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Fool for Lesser Things

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0:Snallygaster

There were times, when Sam was growing up, that he equated his life to a giant game of dodge ball, Dad on one side, the Thing That Killed Mom on the other, with him and Dean as the balls. It was the idle, bitter sort of imagining of a too-smart-for-his-own-good child, stuck in gym class and bitter at the world in general and giant red rubber balls in particular. Some time before he left for Stanford, when the Thing That Killed Mom became too abstract and distant to be a credible force against the obstinate wall that was John Winchester, he forgot about it.

As he was hurled backwards, flying headfirst at a pane of smoked glass lit an eerie gold in the darkness, he thought that maybe, all those years ago, he'd been right. Only now John was "out" and the Thing was "out" and here he was, a red rubber ball thrown at nothing in particular by nothing at all. He liked it better when he could at least assign teams.

The glass shattered into a spray of silver and gold shot through with red and black. Sam's back hit the sill, becoming a fulcrum which sent his legs up and his head down into an awkward, painful flip. His feet struck metal with a hollow clang that reverberated through his head, drowning out the high toot and whistle of the Wurlitzer organ. His ankles hooked and his laces tangled around the leg of a giraffe and he was being dragged in a steady circle over rough, sticky concrete, and he thought this is all Dean's fault.

In all honesty, though, he knew it wasn't. For all of Dean's faults, he wasn't the source of universal perversity -- either the lewd sort or the contrary -- that Sam often wanted to make him out to be. Still, it was true that, if it weren't for Dean and his burgeoning and disturbing obsession with tentacles, he wouldn't even be in Maryland, much less being dragged around by a possessed carousel.

"Snallygaster, Sam," Dean had said. "Part bird, part reptile. The bastard son of a dragon and a thunderbird," he'd said. "Tentacles, Sam. Tentacles!"

And so they'd been off, riding the asphalt wave through Pennsylvania and into Maryland, chasing after a beast that hadn't been reliably spotted in at least thirty years, and had once been described as wearing water wings, riding a flying bicycle, and shouting "Balance the budget!" The artist's rendering Dean had found looked more like the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Sam than a creature bent on carrying off children and attacking whiskey stills. But Dean was determined, and excited and giddy in a way he hadn't been since well before Cold Oak, and these days Sam was too happy to see Dean being Dean to argue.

At least their encounter with the beast would hopefully turn Dean off tentacles for a good, long time.

A crash echoed over the boom of mechanical music and Sam caught a glimpse of blue denim and black cotton tumbling above him before it disappeared behind the head of an intricately carved and painted rabbit.

The Snallygaster was local to the Blue Ridge Mountains, occasionally spotted as far north as Ohio, and rumored to have made it only as far south as Rockville, Maryland. Sam had to wonder why it had seen fit in its flight to carry them here, to a turn of the century amusement park turned artist commune on the outskirts of the nation's capital. He could only think to blame it on that universal perversity, the mysterious force that had turned him and his brother into bouncing red playground balls in the first place.

He refused to call it "God". Even after being rubber-balled by angels and demons alike, Sam refused to see God with such a demented sense of humor.

The head of the rabbit shuddered and Dean appeared over it, Kilroy style, his eyes wide under eyebrows streaked in red. Sam tilted his head back to stare at him upside down as he was pulled along in the giraffe's wake.

"'Snallygaster,' you said."

"Sam."

"'Dragon,' you said."

"Sammy."

The Wurlitzer howled, the carousel spun, and broken glass dug into Sam's back. Dean pushed himself up, clinging to the rabbit's ears, and stretched a hand forward to grab the tail of the horse in front of him. He dragged himself forward, his left leg held stiff and straight, the pant-leg bulging ankle to hip and leaking green gore against the rabbit's wooden feet. Sam lifted his head, grabbing at the carousel's suspended platform. He could see the thick, stubby end of the Snallygaster's tentacle dangling out from the cuff of Dean's jeans like some bizarre, avant-garde fashion accessory.

"'Tentacles, Sam.'" he said, sing-songing along to the Forget-me-not Waltz. "'Tentacles!'"

Dean's face screwed up tight as he shifted his weight to the ass of a brown and gold horse. "Never say that word to me again, Sam."

Sam wrapped his hand around the support pole for an ostrich and dragged himself up off the concrete and away from the scraping glass. "'Come on, Sam, haven't you always wanted to slay a dragon?'"

Dean slid himself to the floor, wincing as he dragged his left leg and laid himself out flat, then stretched out his hand to grab onto Sam's wrist and pull him the rest of the way onto the platform. "Seriously, dude, shut up."

"How's that tentacle feel now, Dean?"

"I will end you."

They lay there like that for a long moment, as the Wurlitzer shifted to Together We Two and they whirled past the two broken pavilion windows once . . . twice . . . three times before the music wound down and the carousel ground to a halt. The twinkling incandescent bulbs flickered and went out, leaving them with only the dim glow of the reflected neon sign, art deco letters proclaiming a stationary "Glen Echo" in several of the fancy mirrors. Sam breathed -- once, twice, three times -- and sat up. "Get me off this giraffe."

Dean lifted his head off the platform, staring at the window, yellow and blue light marking the planes of his face. "Is it over?"

A tinkling laugh blew in on a non-existent wind and Sam lunged toward his own ankle. "Dude! Giraffe! Off!"

A low toot trailed the laugh and Dean's eyes widened further. He scrambled to his hands and one knee, dragging himself from the ostrich to the giraffe and wrapping his arms around Sam's leg like -- like freaking tentacles. The carousel lurched and accelerated as though trying to throw them off. Sam grabbed onto Dean's shoulders as Dean clutched Sam's leg and centripetal force sent them tumbling up the slight bank of the platform and over the edge, back onto the concrete. There was a sharp, searing tug, and then Sam's shoelaces lost the battle between the force of the carousel and the brothers' combined weight.

"I hate Maryland," Dean said. Sam couldn't answer, not with Dean's right knee shoving into his gut. "Almost as much as I hate Florida."

"Snallygaster," Sam gasped. Dean shoved his knee even harder against Sam's diaphragm. The Wurlitzer matched its tempo to the speed of the carousel, the plinks and toots of the already manic Ben Hur Chariot Race blending into a chaotic howl. Sam shoved at Dean's chest, mouthing 'off, off!', but Dean was staring upwards, eyes wide, into the blaring music and glaring lights, so he closed his hands into fists and pounded.

Dean rolled off, narrowly missing clocking his head against the whirling metal platform and squashing Sam against the wooden wall of the pavilion.

"We gotta get out of here," Dean said, and Sam wanted to roll his eyes and say something pithy about Dean's amazing grasp of the obvious, but he was too busy trying to get his breath back. Dean scrambled forward, his left foot smacking into Sam's chest as he went.

Really, he was starting to wonder if his brother wasn't doing it on purpose.

Dean made it a whole six feet on his hands and one knee, shoulder knocking against the pavilion wall with a rattling thud just barely audible over the Wurlitzer every time he shifted his weight, by the time Sam made it to his feet. He shuffled forward, trying to ignore the way the spinning, flashing lights were playing havoc with his sense of balance, and reached for the back of Dean's jacket to haul him upright.

"There's no door!" Dean stumbled backwards into Sam, then forward again as he didn't so much limp as execute a bizarre hop-and-drag maneuver around the edge of the carousel. "Who the hell builds a building with no doors?!"

Sam opened his mouth to explain that it wasn't a building, it was a pavilion, that panels were meant to fold away when the carousel was open for business so they just had to figure out how to fold one of the panels. Instead, he found himself doubled over when Dean stumbled again, bounced off the wall, and managed to slam his elbow into Sam's stomach while he flailed to keep from falling into the whirring wooden animals.

It was a moot point, anyway. Dean had managed to find the broken windows. He yanked his sleeve down over his fist and knocked the shards of glass away from the base of the sill, then pushed himself up and over in a move that would have been graceful, if he'd had a full range of movement in his left leg. Sam caught a glimpse of Dean's wide eyes and "O" shaped mouth as he tumbled forward into a flip instead, tentacle stub flailing in the air before catching against an errant bit of glass, leaving Dean's booted foot sticking up over the window ledge like it was a character in a low-budget puppet show.

Sam rolled his eyes heavenward, trying not to sway, and mumbled a soft "I hate you" before climbing out after him. He had to give himself a good, sharp push off the ledge to make it over his prone brother, and the landing sent a jarring sensation through his ankle, which wasn't taking too kindly to the giraffe treatment.

"You okay?"

Dean propped himself up on his elbows and looked up, peering at Sam through his lashes as he jerked his raised leg. "Peachy."

Sam chose, as usual, to ignore the sarcasm in Dean's tone. Instead, he took Dean's boot in his hand, determined to make good use of the flickering light from the still-whirling carousel and examine the tentacle himself. The flickering yellow and blue cast an odd light over the thing, making Dean look like a character from a badly-colorized Ed Wood film: jerky and unreal and paying more attention to something off camera than to his fellow actors. Actor. Sam. And, hey, maybe he was. It wasn't every day that you went up against a dragon and ended up battling a carousel instead.

Don Quixote and his windmills had nothing on the Winchester brothers.

"Dude." Dean was struggling to sit up despite the odd angle of his leg. "Stop feeling up my ankle and get that damned thing off already."

"Is it okay?" Sam poked at the stubby tentacle end, not sure he wanted to touch it. "I mean . . . does it hurt?"

"Head's worse," Dean grunted, stretching his hands up but missing his foot by inches before flopping back to the ground. "Leg's mostly just awkward. Come on, seriously, just get it off."

Sam picked at the gory hem of Dean's jeans. "I'm not sure if I can. Not without cutting your jeans off."

"Goddammit." Dean struggled to sit up again, then jerked his leg hard, out of Sam's grasp and off of the carousel window ledge. The carousel itself was winding down, the Wurlitzer slowing in time like a child's music box. By the time Dean had made it to his feet again, it was dark and still, a strange, looming shape through the dim, broken windows. The only remaining light came from the neon sign facing out against the road and the faint glow of distant houses and streetlights. Dean brushed himself off, then shook his leg furiously as though to dislodge the tentacle before giving up and turning back to the carousel. He pushed himself up over the ledge slowly this time to compensate for his stiff left leg.

"Dean, what the hell are you doing?"

"Be right back, Sammy."

Sam cursed and moved to follow him when a great, ululating cry cut through the quiet.

Right. The Snallygaster.

"Dean!" Sam pressed his back against the pavilion wall and searched the sky for the beast, wishing they hadn't lost their weapons in the flight over from the Impala. He couldn't see it, but the thing would be practically invisible against an already black sky. He wouldn't know it was there until it was on top of them. "Dean!"

"Just a second!" Dean called from within the carousel. Sam heard an odd thock-thock followed by a painful cracking sound that was quickly drowned out by another howl from the Snallygaster.

It sounded like it was in pain. Sam thought of the tentacle and the green blood. It probably wasn't used to prey that carried boot knives.

Boot knife. Dean still had his knife, now their only weapon. "Dean, it's back and I think it's pissed!"

"It can blow me!"

Made sense, considering what it might have already -- Sam's train of thought was broken off by his brother launching himself back through the window, tucking into a roll and coming up limping, knife in one hand, something conical and gleaming in the other. Sam had never been happier to have his thought processes interrupted.

Some things really just didn't bear thinking about.

"Where is the son of a bitch?" Dean pivoted on his left foot, hopping in a circle, hands held wide. Sam narrowed his eyes and tried to focus in on the thing in his brother's right hand. It was twisted and gold-plated, jagged at the wide end and narrowing into a wicked point. It looked familiar, somehow.

"Dean. Tell me you didn't just hack the horn off the unicorn."

"We needed a weapon."

"This carousel has got to be almost a hundred years old!"

"And it tried to kill us. That makes it fair game."

"But -- but --" Sam could feel his jaw flapping loose as he tried to get his mouth around the protests desperate to come out. He was certain that if he looked up this park, he'd find all sorts of proud references to the carousel, renovation and restoration projects, some kind of deep connection to the history of the area. Haunted amusement parks weren't nearly as common as some people thought they were, and a haunted carousel like this one wouldn't have stuck around long if it weren't very important to the people in the area.

But Dean was right. It had tried to kill them. And they needed something more than Dean's boot knife if they were going to get rid of the damned Snallygaster.

The Snallygaster howled again, and Dean turned his head back and forth before narrowing in on the sound. He set off at a rapid limp, and though Sam's head was pounding and his ankle was aching and for some reason, his fingers were itching, he hurried after him. They made their pathetic way to a weed- and ivy-choked doorway, freestanding on the edge of the park. Sam could just make out the broken, unlit sign hanging above it, announcing that it was the entrance to the "Crystal Pool". The Snallygaster, it seemed, had taken up residence inside.

The old door was no match for Dean's shoulder moving at full tilt, and within moments he and his brother were standing at the edge of a vast, cracked, empty pool. In the middle of the deep end, lying in a few inches of water, was the Snallygaster, curled up on its belly, its tentacles drawn in close to its face.

Suddenly, the thing looked much less like something evil that needed to be destroyed and far more like some pathetic creature trying to hold on to the last of its existence. Sam paused at the edge of the pool, and even Dean hesitated as he lowered himself down over the lip, his mad dash now a determined death-limp, his crude, tiny weapons still clutched in his hands.

"Dean, maybe we shouldn't. . . ." Sam let himself trail off, figuring that the effort was worthless, but Dean hesitated again, half-turning back so that Sam could see the odd, half-blank, half-desperate expression on his blue-and-yellow-lit face.

Then the Snallygaster let out a huge, blaring shriek like a train whistle and lunged for Dean, its giant beak wide open to display its glistening fangs, and Sam was forced to watch in seeming slow motion as his brother's eyes widened and he turned back towards it, left leg folding beneath him, sending him staggering back, arms flailing as the giant maw descended.


1:Hodag

"Dude," Dean said, wiping at the back of Sam's jacket. "I can't believe that bitch exploded."

Sam squirmed out of the way, but not before he felt the green goo that coated his brother splatter across his back. "Knock it off!" He stumbled over a rock on the narrow shoulder of MacArthur Boulevard, the road that ran up against the edge of Glen Echo Park. "God, you smell worse than you did after Constance dumped you in the river."

Dean sniffed at his arm, eyebrows shooting up as his eyes squinted shut and he flinched away. "Gyuh." He put his hands against Sam's back again, pushing this time instead of wiping. "Hobble faster, man. We gotta get moving. Someone might see us."

"Uh." Sam shrugged away from him again, but obeyed. "I'm kind of hoping they do. The Impala's gotta be more than ten miles away."

"I can't believe that bitch carried us all the way down here."

"I can't believe you think the Snallygaster's female."

"I can't believe you got dragged around by a giraffe. Move."

"I'm moving, I'm moving!" And he was. He couldn't get away from Dean's stink fast enough. "What's the hurry, though, man? Sure, the Snallygaster got loud, but this close to the city, people have got to be used to ignoring strange noises at night. Besides, there's still that carousel to take care of."

"Yeah. About that," Dean said. Sam ignored him, hunching his shoulders and thinking out loud to take his mind off the throb of his head and ankle.

"Did you hear the laughter? That was a kid. I'm thinking the Snallygaster brought some of its prey there to feed, and the spirits stuck around to play with the old rides."

"Sure. But Sam --"

"The question is, how do we get rid of them? There's no guarantee they'll leave now that the Snallygaster's gone. And tracking down that many graves -- or even having any idea which missing kids the spirits might be -- is going to be a bitch. I guess we could destroy the carousel but that'd just --" Sam cut himself off when a hand connected with the back of his head, sending his already pounding headache into the stratosphere. "Ow! Dean!"

"Less talky, more walkie. We need to be outta here before anyone comes to check out the explosion."

"It was really more of a 'pop'."

"That's not the explosion I'm talking about."

Sam stopped dead by the side of the road and turned to face his brother, now silhouetted against the glowing neon park sign. "What did you do?"

Dean's teeth flashed pale in a grin, and the night was suddenly lit by a deafening explosion from behind him, flames shooting up into the air. Within moments, sirens could be heard closing in from all directions.

Sam stared at Dean. "You didn't. You -- the carousel?!"

"It tried to kill us."

"But -- but --"

"It's a public service."

"But -- it was -- that --"

"Get a move on, Sammy!" Dean shoved at Sam's shoulders, spinning him around and propelling him down the road, towards the guardrail.

"Are you kidding me?!"

"Nope."

Sam felt the first few patters of rain drops as he was shoved down behind a bush. A police car went whirring by. He crouched down next to his stinking, bloody, pyromaniac brother as the rain set in and tried to find the right words to express his incredulity.

Beside him, Dean started to sing quietly.

"Someone left the cake out in the rain."

"I hate you."

"And I'll never see that recipe again. Oh noooooo!"

* * *

Dean kept singing that damned cake song the entire time they were hiking their way into a nearby neighborhood to hotwire a car. And kept going for just about the entire drive back up to Frederick, Maryland, where they'd left the Impala. Sam did his best to try to ignore it, but there was just something so insidious about the nonsensical lyrics.

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark.

"How's your leg?" He asked, hoping to to redirect Dean's attention from whatever had him singing to something more important. Dean cut off mid-chorus -- it seemed all he knew of the song was that maudlin, impenetrable refrain -- and glanced over at Sam, tilting his head up, chin jutting out.

"It's like a cuddly hug that never ends, Sam, how do you think it is?"

"We'll get the tentacle off when we get to the hotel."

"Yeah, yeah." Dean sighed, lowering his chin and dropping his temple to toward the window. He leaned one elbow on the high edge of the door, the other arm stretched in front of him, gripping the wheel. "My foot's gone totally numb."

"You should've let me drive."

Dean snorted.

"Should've at least jacked an automatic."

A deeper snort. "Right. Because when you're dodging cops after blowing up a historical landmark, the first thing you do is check the transmission on the car you're stealing."

"I'm just saying."

"Well, don't."

Sam slid down best as he could in the cramped mid-sized sedan, finding himself in the unusual situation of dreaming fondly of the leg room of the Impala. Lord knew how Dean had managed to jam his tentacled leg into the car, much less use it enough to work the clutch. Of course, it helped that he'd kept roaring at over fifty miles per hour most of the drive, ensuring he wouldn't have to drop it out of fifth gear.

But, hey, they were almost to the Impala, and Dean had been distracted.

"Someone left the cake out in the rain."

Or not.

* * *

Considering the manic energy Dean seemed to be throwing into everything he'd done in the last, oh, six month or so, Sam had expected him to leap from the car when they made it back to the hotel, tentacle or no. They'd managed to ditch the stolen car, retrieve their weapons, and pick up the Impala without a hitch, and Sam himself was gearing up to give at least a vague showing of strength and wakefulness in the face of his headache -- head plus glass equaled concussion just as surely as head plus gravestone tended to -- and the persistent throb of his ankle. He caught himself halfway out the car door, getting re-drenched in the constant rain that had started just as they were leaving the park and followed them up the interstate, when he realized that Dean was still sitting in the driver's seat, his hand frozen on the keys, eyes staring straight ahead into so much nothingness through the windshield.

"Dean?"

For a moment, Sam found himself certain that his brother had quietly died sitting behind the wheel with his eyes open. It'd be just like him, really, to get through everything the two of them had survived -- or at the very least, continued moving after -- only to conk out in the parking lot of a civil war themed "no-tell" in the woods just south of the Mason-Dixon line, victim of, what, a concussion? Blood poisoning a la Snallygaster? Well, screw that. Sam was not going to be the only projectile in the universe's never-ending game of dodge ball. He reached out to poke Dean in the shoulder when his brother sighed.

And still didn't move.

Sam blinked rain out of his eyes, droplets on his lashes turning the edges of his vision blurry and twinkling. "Your leg okay?"

Dean turned his head to look at Sam and for a moment his expression was back to the way it had been for so long after Azazel had gone the way of the dodo. Jaw set, brows drawn, eyes wide and pleading. Lost and weary. Sam felt his lips tightening and hoped that the half-light of the motel refracting through raindrops into the car wasn't enough to illuminate the impatience on his face.

"Dude," Sam offered. "You just took out a dragon."

Dean blinked, his brows twitching, and the momentary melancholy vanished, replaced by a wide, childish grin. "I totally did."

Sam nodded, pulling the rest of the way out of the car and leaning against the rear passenger door. He rested there a moment, regathering his strength, then realized that Dean still hadn't moved. He leaned down.

"I know you don't wanna keep getting Snallygaster guts all over your upholstery."

Dean scowled. "Gimme a minute."

"You totally can't feel your leg, can you?" Sam's answer was a frustrated flapping of Dean's right hand. He took that as confirmation and started making his way around the car to the driver's side, rolling his eyes as he went. It was a little bit ridiculous just how used to this sort of thing they were by now, leaning against each other to limp towards a motel door, Dean's hair tickling the inside of Sam's ear as they tilted their aching heads against each other, hands fumbling without regard as to whose pocket was whose, trying to find the keys.

"So, seriously, just how far did that tentacle get?" Sam asked, once they were safely in the room and Dean was tilting towards the nearest bed in a way that always made Sam want to shout "timber!" Dean's landing raised a small cloud of dust from the motel's coverlet and he bounced once with a groan of springs. The leather jacket kept Sam from being able to make out whether or not Dean's ass was as . . . oddly shaped . . . as his leg currently was, and he was dreading cutting those jeans off and discovering just how kinky his brother's night might have been. Dean lifted one hand, middle finger extended.

"God, I hope that's not your answer." Sam plopped down on the mattress by Dean's boots and watched the room tilt on a lazy axis for a moment. Dean muttered something that sounded like a melodic "oh noooooooooo" into the pillow. Sam slumped down onto his side, one arm swinging like a pendulum to fumble for the spare first aid kit and a pair of six inch medical scissors. "I'll get your jeans off in a sec."

Dean let out a throaty snuffle, like he was preparing to spit. Or, more likely, starting to snore.

Sam sighed and debated whether or not to try and get the tentacle off by himself, or just leave his brother be. Of course, the thing was cutting off the circulation in Dean's foot, which was never a good thing. And if it was --

Right, no way to know but to look, right?

He didn't bother sitting back up, just rolled over, flailing his legs for a moment to get himself into a better position for jeans-surgery, glad that Dean wasn't aware enough to tease him about looking like a flipped turtle. He had far too much experience cutting clothing off his brother, even when said clothing was soaked with rain and entrails and stretched over a lumpy surface. He had the pant leg split open in moments, though he kind of wished he hadn't.

The tentacle, once green, was now the color of a rotting apple and giving off an odor not unlike mold and sour milk, with just a touch of "week-old chicken left at the bottom of a pile of dirty dishes". A scent Sam was far too familiar with, and not just from his early years on the road, before Dean realized that cockroach problems only became much, much worse if you didn't clean up after yourself. College freshmen weren't exactly known for being the neatest people on the planet, and as much as Sam had loved her, Jess hadn't been, either.

There was a reason why Sam didn't eat fettuccine alfredo any more.

Sam really, really wanted to just leave Dean to deal with this whenever he managed to wake his ass up. Sam could always sleep in the car. He would've, too, if it weren't for the flushed, almost purple shade of Dean's skin between coils of tentacle showing that, yes, his blood flow really was being obstructed, and as much of a pain in the ass -- neck, pain in the neck -- as Dean could be, he'd be a million times worse if he lost his foot because Sam was being a prissy bitch. Sam flopped his hand over the edge of the bed again, fishing around until he came up with one of Dean's t-shirts. He wrapped it around his hand and, turning his face away with a grimace, grabbed onto the spongy-yet-rigid tentacle and started to unwrap it.

He was very much relieved, a few minutes later, when he noted that the tapered end of the thing had only actually made it most of the way up Dean's thigh.

Some things really just didn't bear much thinking about.

* * *

When Sam looked up to see his brother limping his way into the diner the next morning, he wasn't surprised, either by the limp -- Dean's leg had turned some spectacular colors over night, marking the course of the tentacle in stark detail -- or the broad grin on his face.

"Dude, check it out." He tossed a newspaper down onto the table. Sam just barely managed to pull his short stack out of the way. "Front page!"

Sure enough, the story of the carousel's explosion had hit the front page of the Washington Post -- not the headliner by any means, but the teaser box in the bottom corner reading "Inside". The story itself was on the front of the Metro section, bearing before and after pictures of the carousel and the headline "Attack on Beloved Landmark; Terrorists Suspected". Sam groaned.

"Terrorists?"

Dean shrugged. "At least they're not connecting it to those two guys the FBI was chasing around a couple years ago?" And he winked. He actually winked.

Sam leaned forward, rubbing his forehead, still aching from the rough treatment the night before. "We have to get out of town. Like, now."

"Oh, come on. They'll never find us. Read the article. They figure it was either Al Qaeda or some local hooligans."

"Would you keep your voice down?" Sam pushed the paper to the side. "This isn't a joke, Dean, you didn't have to do that."

"Sucker was haunted. We did that park a favor."

"Yeah, well, we could have done them the favor without blowing up their priceless piece of history. We could be researching how to take care of it properly right now."

"No time. The sucker was angry. Who knew how many kids could get killed if it went nuts during the day?"

"Where did you find the stuff to blow it up with, anyway?"

"A master never reveals his secrets, Sammy."

"You're thinking magicians. Which you're not."

"Stop being such a bitch, dude. We took out a hundred year old dragon and a haunted carousel in one night. That's a total win."

"Yeah?" Sam scowled. "How's your ass feeling?"

Dean went from giddy to confused to annoyed in .06 seconds. He pushed himself back up from the table, snatched up the paper, and started for the door with affronted dignity.

And a limp.

Sam snorted and shook his head. For all his protests, especially about that poor carousel, he'd missed this. Dean's pyromaniacal enthusiasm, the banter, the complete lack of the weight of the entire world on their shoulders. For the first time in -- well, it had to be years, if not his entire life -- things were finally good.

If only it could last.

* * *

Sam tried to keep that good feeling -- and the image of the tentacle stopping several inches short of Dean's un-stretched, un-torn boxer-briefs -- in mind two weeks later in Minnesota, when Dean was still walking funny.

"What's up with you?"

Dean looked up from where he was awkwardly shoving himself into his jeans. For a moment, Sam was certain that Dean was going to deny everything and insist that he was just fine -- except that that hadn't been Dean's M.O. in a while now, and if Sam was really honest with himself, it'd never been Dean's M.O. in the first place, not when it really mattered. Dean was perfectly willing to point out his concussions, busted ribs, hell, even his fear of flying when the situation called for it. He seldom whined about it, but if Sam asked, Dean was usually pretty direct.

He wasn't so sure if Dean would be that direct when it came to the, er, sanctity of his ass. He'd never really had cause to wonder, before.

Dean shrugged, sucking in his cheeks in what Sam privately called his "Zoolander" face as he looked down at his legs. "Dunno. My knees are bothering me." He bent and straightened his legs a couple of times, rubbing at his thighs. "Stiff."

Sam looked down at Dean's legs, picturing the way he'd been walking, thinking about the length of time he'd spent in the shower. Dean had always been bowlegged. Maybe his odd gait was finally catching up with him?

Sam snorted, unable to keep back a smile, and he caught a glimpse of Dean's head jerking up in his peripheral vision. "What?"

"Maybe you're just getting old."

He didn't bother to try to dodge the damp towel Dean hurled in his direction.

* * *

Two days later in a diner -- Wisconsin, this time -- Sam found himself reconsidering his stance on the issue. There was definitely something strange going on with Dean, and it wasn't just walking funny any more. For one thing, Dean the Marathon Driver was insisting on more and more breaks from being in the car, lately. Sam had caught him flexing and stretching his legs when he thought Sam wasn't looking. His jeans seemed to be fitting a bit differently, too. Nothing huge, just subtle differences that were starting to get big enough for Sam to notice.

He wondered how long this had been going on, for.

Just then, there in that diner, Dean sat perched on the edge of his seat with his legs tucked in close under the table. Sam himself was sprawled out, leaning back against the booth with his arms along the back, his legs splayed under the table, his feet kicked up to rest on the heels of his boots. He wasn't sure if Dean's posture was a reaction to his, or if his was a reaction to Dean's, but it seemed like one of them must be overcompensating for something.

It didn't help that the staff at the diner was taking their dear, sweet time in getting their food out. Dean had, of course, ordered his usual "we don't need no stinking arteries" special, and Sam was about ready to head out back to see if they were slaughtering a fatted calf when Dean drew his attention again.

"What, are they flying to Belgium to beat someone to death with a waffle iron?"

Sam blinked. "What?"

"Your breakfast, princess."

Sam snorted. "Right. It's the waffles that are taking forever." He blinked, then sat up and leaned over the table a little. "Are you -- are you eating a napkin?"

Dean looked down at his hand as though just noticing that he had the torn up thing crumpled in his fist. ". . . No?"

Yeah, that would be more believable if there weren't a little bit of white paper stuck to Dean's lower lip.

"Dude, what the hell?"

Dean shrugged, gingerly depositing the half-eaten, abused napkin on Sam's side of the table. "I'm hungry."

"Enough to eat paper?"

Dean's mouth tightened, causing that little bit of paper to stand out as his lower lip slid forward. "So, about this hodag."

"Dude, a napkin."

"I stopped, Sam, now can we please focus here? There's a rhino-frog looking thing out there eating people, I think that's a little more important than me having a case of the munchies."

"Are you sure? I mean, weird cravings could mean that you're lacking some sort of vital nutrient in your diet." Or several vital nutrients. There was only so much fried meat and potato could offer a man, after all. "Or be linked to some sort of deep-seated psychological trauma."

Dean sat up straighter in his seat, one of his boots smacking against the linoleum as he adjusted his legs. "So now you're saying I'm crazy?"

"I -- no!" Sam shook his hands out in the air, shutting his eyes as he tried to reorder his thoughts. "You've been to Hell, Dean, it's possible that's having some sort of -- of unconscious effect on you, leading you to eat things that have zero nutritional value. . . ." Sam trailed off as he saw a flash of that faint, tragic melancholy steal over Dean's features again before he schooled them into something blank.

"Right." Dean nodded once. "So I'm allowed to have issues with my time in Hell now? 'Cause last I heard, you thought I was whining. Boo hoo."

Sam slammed his hand down onto the table, causing their water glasses to jingle and Dean to jump. "Dammit, Dean, that was more than a year ago. When are you going to drop it?!"

"Oh, sorry, am I whining about that, too?"

Sam shut his eyes, pulling his arms and legs in closer to his body as he tried to tamp down his frustration with his brother. "I don't want to argue with you."

There was silence from the other end of the table, and after a few moments, Sam looked up again, through the hair that had fallen in his face. Dean looked a little fuzzy from this angle, like an impressionist's rendition of a pensive jackass. He had his head turned to look out the window, one hand rubbing at his forehead, exhaustion once again settling into the set of his lips, the flare of his nostrils.

"Yeah, me neither." Dean dropped his hand and looked back, and Sam shook his hair out of his eyes and raised his chin. "It's just these gigs, you know? Snallygaster. Hodag. The freaking Leprechaun near the Canadian border."

Sam's lip quirked. "Yeah. I know what you mean."

"Who knew we'd actually miss the demons and angels and apocalypse crap?"

Sam tilted his head to one side and studied his brother for a moment. Dean had that wide-eyed, earnest "Ain't I cute?" look on his face, the one he usually reserved for police officers and occasionally Bobby. A sure sign he was trying to distract from some deeper issue. "Do you?"

"Hm?"

"Do you miss it? Miss . . . Castiel and things."

Dean shrugged. "Nah. I mean, okay, it was kind of nice knowing that they needed me for something, but I definitely don't miss the weight of the world and all that. These shoulders are nice and weight-free." He rubbed his forehead again, near his hairline. "Why, do you?"

Sam shook his head quickly. "No. Definitely not."

"Not even Ruby?"

Sam felt something twist in his gut. He did his best not to think about Ruby and the things they'd done together, these days. She was filed away in the back of his brain, opposite where he'd kept Jess for so long.

The whole deal with Ruby had been . . . complicated. Very, very complicated.

And, he had to admit, just this side of nauseating. Suddenly, those Belgian waffles weren't sounding as nice, any more.

"Finish your napkin."

* * *

And, okay, so the napkin thing was kinda funny. And later, when they'd finished up the hodag hunt -- things were fast, sure, and mean, but they weren't actually all that supernatural; they'd die just like anything else -- and Dean went into the bathroom for a shower, only to come out without a shirt, point to the little "happy trail" of fine, golden brown hair leading from his belly button down his waistband and demand "Have you been slipping me Rogaine or something?!", Sam couldn't help but snort and debate whether to tell Dean it was testosterone poisoning or congratulate him on finally reaching puberty. But then, in Michigan, Dean was rubbing at his forehead more and more often, and he started stalking around with an occasional wobble, like a frat pledge ordered to wear four inch heels. In Ohio he bought a new pair of sunglasses and some fancy insoles for his boots, and while Sam hadn't actually caught him having any more papery snacks, Dean did seem to be carrying around more motel stationary than he used to.

So Sam decided it was better safe than sorry and fired up his laptop. Eating paper meant pretty much what he thought, though Google did manage to narrow it down to a likely iron deficiency. He supposed that could lead into leg cramps and headaches, but he wasn't really sure about the hair growth. He needed to get Dean to a doctor for blood tests. This could be anything from diet related to a tumor making itself known, and he wasn't about to lose his brother again, not after the hell they both went through to get each other back, not just from death, but from the manipulative forces working against them. But while Dean could admit when something was wrong, he wouldn't want to go to an actual doctor without a good reason. Fake insurance, as he frequently pointed out, didn't come easy, and WebMD could supplement their first aid knowledge for most things. WebMD couldn't tell Sam how to perform a blood test with things they kept in their trunk, though. Or how to perform exploratory surgery for a cancerous growth without killing his patient. Sam needed a game plan, and he needed to come up with it fast.

In all of his planning, however -- which included such varied gems as sitting Dean down and lining up all his arguments in a row like the proper lawyer Sam had dreamed of being or beating Dean over the head with one of their guns and dragging him to the hospital -- none of them had included the possibility of Dean deciding to do something about whatever was going on, first. They also hadn't included the possibility that Dean's problem could be supernaturally influenced. After all, the demons and angels -- the heavy hitters -- were long gone, now. The war was over, and they were back to the simple, straight forward monsters and occasional homicidal ghosts. Nothing that could have cursed Dean or cast any sort of paper-eating spell on him, right?

But then Dean woke him up one morning, stepping out of the bathroom wearing a pair of Sam's sweatpants, his head bowed forward, his thumb and middle finger rubbing small circles above his eyes again.

"Sam, we've got a problem."

"Are those my sweatpants?"

Sam was never a hundred percent just after he woke up.

"Sam, listen to me. Something's wrong."

Sam sat up straight in the bed, pushing the covers aside. "We can go to the doctor. The emergency room. We'll use one of the credit cards to cover the cost of the tests and if they have to do anything really fancy we can get. . . ." Sam trailed off. Dean continued to stand just in front of the bathroom door, both hands on his head now, rubbing and rubbing and rubbing. He wasn't shaking his head, but his shoulders had come up, making their way towards his ears, and he shifted his weight back and forth in a way that didn't so much tell Sam his brother was trying and failing to be patient as shouted it. "What?"

Dean shrugged -- a nice trick when his shoulders were already so high up -- and looked over to the side, his hands and lashes masking his eyes. Then he stomped forward, his footsteps made heavy by that awkward gait, and leaned into Sam's personal space, staring into his eyes.

Sam sat for a moment and stared back. His brother was scared. No, scratch that, terrified. In a way he hadn't been since the war had ended and they'd discovered that neither of them was dead or evil or going to Hell, that they were both whole and while they might be tarnished by their experiences, they could move on. Get a little bit of their old selves back by throwing themselves into their old routines of bickering and hunting legends and not keeping the sorts of secrets that would get either of them killed or evil or sent to Hell. Sam stared into his brother's eyes and saw the man lying in the hospital bed after Alastair, the man standing beside him at the funeral for Pamela the psychic, the man who'd talked about angels and destiny and Hell like he was coming apart at the seams.

Sam couldn't stand seeing that man. He pulled back. "What?"

Dean frowned. He straightened a few inches and cast his eyes around at the motel room, glancing at the unlit lamp, the bathroom door, and the exterior window. Then he grabbed Sam's arm and leaned his whole weight into dragging Sam to his feet and out the motel room door.

Sam hissed and squinted against the brightness of the early morning in comparison with the gloom of the motel room, bringing a hand up to shade his eyes and tilting his head towards his brother to ask "what?" again. Dean grabbed his jaw before he could, dragging Sam's face down the few inches to be level with his own, and stared into his eyes again.

Sam sucked in a breath.

It hadn't been obvious in the room, where the light bleeding in from the bathroom had been dim at best and at Dean's back, but out here, in the light of the morning sun, Dean's pupils contracted and Sam could see what the problem was very clearly against the background of Dean's green irises.

Dean's pupils were rectangular. Like thick hyphens smudged onto his eyes. Over the two years that they'd spent hunting demons almost exclusively, Sam had seen a lot of weird eyes, from the solid black of the foot soldier to the yellow of Azazel, the red irises of the crossroads demon to the eyes-rolled-up white of Lilith and Alastair. Somehow, Dean's eyes were stranger.

"Holy shit."

Dean nodded, his head almost vibrating up and down. "That's not all."

"Isn't it enough?"

Dean rubbed his head, then fingered the spots that Sam had seen him rubbing, directly above his eyes near his hairline. He noticed they were flushed pink and starting to bulge. Dean's finger flicked over the center of the pink spot on the right and Sam leaned in to see the very tip of something dark, bony, and pointed breaking through the skin.

"Are you growing horns?"

Dean swallowed and grabbed the pant leg of his sweatpants. He tugged it up, and though Sam dreaded doing so, he looked down.

He thought he might throw up.

The hair growth wasn't limited to the line on Dean's stomach. His leg was now almost completely covered with fine golden hair, peppered here and there with thicker, darker strands. The hair extended down over his ankle and onto his foot, which had narrowed and lengthened. Which was strange enough, but not the worst of it. Dean's toenails had thickened and spread, starting to fuse together in the middle, forcing his toes to press together.

No wonder he was walking funny.

"Sammy," Dean said, more of an exhalation than a true word. His voice shook and he dropped the pant leg. Sam looked up again, into Dean's wide, alien eyes. He was on the verge of a panic attack, and Sam had to admit he wasn't a whole lot calmer.

"Sammy," Dean said again, a little bit stronger this time. "What the hell is happening to me?"

Sam could only shake his head, swallowing hard and pushing Dean back into the motel room.

WebMD did not cover this sort of thing.

* * *

Step one in this sort of situation -- had they ever encountered anything even remotely like one of them sprouting horns and furry legs and, Dean admitted, possibly a tail -- would be to call Bobby.

Unfortunately, Bobby wasn't answering his phone. His voicemail said he was working a gig "down south" and that if this was "the idjits", they'd just have to get their asses to his place and look whatever it was up their own damned selves. He'd be back at the end of the week.

It was Thursday. Even with Dean's extra stops, it wouldn't take them more than a day to make it to Bobby's in South Dakota. No matter which way they looked at it -- since Sam was really, really, really sure that there wasn't anything even remotely resembling what was going on with Dean in their personal library -- it was going to take more than a day to even get started on the research. Sure, there was the internet, but the internet, well. The internet could probably tell him a little bit about what Dean might be turning into. Maybe a word or two on what sort of diet he might need, or how those freaky eyes might work. But to get to that stuff, Sam would have to go through more links and pages than he wants to think about what sort of depraved, bizarre acts he could perform on whatever Dean might be turning into. So. More than a day with no answers, whatsoever.

Sam didn't like not having answers. He had a tendency, when he didn't have answers and couldn't get them, to start making them up. When he was young, before that fateful Christmas, that had meant deciding his father was a spy. Later, it meant deciding that everything wrong in his life was his father's fault. Then Jess had burned, and Sam had switched the scapegoating to himself. There had been a period the year before, unfortunately very brief, when he'd gotten to blame everything on God and the angels, but that was over now. They hadn't seen hide nor hair -- smoke nor feather -- of either side of the holy war in months, and John had been dead for years. He could blame the thing on Dean, but, well . . . he'd done a fair bit of that last year, too, and though he was still pretty sure he'd been right, it hadn't done either of them much more good than just making Dean even worse and pushing them farther apart.

So when faced with the mystery of his brother's slow transformation, Sam had only one way to turn.

"It's me, isn't it," he said, a few minutes after hanging up the phone from Bobby's voicemail. Dean was sitting on his bed, now, still dressed only in Sam's sweatpants, his legs folded up beneath him in a way that should have only been possible for a professional contortionist. At Sam's words, those strange eyes rolled down from where they were staring at the ceiling.

Weird pupils or no, though, Dean's "you're an idiot" expression was just as clear as ever.

"Yes, Sam," he said, his voice fairly dripping. "You're actually the one growing horns." He squirmed for a moment, face contorting as he reached behind him to scratch at the base of his spine. "This sucks. No one's gonna want to sleep with a guy with a hairy ass."

"Your priorities are seriously skewed."

Dean blinked innocently at him. "So's your face."

Sam couldn't help a snort of laughter, though he tried to drown it in a cough, rather than encourage his brother's lame sense of humor. "I'm serious, Dean. This is . . . this is exactly what I'm talking about."

"My hairy ass?"

Sam felt a growl try to rise in his throat and swallowed it down. "I think you're turning into a satyr."

Dean nodded the same way he had in Florida when Sam had been time-looped. It was the nod of "you're completely nuts, but that's okay. We can work with that."

Sam had gotten that nod a lot in his life.

"I'm not Greek, Sam."

"Neither are satyrs."

And that was when the "you're crazy" nod turned into the "you think I'm an idiot" head tilt. "Sam --"

Sam shook his head, holding his hands up to stop Dean before he launched into the full "I do read" speech again. "Yeah, okay, satyrs are, but there's stories about them -- or things like them -- all over the world. It's like saying a vampire is purely Romanian."

The indignation bled out of Dean's expression, leaving only the incredulity behind. "You think I'm turning into a goatman." His eyes widened and he leaned forward. "And you think it's your fault?"

Sam lowered his chin and glanced away.

"You been messing with some hocus pocus behind my back, Sammy?"

Sam looked back quickly and shook his head. "No!" He couldn't keep the slight tinge of bitterness from his voice, though. It wasn't too long ago that he had been fooling around behind Dean's back, for a damned good reason, too. The way it had all gone down -- right, focus here. His brother was becoming half-goat. Slightly more important than carrying a grudge from the darkest, weirdest time of their lives.

On the other hand, his brother was becoming half-goat.

Sam pinched at the bridge of his nose and let out a sharp breath, getting his impatience with Dean under control. "I'm not saying I'm doing it on purpose, just. . . ."

"Just what, Sam?"

Sam looked down at his hand, clenched around his phone, and spent a moment flicking at the cuticle of his thumb with his fingernails. "I haven't, you know, done anything with my powers in awhile. Maybe there's some bleed-over."

"Last I checked, your spooky mojo didn't include transformations."

Sam turned the phone over and over in his hands, not quite able to bring himself to look up.

"Sam, tell me your powers don't include transformations."

Sam shrugged. He wanted to deny it, but the truth was, he'd never tried to do anything like that. He'd spent his time with Ruby honing the demon-expelling and -killing and ignoring any other stuff, the psychic visions or the mind-control or the electro-kinesis or whatever that kid Scott Carey had had. He had no idea how far the scope of his abilities might extend.

It was the wrong answer, though, because Dean exploded up off the bed, pacing back and forth across the small motel room in awkward fury as he adjusted to walking on -- well, Sam suspected it was his developing hooves. "Jesus Christ, Sam!"

Sam opened his mouth to point out that, a) he hadn't actually said "yes" and b) considering their history, maybe they shouldn't be using that name as an expostulation any more, but Dean cut him off.

"Dammit, man, you're like a freaking anime character! Just when I think you can't get any more ridiculously powerful, your sword turns into a whip and starts shooting baboons!"

Okay, that was it. Sam pushed himself to his feet as well, grabbing onto Dean's bare shoulders to halt his progress and staring down into Dean's furious, rectangular eyes. "I didn't say I could, Dean! I said I don't know if I could!"

Dean shrugged out from under Sam's grip and stepped backwards, only to catch his foot -- hoof -- foot on the edge of the sweatpants and topple backwards onto the bed. Once there, he crossed his legs primly, as though to pretend he'd meant to sit down all along. He set his lips in a hard line. "You really think you're accidentally turning me into a goatman?"

Sam shoved his hands into his pockets. "You got any better ideas?"

Dean's brow went up. "Uh, yeah. How about the one where we get our asses over to South Dakota and do some actual research before we start laying blame?"

Wow. Sam really kind of hated it when Dean had a point like that. "Yeah. Okay." He held out his hand. "I'm driving."

Dean stared at Sam's palm like it had just killed his puppy -- or, if he really was turning into a goatman, as if Sam's palm had just stolen the puppy Dean had intended to kill. He opened his mouth to complain, but Sam cut him off.

"Dean, if this keeps going like I think it will, pretty soon you might not have ankles."

Dean let out a low groan, then grabbed his jacket off the dresser and handed over the Impala's keys. "Dude, this sucks." He started rooting through his duffel bag, then set about getting dressed. "If you are behind this, your subconscious has a sick sense of humor."

Sam shoved the keys in his pocket. "I know." He started packing up his backpack, then cast a glance at Dean over his shoulder. "Baboons?"

"Shut up."

"I thought you said you didn't watch Cartoon Network late at night, any more."

Dean flipped him off.


2:Goatman

They stopped a few hours in for lunch at one of those truck stop deals that included a choice of half-assed fast food stalls and a wide array of cheap, useless toys and souvenirs. Sam went in to order, leaving a grumpy, twitchy Dean behind to wait in the car. Sunglasses could hide his eyes from view easily enough, but Dean's horns were starting to come in in force, now, curving, ridged, black, and already too large to ignore. It was as though the acknowledgment of what was happening to him was permission for it to happen even faster. For all that Dean liked to pride himself on keeping them more prepared than your average boy-scout, neither of them actually seemed to own any hats. Still, while it was patently obvious to Sam that Dean couldn't go out anywhere in public until they at least got him something to cover those horns, it had taken some convincing to get Dean to stay in the car.

It probably didn't help that the last time Dean had sat in the car while Sam went to get food, Dean hadn't seen Sam again until he was getting stabbed in the back. There wasn't really a reason to connect that event -- or Meg possessing Sam when he went for burgers -- with the actual act of solo food retrieval, but Sam had to figure that Dean was already on edge, what with the changes his body was going through, and the reminder of less than happy times wasn't helping.

Sam made a promise to keep things very quick indeed, and after Dean running him through a checklist to ensure that he had his gun, a knife, a flask of holy water, a shaker of salt, two anti-possession charms they dug up from the glove compartment, and Dean's lucky quarter -- which Sam suspected hadn't even existed until that moment -- Sam climbed out of the car and headed into the truck stop.

He couldn't have been gone longer than seven minutes, total, but when he returned to the car bearing their food and a foam cheese fez, Dean was nowhere in sight.

Sam almost -- almost -- dropped his purchases. "Goddammit!" He set them on top of the Impala's roof instead and turned in place, scanning the parking lot for any sign of his wayward brother.

It didn't take long to find him. Turned out, all Sam really had to do was to follow the gasps and moans.

Now, Sam knew that his brother was a bit of a player. It was pretty damned hard to miss, after all. But Dean had been rather less interested in casual sex since things started going haywire with the angels and demons the year before, and if anything could have stopped his brother from macking on the nearest female, Sam had been pretty sure it would be the whole "no one wants to sleep with a guy with a hairy ass" thing. And seven minutes? That was pushing it even when Dean was at the top of his game.

Yet, there he was, leaning up against an off-white Saturn -- a Saturn? Really?! -- with a milky-skinned, tiny-waisted pixie-girl straddling his hips and stroking his horns.

For the love of --

"Dean."

Dean had his head back, eyes closed and mouth open like the girl's fingers on his horn was better than -- Sam didn't want to think about what he seemed to think it was better than. One of Dean's hands crept up under the girl's shirt like an afterthought.

There was no sign that either of them heard Sam.

He sighed, going for volume. "Dean."

One of Dean's eyes cracked open and peered at Sam, his mouth pulling shut again. "Hmmm?"

Hmmm? Sam had nearly had a heart attack when he couldn't find Dean, and that was his brother's response? Hmmm?!

Sam was going to kill him.

"Do you mind?"

The girl tilted her head and upper body back, fingers still clenched around Dean's right horn, and threw a loopy grin at Sam. "Are you the artist?"

"The artist?"

She gave the horn two firm strokes, and Sam watched as Dean's eye rolled up and his mouth came open again.

"This is some great effects make-up."

Sam felt his lips twitch into a grin and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Yeah. But, uh, they're kinda fragile, and we've got a gig to get to, so if you don't mind. . . ?"

The girl nodded and let go of the horn, dropping her raised leg back to the ground and stepping back from Dean. "I wouldn't worry. You guys are totally gonna win." She skipped backwards away from Dean -- so that wasn't her car they were making out on top of -- and flashed him a wink. Dean watched her go, his face going through eyebrow gymnastics that bordered on obscene. It took Sam three snaps in front of his eyes to redirect his attention away from the pixie-chick.

"Dude, she was so hot for the horns."

"I'm going to kill you."

Dean grinned, pushing off of the car and giving its door a brief, somewhat befuddled pat, as though he couldn't figure out how he'd ended up all the way over here, cheating on his beloved Impala with an off-white Saturn. "You're just jealous."

"Get back in the car, Dean."

"Seriously. Just because you don't get the girls all horny."

"Car. Now."

"Get it? Horny? 'Cause of the -- yeah, okay." Dean scowled and swung himself into the passenger seat of the Impala with far more grace than he'd been moving anywhere in the last few weeks. He was adapting to his new legs. "You are so made of cock-block."

Sam rolled his eyes and grabbed his purchases from the top of the car, throwing the cheese fez at Dean before he sat down and dug into his own french fries. "Whatever, dude. Let's just get to Bobby's so we can fix this."

Dean pulled the plastic top off of his soda and took a bite out of it like he was eating a cookie.

* * *

"You know, you shouldn't have made out with that girl."

Dean looked up from where he was staring out the window, cheese fez perched jauntily atop his head in a way that totally failed to hide his horns, half-eaten straw sticking out of his mouth. He'd already finished the rest of his lunch. Including the cup, napkins, boxes, and paper bag. Sam was a little worried that he'd start gnawing on the cheese fez when he finished with that straw. "Don' be such a prude."

Sam stared down the open highway, trying to ignore the chewing sounds coming from his brother. "I'm serious, man."

"So am I. I fulfill a new kink. It would be neglectful -- dare I say it, even wrong -- not to make the kinky girls happy."

Sam groaned through his closed lips, his left hand tightening on the wheel. "That's what I'm talking about, Dean. How do you know she was into horns?"

"Uh, did ya see the way she was fondling this sucker?" Sam caught sight of Dean reaching for his horn in the edge of his vision and smacked Dean's hand back down.

"You're turning into a satyr, Dean."

"Goatman."

"Satyr. You know what satyrs are?"

"Pansy-ass goatman-wannabes who prance around in the forest with nymphs?"

Sam didn't even wanna touch half of that statement. "They're fertility spirits, Dean. Do you get that?"

Dean was silent for a long moment. Then he sucked the rest of his mauled, deflated straw in like he was eating spaghetti and chewed. Swallowed. Scratched his chin, which was starting to look like he hadn't bothered shaving. Sam tried not to think of what all that plastic and cardboard must be doing to Dean's throat and stomach.

"So," Dean finally said. "I've got, like, a super-dick?"

Sam couldn't help but wonder if this spell, or whatever it was, was actually giving Dean brain damage.

* * *

They reached Bobby's place late enough that night that all they managed to do was stumble in, drop their things in the library, and flop out on the couch and floor. Sam was tempted to try and offer Dean the couch, this time, but decided that his brother would just see it as an attack on his manly dignity or some such thing, and Sam just didn't have the energy to get chewed out right then.

He was dozing, just on the verge of falling into dreamland, when one of the phones rang. Dean grunted from the floor, but Sam didn't feel all that inclined to get up and answer the sucker, and apparently neither did Dean, since three rings later, he could hear the tape in Bobby's old answering machine whir and click to life.

"You've reached Singer Auto Salvage. You know what to do."

The beep followed, then a long pause filled with heavy breathing. Dean grunted again, an amused sound this time, and Sam heard his lips smack open, probably with a comment about Bobby and heavy breather phone calls, when an unfamiliar voice spoke up.

"Bobby. Bobby, it's me. Cox is. Cox is gone, man. It's. I don't even. We're in Maine. The billdad. We didn't go after the devil, but Cox was -- he wanted it. You know how he gets. So the billdad. But -- Jesus, Bobby. We got it, he got the sucker, of course he did, the man was -- but then he -- I don't even know. He just jumped. Right into the lake, like he'd float, like that thing did. It's Bill Murphy, man, all over again, but Cox knew better, he didn't --"

The tape cut off, stopping the voice mid-ramble. Sam looked over to where Dean was sprawled on the floor and saw Dean staring back, his eyes wide. His elongated pupils weren't visible in the dark, but the light of the moon through the windows caught on the back of his eyes like an animal's, making them seem to glow in the dark.

Sam swallowed and forced himself to hold Dean's gaze. "Okay," he said. "That's, uh." He didn't know how to finish the sentence, just that the phone call had given him a bad feeling.

Dean turned his head towards the ceiling, and the strange, reflected light vanished. "Yeah."

Sam shifted onto his back, one arm bent up behind his head. He thought about sleeping, but no longer felt tired. He opened his mouth to speak again a few times, but he had no idea what to say.

It was Dean who broke the silence.

"What the hell is a billdad?"

* * *

Bobby got home a few hours after dawn the next day. He got out of his car, spent a moment staring at the Impala, then proceeded to take his dear sweet time getting his things and turning towards the house, giving Sam, who had gone to the window the moment he heard the car pull up, plenty of time to study the man. Sam turned his head, keeping his eyes glued on Bobby's figure, and called over his shoulder to Dean, who was still in the kitchen eating the largest breakfast that Sam had ever laid eyes on.

"Hey. Come here."

He heard the chair squeak, then the click of Dean's hooves on the tile. Dean had spent ten minutes that morning messing with his boots before throwing them to the side and just clopping around. His horns had grown again, too. Sam now figured they'd need a cowboy hat to even begin to hide those things. The hair on his chin was long enough to start to curl, and Dean scratched at it as he made his way over, chewing on something tucked in his left cheek.

"Bobby need help with his bags?"

Sam shook his head. "Just . . . look."

Dean huffed a breath through his nose, tossing his head back, then stepped up next to Sam to look out the window. "What?"

"Bobby look . . . hairier to you?"

"Bobby's always been hairy."

"Look at his beard."

Dean tilted his head, and Sam felt the urge to shift sideways so the tips of the horns weren't directed quite so much at his corneas. "What? So he hasn't trimmed his beard in a bit."

"Right. And you just decided to rock the goatee."

"I look awesome with a goatee."

Sam took a quick step back from the window, pulling Dean along by the collar of his shirt, when he saw Bobby turn toward the house. "You heard that message last night the same as I did. Between you and what sounded like a decent hunter suddenly up and drowning himself . . . what if whatever it is got Bobby, too?"

"And made his beard grow?" Dean gave Sam his "you're going 'dingoes ate my baby' crazy again" look. Which come to think of it, was really odd coming from a guy with horns and sideways eyeballs.

"I don't know, Dean! But --" Sam cut himself off when the door opened and Bobby came in, leading with his suitcase.

"Right, what have you boys gotten yourselves into now?"

Sam tried for a friendly grin and suspected he fell short. Dean chewed. Bobby adjusted his hat and tossed his suitcase in the corner before turning to look at them. Sam could see the moment he got a glimpse of Dean by the way his eyes widened and his mouth came open.

"Hey Bobby." Dean's lips smacked and he swallowed. "Grown any hooves lately?"

Bobby's eyes slid sideways to Sam's, and Sam gave him a helpless look in return.

"Aw hell," said Bobby.

That summed it up pretty well.

* * *

"So your brother's turning into a satyr." Bobby looked over at Dean and swatted at him, missing slicing his palm open on Dean's horns by a fraction of an inch. Dean blinked, then spit out the fork he'd been gnawing on. Bobby turned back to Sam, who was sitting at the desk in the kitchen with them, his chin resting on his palm. "And Cox has gone billdad on us."

Dean tipped himself back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his neck. "Or he just decided to go for a swim."

Bobby shook his head. "Jean referenced Bill Murphy. Don't know if you boys got much research done last night?" He paused while Sam shook his head. They'd spent awhile tossing ideas back and forth in the dark, but the long drive and stress of the morning had taken its toll, and Sam had passed out before he'd managed to get to his laptop. "Bill Murphy was a swamper for the logging industry back around the turn of the century. Only man on record to ever try a taste of billdad stew. Legend says he took one bite, crouched down like the suckers are known to, then took a flying leap straight into the lake."

"So Cox ate his kill?" Sam glanced at Dean, who looked sickened for a moment, before shrugging and going back to eying the silverware. Bobby shook his head.

"No way. Cox knew logging lore better'n any other hunter I've ever seen. He would have known the risk. Hell, the man claimed to have laid eyes on a hidebehind."

"I take it that's unusual," Dean said.

"Didn't get a name like 'hidebehind' by standing right in front of you."

"So if he didn't try for the world's creepiest after-hunt snack, what happened?"

Bobby shook his head. "Hell if I can make it out."

Sam sat up, leaning with his elbows on the table. "What about the 'devil' Jean mentioned? He wasn't talking about demon, was he?"

"You know as well as I do that no one's laid eyes on one of those suckers since the last seal was saved. He meant the one in Jersey."

Dean sat upright. "Dude. No one hunts the Jersey Devil. That's way too high-profile. Hell, the Snallygaster was pushing it."

"That's what I told him. Not like there ain't about a thousand less known critters and spooks to track down out there. But Cox, well, he said he was getting bored. Wanted a challenge."

Sam caught Dean's eye again. Cox's story wasn't exactly unusual, these days. Sam and Dean had had more than one conversation like it, in the past year. Since they'd averted the apocalypse, things in the supernatural world had quieted down a lot. No demons hanging around, and even the spirits seemed to have gotten less active. They weren't the only hunters who'd turned to tracking down the more obscure and bizarre cryptids just to keep in shape.

It hadn't slipped Sam's notice that Dean currently resembled one of those cryptids himself. He figured by the look on Dean's face that it hadn't escaped his, either.

Bobby looked between the two of them for a moment, then reached up to adjust his hat. "What about you boys? Any theories on Dean's new look?"

Sam and Dean shook their heads simultaneously.

"What were you two after when all this started?"

Sam shrugged. "A hodag. Not really known for their cursing powers."

Dean shook his head again, his strange eyes focused on the table. "It was before that."

The muscles in Sam's jaw twitched. "What?"

"By a couple of weeks."

"And you didn't tell me?"

Dean looked up, his expression closed off and defensive. "I didn't know what was going on, Sam! I figured I was just sore, but -- I guess it started after Maryland."

"The Snallygaster."

"Yeah. Also not exactly known for cursing."

Bobby rubbed his chin, smoothing down his straggly beard, then scratched at his chest. "Well, you got me stumped. I know just about all there is to know 'bout demons and spirits, and a helluva lot about the oni and their kin. Can't say I'm always that familiar with the hairy critters on this side of the pond."

Dean sighed, playing with the fork he'd been chewing on. "And it sounds like the man to ask has decided to take an unscheduled dip." He leaned back in his chair again and groaned, rubbing his hand across his mouth. "So what the hell are we gonna do?"

"Same thing we'd do for anything else we don't already know about." Bobby set his palms on the table and pushed himself to his feet. "Research and ask around."

That got another groan out of Dean. "Someone is so buying me a pie."

* * *

Dean ran. The ease with which his bovid legs ate the distance belied the way his breath heaved in sharp pants, the wide rounded look of his eyes. He seemed to more leap than run, flinging himself from hoof to hoof over the twisted roots and exposed rocks of the woods, his upper body bent forward at an extreme angle, hands dropping to the ground every few steps to scrabble in the dirt, as though his clawing fingers could propel him forward that much faster.

He was naked, though the thick golden fur coating his lower body from the top of his hips to the edge of his hooves gave him the illusion of modesty. His upper body dripped brown and red, streaked with sweat, blood, and dirt, crosshatched with scratches and cuts from the branches of the trees and bushes he burst through without a second glance. What remained of his clothes had been twisted into rough rope, circling his shoulders and crossing over his chest, woven into a scanty approximation of a holster under his left arm -- though if it had ever held Dean's gun, it had been lost some distance back. The sheath tied to his right arm was likewise empty; he was unarmed save for his horns, now sweeping up over his head, curving back and out so that the tips were spread as wide as his shoulders. One tip looked sharp enough to pierce a man's skin, the other was blunted, broken off several inches down.

A crack of a rifle echoed off the trees, followed by the shouts of at least three men, and Sam realized that Dean was being pursued by humans. He wanted to jump out behind his brother, cover his six, maybe shout some absurd, useless warning like 'watch out', but as was often the case in his darker dreams, Sam was nothing more than an observer, here, formless and impotent.

And this was a dream, Sam realized. Dean's transformation wasn't this complete, yet. This was just a dream.

Dean scrambled over a fallen tree and made a leap into the lower branches of a living one, wobbling precariously for a moment before catching his balance with his hands on the trunk and climbing even higher in the branches. His mouth clamped shut on his shuddering breath as he froze into a crouch maybe fifteen feet from the ground, his nostrils flaring. He held still save for the heave of his shoulders, breath wrestled under control until the sound of its rasp was drowned out by the tromp and crackle of the footsteps of the hunters on his trail.

The men wore dingy flannel rather than orange vests, jeans instead of camo. Their weapons weren't the slick, high powered rifles of sportsmen, but rather well-used and battered sawed of shotguns and pistols. As they reached the tree Dean had used as his jumping off point, one of them held up a hand and dropped into a crouch, running his fingers over the bark. He tilted his head up, looking towards Dean's tree, just missing spotting him as Dean pushed himself backwards off the branch, dropping back down to the low brush and mulched leaves of the forest floor. The hunters immediately moved to follow the sound of his landing, but Dean was already running again, hooves scraping against the uneven ground.

Sam had a moment to hope that Dean's new legs would be enough to carry him faster over the ground than the hunters could pursue, that Dean had a chance to escape, when a snap-crunch rang through the trees, accompanied by Dean's strangled cry of pain and the sound of his body hitting the ground. Sam was at his side in an instant, bending invisibly over his brother's head, unable to take his eyes off of the black metal clamped around Dean's leg, the fur already matting with blood.

Dean's leg looked fragile like this, thin and fuzzy, lean muscle barely covering the bone. Sam thought of the bones and tendons subtly rearranging themselves over the course of weeks, thigh shortening and foot elongating and solidifying until his ankle was a full third of the way up the limb. He thought of how stiffly Dean had been moving since Maryland, how his balance had shifted day by day, and was suddenly impressed Dean could walk at all, let alone manage the loping gait he'd had running through these woods.

Dream, he thought. You're dreaming. This isn't real.

Dean whimpered deep in his throat, his leg spasming, unable to shake the bear-trap that had nearly taken his whole leg off below the knee. Dream or not, the image hurt, clenching deep in Sam's chest until he felt like he was strangling on it.

There was nothing he could do, though. This was a dream, and he was just an observer, here.

The hunters caught up in a matter of seconds, the man in the lead drawing a bead between Dean's eyes, weapon cocked. Sam wanted to shut his eyes and block out the sight of his brother's brains being blown out on the forest floor, but the hunter did something unexpected.

He hesitated.

Dean's eyes opened, rectangular pupils distinct in the sunlight filtering in through the canopy. He met the hunter's eyes and gagged before speaking, his voice rougher than ever from exertion and pain. "Well?"

The lead hunter lowered his aim, staring back. Sam realized that the man could see the intelligence -- the humanity -- that sparked behind the alien shape of Dean's gaze. That he could tell that just because Dean was bizarre didn't mean he was evil. This man would help his brother. He'd get him help for his leg and get him back to Bobby's, where Sam could help him figure out how to keep other hunters off his trail and how to fix this --

A shot rang out and Dean slumped back onto the ground, eyes still open wide, a bloody hole marking the exact center of his forehead, forming an X with his eyes and the bottoms of his horns.

The lead hunter stood absolutely still for a moment, the shock in his eyes echoing that which filmed over Sam's own mind. The hunter behind him to his right lowered his smoking pistol.

"Who knew goatmen could talk?"


3:Woodwose

Sam sat up sharply, pulling in a hard breath through his nose, and pawed at the piece of paper stuck to his face.

"Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty." Dean sat across the desk from him, one hoof propped up on the far edge. He was dressed, his horns were seven inches long, and his expression was calm, bordering on bland. He was chewing again.

"Please tell me you're not eating one of Bobby's forks."

Dean swallowed and dropped his hoof back down to the floor. He flicked his eyes over Sam for a second. "Had a hell of a dream there, huh?"

Sam pushed himself further upright, tugging at his shirt and leaning back in his chair, trying for casual. "You know goats don't really eat everything, right? That's just a myth."

"So are satyrs," Dean pointed out cheerfully. "And I wasn't eating Bobby's fork. I was just . . . chewing on it."

"You ate fast food packaging, yesterday."

"Yeah, well." Dean flipped a page in the book in his lap, then tossed it onto the desktop in front of Sam. "Apparently I have four stomachs. Forgive me for being hungry." He grimaced. "I'm skipping the plastic next time, though. That . . . didn't go down well." He burped, then started chewing again. Sam frowned.

"You're -- are you chewing cud?"

Dean shoved whatever was in his mouth to the side to answer. "It's called 'ruminating'," he said primly.

"You threw up in your mouth and now you're eating it."

Dean scowled, swallowing again. "Four stomachs, dude. Do I make fun of how you eat?"

"Yeah. You do."

"Yeah, well, you're changing the subject." Dean leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and lowering his head to peer at Sam. Sam leaned further back instinctively as Dean's horns pointed at his forehead. "You having visions again?"

Sam shook his head. "I haven't had a vision in, like, three years."

Dean tilted his head. "Seems to me we thought the visions were gone once before. And you ended up killing demons with your brain."

Bobby's desk chair was suddenly the most uncomfortable place Sam had ever sat. He shifted, glancing to the side. "But not having visions. Besides, no more demons, remember?"

Dean was silent for a long moment, and Sam suspected that if he looked, Dean would be chewing again. Ruminating. It kind of put things into perspective. Sure, Sam had demon blood running through him, but hey, Dean was half-goat.

Sam tried to get them back on track again. "You manage to learn anything other than your amazing new stomach issues?"

Dean sighed and tapped his fingers against the desk. "Fine, Dodgy McDeflectorpants. Be that way. No. We didn't find the magical answers while you were sleeping. You get anything before you decided to take a nap?"

Sam rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to get the dream -- just a dream, not a vision -- out of his head long enough to remember what he'd been looking at. He picked up the paper that had been stuck to his face when he'd woken up and looked it over.

Ah, yes. Right.

"Maybe. I was looking up some of the myths of satyrs and similar half-goat spirits around the world. There's definitely some similarities. Most of them are considered to be representations of wilderness or pasture. They've got big appetites --" He held up his hand to forestall any further protestations of "four stomachs, dude". "-- and, well, they're pretty damned horny. Satyrs especially are often depicted with permanent erections."

Dean's eyebrows went up. "Well, we can scratch that one off the list. I'm not Viagra-man over here."

"Yeah, we know." Bobby's voice came from the doorway of the library, causing both of them to look up. He gave Dean a meaningful look. "Now put some goddamn pants on."

Sam turned his head to stare at Dean. He half-stood to peer over the desk. Sure enough, though he had as many layers as usual on his upper body, Dean was only wearing his shorts, revealing his hairy, multiply jointed legs in all their glory. Sam flashed back to the image from his dream, Dean's leg broken and laid open by the bear trap, and swallowed. The fur wasn't as thick now as it was in his dream and his hooves weren't quite as fully formed, but the general shape of Dean's legs was right. Dean's legs in the dream had seemed natural somehow, though, despite how different they were from human legs. Now, without the full coat, they looked pale, scrawny, and wrong.

"Why the hell aren't you wearing any pants?!"

Dean pursed his lips, looking between Bobby and Sam and folding his arms across his chest. "It's hot in here, okay? You try sprouting fur and see how much you like wearing clothes."

Silence reigned for a few moments. Sam looked over at Bobby, who rubbed a hand across his chest and shrugged. Sam looked back at Dean and caught him sinking lower in his chair.

"Okay, I never thought I'd say this, but can we get back to the research, now?" Dean pulled his legs in closer to his body as though he could hide them. Sam looked away again and sat down.

"Yeah. Sorry." He cleared his throat and looked from his notes to his laptop and back again a few times. "Uh. Anyway. Satyrs are known for their foolishness, too. Not like being stupid, but the traditional role of the 'fool', the character used to mock certain ideas, poke holes in commonly held wisdom. I'm pretty sure that's where the word 'satire' comes from, actually."

Dean straightened again. "You mean knock people down a peg? Take the wind out of 'em?"

Sam shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."

"And who do we know who's favorite thing to do is take people down a peg and happens to have the kind of power it'd take to do this sort of thing?" Dean smacked his fist down on the desk. "The freaking Trickster!"

Sam looked at Bobby. Bobby looked back and shrugged. Sam frowned.

"I dunno, Dean."

"What's not to know? It's not like he hasn't messed with me before, Sam."

Except that the thing in Florida had been designed to mess with Sam, not Dean. "The Trickster's not really known for being this, you know, subtle."

"You calling this subtle? I have horns."

"Which aren't even fully grown yet." Sam watched Dean's face crumple, his hand coming up to touch one of the horns. He wondered if Dean had thought that the seven inch growths were as long as they were going to get. "This has been going on over weeks, Dean. We've been bouncing from state to state every couple of days. The Trickster's . . . he's not that patient."

Bobby cleared his throat. "And Cox mighta been a blowhard, but far as I know, he never crossed the sucker."

Dean gaped at both of them for a few moments, his legs curling in towards his body again in an outward expression of his disappointment and discomfort. He'd really thought he'd figured it out, there, had an easy way to go back to looking like he was supposed to. "Well, fine. Then what good does that 'fool' stuff do us?"

Sam looked at Bobby again and saw his own thoughts reflected on the older man's face. "It's kind of appropriate, don't you think?"

"Appropriate?!"

"You've been poking at people you thought were too full of themselves your whole life. Mind you, with you it's mostly authority figures, but still. And the appetite?"

Bobby cleared his throat, and Sam looked up to see him rubbing his beard, which he still hadn't trimmed. If anything, it seemed to have gotten even scragglier, making him look a bit like Grizzly Adams after a three day bender. Bobby didn't seem too concerned by it, though. "And you are something of a horn-dog, kid."

"So, what? You're telling me that just 'cause I happen to like to eat and have sex and laugh at people, I have to turn into a goat-man?"

Bobby shrugged. "If the shoe fits. . . ."

Dean stretched out one leg to thump his hoof onto the desk again. "My shoes don't fit any more!"

Sam cleared his throat. "There's, uh, more."

"That's not enough?!"

Sam looked up at Bobby. "What do you know about the Horned God?"

Bobby gave Dean an appraising look. "Huh."

Dean twisted his head back and forth, looking from Sam to Bobby and back again. "Spit it out already."

Bobby took point, and Sam let him, feeling oddly comforted by falling into the familiar role of student to Bobby's teacher, even when he already knew the information being taught. "The Horned God is the male half of the Wiccan deity system. The female, the Triple Goddess, tends to get more press, but they're both equally important." Bobby ran a finger over the spines of several books while he spoke before pulling out one in particular, flipping to a certain page, and handing it over to Dean. Sam leaned forward to take a look. The page showed an image of a winged, goat-headed man with a pentagram in the center of his forehead. Dean huffed as he looked at it, then handed it back to Bobby.

"That's great, but I don't have three horns. Or man boobs."

"Yes, well, artistic license and talent aside, the idea of the Horned God is pretty damned ancient. Some theories state that he was one of the primary pagan deities of Western Europe, before Christianity came in and demonized him. You boys know as well as I do that demons don't look a damned thing like that, but popular mythology has dressed 'em up like goatmen for centuries."

"Well, good to know I'm not turning into an old school demon stereotype," Dean said. "But I'm sure as hell not some witchy god, either."

Bobby nodded to him and continued. "The Horned God is known for doing a lot of different things in the spirit and fairy realms. Everything from ruling the Underworld and holding mastery over death -- which, well, consider the number of times you're supposed to have died -- and leading the Wild Hunt."

"The dude's a hunter?"

"That's not all." Sam took over the narrative, figuring that Bobby wasn't that likely to include some of what he'd found. He turned the laptop so Dean could see it. "The Horned God has a lot of weight in psychology, too. Jungian theory suggests that the Horned God might represent compensation for 'inadequate fathering'."

Dean's expression darkened. "Oh, you are not bringing Dad into this." He leaned forward and scrolled through the website a bit. "Dude, you're getting this from Wikipedia? You know that was totally added by some twelve year old who'd just discovered Oedipus, right?"

Sam decided not to ask what Dean thought he knew about Oedipus. "Look, I'm just saying there's a lot of parallels here, okay? It's something to look into." He looked up at Bobby, hoping for back up.

Bobby sighed. "It's some interesting stuff about why, Sam, but it doesn't tell us a damned thing about how."

Sam felt his shoulders slump. "Yeah. I know." He closed his eyes, wincing as the image of Dean dead on the forest floor flashed against his eyelids.

It wasn't a vision. It wasn't.

"Hey, maybe we should talk to Chuck."

Sam's eyes shot open. "Chuck."

"Chuck?" Bobby looked between the two of them. Sam nodded, realizing that in the excitement of the war coming to a head the year before, they'd never quite explained Chuck and his novels to their mentor.

"He's, uh. He's a prophet."

"You boys know a prophet." Bobby said. "And you're still comin' to me for all your answers?"

Dean grinned. "You smell better." The grin vanished as he cocked his head, his nostrils flaring. "Well, you used to."

Bobby crossed his arms over his chest and tried to surreptitiously sniff his own armpit. "Shaddup."

* * *

So Sam called Chuck, the prophet who wrote the Winchester Gospel -- though Sam was pretty sure that should just be the "Gospel according to Chuck" or maybe the "Book of Winchester". Or was "books" just for the Old Testament? He was pretty sure a "gospel" was supposed to be about Jesus, and unless there were some things that Castiel never got around to telling them -- which, yeah, okay, so that was pretty possible, the guy practically defined "cagey" -- neither Dean nor Sam was supposed to be the second coming. So the Supernatural books, those would be, what, the first through umpty-somethingth epistle to the Winchesters? Except they weren't written to Sam and Dean, just about Sam and Dean.

And while Sam couldn't speak for Dean, of course, this was why he hadn't told Bobby about their own personal prophet Chuck. It was, despite everything else they'd been through -- Dean becoming part-goat excepted -- just too bizarre. It didn't work. Sam couldn't fit his brain around the trashy novels, their author, their fan-base, or their supposed importance in the grand scheme of things, so for the most part, he pretended they didn't exist.

You know, when he wasn't sneaking onto the message boards while Dean was out and starting flame wars with the so-called "Dean girls".

So. Sam called Chuck. The phone rang -- once, twice, three times -- and then Chuck answered with a hurried, panicked "No, I will not write you a love interest, it doesn't work that way and you know it!" and hung up.

Sam stared at his phone until the light of the display faded out, then lifted his eyes to where Dean was slouched pantless on Bobby's couch, eating a maple leaf. Dean looked back, his jaw idling open, his lips pursed around the stem of the leaf, his eyes wide in a look of childish innocence that no one who knew Dean had fallen for since he was seven. Sam dropped his chin and tilted his head. Dean's eyebrows crawled up another two millimeters towards the base of his horns, then another three when Sam failed to bow under the pressure of his guileless look. Sam held still and when Dean's brows twitched like they were just discovering they couldn't go up any higher, he knew he'd won. The brows dropped and Dean's lips quirked, ingenuous to devious in two easy moves. He slid the leaf stem to the corner of his lips and flashed his teeth.

Sam groaned. "So have you actually been asking for Chuck to write you more sex scenes, or were you just planning to?"

Dean did something with his tongue that made the leaf stem twirl in a wide, somehow decidedly dirty circle and shrugged. Sam's fingers twitched.

"Did you have to make them from my phone?"

Dean pulled the gnawed, stripped, and sodden leaf from his mouth like it was a lollipop and smacked his lips. "My battery was dead."

Sam threw the phone at Dean's head.

* * *

He tried again, this time from Bobby's phone, figuring that Chuck wouldn't know the number and therefore wouldn't assume he was being harassed. Of course that backfired, since Chuck didn't know the number and therefore didn't bother even answering the phone to find out if he was being harassed. Sam left a message, a succinct "Chuck, it's Sam, call me back," but he wasn't satisfied. They'd been forced to be unusually passive about this whole transformation thanks to their lack of information and Dean's increasing conspicuousness, and Sam was sick of it. Calling Chuck was the first real idea they'd had since calling Bobby, and Sam wasn't going to stop trying it until he got definitive answers.

So he tried Dean's phone.

Chuck answered on the first ring. "Okay, look, do you think I don't know what you're doing? This is -- this is harassment, or something! Prophet harassment, and I don't have to stand for it. I --"

"Chuck," Sam interrupted, before he could be treated to any more hurried, terrified accusations from the man. "It's Sam."

Chuck went very quiet. After a moment, his tone changed to the quieter, gentler tones that Sam was more used to hearing from him. Sam frowned at that. Why did Dean get panicked warbling while Sam got the psychoanalyst? In a certain sense, Chuck knew them better than they knew even themselves. What did it say about Sam and Dean that this was how Chuck reacted?

"Hey, Sam. Sorry about that."

"No problem. Dean gets on everybody's nerves." Sam took a deep breath, pacing across Bobby's library, past Dean, who was still slumped on the couch, still chewing -- sorry, ruminating -- on leaves. By now, though, he had a whole twig full of them. He'd open his mouth wide, tongue at the points until the entire leaf was in his mouth, then clamp his lips around the stem and tug until it pulled free of the stick. Then he'd suck the stem into his mouth and chew for a few moments before he opened his mouth to start again. It was fascinating, in a grotesque sort of way, and Sam paused on his way towards the kitchen to watch. Open, tongue, tug, suck, chew. Open, tongue, tug, suck --

"Sam, you there?"

Oh, right, he was on the phone. He tore his eyes away from his brother -- surely Dean hadn't actually just winked at him over his mouthful of leaf, right? -- and stepped through the doorway to the kitchen, sliding the pocket doors closed behind him. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm here."

"So . . . why'd you call?"

Sam took a deep breath. "You tell me."

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line, then Chuck spoke again, the tempo of his voice picking up, starting to sound more like the one he used on Dean. Nervous. More freaked out prophet, less sympathetic if occasionally cruel writer. "Hey, man, the apocalypse is over, remember?"

"Yeah, then why are you still refusing to write Dean's sex scenes?"

"Have you ever tried writing a sex scene before, man? It's hard! You either sound too clinical or too shmoopy, or your characters turn into contortionists and then the feelings get all involved and all anyone's saying is 'oh, oh, there, there, god, yes, god, yes' so you wanna spice things up, but then the next thing you know, they're calling each other 'lover' or screaming obscenities and there's toys and-and things involved and someone's getting tied to the bed --"

Sam started trying to interrupt him shortly after the "It's hard", but Chuck was a difficult man to derail at times. Especially when it came to talking about his writing. He settled for saying "Chuck, Chuck," with increasing volume and firmness until Chuck cut himself off.

"Oh. Sorry, I guess you don't really wanna hear about that."

"Not so much."

"But, yeah. I mean, it's not like a girlfriend would work with your dynamic, anyway. What, would she ride along in the back seat of the Impala? Stand out on her widow's walk and pace until he came home after a hunt? That would suck. I get enough complaints about the treatment of women in the series as it is. You know, I always kind of thought I just stuck Jo and Bela in to try and give the fans their strong female guest stars, but I guess they're real, too, huh?"

"Chuck."

"Which kind of makes you think: did the universe decide that you guys needed more gender-balanced allies, too? If so, why'd they write them out? I mean, sure, Bela went to Hell and managed to give you guys the intel on Lilith before she went, but as far as I know, Cassie's still alive. You should tell Dean if he really wants a love interest, he should look her back up. Sure, a lot of the fans didn't like her, either, but --"

Sam ran out of patience. "Chuck," he bit out, far angrier than he'd intended, but it worked. Chuck fell silent. Sam heard him breathing into the phone for a moment, then a loud clink and crackle as something -- Sam suspected it was the mouth of a liquor bottle -- connected with the headset on Chuck's end. Chuck swallowed, then let out a faint "ahhhh" before he spoke again.

"So, uh, yeah, you wanna talk to Jo."

"I'm not that interested in making our lives more gender-balanced, Chuck. And Dean's not into Jo."

"If you're calling why I think you're calling, you want to talk to Jo."

Sam leaned against the wall, crossed his arm over his chest, then switched the phone to his other ear. "I thought you said you weren't a prophet any more?"

"I said the apocalypse was over. Which, uh, it is. But I'm still getting dreams."

"And you've seen --"

"Dean's new look? Yeah." Another pause, another swallow and "ahhhh". "I don't know what you guys did in your past lives that got this much crap getting thrown at you, but I'd say it's time to start working on your karma. Because that shit is weird."

"What's causing it?"

"Talk to Jo."

"Yeah, I got that, but you have to know what's been --"

"Talk to Jo."

"Chuck, come on. You've gotta give me something here. Have you written anything? Can you email it to me?"

"Talk. To. Jo. Bring an axe." Another swallow-"ahhhh". "And, uh. You might wanna look into where Dean's been getting those leaves."

Sam took the phone away from his ear and stared at the handset for a moment before putting it back. "The leaves?"

Chuck had hung up.

Sam pulled the phone away again. He bounced his hand up and down a few times, biting his lip as he went over the conversation in his head. Jo. Karma. Axe? Leaves.

Then he tucked the phone away and threw the pocket doors to the library open again, striding over to pull the now barren twig from his brother's hand. Dean sat up with a squawk, frowning as Sam waved the twig in his face.

"Where did you get this?"

Dean looked affronted and opened his mouth as though to make some smart-assed remark, but something on Sam's face must have warned him off. Instead he sat back on the couch again, rubbing his thumb down the curl of his goatee. "Funny you should ask that."

* * *

Sam stared. There wasn't much else he could do. Even with the axe that Chuck had mentioned, it'd take days, if not longer, to take care of this problem, and who knew if the problem would let them even try? After all. . . .

"That wasn't there two days ago."

Dean was standing next to him in the scrap yard, the twig he'd stripped the leaves off of clamped between his teeth like a cigar. He nodded towards the problem.

"Hell, I'm pretty sure that wasn't there yesterday."

"Why didn't you mention this?"

"You were busy calling Chuck." Dean reached out and clapped a hand onto Sam's shoulder. "Man, Bobby's gonna freak."

"No kidding."

"That sucker's gonna play hell with his foundation."

Sam blinked, then cast his eyes sideways towards his brother, who stared forward, his expression blank and serious. "Dean."

"Hm?"

"A fifty foot maple tree has sprung up overnight and you think Bobby's gonna be upset about his foundation?"

Dean's shoulders lifted and held there for a moment before he let out an audible breath. "No, but it's true. Some of those branches have already busted out the upstairs windows."

Sam pinched his lower lip between his teeth, staring at the tree. "You don't -- you don't suppose this is like Anna, do you? Some angel threw their grace over this way?"

Dean didn't answer for a long moment. The angels were always a bit of an odd subject between them, Anna especially. Sam was never sure what he thought of them, his lifelong faith in God and heavenly forces of good shaken in the face of the cold, uncaring, and infinitely fallible creatures angels had turned out to be, unconcerned with Sam's problems and thoughts except to tell him -- or, more often, tell Dean to tell him -- that he was doing it wrong. Sam suspected that Dean felt the same way towards Anna and Castiel and the angels as Sam had felt towards Ruby and the demons -- both sides had done their best to manipulate the brothers to their ends, both had proven to be untrustworthy, and both -- in the cases of Ruby and Anna, anyway, if not Castiel -- had managed to worm in and demand a certain level of respect and admiration.

Besides, Dean had slept with Anna.

Of course, sleeping with a woman didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things to Dean. Not a human woman, anyway. But sleeping with a woman he was well aware wasn't your average, ordinary girl? Dean might talk big, but he balked at even touching psychics, much less groping a fallen angel. Sam suspected that Dean, deep down in the darkest, closest, safest corner of his soul, saw sex as much more than just a fun way of passing the time. Sex was vulnerability, and Dean was, if nothing else, very, very aware that he was only human.

Well, you know, before he'd started turning half-goat.

"No," Dean said finally. "No, I don't."

"It's the only thing we've ever heard of that could do this kind of thing, Dean."

Dean shook his head. "It doesn't add up, man. I mean, come on, an angel just happens decide to throw herself to Earth not long after I start going all fuzzy? When we haven't heard a single peep from the feathered sons of bitches in more than a year? It's too much, dude, and you know it."

"It's too much? That's your reason?"

"Well, that and there's eight feet worth of another one sprouting up around the other side."

Sam blinked, then shuffled sideways to look around the other side of the house. Sure enough, there it was -- an oak this time, judging by the leaves. The hubcaps that had formerly been decorating the siding of the house were now wedged into the bark of the sprouting tree as it grew up around them.

Okay, so Dean might have had a small point about that foundation thing. Sam walked back over to where his brother was still resting against the rusted-out car shell. "It's more like ten feet, now."

"Huh." Dean stroked his goatee and sucked at his teeth. "What did Chuck say?"

"To talk to Jo. And to bring an axe."

"Axe nothing. We're gonna need a chainsaw." Dean brightened at this prospect.

"I think he meant bring an axe to talk to Jo."

Dean blinked, still rubbing his facial hair. "Huh."

* * *

Sam jotted down a few more notes on the pad resting on his knee. "Okay. Thanks, Ellen. I'll call you when I know more." He flipped his phone closed and pressed his index finger and thumb against the bridge of his nose.

He was tired.

He was more than tired, really. He was exhausted. Things -- strange, unprecedented, nightmare things were happening, and Sam couldn't for the life of him figure out why. And according to Ellen, his only current lead had gone radio silent a week ago while on a trip to the wilds of Idaho. Planned, since Ellen wasn't exactly freaking out about it. Said it was a "research trip", whatever that meant, that she and Jo had figured out where they stood on Jo hunting. All good news -- except for the fact that it meant to "talk to Jo" as Chuck had so succinctly put it, he and Dean would have to drive a good sixteen hours to the Idaho panhandle to find her. Sixteen hours and twelve hundred miles without anyone trying to kill Dean for having horns and a tail.

Piece of cake.

He heard the faint clop-clop of Dean approaching and opened his eyes. Dean stopped in the doorway to the library, leaning against the jamb and looking Sam up and down, his expression serious and considering. Sam inclined his head to him.

"Right, so, Jo's in Idaho. We should probably try and pull a night drive to get out to her, keep you out of the public view."

Dean nodded once, his lips pursed, not chewing anything for the first time in Sam didn't want to think how long. "Bobby's not wearing a shirt."

Okay. "What?"

"Bobby's not wearing a shirt," Dean said again, not moving from his lean against the jamb. Sam frowned.

"What does that have to do with --"

Dean spoke over the end of Sam's question. "Bobby's not wearing a shirt," he said, his voice taking on new weight, "for the same reason I'm not wearing any pants."

Sam blinked. Moments later he was up and past his older brother, leaning into the hallway to peer towards the end of the stairs where Bobby was descending, several books that had been in storage on the second floor gripped in his arms. Sam immediately saw what Dean meant.

He'd noticed when Bobby had first gotten home that the scruffy older hunter had let his beard grow longer than usual. What had been a few inches of wild growth seemed to have expanded exponentially, the salt-and-pepper tip now brushing at the top of Bobby's pants. If the thing kept growing at its current rate, Bobby would be able to maintain his dignity by pure facial hair alone. That alone was weird enough, but apparently Bobby's chest hair had decided to launch a counter attack and take over the rest of the man's upper body. Sam tore his eyes from Bobby's stomach and met the man's eyes. Bobby looked back at him, paused at the base of the stairs, his expression blank and his eyes tired.

"Yeah," Bobby said. "I know." He lifted his free hand to scratch at his chest through the thick curtain of hair. Sam gaped a moment longer, trying to find words, but his mind had gone blank.

Weird stuff happening to Dean was cause for concern, but in the grand scheme of things not all that bizarre. On a certain level, Dean almost seemed to ask for them to happen -- not to the extent of a full transformation, sure, but still -- daring the universe and all the evil, twisted things in it to try something. Weird stuff happening to Bobby, attack by dream root aside, that was new. Bobby was too reserved, too experienced and smart, to draw attention to himself the way Dean did.

Bobby rolled his eyes heavenward, as though asking for the strength to survive Sam's dumb shock, then started forward again. "You boys find anything?"

Sam gaped some more, trying to get his thoughts in order, leaving Dean to answer.

"Just a lead on Jo in Northern Idaho, about fifty miles out from where Joshua's got a place. Don't know what good that's supposed to do, exactly, but, well, no offense, I sure as hell wouldn't mind hitting the road again."

Dean sounded very normal when he wasn't chewing, Sam realized. He could almost imagine that there was nothing wrong with his brother at all, that he wasn't getting close to having to duck through doorways to avoid hitting his horns on things, that he hadn't had to relearn how to walk over the last couple of -- days? Weeks? Bobby nodded at them, pulling the top book, a smallish hard copy sans dust jacket, the gold lettered title on the spine not yet visible to Sam, from his stack. He, too, looked like he was just taking all this in stride, like his hair gaining a life of its own wasn't anything to write home about.

"Take this. Dunno if it'll be of any use to you, but it sure as hell couldn't hurt."

Sam collected himself enough to reach out and take the book, flipping it open and scanning over page after page of oddly whimsical illustration. "Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods," he read aloud. "'with a few desert and mountain beasts.'" He looked back up at Bobby, only to knock his head against the base of one of Dean's horns as his brother leaned in to read over his shoulder. "Ow! Dammit, Dean."

Dean snorted, not sounding the least bit repentant. "Watch your head, Sasquatch."

Bobby echoed Dean's snort. "It's a compendium of some of the lesser known cryptids out there," he said. "Written around the turn of the twentieth century. Most folks think it's entirely fictional, but you'll find the billdad in there, as well as hodags, squonks, splinter cats, and the Snoligoster."

"We already killed the Snallygaster," Dean pointed out.

"Yeah, that's great for you," Bobby said, reaching over to flip the pages so that Sam was looking at a picture of a large, legless crocodile thing with a black man impaled on a spike on its back. He felt Dean move in to peer over his shoulder again. "This is the Snoligoster."

"Wow." Dean's voice was dry and bland. "And here I thought people were creative."

Sam read over the entry on the Snoligoster, grimacing. "-- or even a full grown -- Bobby!"

Bobby shrugged. "Ain't like I wrote it, kid. Like I said, turn of the 20th century."

"This is about a hunter skipping killing this thing because it was only killing black people."

Bobby ran a hand over his beard, a gesture that now took him almost a full minute and a half to complete. "If it makes you feel better, I'm pretty sure someone did the Snoligoster in six months ago. Old school racism aside, from what I've heard, the rest of the information in there is pretty damn accurate."

"It got anything in there on a creature that can turn people into. . . ." Dean trailed off, and Sam looked up in time to catch his grimace. "Well, creatures?"

"'Fraid not. And even if it did, that wouldn't account for the trees attacking this place."

Dean nodded. "True. Well. Thanks again, Bobby. We should go see what Jo's managed to get herself into." He raised an eyebrow. "You gonna come with?"

Bobby grimaced, looking for a brief moment like he couldn't think of a single thing worse than the prospect of leaving his own house. Sam frowned and filed that expression away, wondering if it might be a hint as to some sort of overall theme to the growing beard and trees. "Nah. I'll keep up the home front, here. You boys check in if you find anything."

"Will do." Sam forced a smile he didn't feel. Dean nodded, then turned to trot -- literally -- off to gather their things. Sam started to follow, but stopped when Bobby laid one hand, hairy save for the skin of his palm, on Sam's arm.

"Woodwose," he said.

Sam blinked. "What?"

Bobby glanced down at his chest, then back up at Sam. "Wild man of the woods."

Sam nodded slowly. "Just about every culture's got one." He sifted through facts in his mind. "They're associated with . . . hunters and hermits, right? Existing on the fringe of society. Often portrayed as poets or prophets."

Bobby shrugged. "Dunno about the poetry, but they're said to be hairy sons of bitches." He seemed resigned, like he'd just realized his whole life was leading up to becoming some kind of woodland creature -- a woodwose. Sam swallowed, then forced another smile.

"Hey, who knows? Maybe we're actually about to get to the bottom of this." He snapped Fearsome Creatures closed, not wanting to look at the gruesome Snoligoster illustration any longer than he had to. Bobby let go of his arm and he turned to head out.

He was pretty sure he wasn't meant to hear what Bobby muttered as he closed the door.

"If this thing has a bottom, kid, I get the feeling we might already be there."


4:Sasquatch

Dean spent the first several hours of the drive to Idaho staring at Sam, his fingers running up and down the curl of his goatee. It would have been disconcerting even if Dean's eyes hadn't gone all freaky. Just outside Rapid City, Sam had enough.

"What?" Sam didn't turn his eyes from the road. He didn't need to. He could feel Dean's stare like it was stabbing him in the cheek.

Dean didn't answer for several moments, and when Sam chanced a glance, his brother was still staring at him. Another mile went by under the tires before Dean spoke.

"You feeling okay?"

Sam sighed. The question still raised an instinctive bolt of rage and fear in him, left over from the days that the brothers had been distant, that Sam had tried to keep everything he was doing -- everything he had to do to save Dean, kill the demons, save the world -- under wraps. It was easier now to squash that rage, keep it from bubbling out his throat at his brother, but the fear, that lingered. "I'm fine. Why?"

He felt more than saw Dean turn his eyes back towards the windshield and relaxed. Then Dean looked back, and Sam's cheek spasmed. "You sure?" Dean asked. "Not aching or itching or anything?"

Sam frowned, unable to grasp where Dean was going with his questioning. "I'm sure." He took a breath, remembering the promise of full disclosure and honesty he'd made to himself after they'd managed to stop the apocalypse. Dean might still like to hide things until they got to big -- like, say, growing hooves -- but Sam wanted to be past that. "I'm freaked about what's happening, but that's it."

Dean sighed. He hadn't started gnawing on the seat belt or anything else in the car, yet, hadn't had anything to eat in fact since they'd left Bobby's. Sam thought four stomachs and braced himself.

"I'm turning into a satyr," Dean said, startling in both his bluntness and his use of the proper name for his new form. "Hell, pretty sure it isn't even 'turning into' anymore. That guy in Maine went all billdad and sank to the bottom of a lake. Bobby's becoming the crazy hermit king of his own damned enchanted forest." Dean tilted his head, bringing the curving tip of his ever growing horns into Sam's peripheral vision. "So why the hell aren't you turning into a literal sasquatch or something?"

Sam blinked.

He hadn't thought of that.

No, seriously. It hadn't even occurred to him that he should watching for a transformation of his own. Not into a sasquatch, maybe -- Sam didn't think he was all that tall, not anything like a sasquatch at all, not like Dean was sort of satyr-like even before his legs went furry, or how Bobby had always been kind of crazed-hermit-king-ish deep down. He had a sudden mental image of himself turning into a red rubber playground ball, like he'd imagined all those years before, and shuddered. "I don't know. Maybe it's something you and Bobby and that other guy have done that I haven't."

"Or maybe," Dean said, and Sam could hear the way his smirk altered the shape of his words. "You're just already too much of a freak."

As far as tension breakers went, it was a pretty lame one. But Sam had learned to take the breaks where they came from, lame or not, and let out a short laugh. "Takes one to know one, man."

Dean shifted in the passenger seat, rearranging his legs in a way he never had to, before. Sam sympathized. For all that she was larger than some of the more contemporary sedans, the Impala just wasn't built to hold a guy Sam's height -- or one with Dean's unique anatomy. "Yeah," Dean said. "Guess it does."

* * *

By silent, mutual agreement, they stopped only for gas, getting in their bathroom and coffee breaks at the stations, and those as quickly as they could manage. Both of them were tired of the mystery hounding them, were anxious to get to Jo and maybe get some answers. The late hour meant that most of the places they stopped were virtually deserted, and most of the people they ran into at those stops were older men and women, exhausted and worn down by long hours on the road or boring graveyard shifts behind the counter. They'd made it most of the way to Gillette before they ran into a young woman, dressed in Bermuda shorts and a tight tank-top, out alone in the middle of the night for reasons known only to herself. Sam might not have noticed her at all, leaning against a dark minivan smoking a cigarette, if Dean hadn't jerked upright in his seat, eyes wide and eager. If his ears had transformed as much as the rest of him had, Sam would swear they'd be pricked forward.

"Dean?"

Dean sighed, his whole body listing in the girl's direction, his hand groping blindly for the door handle that he'd known the exact location of for years. "Sammy," he said, his voice soft and awed. "Sammy, I'm in love."

And then he was out the door, legs flexing and stretching in ways that made it obvious he wasn't entirely human even through the jeans Sam had insisted he wear. His hooves struck against the ground sharply enough to raise faint sparks as he made his way towards the girl, and Sam set out behind him after only a brief, shocked pause, certain he'd have to physically restrain his brother from doing something unspeakable that he'd regret to the end of his days, once he was back to normal.

He skidded to a stop a good five feet back from the minivan when, instead of latching himself onto the girl to have his way with her, Dean instead dropped into a crouch at her feet, his head turned upward to gaze at her.

The girl had frozen mid-drag and was staring back in mute shock. Sam knew how she felt.

"I love you," Dean breathed, his hands braced by the toes of her sandals, fingers splayed wide across the asphalt. The girl blinked and let out a cloud of smoke in Dean's face. He closed his eyes and breathed it in like it was the steam rising from a well-cooked steak.

"Um," said the girl. "What?"

At least she wasn't screaming in terror.

Sam jerked into motion, grabbing the back of Dean's shirt and yanking, pulling his brother off balance and away from the girl. Dean stumbled to his feet, pulling just a little against Sam's hold, but allowed himself to be dragged away.

"We could make beautiful music together!" Dean called, just before Sam pushed him back into the car, locking the door behind him. The girl's eyes flicked between the two brothers and her cigarette, the whites around her irises clearly visible in the bright light of the gas station. Sam flashed her a weak grin.

"Sorry," he said. "He's, uh." He couldn't come up with a decent excuse in the face of her confusion, so he just said "Sorry" again, and thanked whomever might be listening to a Winchester's silent prayers that Dean hadn't spotted the woman until after they'd filled the Impala's gas tank. He got into the car and threw it into gear, peeling away from the gas station as fast as was even remotely safe, leaving the girl behind to ponder if someone had managed to sneak a hallucinogen into her smoke.

* * *

Dean fell in love four more times by the time they reached Idaho, with women tall and short, lean and curvy, scantily-clad and fully covered. One of them even appeared to have braces. After the second one, Sam managed to keep Dean from running at them, but all of them left Dean moaning, pining, and breathless for as long as it took to get the gas stations they were at out of sight.

At which point, Dean seemed to forget the incident ever even happened.

As they drove, Sam tried to picture each of the women in his head, tried to figure out what they might have had in common to garner such a reaction from his brother the satyr. Dean had always had a thing for beautiful women, of course, and the women he was professing his undying devotion to when they stopped to fill up were all beautiful in their own way, maybe not supermodel quality, but enough to be distinct, to turn a guy's head. They were all young, too, early- to mid-twenties, the oldest being maybe 27. Despite the late -- well, more like early, now, with the sun starting to edge its way over the horizon -- hour, all of them had looked wide-awake and full of energy.

Sam thought of the fact that they were on this drive to try and meet up with a young, pretty, bouncy blond girl, and started making plans on how to keep Dean's burgeoning surprisingly platonic girl-worship in check.

As it turned out, he didn't need to. He ought to have known. Jo was more than capable of handling Dean by herself.

All it took was one look at Dean's new look, the way he seemed to prance as he loped towards her over the rough, woodsy lawn of the cabin Jo had taken residence in, and Jo had doubled over laughing. Dean was so affronted by the reaction that his righteous indignation completely over-powered his puppy-love, and he grimaced, biting out a command for her to "laugh it up, Blondie," and everything was back to as normal as it could be, given the circumstances.

There was another advantage to Dean's behavior and Jo's reaction to it: Sam hadn't seen Jo since he was possessed by Meg, but three years of distance and Jo's continuing mirth dispelled any awkwardness they might have had between them better than any stammered apology from Sam could have.

Not that that meant he didn't stammer an apology. Jo waved it off with an easy gesture of her hand. She'd matured over the years, looking less like a goofy college girl and more like a young woman. Her hair was held back in a loose ponytail, her body neatly muscled, her arms tanned, buff, and flecked with light scratches. Her eyes zeroed in on the axe Sam held to his chest.

"How did you know?" She grinned at him, holding her hand out, palm up. "Did Mom tell you? That's so thoughtful!"

Sam blinked. He glanced at Dean. Dean, still pouting over Jo's laughter, looked back and shrugged. Sam looked down at the axe, then at Jo's hand, then finally held the axe out for her to take. She weighed it in her hands, nodded, then turned her head to look over her shoulder towards the back of the cabin and whistled sharply.

"Rex! Snack!"

Sam opened his mouth, but before he could ask, a tall, strangely shaped dog came trotting out from behind the cabin, tongue dangling and tail wagging. Jo hefted the axe again, then, before Dean or Sam could protest, gave it a light underhanded toss to the dog, who popped up on its hind legs and caught it in its mouth before dropping to the ground to attack the handle like it was a bone.

Sam tried to think of something to say. Dean made an injured noise in the back of his throat. Jo grinned from ear to ear. "Rex says thanks."

"Rex" was the weirdest dog Sam had ever seen -- and in his line of work, that was saying something. He was whip-thin, almost literally, his torso only about an inch thicker in diameter than the axe handle itself, his hips and shoulders jutting out from his body at exaggerated angles. His tail was short and pointed, and his ears flopped along his narrow face.

And that face. . . . It was almost too bizarre to look at. Depending on the angle -- and Sam got to witness several, thanks to the way Rex turned his head this way and that as he gnawed on the axe -- the dog's head was long and skinny or broad and wide. The line from his nose to his chin was exaggerated and pointed, spanning several inches, much longer than the back of his skull. The top of his head was knobby and a little bony looking under his short brown fur, and the sides of his face were almost completely flat, even where Sam was certain he should be able to see the curve of the animal's jaw bone.

In fact, all told, Rex looked like an axe with legs.

"Dude," Dean said at length. "That is the freakiest looking dog I've ever seen." He frowned, jaw tightening. "Well. Other than hell hounds."

Jo backhanded him in the arm. "Don't talk about Rex like that! He's a sweetheart!"

"He's an axe with legs," Sam said. It was the only thing he could think of.

Jo nodded. "I know. Almost a perfect example of his breed. His tail is a little short."

"Ah," Sam said. "And, uh. What breed is that?"

Jo raised an eyebrow. She might look looser, more casual than she ever had back at the Roadhouse or in Duluth, when she was trying so hard to prove to the world that she was grown up and capable, but that practiced, scathing look was as pointed as ever. "He's an axe-handle hound."

Sam looked at Rex again, surprised to see that the dog had managed to almost completely decimate the handle of the axe already. The blade was still untouched.

Dean tilted his head. "Pardon?"

Jo rolled her eyes. "An axe-handle hound. Don't tell me you came all the way out here -- with an axe -- and didn't know about axe-handle hounds?"

Sam glanced at Dean in time to catch his sidelong look in return. "Okay," Dean said. "We won't tell you that."

Sam shrugged. "I think at this point, it's kind of implied."

Jo shook her head. "You two are hopeless." She turned, whistling to Rex again, and started for the door of the cabin. "Come on inside. Looks like we've got some catching up to do."

* * *

Jo, it seemed, had come to an agreement with her mother regarding hunting because she wasn't hunting. She wasn't even "not technically hunting", as Dean tried to put it, she was actually actively not hunting. Which, of course, begged the question: what the hell was she doing in Idaho?

"Got something up in these woods," she told them as she poured some water into an ancient coffee maker. The cabin's interior was made up of two rooms: the bathroom, which was tucked into the corner and looked like it might not be much more than a glorified out-house, and the main room, which included a kitchen area, a living room, and a small loft just big enough for a full-sized mattress. Jo was renting the place -- "All totally above the table," as she put it -- from a yuppie-hippie couple who had decided to spend their summer traveling cross-country instead of getting down and dirty in their little castle-in-the-woods, thanks, it seemed, to reports of a bear problem in the area. "Thought it might be a wendigo too far west, like you guys found in Colorado. Now I'm thinking it's probably a hide-behind, or maybe even Bigfoot."

"First off," Dean said, leaning his elbows on the small, round table that separated the kitchen from the living room, "there's no such thing as Bigfoot. Secondly, how is that not hunting?"

Jo rolled her eyes, rubbing the back of Rex's head with the side of her foot as she leaned against the kitchen counter, a can of cheap coffee in her hand. "I'm not going to kill it. That's how."

"Why the hell not?!"

Jo's lips pursed, and she spent a long moment looking Dean up and down without saying a word. Sam frowned, following her gaze, and tried to make out what she was getting at. His eyes widened.

"You think that this," he stabbed a finger in Dean's direction. "Is the result of hunting?"

Jo smiled. "Well, what do you know, Sam? You really are the smart one."

Dean grunted indignantly and Sam shook his head. "How does that even work?"

Jo shrugged. "I don't know the whole story, just the general gist, and even that's mostly theory. But, well, I don't know if you guys know this, but I used to be a college girl."

Dean grunted again, wrinkling his nose like Rex had done something nasty on the floor. Sam elbowed him in the arm. Jo just smiled and shook her head.

"I know, I know. But Mom insisted. Now, I only went for a year, but my school had a huge environmental studies program, and my roommate was all into it. Wanted to be just like Julie of the Wolves or something."

"That's great," Dean said, expression blank. "What's your point?"

"If you stopped interrupting me, dumb ass, you might find that out." Jo turned her back to the brothers, taking a few moments to rattle things around in and around the coffeemaker before turning back. "I'm saying I learned a thing or two about environmental theory while I was there. Which is how I recognized what's been going on in the world." She paused, looking at Sam and Dean. Sam looked back. Dean scratched at the base of his left horn.

After a few moments, the silence started to get awkward, and Jo's mouth tightened to a narrow line. "Well?"

Dean coughed. Sam shrugged. "Well what?"

"I figured you guys were gonna interrupt me again."

Sam looked at Dean. Dean looked back. "I wasn't going to interrupt her. Were you gonna interrupt her, Sam?"

"Nope, I wasn't going to interrupt her either. It would be rude."

"Completely."

Jo groaned. "I have no idea how Bobby hasn't shot either of you, yet." She hopped up onto the counter next to the coffee machine.

"It's because we're awesome," Dean said with a smirk. "So, environmental theory?"

Jo nodded. "Like endangered species and ecosystems and things." She raised her hands. "Now, I don't know all the technical terms, I only took the 101 class, and that was years ago. But still. When a species is endangered or extinct, it changes things. Like the deer population exploding. A lot of their natural predators have been eliminated, more deer are surviving, leading to less room and food for the deer in their natural habitats. They start moving territory, invading people's spaces, eating crops, all that. Same thing happens when you introduce a non-native species to the wild, like the snakehead fish in the Chesapeake Bay, or the cane toads in Australia. Everything gets whacked out of balance, and if it goes on long enough, strange things start to happen."

She paused again, and rather than let it get awkward, Sam filled in the gap. "Exploding deer populations made Dean go all satyr?"

Jo shook her head. "No, but that would be hilarious." She grinned and shot Dean a wink. Dean scowled. "The natural world exists in a balance, predators and prey. When you eliminate or overpopulate one, it messes up the whole system, sending things into chaos. But the natural world also has a way of trying to patch up things on its own, though a lot of times, it can't work fast enough to make up for the damage that humans are doing to it. Think about the frogs that can spontaneously change sexes if there's too many of one type around for proper breeding."

"Like Jurassic Park," Dean said. "Man, I'd love to hunt down a raptor."

Sam pressed his lips together. "And get eaten. Yeah, that'd be great, Dean."

"I'm just saying."

"Yeah," Jo said, hopping on the tail end of Dean's statement, apparently no more eager to hear all about how Dean would go about hunting a raptor than Sam was. "Like that. So the natural world has a balance and tricks to maintain it. What if the supernatural world works the same way?"

Sam jerked upright as the logical path Jo was following appeared in his mind's eye. Dean looked nonplussed.

"Well, yeah," he said. "Demonic dicks show up to try to end the world, so angelic dicks show up to stop them. We already know that."

Jo nodded, though a brief flash of confusion and surprise crossed her face at the mention of angels. Sam realized that, in the course of the last year, he and Dean might have been remiss in getting the word out about what exactly had gone down. Or about angels at all.

Or maybe they hadn't been remiss. There had to have been a reason why the angels had been kept on such a down-low in the hunting community as a real thing all of those years. Perhaps there was more to it than simply a long absence and hard-earned cynicism. Sam leaned back in his chair, his mind going a mile a minute, as Jo continued to explain her theory.

"Right, like that, I guess. But I mean more on a, I don't know, ecological level? Think about it: we haven't even heard from any demons in the last year. Everyone in the hunting community has turned to hunting different things, the more physical and wild creatures, like werewolves and vampires and wendigoes and stuff. What if all that hunting is shifting the balance? What if we're killing off creatures that are actually vital to the supernatural ecosystem?"

Dean leaned forward, looking angry. "Oh, so, what, now we're just supposed to let evil shit kill people? This stuff isn't natural, Jo, it's not supposed to be here."

Jo crossed her arms over her chest and opened her mouth, but Sam got there first.

"I'm part demon," he pointed out, pitching his voice low. "Do I need to be killed?"

Dean's mouth snapped shut, even as Jo swiveled her head from staring at Dean to stare at Sam, her mouth dropping further open as her eyes widened.

Right, that was the part of everything that had gone down that Sam didn't regret not getting out to the hunting community at large.

"That's different."

Sam shook his head. "Uriel was an angel. And he did need to be killed."

"Uriel was a jackass. These things aren't natural," Dean said again, stressing his point by slapping his palms down on the table. "They're killing people!"

"All of them?" That was Jo. She uncrossed one of her arms to point down to where Rex was on the floor, finishing off the last of his axe handle. "Rex isn't natural. He feeds on axe handles. Not sticks, not wood, axe handles. He's not killing people. Does he deserve to be killed?"

Dean opened his mouth, one hand coming up to point. Then he closed it and looked down at the dog.

"Or Lenore and her group," Sam added. "You let them live. Beat the hell out of Gordon for wanting to do anything different."

Dean closed his eyes, rubbing at his forehead, and Jo tossed in one last argument.

"You're not exactly natural yourself any more, Dean. Can't even pretend to be, with those horns. You saying we should be putting you down, too?"

Dean's shoulders came up, his head dropping low, his jaw clenched hard. "Fine. I get it. But some things still need to be killed."

Jo shrugged. "If a bear attacks people, it gets put down. But if it's just being a bear. . . ."

Sam shook his head. "That kind of makes sense, Jo, but hunting a bear doesn't turn you into a moose."

"Bears and moose are part of the natural world, though. We're talking about the supernatural world. The natural world has ways of fixing the balance. What if the supernatural one does, too? Only the supernatural one works a lot faster?"

Dean leaned forward, pressing his palms into his eyes. "That's insane."

Jo didn't seem to take offense. "You're half-goat."

She had a point. Still. "We've been hunting our whole lives. You've been around hunters for your whole life. Why would we just be noticing this now?"

Jo pushed herself down from the counter and rummaged through the cabinets for a some mugs. "Maybe thing are only getting unbalanced this way now. Like I said, without any demons around, hunters have been going after the corporeal stuff." She pulled out the now full coffee pot and started pouring. "The way I see it, and again, I'm not exactly a professional with this ecology stuff, or the magic stuff, for that matter, there's probably a certain amount of magical energy or what-have-you floating around in the world. When magical creatures get killed, that energy has to go somewhere. A couple things here or there, and the energy could just kinda . . . disperse or something. But with the number of creatures that are getting killed these days, more energy is building up." She handed Sam and Dean their mugs and went to pull a carton of half and half from the small refrigerator. "My guess is, you guys killed something big right before this all started, right?"

Dean perked up at the sight of the coffee, but paused before taking his first sip. "The Snallygaster."

"Ew, that snake thing in Florida?"

"Dragon thing in Maryland."

"Something that size must have released a shitload of energy. And you got hit with most of it. And I'm betting you didn't exactly slow down, either."

Sam thought back over the last couple of weeks and shook his head. "There was a hodag, too. And a couple other things." He looked at Dean. "Come to think of it, it was after the hodag that this really sped up." He looked back at Jo. "But I was there, too. Why haven't I been changing?"

"How the hell should I know?" Jo shrugged. "Who did the actual killing? Was it Dean?"

Dean nodded. "On the Snallygaster and hodag, yeah. But Sam got some of the other stuff."

"Huh." Jo spent a few moments stirring her coffee. "I dunno, then. But maybe it's the whole 'half-demon' thing." She gave Sam a pointed look. "You're already full up on magical weirdness, so it skipped you."

Well now. Wasn't Sam just lucky.

"Right," Dean said, setting his mug down on the table. "So how do we fix it?"

Jo bit her lip and looked askance. Sam watched the color drain from Dean's face.

"We can fix it, right?"

Jo seemed to find her coffee fascinating.

"Jo." Dean's voice was hard, dangerous. Sam winced. So did Jo.

"If it's like I think, with the ecology and everything. . . ." She trailed off with a helpless shrug. "I'm not sure we can fix it. We can't bring dodos back to life or fix the hole in the ozone layer, either."

"So I'm stuck like this?!" Dean gestured to his horns, face wide open and vulnerable in a way that Sam almost never saw around other people. He looked between Jo, who was still staring into her coffee looking miserable, and Sam, who couldn't think of anything to do other than shrug. "What the hell am I supposed to do?"

* * *

Jo didn't have the answers. She couldn't prove her theory -- though Sam was pretty sure she was right, what with Chuck sending him and Dean out her way and everything -- and she couldn't tell Dean there was some sort of magical cure. All she had was Rex, a remote cabin, a head full of environmentalist propaganda and ideas, and a non-hunt for Bigfoot.

Bigfoot, which wasn't supposed to exist. Though who knew, now? Maybe some hunter had taken out something that really was lurking in the woods, and found himself giant, hairy, and seriously pissed off as a result.

If that was the case, there was a possibility that the creature could be reasoned with, that they could get it to back off the killings without having to put it down. That was what Jo was there for, she said, that and to try and warn off the handful of hunters that had shown up to try and take it out the old fashioned way.

So after spending the morning resting up in the cabin, Jo, Sam, Dean and Rex all set out into the woods of Idaho on the trail of a possible sasquatch. Dean had stripped off his jeans again, complaining that he didn't want to deal with sweaty fur, though the Idaho summer wasn't what Sam would call hot, exactly. He'd taken off his shorts, too, saying that they were squashing his tail, leaving him dressed only in a gray t-shirt and his green button down. Jo raised an eyebrow at the sight of Dean pantless, but didn't say anything. Sam decided against arguing -- it wasn't like Dean was exposing himself or anything. The fur on his lower half had grown thick enough that nothing was left swinging in the breeze. In fact, Dean and Rex almost matched.

Dean's hooves were also, it seemed, well suited to the forest environment, and he soon outpaced both Sam and Jo, despite Sam's long legs and Jo's experience with these particular woods. After walking several yards with his gun in hand, though, Dean paused to take off his over shirt, wrapping it instead around his waist so he had something to tuck the weapon into. The shirt was soon catching on branches left and right, leaving bits of shredded fabric dangling off the hem around Dean's hips, and setting off little warning bells in Sam's head, though he couldn't quite place why.

Sam was armed as well, and though Jo had said that this was pretty much just a recon mission, she still had her own rifle with her. She might not be actively hunting, she said, but she also sure as hell wasn't stupid. There was something in the woods attacking people, and if she couldn't talk it down, she wasn't going to let fear of turning out like Dean stop her from protecting herself.

Sam wondered if Jo had told her mother all about her plan to "reason with Bigfoot". And if she had, how she'd convinced Ellen not to lock her in the basement until someone could talk some sense into her. Sure, he understood Jo's reasoning, and even kind of thought he might agree with it. But he also had the word of a guy he knew for a fact was a true prophet that Jo would have the answers to the weird stuff that had been going on in his and Dean's lives of late. He wondered how Bobby would react when he heard that his wild man look and new magic tree farm were because he'd been hunting. Well, at least Bobby's basement had a nice panic room, assuming the magic tree roots hadn't managed to take over that, as well.

They'd been hiking for several hours, and Sam was starting to feel the burn of the unaccustomed exercise, when Dean, still looking fresh thanks to the ease with which his goat legs handled the terrain, paused and dropped into a crouch. Jo jogged forward, Rex at her heels, and Sam readjusted the pack on his shoulder and took up the rear.

"Did you find a print?"

Dean nodded, tracing over the ground with one finger. "Not Biggie's though. These size tens are definitely not his style." Sam got close enough to see the impression Dean was examining. Sure enough, he could make out the faint pattern of a boot sole in the dirt.

"Hunters," he guessed. "Or hikers."

"If they're hikers, they're total idiots." Jo shook her head. "The park service has this whole area on alert thanks to the killings. Not enough to close anything down, yet, but enough that they're 'strongly recommending' that people find another place to hang out."

"So most likely hunters."

Dean shifted a couple feet to his left without straightening up. "Definitely hunters," he said. He reached into a tangle of grass and pulled out a shell casing, holding it up to the light. After a moment, he brought it up to about an inch from his nose. "Specialized rounds, too. I'm guessing they're not out here for big game."

Sam frowned. "You can smell that?"

Dean gave him a look and tossed the shell casing at him. "It's inscribed, dumbass."

Sam held the casing up, bringing it close to his own face to get a good look. ". . . Oh."

Jo moved a couple paces beyond Dean, scanning the area. "Any idea how long ago they were here?"

"What do I look like, a professional tracker?" Dean shook his head. "I'm good, but I'm not that good." He looked at Rex. "How 'bout axe-face there earns his keep? Since he might be eating some of our weapons."

"Don't call my dog 'axe-face'," Jo scolded, then raised a hand toward Rex. "Hey, boy, can you get a scent?"

Rex looked up at her and wagged his tail.

A hunting dog he was not.

Sam tucked the shell casing into his pocket and turned in place, scanning the trees, looking for some sign of where the other hunters had gone. Jo and Rex started down the path. He heard Dean shift behind him, then curse, and turned back. Dean had caught his shirt on another branch, tugging it loose as he stood and dropping his pistol to the ground. He glowered at the shirt, then lifted his chin in Sam's direction. "Dude, bag."

Sam handed him the equipment bag. "I didn't bring any holsters."

"I know." Dean opened the bag, digging through it for a moment before pulling out a sheathed knife. He made quick work of shredding the rest of his shirt, then twisting the shreds into ugly but workable ropes. He wove a couple lengths around his gun, then looped it around his shoulders.

Sam's eyes widened and he sucked in a breath as Dean used the last of his shirt to tie the sheath of the knife to his arm. Dean was still wearing his t-shirt, sure, but the thickness of the fur on his legs, the length of his horns, and most damning of all, that twisted shirt-harness. . . . It was just like in his dream.

The dream where Dean was hunted down like an animal and shot. In the woods. By hunters.

He reached out to grab Dean's arm. "Dude, we gotta go."

Dean shrugged out of his grip, giving him a measuring look. "Are you kidding? It's, like, a four hour hike back to the car."

"Yeah, I know, and if we leave now, we might make it back before sundown --"

Dean was shaking his head. "Dude, I know you don't like camping, but this is a bit much. We've got a job to do, here. Chuck said we needed to work on our karma, right? Well, this is me getting good karma."

"If we stay out here you're going to get killed, Dean!"

"By Biggie? Are you kidding? I could gore him open with one swipe of these horns --" Dean's protest was cut short by the sharp sound of a shotgun going off, causing both him and Sam to duck low. Jo screamed somewhere ahead of them, and Dean didn't even blink, just broke into a run.

A low, loping sort of run, that looked almost more like leaping.

Sam tried to shake the image of Dean's terrified flight through the woods from his head and set off after Dean's fleeting tail. It only took a few moments before they could see Jo, crouched down on the ground next to the still, bloody form of Rex.

They'd found the hunters. Or, rather, the hunters had found them.

Sam put on a burst of speed, stretching his long legs to the limits of his stride to catch up to Dean, grabbing his arm and yanking to bring him down to the ground, just as another shot went off. Dean grunted, thumping to the ground, and Jo whipped around at the sound, searching the trees. Sam pushed at the back of Dean's head, stretching out low across his back as his brother struggled. He noticed with a shock of terror that about four inches of the left horn were missing, the now blunted tip ragged and bleeding sluggishly. Dean groaned low in his throat, and Sam moved to push his head down further, trying to get the horns as out of sight from the hunters as possible.

"Get off me." Dean was barely audible, his face ground into the dirt. "Sam, get --"

"Shut up." Sam ducked around the new end of Dean's horn, wondering if he should try putting pressure on it to stop the bleeding. "They're not shooting at me."

He knew the moment Dean got his point by how still his brother became.

"Fuck."

"Yeah."

Jo jumped up, rifle in hand, and started through the trees towards the direction the shots had come from, her expression pissed beyond measure. "You sons of bitches!" Her voice was shrill and carried well through the woods, though Sam soon lost sight of her. "That was my god damned dog --" She cut off with a sharp cry and Sam closed his eyes, swallowing. Most hunters would settle for restraining her, thinking she was just a hysterical victim, but some, like Gordon, might take her association with a weird ass dog and a goatman the wrong way. He barely let himself breathe again until he heard her demand to be let go, and the crack of a rifle butt striking human flesh. A man's voice cried out this time, and Sam smiled.

Atta girl.

Dean shifted beneath Sam, who struggled to hold him still. He'd never been that good at keeping Dean pinned, though, too many sparring sessions leading to Dean being very familiar with Sam's weight and how to get around it. Dean managed to wriggle an arm free and pressed at Sam's chest. "Go help her."

"Like hell. Jo can handle herself."

"Not arguing." Dean closed his free hand into a fist and thumped it on Sam's chest. He could feel a faint tremble through Dean's arm -- the injury to his horn was that painful. "Go help her. Distract them. I can make a break for it."

"Dean, no."

"I can outrun them, Sam." Sam felt Dean's legs tense, coiling in, ready to spring up at a moment's notice. "I'm practically built for this, right now."

Sam pressed his head to Dean's shoulder and shook it to make sure Dean was aware of the gesture. "There's traps, Dean. You're no good at spotting bear traps."

"You don't know that."

"Yes," Sam said, emphasizing the word by pressing his weight harder into Dean's back. "I do."

Dean froze. "Vision."

Sam nodded, his head still against Dean's shoulder. In the silence that followed the admission, he could hear Jo and the men arguing, maybe twenty or thirty yards off. A good gunman would have no trouble making that shot, even through the trees. If Sam got up, Dean would run. And then Dean would die.

He wasn't going to let that happen.

Trouble was, the voices were getting closer. Not quickly, Jo was doing a decent enough job of delaying them, but quickly enough. If Sam didn't do something soon, Dean would die anyway, without even a chance to run.

If they both ran, Sam would be in as much danger as Dean. And Dean wouldn't allow that. By the way Dean was tensing up beneath him again, Sam had a feeling he was thinking the same things.

"Details," Dean muttered.

"What?"

"Details. I could avoid the trap."

"I can't -- I don't know the exact location. And there could be others."

"Fine. Then I'm going to have to fight."

"Dean --"

"If I don't run or fight, we both die lying here in the dirt."

"Maybe you could talk to them?" Sam offered, though he knew it was a lame attempt. The hunters had shot Jo's dog while it was doing nothing more than traveling with her in a typically dog-like fashion. They probably wouldn't wait long enough for Dean to prove he was intelligent before they shot him.

They were maybe ten yards off, now. Sam could see the white of Jo's tank top through the trees. They were running out of time.

"Sam," Dean said, his voice breathy with realization. "Dude, use your mojo."

"What?"

"Your mind-whammy, Sam, disarm them!"

"I don't know if it even still works, Dean! I haven't exactly been snacking on the demon blood."

"Do you have any other ideas?!"

He didn't. He pressed himself up on his elbows, his body weight still keeping Dean flat, trying to keep him from getting up even as he ducked his head low to the ground and stretched out one hand, palm towards the shape of the hunters, fingers raised to the sky. He tried to make out the hunters' weapons, to visualize the shape and weight of them in space, then wrapped his mind around that shape and yanked.

One of the guns went off, the shot going wild, and the men shouted as their weapons flew from their hands, knocking into trees well out of easy grabbing range. Jo let out a startled noise, then flew into action, kicking and punching at the disarmed men to keep them from scrabbling for the guns. Sam pushed himself to his feet, muttering a quick "Okay, now run," to Dean even as he sprinted towards the fighting figures. He heard Dean get up behind him, pausing for a moment once he was on his feet, and prayed he made a break for it back towards the cabin and the car. They were way too far away for even Dean to run all the way back, but at least that way, they knew there weren't any traps.

Sam recognized the men from his dream as he plowed into them, fists flying. He punched the one who fired the kill shot in his vision and watched the man stagger. The one he figured was the leader got a hand around Sam's arm, tugging him off balance.

He heard a rapid thumping approaching from behind him and prayed it wasn't what he thought it was.

It was. Dean barreled into the lead hunter, his head lowered, nostrils flaring. His broken horn started bleeding in earnest again, but the hunter was no match for the full weight of pissed off satyr and went over backwards with a startled shout. Dean's momentum carried him a few stumbling steps past the man, before he came to a halt, still half bent over, one hand reaching towards his broken horn, a string of curses tripping off his tongue. Sam aimed his open palm at the man who'd fired the kill-shot in his dream, knocking him out with a good, hard mental tap. Dean, still cursing, set his hoof on the leader's chest, just below the hollow of his throat, and stared down at him. Sam stepped up beside him, clenching and flexing his fingers. "What the hell do you think you guys are doing?"

Sam heard Jo whisper a curse, but didn't take his eyes off the hunter under Dean's hoof to look at her. He could feel the power of the demon blood flowing through him along with the adrenaline, and could guess what he looked like.

Why hadn't the wild magic turned him into a wild thing?

He already was one. Hell, the wild magic probably just made him stronger.

The third remaining hunter stood a few feet away, his eyes wide as he stared at Sam and Dean. It was him who answered, since the leader seemed to be having a little bit of trouble getting his brain around words.

"H-he's a goatman," he said. Dean glared. Sam snarled.

"He's my brother, you bastard."

The man's eyes went wider still. "You -- you're Sam and Dean Winchester."

Sam nodded. The man looked like he was about to wet himself.

"Walker was right about you, wasn't he. You're on their side, you're both monsters --" He cut off when Jo kicked him in the crotch.

"Gordon Walker was insane," she said, looming over him as he dropped to the ground. "They're good men. Why don't you try thinking for yourself?"

Sam had always liked and respected Jo, had looked on her as something of a little sister before Duluth and Meg. As much as he'd known, since meeting up with her at the cabin, that she'd forgiven him for his part in what had happened to her, for what he'd told her about their fathers, what Meg had told her and done to her using his body and mouth, he couldn't help the swell of hope, pride, and relief that filled his chest at her words.

And when she spat on the guy? Well, that was just a bonus.

Sam turned his gaze back to the leader, whose face was starting to go red at the pressure of Dean's hoof. "You have no idea what you're messing with out here. You're hunting the sasquatch?"

The man grabbed at Dean's leg, and Dean pressed down harder, making him gag and let go. He coughed out "Wendigo," as his fingers scrabbled at the ground.

Sam wished for a moment that it was his foot on the man's throat. "You know that for sure?"

The man didn't answer for a moment, then shook his head, his hand groping for Dean's leg again, but flopping to the ground when Dean leaned a bit on his hoof.

Sam leaned forward, staring into the man's flushed, purpling face. "You don't mess with what you don't understand. You don't understand what's out here. You didn't understand Jo's dog. You don't understand my brother. You and your buddies are going to leave Idaho. You're going to go find some vengeful spirit or killer vampire gang, and you're not going to go after any more cryptids or creatures unless you know for sure what they are and that they're killing people. You're going to do this not just because I will hunt you down personally and kill you if you don't. You're going to do it because if you don't, you might be the next furry thing some hunter tries to track down and kill."

The man stared at him, confusion and fear in his eyes, then flicked his gaze to Dean. His eyes widened as he grasped what that last part meant.

"Do. You. Understand?"

The man gave a small nod. Sam glanced at Dean, who gave the man's chest a final hard tap with his hoof, then stepped back, allowing the man to curl up on the ground, hands rubbing at his sternum.

"Jo, grab their guns."

Jo stepped back a couple paces from the men, looking from Sam to them and back again before nodding and jogging off to comply. Sam stepped forward, pulling his gun to knock the two conscious hunters out. Dean pulled back one leg as though to kick them, then dropped it back to the ground with a grimace.

"We gonna leave them here?"

There were three men, possibly even good men, on the ground at his feet. Because he had put them there.

He pictured Dean lying dead and broken on the forest floor, a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.

"Yes," he said. He didn't look at Dean as he turned to walk away.

* * *

Dean's knife and gun had been knocked loose when Sam tackled him. Jo was the one who found them, after using Sam's jacket to wrap Rex's body and lifting it up. Dean picked them up off the ground, wiped the dirt off on his t-shirt, then tucked them back into his improvised harness. Sam went for the equipment bag, digging through it for a few moments before pulling out the jar of cayenne pepper he'd added at the last minute. Dean watched him through narrowed eyes, his forehead creased.

"What's that for?"

Sam gestured to Dean's broken horn. "To stop the bleeding. I read about it at Bobby's."

Dean nodded carefully, ducking his head to give Sam access to his horn. "This is gonna suck, isn't it."

Sam shrugged. "I didn't find anything about that. But, yeah. Probably." He hesitated. "Does it hurt?"

Dean grimaced. "Like a son of a bitch. I can feel it down to my sinuses."

Sam remembered the pages upon pages talking about how goat horns ran all the way down into the animal's sinuses, how dangerous breaking a fully developed horn near the base could be. "Sorry man. I didn't pack any pills."

Dean nodded, then held his head very still. "Just do it."

Sam braced one hand on Dean's shoulder, then poured the pepper over the broken tip of the horn. Dean jerked under his grip, but the bleeding quickly stopped. He stepped back, tucking the jar away. "You need a moment?"

Dean pushed past him, aiming down the trail back towards the cabin.

Sam took that as a no. He glanced to Jo, opening his mouth to offer to carry Rex, but she met his eyes with a hard look and he let his jaw snap shut and gestured down the path for her to lead the way.

Dean stopped about two miles down, moving to a fallen tree and leaning over it, looking off into a small clearing. As Sam moved to join him, he turned his head, raising his finger to his mouth to indicate silence. Sam nodded back and stepped quietly up next to him, Jo flanking him on the other side. Dean gestured with his head, though it was unnecessary. Sam immediately saw what had drawn his attention.

A large, hairy shape lay curled up on the grass maybe ten feet away. Its eyes were closed, its face slack in sleep. Sam was surprised Dean had spotted it, though he'd read that the unusual shape of a goat's pupils gave it superior peripheral vision. The hair covering the shape marked it as inhuman, but there was something about the creature's features, barely visible in the fading light of the day, that Sam recognized.

"Is that --"

Dean nodded. "Joshua. Looks like more evidence for your theory, Jo."

Sam swallowed. He didn't know Joshua well, just that he was one of their father's contacts in the hunting community, that he lived alone and reclusive near the Idaho-Canada border, but kept up with the hunting news and provided good information. He was the one who'd told Sam about the faith healer in Nebraska. And if he was anything like Dean, he was still the same man underneath all that fur, and most likely seriously freaked out.

Dean hopped over the log, walking slowly and carefully toward the sleeping figure. He stopped about half way there, hands held loose and open at his sides, horns stretching out in silhouette against the setting sun. In that moment, stripped of humanity by the dying of the light, he presented a dark, terrifying figure, one Sam could see being mistaken for a demon, for something evil. Then he tilted his head, the gesture so inquisitive and innocent that the illusion of evil vanished.

"Hey," he said. "Josh."

The form on the ground twitched, then jumped up, immediately defensive and impossibly tall. Sam's hand twitched towards his gun, but Jo's free hand shooting out to restrain his was unnecessary. He wasn't going to shoot. Not unless Joshua tried to do something to his brother.

Dean held still, save for the tilt of his head as he tracked Joshua's movement. The two men -- two beasts -- stood at a stalemate for a long moment, one giant, looming, and tense, the other relaxed and peaceful.

"Joshua," Dean said again.

The sasquatch tilted his head, looking Dean up and down. "Winchester?" The name was barely recognizable through the growl his voice had become, and it struck Sam that Dean was actually lucky, Bobby even more so. They had both retained some physical measure of their humanity, obvious signs to the world around them that the mind looking out of their altered features was still the same. Sam didn't want to assume that just because Joshua had changed so much on the outside that he wasn't the same on the inside, but with that growling voice and the tense and aggressive nature of his stance, it wasn't easy.

"Yeah, man," Dean said. "'S freaking weird, right?"

The sound that came from Joshua's mouth might have been an angry growl, but the way he sank back on his heels made Sam think it was more of a laugh.

"You're confused," Dean said. "I get that. Oh man, do I ever get that. But we might have some answers for you. Jo's got some theories, and they seem to be adding up."

Joshua's head turned, looking past Dean towards the log where Sam and Jo stood. "Harvelle," he said. Jo raised her hand, shifting the burden of Rex on her shoulder. Joshua nodded, then met Sam's eyes and nodded again.

Yeah. Still the same man.


5:Thunderbird

A week later, Sam and Dean were in the badlands of Arizona. After getting Joshua resettled in Idaho -- the killings it seemed, had been accidental, a side effect to trying to reason with people and get them to help you when you suddenly had claws you weren't sure yet how to control -- they'd headed south, making a call to Bobby to let him know what they'd found.

Bobby had taken the news that he was stuck with the extra hair and those trees better than Sam might have expected. But then, as Sam had already gathered, he'd always been something of a crazy hermit, sticking close to his junkyard on the outskirts of civilization -- a woodwose wasn't much of a stretch. He could still research with the best of them, and had a whole new field to become expert in. Learning environmental theory and brushing up on his cryptozoology would keep him occupied and in demand as a hunter guru for years to come. Jo was planning to stick to Idaho a bit longer, help Joshua work out how to live in his new form, then head back to Nebraska and spread the word of the "new world order" through the hunter network, keep people like the three men in the woods, whose names Sam still didn't know, from bringing down any more innocent creatures or changed hunters.

The idea that their job, already dangerous and pulling the people who did it to the very fringes of society, could drag a person out of that society entirely with one wrong or large kill would hopefully be enough to help stem the change of balance in the world. The hunters who'd already been changed, well. Sam figured they all had a choice. His own experience seemed to show that once a person got tainted, be it with demon blood or wild magic, they wouldn't be changed further, but the idea that Dean could somehow turn into something even more bizarre and further from human than a satyr had kept Sam up at night, even as Dean had snored away in the opposite bed.

Heading south had been Jo's idea. She refused to say much, just "Try the desert. There's something you've gotta see." She'd been right so far, so Dean and Sam had taken her up on it, though they took their time.

It was like they were on vacation. Sam had even suggested the Grand Canyon, and while Dean had nodded, eyes going all distant, a soft smile on his face, when it was his turn behind the wheel -- and yeah, part of their drive had been spent working out how Dean could drive with goat legs and horns that brushed the ceiling -- he steered them further east, and instead they'd wound up here, parked along the side of a back road in the badlands, staring out across the rocky desert towards a towering orange mesa.

"Chupacabras," Dean said. Sam shook his head.

"They go after goats. Not usually people."

"Hey, man," Dean slowly turned his head, more aware now of his horns and their proximity to Sam's head, and grinned. "Goats have rights, too."

Sam laughed. "Cactus cat," he offered.

"Nah, they just wanna get drunk." Dean rubbed his goatee. "La Llarona's toast, though. Women in white are still totally fair game." He pushed himself away from the car, ending the conversation. Or, rather, putting it on pause. They'd been discussing the ins and outs of what they could and couldn't hunt since they'd left the Idaho panhandle. So far, the "can't hunt" column was outnumbering the "can". Sam was beginning to suspect he'd have to get a day job just to keep up with Dean's insatiable appetite for pie. He could probably survive well enough on leaves, but Sam was not about to be the person to point out that goats, in general, didn't live on baked goods.

Dean walked for a couple steps, getting the feel of the rocky ground beneath his hooves, the muscles in his legs flexing beneath his fine golden fur, then launched into a run, letting out a whoop of pleasure as he went. Now that his muscles had finished settling into their new formations, Dean had discovered a new love for running, moving far more gracefully and much faster than his bowlegged human legs had been able to handle. Sam, who once he'd reached six-two had been easily able to out-pace his brother, now found it difficult to keep up. Most times, like now, he didn't even try. There was no one and nothing around for miles, just them, their car, and the desert, and he knew Dean well enough to know that he wouldn't leave Sam behind.

Dean reached a small rock formation, just a pile of stacked boulders maybe twenty feet high, dwarfed in comparison to the distant mesa, and with a single push of one leg, managed to jump a good third of the way up, balancing precariously for a moment on a ledge a little smaller than one of his hooves, then launched himself even higher. Goats, Sam had learned, were excellent climbers, a fact Dean was happy to take advantage of. As he neared the top, Dean slowed, coming to a stop on a long ledge, his head turned to the sky.

"Sammy," he breathed. "Look."

Sam jogged closer to the rock formation, craning his head to follow Dean's gaze. A long line of dark clouds had appeared on the horizon, moving swiftly across the sky, covering the mesa in shadow. A long, pointed tendril of vapor led the way, looking almost like the head of a bird, stretched out in front of its curving wings.

Sam blinked.

Looked a lot like the head of a bird, actually. A whole lot.

Dean continued to stare upward as the line of shadow swept across the desert towards them, turning his head to keep his eyes fixed on the head shape. Within moments, the sun was eclipsed, the blue of the sky now a dark, threatening gray that seemed to flex for a moment, dropping down lower over the desert with a rumble that seemed to shake the very ground beneath Sam's feet. The shape sped up, and Sam could see that the other end trailed off into a smoky, cloudy tail behind a wall of clouds that whisped like feathers at its edge. Dean let out another whoop and launched himself off the rock formation, landing in a crouch and springing forward into another run, fist coming up to pump the air as he chased after the shadow of the shape across the ground. He couldn't keep up, and soon the the dark shape stretched across the opposite horizon, dropping behind another distant set of rocks and disappearing as though it had never been. Dean stumbled to a halt next to the road, about fifty yards down from where they'd parked the Impala, doubled over with his arms across his stomach, and laughed so hard he cried.

Sam caught up with him as Dean was wiping the tears from his cheeks, his smile stretching wide across his face and his strange eyes framed by fine crinkles. Sam couldn't help but grin back, even as his eyes were drawn continuously to the horizon, his skin still tingling with the feel of the rolling rumble through the air.

"Thunderbirds," he said, his voice pitched low and tinged with no small amount of awe.

Dean shook his head, the dying sun flashing off his horns and teeth. He glanced over, opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head again. "Gotta say, it's way prettier than the Snallygaster."

Sam laughed, picturing the bizarre looking monster that had gotten them started on this whole thing. "That's not hard to do."

Dean started back towards the Impala at a leisurely pace, making up for the lack of pockets by bracing his hands on the backs of his hips. "God only knows what someone would turn into if they tried to off that sucker."

Sam followed, quickly catching up to walk in step beside Dean. For all that Dean's stride had gone through a significant change since Maryland, they still fell into an easy, matching rhythm. Dean reached up to scratch at the base of his left horn, then trailed his fingertips up the shaft of it, his cheerful expression dimming as he brushed at the broken off stump.

Sam cleared his throat quietly, then spoke. "We could have them removed."

Dean frowned, hand dropping down from his horn back to his hip as though he'd been burned. "What?"

"It's called 'debudding'. You cauterize the base so they don't grow back."

The frown became a scowl. "Right, and I'll just shave my legs every day and get special contacts and no one will ever know you have a monster for a brother."

Sam grimaced. "That's not fair."

"You're talking about amputation, Sam."

"I'm talking about you being able to fit through a door without ducking."

Dean's hand went back up to the stumped end of his horn. "Oh, so it's because I'm taller than you, now."

Sam groaned. "Dean -- don't do that, man, I'm trying to be helpful."

"Then stop talking about cutting bits off of me. These things aren't like hair, Sam. It hurt enough getting 'em shot at."

"Fine."

"Fine."

They made it to the car and Dean held his hand up for the keys -- Sam's to carry now that Dean had given up on pants, at least until it was jacket weather again. Sam tossed them over.

"You'd fit in the car better."

"So would you if we hacked your legs off at the knees."

They climbed in, and Sam found himself more aware than ever of the way his legs fit into the passenger side foot well. He scowled. Dean started the engine.

"How about a glamour?"

"'Cause spells always work exactly how you want 'em to."

"Dean."

"Sam."

Sam huffed, looking straight out the windshield at the road as Dean put the car in gear, but didn't take his foot off the brake. He tried again.

"You could go into diners again. Flirt with waitresses." He chanced a glance out of the corner of his eye and watched his brother's expression go wistful at the idea of spending time with a waitress. It lasted only a moment.

"You just don't want to have to order pie to go every time."

"That's right, Dean. I don't."

Dean looked over, his right horn scraping against the roof, and grinned. "Too bad, bitch."

"You don't want to be normal."

The grin vanished and Dean turned his eyes back to the road. He still hadn't taken his foot off the brake. "Want's got nothing to do with it."

Sam shifted so he was sitting almost sideways in the seat, facing Dean full on. "I know you, Dean. I know how you feel. Hell, I've been where you are."

Dean snorted.

"I'm serious."

Dean seemed dead set on ignoring him, so Sam tried a final tactic. "Fine. Guess we'll settle down somewhere, then."

Dean jerked. "What?"

"You don't really think you can keep traveling like that, do you?"

Dean's jaw clenched. "I can still hunt just fine."

"What if a cop sees you behind the wheel? They won't all be deserted roads. And how do you expect to book a motel room? Or hustle pool?"

Dean grunted, then smacked an open palm on the wheel, and Sam knew he was winning. He let Dean stew in silence for a few minutes. It was the old battle for superiority -- whoever spoke first now lost.

Dean broke first. "You know, you really woulda made a damned fine lawyer."

Sam grinned. "So you'll do it?"

"We'll look into it. A glamour. Just for the horns, though, and nothing really involved. Got it?"

Sam nodded hurriedly. "Got it."

Dean looked out along the road, then twisted his head and peered back the way they'd come, just barely missing gouging a hole in the ceiling liner. He licked his lips.

"Hey Sam."

"Yeah?"

"Just 'cause we can't hunt 'em. . . ." Dean trailed off, leaning forward to get a look at the sky through the windshield in the direction the thunderbird had gone. "Doesn't mean we can't chase 'em, right?"

Sam shrugged. "Don't see why not."

Dean threw his weight into spinning the Impala's wheel and slammed his hoof down on the accelerator, leaving a layer of rubber behind on the road as he abandoned it in favor of the open desert. The Impala groaned and rocked, and Sam slammed sideways into the door, but Dean didn't let up on the speed for a moment. His face seemed to light up from the inside, and in that moment Sam stopped seeing the imposing horns, the alien eyes, and the goatee. He stopped seeing the satyr-shape and instead saw through it again to the man underneath.

This was Dean. Huffy anger, bipolar mood swings, and reckless decisions. He was suspicious and cheerful, childish yet deeply responsible. He was a hero. A Bacchanalian asshole. No matter the packaging, he was what he was.

Sam wondered if this was what Dean had meant all those years ago, after Dad died. When he insisted, over and over, that no matter what Sam could do or how freaky Sam might become, he was still Sam and Dean still believed in him. He thought of the time, an eternity no matter how brief it had turned out to be, when he and Dean hadn't had that faith in each other, and thanked God that, despite the angels and the demons and the war and the pain, he and Dean had gotten it back.

Sam threw his hands up over his face as Dean narrowly missed plowing into a cactus, and decided that while he was thanking things he should throw some gratitude to the universal force of perversity that liked to meddle in their lives. Sure, maybe it had turned them into metaphorical playground balls in its game of universal dodge ball, but at least it always seemed to throw Sam and Dean together.

There sure as hell were worse ways to go.


finis