to keep him out of harm's way, but really...he was using Dean as bait.
Dean staggered back for a moment, all of his symptoms shrieking back.
That was why he'd held Dean so tight, while his voice had been so soft. He was preparing to use Dean as a lure.
Then Dean had a job. His dad was relying on him, even though Dean was scared and angry and uncertain of what to do. This was his first time out hunting with his dad, and he would do his job.
Dean kept walking, staggering forward, and prayed his father would kill the neck before it got Dean in the water.
Bela waited all of three minutes after Sam had left to go to her own car. Dean stammered out a few questions, but she just pushed him back down and promised she'd be back in thirty minutes. Dean had fallen silent then, considering before he said, "Be quick. I wanna take care of this thing before Sam comes back and doesn't let me go."
Bela had paused, the nodded.
"And don't you dare die while I'm gone," she warned, pointing the steel knife at him (she hoped Sam wouldn't notice she had stolen it from his belt and come raging back to stop them).
"What, 'fraid you'll miss me?"
"Piss off," she said. She checked the aqualung once more, then hurried to her car. She knew a witchdoctor that was closer than Sam's, and also knew that he could be convinced to give her the charm in no time. She could be at the lake before Sam even knew they were gone.
Forty-five minutes later, Bela was heaving Dean into the cab of her stolen pick up. He was half delirious, now, having steadily worsened since she was gone. Bela ignored his quiet muttering as she sped down the highway, praying to find the näcken before Sam came and decided she was the monster that needed putting down.
"S'gonna be quick, right?" Dean asked, in a brief moment of clarity.
"Yes, I have the knife and the charm. You just get to sit there and look pretty."
Dean coughed again, and at this point, Bela couldn't tell if it was more sweat or water staining the front of his shirt.
They were quiet for a long while, listening to the rumble of the truck and Dean's thin breathing. Then Dean started mumbling, as she turned down the pockmarked road to the lake. Bela glanced at him, unable to understand, and frankly no wanting to. Still, she found the words tumbled from her mouth, "Dean, there, the lake, there it is. See?"
She pointed at the water, and Dean look, but she got no response. And then, "Mom?"
Dean whispered it, so soft, so scared, like he yet again was a little boy. It made her heart sick.
"No, Dean, I am Bela, remember, Bela Talbot. Not-not—Dean." He began coughing again, then reached blindly for Bela's arm.
"Mom, I'm-I'm scared."
"No, you are not," she hissed, because she did not deal with the dead or dying, nor strange heart to hearts with people she didn't—well, she didn't do it with anyone, really.
"Mom," he whispered again, grip tightening, tugging her arm closer. Bela pulled the truck to a stop, and glanced at the clock. The witchdoctor said it had to be used after midnight, which seemed unnecessarily dramatic to Bela, but who was she to argue? They had ten minutes.
So Bela played along, because a dying man was squeezing her arm, and was about to give his life for helping her.
"It's alright," she whispered, "just be still. It'll come to right in the end."
"Really? And Sammy, will he—"
"He'll be fine, too," she promised, slipping her hand into his, even though it was big and too hot and too, too familiar for her taste. "You'll be fine, Dean, you'll both be fine."
Dean heaved himself over to her, arms slung clumsily around her. She grimaced, but let him stay, because she may have been mean, but she was not cruel. Dean's uneven breath rasped across her skin, hot against her neck and shoulder.
"Bela," he whispered, coming back to sense, "Bela, don't you dare leave Sam alone."
"Don't leave him alone," he grit out, clenching his hands into her shirt. "He can't be alone."
"You'll be fine. And even if not, he'll kill me at first chance."
"I don't care how you do it, just make sure he's not by himself. He's not—he can't—he needs someone, Mom, he needs somebody and it can't always be me!"
"Okay, okay," she said, anything to calm him down, anything to get him to stop pouring his soul into her lap, like it too had been turned to water. Then, like it had been summoned by her thoughts, Dean started coughing again, water splashing onto her skin and clothes.
Bela jerked back, letting him fall over in the seat. She forced open the door, and took a few long breaths. She was so close, she could do this, this boy was not going to ruin her job.
She stalked around the car, and yanked open the passenger door. Midnight be damned, she was killing this thing now.
Bela heaved Dean out of the car, and supported him down to the lake. He seemed to get weaker the closer he was to the water, until he was half draped over her back, feet mostly dragging through the gravel. Bela grit out curses as they stumbled along, then finally dumped him a few meters from the shore.
"Take this," she whispered, pushing the charm into his hand. Dean nodded, then started coughing again. Bela glanced around, then crept back. The music had started, a little more harsh than last time. The knife was held tight in her hand, as she backed away, and there was a sour taste in her mouth. She wasn't used to confrontations like this, she slipped in, took what she needed, slipped back out. She didn't fight. But here she was, because of guilt, and moral obligation, and a man that had looked at her with fever hazed eyes and said please.
Dean dragged himself to the water, and the water started to tremble. In a few moments, the näcken had risen out of the water, more pathetic than before. It stumbled to Dean, almost as sluggish as he was.
Bela crept forward as well, needing to attack it before it hauled Dean into the water. The two met, Dean slumping for a moment, then the näcken's filth smeared hands were on his back, hoisting him forward.
Dean suddenly jerked, and pressed the charm against the näcken's middle. Bela held her breath, praying it was after midnight.
The näcken groaned, lurched, then let out a harsh whine. Instantly, Dean began coughing against, doubling over as water splashed from his mouth. Bela sprang forward, leaped over Dean, and sank the steel knife into the creature's back. It hissed and turned, tearing the knife out of her hand. She tried to dash around it, but it clubbed her with a muddy limb, and knocked the air out of her. She stared at the sky, heart thrashing as she tried to clear her vision. When she tried to drag in a new breath, all she could smell was the monster's lake-bottom stench, clogging her throat and making her want to vomit. Then she felt hands on her legs, slowly dragging her to the water.
Bela kicked out, boot sinking into the mud covering its chest. She scrambled back, then lurched to her feet. The monster was rallying itself, so Bela grit her teeth and lunged forward. She tackled it square in the chest, and knocked it to the ground. The näcken shrieked once more, the knife in its back sinking deeper into its chest. A soft, dreary sigh slipped from its mud baked mouth, and the näcken seemed to deflate beneath her, the life oozing out of its body. Bela sucked in a breath through her mouth, then scrabbled at its face, ignoring the dead plant matter and the black mud being ground beneath her fingernails. She worked fast, clearing away the grime from the creature's pale, once human face.
She grabbed a vial from her pocket, and jammed the edge to the cover of its' eye. And then, slowly, slowly, a trail of tears worked their way into her vial. Bela sat back, satisfied, then clambered up from the remnants of the näcken.
Bela looked back at Dean in triumph, only to have the smugness yanked from her face. He was laying on his back, looking deathly. His eyes were half open, and he wasn't moving, not even to cough. And, worst of all, was the delicate stream of water coming from his nose and mouth.
She gasped and scrambled over to him, panic ripping through her belly. She tried raising his head, but the water was coming faster, now, tumbling haphazardly over his lips. Bela suddenly remembered what she had said earlier, about the näcken taking on its victim's bodies, and dread mixed with her worry. The water was trying to wash away the Dean from his bones, trying to clean off the human and the hunter to leave just a vessel for the monster's soul
She had to push the water from his lungs, but she didn't know how. She didn't have another charm, or spell, or anything. She had to breathe life back into him, by herself, with an entire lake fighting against her.
Bela leaned over, bracing Dean's head in her hands. She briefly considered giving him mouth to mouth, but the fear of the water spreading into her and then making her sick was all too possible. She hunched over him, panting, thinking about his fever induced demand that she not leave Sam alone, and her frantic wonder of how the hell she was supposed to do that, if he kept trying to kill her because she let his brother die. She might as well leave him, get a head start on Sam, call it a job well done since she had what she had come for, and was only a little smellier for it—
Bela gasped, realizing that each one of her panted breaths had pushed away the water. It had been slight, but each one of her exhales had parted the water, pushing it back down into his nose and mouth. And if she could push it away, then maybe, maybe she might be able to push it out. If she stopped the water from flowing, turned it into dead water...
It was a sparse hope, but the idea of quelling the water inside of Dean was all she had, so she adjusted her hold on his head, and dragged in a breath.
Bela blew a long stream of air into his nose, and sure enough, the water was pushed back, the excess water flowing a little faster out of his mouth. The moment she stopped, though, it all came back out, a macabre fountain. Bela dragged her hands through her hair, rocking back on her knees, then got an idea. She blew the air back into Dean's nose, then pinched it, so that the air couldn't escape. Praying desperately that this would work, she blew air into his mouth, pushing all of the water back.
Quickly, Bela covered his mouth, grimacing as she felt the water splash against her hand and fight for space. She waited, waited, waited, praying that this would work, that she wouldn't just be left with yet another dead man. Bela rested her forehead against his chest, which was drenched and covered in slime and still a little too hot, waiting for the moment when she knew that she was done.
Dean suddenly bucked beneath her, his hands scrabbling at hers so that he could breathe. She lurched back, shocked as he started coughing again, but now it was a clean, dry hacking sound, and when the water came out of his mouth, it was gone after one good cough, and didn't come again. Dean curled forward against the ground, dragging in breath after breath, as if trying to reorient himself to the air.
Bela slumped against him, wondering how on earth she was supposed to explain this to Sam, if she ever saw him again.
The neck's hands were on Dean, now, but he was too weak to do anything about it. It didn't feel bad, really, as it hauled him up into its arms and carried him to the water. It was in the shape of the man his father had pointed out the day before, with the graying hair and the big, comforting smile. He hummed as he carried Dean toward the water, tune slowing down as he stepped over logs and picked his way through a safe path, but never stopped the music. It was just as pretty as before.
"Dad," Dean rasped, because he knew that John was somewhere nearby, and that he was supposed to stop this from happening, but he also knew that the song made him feel safe and okay, and that he hadn't felt either of those things in a very long time.
"No, not quite," the man whispered. "Not quite, but I'm here. Don't worry, you'll be fine once you're in the water. I didn't mean to make you so sick, but it was the only way to get you here. The only way," he mused, the words trailing off into another tune.
Dean closed his eyes, welcoming the idea of the water, anything to put out the heat in his skin, anything to make him feel relief, anything...
A rough shout punched through the air, making the neck pivot on the spot. They were already in the water, the neck up to its knees, and Dean thought it would keep going, but it suddenly dropped him and dodged out of the way of John Winchester's knife. Dean gasped when he hit the water, automatically sputtering and trying to get the disgusting, muddy water out of his mouth. He scrambled back out of the water and back onto land, heart screaming in his chest as he watched his father fight the monster.
The neck heaved John into the water, and faced Dean, face twisted in wrath and frustration. Then he faced the water and screamed, terrible, inhuman sound that was like two cars hitting each other. Dean knew what it meant, it was a promise that he was going to die right there, in that exact patch of swamp.
He tried to struggle back as the neck splashed toward him, each step too big and too fast, but then it had its hands on his ankles, and was dragging him in, like he was a sack of potatoes. Dean tried calling for help, tried begging his dad to come to his rescue, but the coughing started up again, the water stifling his words.
John thrashed his way toward them, and the hard grit in his eye promised that he would save Dean if it meant breaking into hell itself. Dean suddenly remembered the bolts in his pockets, and threw them at the monster. It hissed and whirled at him, as if stunned he would attack.
It seemed to forget John in that moment, leaving itself completely open. John lunged, sinking the knife into the creature's chest. His momentum dragged the knife down, tearing the monster's front completely open. Dean expected blood and guts to come tumbling out, but instead there was only mud, marsh water, and rotting plants that poured from the wounds. He gasped at the sight, and then found that he could gasp, without breaking into another coughing fit.
John slogged back to where Dean was and knelt heavily, his hands searching Dean's face despite the muck on them. Neither one of them said anything, but the hopeless relief in John's eyes was more than enough.