"Oz?" James peered blearily through his immediate world of brown velour, wondering what had woken him. There was no answer from the far end of the van, but the kettle on the stove was just starting to whistle.
James lay back on the cushions and rubbed his eyes, reflecting that it was always a bad idea to drink as much as he had because after a certain point Oz actually began to look attractive. Well, less hideous.
The kettle whistled shrilly on, making James' head thump in response.
"Oz!" he bellowed, but still there came no answering grumble.
James rolled reluctantly out of his makeshift bed and stumbled up the length of the trailer, kicking things out of his way and then burning himself on the kettle.
"Ow! Fuck." He sucked his hand ruefully and looked around. The place looked messier than he remembered - almost as if there'd been a struggle. Maybe there had. They had been quite drunk after all. One night previously they'd even broken one of the cupboard doors. James gave a wincing grin in recollection, and stuck his head into the bedroom, assuming his ancient associate had fallen asleep again. But the bed was empty.
Puzzled, he wandered towards the door, only now realising it was open.
It was then he saw the blood.
Smeared in a jagged trail down the door, there were further vivid scarlet splashes on the steps. James sobered up in a heartbeat, staring in frozen shock at the traces.
Hesitantly, afraid of what he would find, and placing his bare feet carefully away from the blood on the steps, he made his way outside. Blinking in the bright morning sunshine, there was no sign of Oz, but the bloody trail lead away into the trees.
He'd been thinking robbery - or perhaps mad hillbillies - but now he suddenly wondered if it had been a bear. Would one have ventured into the van? He didn't know, and shivered despite the warm sun.
Minutes later, dressed in stout boots and jeans, James was back out in the lot, peering warily into the woods and fingering the shotgun in his hands nervously.
"Oz, if you've managed to get yourself eaten by a bear I'll bloody kill you," he muttered.
He'd tried to call the park rangers, and the rest of the crew, but there was no signal this deep in the park. It was a case of drive until he picked one up - by which time Oz might be dead - or try and follow by himself.
He stepped under the trees. It was cool, and smelt of earth and bruised leaves. The trail was easy enough to follow at first, but gradually became harder to pick out as the undergrowth thickened. All too soon he had to admit he had no idea which way to go. He stood listening, debating whether to press on and hope he picked up the trail again, or go for help. Had to concede if he carried on he might never find his way back at all, given his atrocious sense of direction.
A twig cracked nearby, loud as a pistol shot, and James tensed. Raising the rifle, edged closer to the source of the sound - only to come abruptly face to face with the barrel of another gun, pointing straight at him.
There was a long tense silence, as he and the determined looking young man on the other end of it glared at each other.
"Okay, dude, I don't know who you are, but it's probably not you I'm looking for, 'kay? Let's back off a little," said the stranger warily.
James didn't lower the rifle. This bloke didn't look like he'd been in a struggle recently, but then he didn't exactly look like a park ranger either. Plus, the gun still pointing at him wasn't a rifle, it was a nasty looking hand-gun.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
The other man blinked. "You're British?"
James nodded, starting to feel slightly silly and wishing they could sort this out because his arms were beginning to ache. "I'm looking for my friend," he said finally. "He's disappeared. There was blood - "
"Oh crap, not another one."
James tensed as the stranger moved, but it was only to lower his gun. Warily, James followed suit.
"What do you mean, another one? And you still haven't told me who you are."
"Name's Dean. Dean Winchester. And I'm hunting a - I'm looking for my brother."
James wondered what he'd been about to say he was hunting. "Your brother?"
"He's disappeared too, stupid ass. Like your friend."
"I thought maybe a bear or something - " started James, tentatively, but Dean gave a harsh laugh.
"Nah, they don't come this - " he checked himself. "Maybe. You could be right. You should really get out of these woods, they're not safe. If - when - I find the - find Sammy - I'll keep an eye out for your friend, okay?"
James shook his head. "I can't just abandon him. If he's hurt, I have to get help and if he's - well - "
"He's probably not dead yet," said Dean, doing nothing for James' latent suspicion of him.
"How do you know?" he demanded.
"If it's what I think it is - well, it'll keep them alive as long as it can. Fresher that way." Dean stuck the gun into the waistband of his jeans, and James couldn't help following the movement with his eyes. Caught himself, and shook his head, embarrassed.
"I'm not leaving," he said quietly.
Dean looked him over consideringly. "You know how to use that thing?" he asked, nodding at the shotgun. James nodded. "Well. Okay then. Let's catch us a wendigo."
"No, not a witch, a wendigo."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Jeez. Just don't say I didn't warn you."
They seemed to have been trekking through the woods for most of the day, with the only thing to show for their efforts a variety of interesting insect bites.
James' occasional protestations that they should call the police, or the park ranger service were met with a stubborn resistance by Dean, and as Dean was the only one who had any idea where they were, James was in his hands.
Weary and fed up, he finally sat down under a tree and refused to go any further. "Face it. We have no idea where they might be. We're not helping them by wandering in circles, Dean." The younger man rounded on him angrily, but James just shrugged. "Are we?"
For a moment he thought Dean would hit him, or threaten him with the gun, but he was sure by now that the guy wouldn't actually shoot him.
Well, fairly sure.
His instincts were borne out when Dean heaved a frustrated sigh and threw himself down to the ground next to him.
"I can't believe there's no trace of the thing," he groaned. "There should be tracks, spoor, something." Dean let his head fall back into the roots and stared blindly up into the tree.
James was half-way through suggesting for possibly the twentieth time that they should go to the police, or at least go and find something to eat before they died of hunger and became no use to anyone, when he realised with mounting irritation that Dean wasn't listening to him. Muttering under his breath about bloody rude colonials, he tapped Dean's boot with his foot.
"Oi. Are you listening?"
"Don't you shush me, you - "
"Will you hush?" The urgency of the frantic whisper finally filtered through to James and he eyed Dean warily.
"What is it?" He started to follow Dean's line of vision, and jumped as the younger man sat up and grabbed his arm abruptly.
James frowned. "Why not?"
"Because you don't need to see that." Steady eyes stared back at him, alarmed but controlled.
James had a horrible feeling that he really didn't want to see whatever it was. But years of automatically disagreeing with everything Jeremy or Richard told him to do mingled with a reluctant knowledge that Dean wouldn't be able to identify Oz - and a refusal to appear girly in front of his odd new companion - made him look up anyway.
It took a second to come into focus. The human eye wasn't, after all, used to seeing the human body quite that inside out.
James was on his feet, gagging, some way down the track before Dean caught up with him. He leaned against a tree weakly, gulping in air. Was faintly proud of himself for not throwing up or passing out, however attractive the two options appeared right then.
"You okay?" Dean was smirking, mask of nonchalance back in place. It obviously wasn't the missing Sam then, thought James.
He nodded, hoping vainly that he didn't look as shaken as he felt. "You're going to say 'I told you so', aren't you?" he sighed.
Dean's grin widened. "Yep."
James rolled his eyes. "Go on then. Before that level of smugness proves fatal."
"Told you so." Dean's tone was teasing, but James noticed the way his eyes kept roaming the woods around, never still, and the gun in his hand was firm and steady.
"What could do something like that?" James asked, horribly curious.
James' eyes widened. "You mean, whatever's got Oz and Sam - can do that to a human?"
Dean nodded grimly. "And I hate to say it, but you're right."
"I am?" James brightened, then looked confused. "About what?"
"It's getting dark. We need to get out of these woods. It's dangerous enough tracking the thing in daylight, at night we'd have no chance. End up like the Amazing Inside-out Boy up there."
James winced, at the same time having the sneaking suspicion Dean would have got on very well with Jeremy. They could have compared weaponry and jacket choices. He smiled at the thought of the encounter, and Dean looked at him curiously.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh, nothing. How are we going to find our way back to the road?"
Dean looked scornful. "It's that way. Couple of miles. Do all Brits have a crap sense of direction, or is it just you?" he added conversationally, heading off between the trees. James opened his mouth to retort, then closed it again. It was getting awfully gloomy under the huge old trees. Maybe he'd save the argument until they were safely back on the road, preferably somewhere with electricity. And lockable doors.
He hurried after Dean.
Almost an hour later, they made the road, and half a mile down it they came to a Chevy Impala parked in a lay-by.
"Hey, baby," Dean crooned. "You miss me?"
James, startled, looked around for another person, eventually realising Dean was addressing the car. Hid a grin. Yep, Dean'd definitely get on with Jeremy.
"Nice car," said James, appreciatively, then wondered if that had sounded as much like a bad chat-up line to Dean as it had to him.
"Thanks." Dean didn't seem to have noticed, and in fact proved quite happy to expound at great length the car's good points, all the way to the nearest truckstop. Watching him sleepily from the embrace of the passenger seat, James found Dean's enthusiasm for his subject both strangely familiar and strangely comforting.
For his part, Dean was hardly able to believe his luck at finding an audience that not only didn't groan and tell him to shut up after the first minute, but had some insightful points to make in return. Even if the guy did display a woeful lack of appreciation for fine American cars in general. For the first time, Dean found himself hoping James would be around long enough to make him change his mind on that score.
The motel was cheap and anonymous. James eyed the grubby looking furniture with misgivings, but Dean threw himself straight down on one of the beds and groaned.
"Man I ache. And itch. How do the damn bugs get in there in the first place, that's what I want to know." He scratched irritably at his groin, and James looked away. Dean laughed. "Not disturbing you am I?"
"I've spent almost a month in a van with Oz. I very much doubt you could be more disturbing than him if you tried." James sat carefully on the opposite bed and wondered how remote the chances of actual tea were.
Dean was studying him carefully. "So you and Oz. You're - close?"
James looked up sharply. Dean looked suspiciously guileless. "We're - friends. Colleagues, I suppose. Sometimes - " he let the sentence tail off. "We're not really close. But there's a certain - well, I suppose there's an obligation. I have to find him."
Dean nodded slowly, as if James had confirmed something for him. Smirked. "So is he cute?" Was taken aback by the sudden laughter, and found himself smiling in bemused response. "What? What'd I say?"
James was gasping for breath. "Um. Not exactly what you'd call cute, no." He dissolved into giggles again, until he remembered that there was a very real chance Oz was injured or worse, and sobered quickly. Dean pushed himself off the bed and wandered over, dropped down next to him.
"We'll find them. We'll be in time. Trust me."
James looked into his eyes, and frowned. "I have no idea who you are, and no idea why I should."
"But you do?" It was more of a statement than a question, as Dean held his gaze and smiled slightly.
"I - " James found himself strangely tongue tied. This close, he could smell the forest on Dean, and something that might have been the leather of his jacket. Was almost overcome with a desire to lean forwards and just breathe in the other man's scent.
Dean's eyes were sparkling with restrained laughter, and James had a sudden qualm that he knew exactly what he was thinking.
"You know what we should do?" Dean murmured, and James swallowed.
"Get pizza. And beer. Definitely beer." Dean was on his feet and bounding towards the door. "Back in a minute."
James watched the door bang shut behind him, and dropped back on the bed, laughing weakly. "Oh God May, you arse," he groaned. "As if he'd be interested..." He let the thought tail off and instead pulled himself to his feet and went to take a hasty shower before Dean returned.
Quite a cold shower.
When James emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed once more and trying to pull out the bits of twig that seemed to have become irrevocably part of his hair, Dean was sprawled on one of the beds, beer bottle in hand and watching the room's tiny TV. James thought it was something in black and white at first, but it proved to be just appalling reception. He accepted a beer and proceeded to fiddle with the aerial while delivering a discourse on the inadequacy of American beer compared with proper British ales.
Dean was content to watch him rather than the TV, he was just as entertaining. And the picture was better.
"What do you think?"
"What?" Dean sat up looking automatically guilty, then realised James had managed to get perfect reception. "Hey, how'd you do that?"
"Just needed tweaking." James sat down and snagged some pizza out of the box.
"You're a handy guy to have around," Dean conceded, hastily taking another piece himself, in case James proved hungrier than he looked.
"I have my moments." James grinned.
The pizza was long gone, and the beer seemed to have disappeared the same way. James had tried to get Dean to tell him something about himself - how he knew about the thing they were tracking for starters - but Dean managed to be evasive without being silent. A tactic James recognised from himself, and didn't push the matter. Suspected Dean could just as easily have fed him a pack of lies, and was grateful that he hadn't.
On his way back from a trip to the bathroom, Dean came and sat on the edge of James' bed rather than his own. Looked down at James, hair tangled and splayed across the pillow and laughed, softly. "How do you put up with hair like that? I thought Sam's was bad." He looked abruptly pained, and James sat up, putting a hand on Dean's shoulder.
"He'll be okay."
Dean looked troubled. "You wouldn't say that so easy if you knew what we were facing."
"So, what, you've been giving me false hope here?" James tried to keep his voice light, tried to ignore the worry gnawing inside.
"They're not dead. I'd know, if Sammy was - they're not dead. And there's always hope."
"He means a lot to you, doesn't he?" said James quietly, and Dean glared at him. James held his gaze, until the fight faded from his eyes.
"I promised I'd take care of him," Dean muttered, making to get off the bed. James briefly tightened his grip on Dean's shoulder, before releasing him. Dean stayed where he was, suddenly looking at him with an intense consideration.
Dean leaned slowly forwards, and James, mesmerised, didn't back away. Then somehow Dean's lips were pressing against his own, and Dean's hands were on his shoulders and he was being pressed back down against the mattress. His last coherent thought was that he wasn't even drunk. Then his world narrowed to the touch of Dean's hands and the rough scrape of a stubbled jaw against his own and the lean hips grinding down against him.
The only sound in the room was the muffled gasping from the two men on the narrow bed, clutching and thrusting at each other, kissing fiercely and almost angrily. The world had conspired against them both, and if they could find some measure of recompense in each other, then they'd take it.
Dean pulled back, staring into James' darkened eyes, and grinned wolfishly. "We should do this properly." James hesitated, then gave a short nod.
Dean stripped swiftly and efficiently, laughing at James' rather more circumspect disrobing. "Shy?" he murmured, biting suddenly at James' neck, and making a jolt of desire shoot the entire length of his body.
"I'm probably old enough to be your - " James started, but Dean's mouth was covering his again, and there was too much tongue in the way to talk around.
Naked now, they fell back onto the bed, Dean's legs wrapped around James', and his fingers roving over the older man's chest. James slid his hand down between them, and stroked long fingers up Dean's cock, making him shudder with delight and grind hard against him.
"Want you," Dean growled, fingers digging into James' arms, bruisingly rough.
"I - don't - we hardly - should use - " James tried to muster a coherent sentence while Dean's tongue was slowly travelling over his nipples.
Dean looked up and gave a short laugh. "What, my Colt not good enough protection for you?" Returned his attention to James' chest and carried on travelling downwards, trailing his tongue down over James' stomach and then up the side of his cock, making him groan.
Dean rolled over and hung off the side of the bed, scrabbling in his jeans; James taking the opportunity to explore Dean's back and shoulders with his own mouth, eliciting a moan of appreciation. Scrambled back, clutching a condom and a small tube of something.
James' breath caught in his throat. The look in Dean's eyes was almost dangerous, and it worried him faintly just how much that was turning him on.
Dean breathed a string of inaudible words against James' skin, before slipping a hand between his thighs and stroking him slowly. "Tell me you want this," he growled.
"I want this," James groaned. "I want you. Please, Dean."
Dean nodded, slowly, seriously. "Give me a hand here," he said, finally, and tossed the lube at James.
Hungrily watching the intent gaze on James' face, Dean sat back on his haunches and rolled the condom slowly over his cock. Moaned quietly as James slowly slicked first his hand and then Dean's erection with the gel, before lying slowly back and parting his legs, slipping his hand between them, and gradually working a finger inside himself.
Dean realised he was holding his breath, and exhaled in a rush. "God that's sexy," he muttered, the brief flash of a smile it prompted on James' face making his cock throb as much as the sight of him slowly fucking himself with his own fingers. He reached out and pushed James down, rolling him over, biting at his shoulder and pushing his thighs apart with one knee. James couldn't stop the involuntary gasp as he felt Dean's cock nuzzling between his legs, felt as much as heard the answering laugh against his back.
James thought he'd moaned aloud as the hard shaft pushed slowly inside him, until he realised it had come from Dean. Felt the hot pressure filling him and stretching him, bit hard on his lip, tasted blood.
He could hear Dean murmuring against his back, a low stream of nonsense that might have been endearments but were more likely expletives. He pressed back against Dean's cock and grinned at the hitch in the babble. Clenched around him and felt Dean's movements becoming more jerky, thrusting harder and deeper, and James found he didn't want to tease any more, just wanted that feeling of being fucked harder and deeper and rougher than he could remember ever being taken before.
Rocking harshly against the violently patterned bedspread, James' own cock trapped beneath him, his wrists held in a vice-like grip by Dean, he started to come, wave after wave of intense spasms, then felt Dean shuddering and pulsing inside him, then for a second all he could see was darkness.
They lay side by side, breathing hard, touching but not embracing, grinning broadly but not kissing.
Dean, surprised and pleased that James wasn't inclined to be remotely clingy, eventually decamped to the other bed faintly scared of what - who - he might murmur in his sleep. Especially after what they'd just done.
James, glad to be allowed his space, didn't object.
When James woke the next morning, Dean was already dressed and pacing in front of the grimy window. Neither of them alluded to the previous night, and James dressed quickly, glad that he wasn't expected to make conversation.
Once out in the parking lot though, their attention was drawn by a crowd bathed in the flashing lights of a patrol car.
Despite Dean's protests, James marched over intending to report their missing companions. Drawing closer, he came into earshot of the conversations and stopped. A half-hysterical woman was sobbing details of being attacked on a camping trip and wandering lost in the woods for two days. Her boyfriend had been dragged from their ripped tent, and she hadn't found a trace of him since.
Dean and James exchanged looks, and once the cops disappeared into the motel reception Dean sauntered over. James, too far away to hear the exchange, frowned as Dean flashed some sort of ID and carried out a hurried conversation, before rejoining him.
"What did you show her?" asked James, suspiciously.
"Hmmn? Oh, nothing," said Dean airily. "She showed me a picture of the missing boyfriend, unfortunately for her I think we already met him."
"Eh?" James was confused until he remembered the body in the tree. "Oh. Oh, God, that poor - "
"Yeah, well, it's too late to help her, but she may just have helped us." Dean spread a map of the local area over the bonnet of the Impala and stabbed his finger down onto it. "This here's about where Sammy got took. And - here, this camping spot, that's where you were, right?" James nodded, and Dean looked back at the map carefully. "And here - this should be about where they were camping when the attack took place." He waved a hand over the area between the three spots. "See those rock formations?"
James nodded, slowly. "You're thinking a cave or something?"
"I still think we should tell the police."
Dean looked shiftily over at the patrol car. "Nah. All we'll do is get more innocent people killed. They won't believe us if we tell them what that thing can do."
"But if we showed them where to find that poor guy's body - "
"Then they'd lock us up for his murder!" Dean grabbed the front of James' jacket and shoved him back against the side of the car. "What would you do, go off on a wild goose chase looking for a mythical monster, or arrest the guys who know where the body is and didn't report it already?"
James pushed him off and straightened his jacket. "Exactly. You do realise how insane I am to be going back into the woods with you?"
Dean checked, taken aback, then grinned. "What, suddenly you don't trust me? Hell, I just knew you wouldn't respect me in the morning."
James smiled back, despite his lingering misgivings.
A few minutes later they were roaring up the highway, the dark forest seemingly closing in on them on each side.
After about five miles, Dean turned off up a rough track twisting into the trees, wincing every time the car hit a particularly savage rut, and occasionally apologising to it. Eventually though, they could drive no further, and reluctantly leaving the car behind began trekking toward the hills. Their progress was slowed slightly by the amount of weaponry Dean insisted they take with them. James had stared, amazed (and secretly impressed) by the stash of ordnance in the trunk of the car.
By the time they came to the rock formations they'd seen on the map, James was hot, dishevelled and out of breath. To his irritation, Dean had barely broken sweat, and James was uncomfortably reminded of how much younger and fitter he was. Not that that stopped him looking.
Dean looked round, and James forced his gaze upwards, guiltily. The younger man grinned knowingly, and waited for James to catch up.
"What, you're not enjoying the majesty of our National Park?" Dean smirked, running a finger down James' bare forearm, marking a trail in the dust and sweat.
"I hate nature," James declared with feeling. "I maintain it's best seen from the inside of a car window."
Dean snorted. "Well then, let's go and shoot some of it." He hefted the shotgun he was carrying and set off again, more warily as they got closer to the rocks.
In the shadow of the looming outcrop, they shivered, suddenly cold after the hot sun. It felt somehow ominous too, and James realised it was completely silent - no birdsong, or the rustling of animals that had accompanied them through the trees.
It didn't take them long to find the cave. A dark entrance - more of a crack between two rocks, a fault line leading into the blackness of the hill. They looked at each other and back at the cave mouth.
"You should stay here," said Dean, brusquely, pulling a flashlight out of his pocket and checking the beam.
"I should," agreed James. "But I'm not going to." He held Dean's gaze until the younger man shrugged and turned away.
"It's your funeral." He stepped under the overhanging rock, the beam of the torch swallowed after too short a distance for comfort. James followed him, close enough to see the light playing over the uneven floor, not so close to hinder Dean's movements. Or to look like he was nervous.
Their footsteps echoed away into what turned out to be a tunnel. From somewhere came the sound of dripping water, otherwise, it was quiet - too quiet. James wasn't sure what he'd expected - growling perhaps, or - he firmly skirted the thought 'screaming of victims' - yelling of prisoners. The oppressive silence made his skin crawl, and he found his eyes straining to see into the darkness on either side of them.
After what seemed an age, the tunnel widened and the roof rose until they found themselves standing in a vast cavern. Far above, light filtered in from gaps in the rock, tinged green from the vegetation hanging down in long curtains. In a way, the unexpected light was worse, as it threw a multitude of shadows around the edges of the space that seemed to hide a threatening figure in each one.
Looking upwards, James wasn't paying attention to where he was stepping, and when something rolled under his foot, he almost fell. Grabbing at Dean to keep his balance, he looked down, and let out a horrified yelp when he realised what he'd trodden on.
Dean looked at the skull dispassionately. "Huh. How about that. Guess we found the right place." He looked at James, who was staring in horror at the bone fragments and jaw bones that seemed to be strewn all around him. "Well, seeing as how you just gave our position away - Sammy?" he yelled, making James jump all over again. "Sam, you in here?"
They listened, but all that came back was the trickle of water and the rustling of leaves - James hoped it was leaves - in the roof.
They listened again, as the echoes died away. This time, there was a scuffling noise, and what might have been a whimper from behind a pile of boulders.
Dean beckoned, and as quietly as possible they crept towards the sound. Dean looked back at James, who nodded, and covered the area behind them, while Dean leapt around the rocks, gun at the ready.
"Sam!" Dean's anguished yell was followed by a sliding scramble across the wet rocks out of sight. James followed hurriedly, trying to watch every direction at once. Looked, finally, past Dean and caught his breath.
There were bodies, maybe five of them, tied in withered creeper, desiccated and long dead. And amongst them, a bloodstained boy, barely conscious, with Dean tearing the creeper away from his hands and mouth with frantic urgency. Another movement to the side startled him, and James had his gun aimed and almost fired before he took in what he was seeing.
Oz, tied and gagged in a similar fashion, staring desperately at him from the darkest patch of shadow.
James was heading towards him when a second shadow moved. He turned in alarm as part of the darkness seemed to detach from the wall of the cave and launch itself at the kneeling Dean. He'd put the shotgun down to untie Sam, and the thing hit him with the force of a bull, rolling him over and over on the wet rocks.
James tried to get a clear shot, but they were sliding and struggling so much he was just as likely to hit Dean. Motion at his side made him turn, and his eyes widened to see Sam, pale but determined, holding Dean's shotgun. They looked at each other for a second, a silent appraisal, then both looked back at the struggle playing out on the rocky ground.
"Hey! Furball!" James yelled, and the beast-like figure raised its head, snarling.
James and Sam fired simultaneously, one shot burying itself in the creature's shoulder, throwing it off Dean, and the other one taking off half its head.
Sam was at Dean's side before the echoes of the blast had died away, fingers anxiously trying to stem the flow of blood from deep scratches to his arms and cheek. Dean made a face and batted him away.
"I'm fine Sammy, get off." He scrambled to his feet and gave a sudden whoop of delight. "Nice shooting! Both of you!"
They all looked down at the body of their attacker. Man-like, it had hideously elongated limbs, and a covering of scrubby fur. Dried blood covered it in bristling patches.
"Ugly mother," observed Dean, and Sam gave a sudden gasp. "What?"
"Mother. Dean - there's another one of these somewhere."
"You sure?" Dean snatched the shotgun back from Sam and reloaded.
Sam hissed in irritation. "Yes I'm sure!"
"Shit!" James suddenly remembered Oz, and hurried back to where the older man appeared to have mustered the last of his strength into a decidedly pissy glare.
James hastily cut him free, apologising profusely. Oz, leaning shakily against him, finally gave a weak laugh.
"I didn't think you'd come."
James shot a guiltily furtive look at Dean, who coughed and re-checked his ammo.
"It's okay Oz, you're safe now," James muttered, hoping he was right.
"We ain't out of the woods yet," Dean said, grimly. "Literally or figuratively. If there's another one of these things out there - "
"There is," chorused Sam and Oz.
Dean and James exchanged apprehensive glances. "Then we'd better get going," James finished for him, and they turned towards the single exit from the cavern. It seemed narrower than they remembered, and Dean raised the flashlight.
The beam of light illuminated the dark mouth of the tunnel entrance - and also the shaggy figure blocking most of it off. As the light hit its eyes, gleaming redly, it roared.
"Is it me, or is that thing twice the damn size of the first one?" Dean muttered, as they all started backing slowly away.
"I think you just killed its baby," Oz offered, earning a glare from James.
"I don't think Wendy over there's going to cut you any slack for being tied up at the time," observed Dean, looking frantically round for another means of escape. "Cut you a new mouth across your throat maybe."
"If we all ran in different directions, at least three of us could escape," Oz suggested.
"How about we just feed you to it up front, you'll keep it chewing so long we'll be miles away," retorted James, and Dean sniggered.
"We can't outrun it," said Sam, shaking his head.
"Then we blow its head off like we did the other one," declared Dean, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. James felt he could practically hear the unspoken 'how hard can it be' hanging on the air afterwards, and wondered exactly when he should start ducking.
All four men were now armed, Dean and James having come bearing spares. They raised their weapons and aimed at the snarling creature in the entrance, where it was still sniffing the air consideringly.
There was a pause, then a deafening roar as they all fired, Dean and Sam together, James a fraction of a second later, Oz last, holding the gun as if it might bite him. When the echoes and dust died away, they stared at the space the corpse should have been.
"Where did she go?" said Sam, bewildered, and they all slowly backed together so they could see all corners of the cave at once. It was empty.
"Maybe we drove it off?" suggested James, hopefully.
"Nah," said Dean immediately. "I don't think we rank as scary to that thing. As lunch, maybe. It sure moves fast though."
There was an ominous growl, and the knot of four tense bodies slowly turned in a circle as each man became convinced the other three couldn't possibly be keeping a decent watch on the parts of the cave he couldn't see.
The cave still looked empty, and the echoing acoustics meant they couldn't get a fix on the noise.
Something brushed James' face, and he swiped at it with a hand, thinking it was a leaf, or a cobweb.
It was sticky.
Slowly, he looked up. The drooling maw of the wendigo leered back at him, from where it clung to a rock a couple of feet above his head.
"Shit!" James threw himself forward as the thing hurled itself down, claws out, into the space he'd just occupied.
They scattered, firing instinctively and repeatedly, but never seeming able to hit it. Sam yelled as claws raked across his back, and Oz uttered a choked scream as teeth sank into his arm. But that was its mistake. Pausing long enough to get a good bite, it stayed still for the seconds necessary for James to get a fix on it. Even then, it was moving too quickly for a killing shot, but it scuttled into the shadows trailing blood from a gaping hole in its side.
"Way to go!" Dean slapped him on the shoulder, and they shared a fleeting grin, before turning to examine the wounds sustained by the others.
"You'll live," was Dean's dismissive summation, earning him a glare from Sam and an earful from Oz. He winced and threw a look at James. "Can we throw him back?" he mouthed, and James tried hard not to laugh.
"So do we hunt it down, or try and get out?" Sam asked impatiently.
"I still don't know how we get past it," said Dean thoughtfully, looking at the trail of blood that lead, annoyingly, towards the entrance. "There's a fairly good chance we just made it mad."
James was looking up. "What about getting out that way?"
"What way?" Dean followed the line of his gaze incredulously. "You telling me you can fly? Because I didn't notice any wings last night."
Sam looked at him sharply, but stayed silent.
"No, look, this rock is so pitted we could climb up it easily," James was saying, indicating the ledges and holes scarring the wall of the cave.
"Yeah, it's really soft, which means it'll crumble and hurl us to our deaths," Dean pointed out. "And there's no guarantee those holes up there are big enough to get out of even if we did reach them."
"What other choice do we have?"
They glared at each other, both feeling that after what had happened between them the other should be more naturally disposed to agree with them. The staring match came to an abrupt end as the wendigo launched itself out of the darkness in a snarling whirl of claws and teeth, only to be driven back by a hurried volley of bullets.
Dean searched his pockets desperately and sighed. "I'm running out of ammo. Looks like up we go."
They ran to the most likely looking stretch of wall and started pulling themselves up, painful inches at a time. Dean had been right, the rock here was dangerously soft, and repeatedly crumbled and splintered under their weight.
Gradually, they worked their way higher. Pausing for breath, James looked down and winced. The distance looked a hell of a lot further looking down that it had looking up. They were amongst the trailing creepers now, which made it both easier in that there was something else to hold on to, and more treacherous, in that they were given to snapping or giving way without warning.
More than once, one of the four almost fell to the unforgiving rocks below. Once, Oz was saved by James grabbing his shirt collar in the last instant before he fell out of reach, and then a minute later James himself grabbed a vine which held just long enough for him to trust it with his weight before giving way. He had a hideous second when everything seemed to stand still, and then a hand in the small of his back was shoving him roughly against the wall, where he scrabbled for a hold to stop his plunging descent. He clung there for a second, breathing hard, only then realising the steadying hand was still there, pressed against his back. He looked awkwardly round, and found it belonged to Dean.
Dean waited until James indicated he had a secure hold, and nodded briefly before resuming his own climb.
The light increased as they climbed higher. Eventually, the walls started curving back on themselves to become the roof, and they had to work their way round the edge, trying to find a hole that was large enough - and close enough - to climb out through.
The first few were too small - tantalising daylight and fresh air, just inches away from them that might as well have been miles.
Getting more and more disheartened, they scrambled over half way round the circumference before spotting a likely target. Sunlight was pouring in through a tangle of creepers, and a gap that surely must be wide enough to crawl through.
The only problem was, the distance out from the edge.
"We're going to have to trust those vines to get to it," said Sam, unhappily. They stared at the possible escape route with mixed feelings. They could be on the verge of freedom, but on the other hand it would mean swinging out over the cave floor on a mat of roots and creepers that had already proved dangerously unstable. And even if it was possible once, the more that came away with each person meant less for those behind to hold on to.
Also, James reminded himself, there was the small matter of a ravening monster loose in this cave somewhere. One that had already proved it could climb.
As if his thoughts had conjured it out of the ether, at that very second the beast burst through a curtain of vines, claws scraping the cave wall and scrabbling with slathering jaws towards them.
"Sammy! Go!" Dean bunched his fist in the back of Sam's shirt and launched him into empty space before he could object. Grabbing for the vines, his shouted indignation was drowned out by the roars of the closing wendigo. Oz, panicking, scrambled out behind him, swinging from vine to vine with a strength and ability born of sheer terror.
Watched anxiously by Dean and James, Sam reached the gap in the cave roof and gave a relieved yell. "I think it's wide enough! It's tangled but I think we can get through! Dean, hurry!" His head and shoulders disappeared from view, fighting his way up through the web of roots and stems and leaves, Oz pushing at the soles of his feet in his eagerness to follow.
"You next," Dean demanded, in a tone that brooked no argument. Not that James had ever taken any notice of that sort of thing.
"We go together," he replied, and yanked Dean's hand away from the wall, forcing him to grab at the creepers or fall. Dangling in space, they'd moved just in time, as the evil scream of the wendigo split the air of the cave, skittering across the wall where they'd been just seconds before. It cocked its head and snarled at them.
Bits of creeper and earth raining down around them, James and Dean pulled themselves out over the drop, edging closer to the hole. They'd almost made it, when with an unearthly howl, the beast launched itself through the air towards them. Unnaturally strong muscles propelled it away from the wall with a terrifying speed and fury, and they couldn't release a hand to defend themselves.
Their feet were free though.
As its jaws were about to close around his leg, Dean's boot connected firmly with its throat. There was a click of teeth, a rake of claws and it fell spinning to the ground below, with a nasty crunch. It didn't move again.
They stared at each other, starting to laugh in relief - when the vine Dean was hanging on to snapped. A look of surprise passed over his face as he dropped, too sudden to cry out.
James' instinctive reflexes were faster. He snatched at Dean as he fell past, and grabbed his hand, fingers locked around his wrist, hanging on to the remaining vine like grim death, feeling like his arm would surely rip out of its socket.
Dean, swinging alarmingly, managed to grab hold of James' belt with his other hand and steady himself. James tried to tell himself that he'd imagined the tiny give in the creeper.
"We need a little help here!" Dean yelled upwards, as the creeper tore more of its roots out of the ground above and they dropped a couple of inches, yelling in alarm.
Sam's worried face appeared, down through the hole.
"Dean! Stop hanging around."
"Sammy if I had a free hand right now I'd slap you with it. Get us up!"
Sam dug his fingers into James' shirt and grunted. "Dean! You'll have to climb up, I can't pull both of you."
"Now there's an idea," muttered Dean under his breath, only loud enough for James to hear. He laughed, although it was closer to a gasp of pain, as Dean clawed his way up over his body, reaching Sam's arms and carrying on upwards. It was a tight squeeze through the hole with Sam dangling down through it was well, but desperation made it easier.
When Dean crawled out, he found Oz hanging on to Sam's ankles, and lent his weight, as James was finally hauled slowly out of the cave below.
They sprawled on the grass, shocked and elated at cheating death, weak and aching from the ordeal.
Eventually, Dean rolled over and looked at Sam. "So, you okay?" he asked gruffly.
Sam nodded, smiling sheepishly. "Thanks to you. Which kind've sucks."
Dean gave a bark of laughter and flopped back onto the grass. "Oh don't worry I'll only hold it against you for the next, ooh, decade or so." He looked over at James. "You okay?"
James had been quietly watching Dean and Sam, feeling fairly sure that most of their conversation had been in what they hadn't said. Well, he was used to that, after all. He smiled, tiredly. "Yeah, I'll live. Oz, you alright?"
Oz was lying down with his eyes closed. "I need a drink," he groaned, and James laughed.
"Yeah, he's okay." James prodded Oz with a twig. "Hey, I've got a theory. Want to hear it?"
"No," said Oz, promptly. "But when's that ever stopped you?"
James grinned. "That thing didn't eat you did it? Some people it seems to have eaten right away, but you it tied up in for want of a better word, its cellar. Do you reckon it was going to invite its friends round and point you out? As an example of an extremely-aged, peculiar and exotic drink? And then they'd all open a cheap local and drink that, and you'd be like a conversation piece? I reckon that could be a wine-digo fact..." his giggles turned into a yelp as Oz sat up and threw a handful of grass at him in laughing disgust.
Sam and Dean watched them scuffling with baffled amusement. Dean, seeing they were occupied, slid his hand briefly over Sam's and gave it a fleeting squeeze. Sam looked round at him, and smiled, just as fleetingly. Rested his head on Dean's shoulder, just for a second, before sitting up again, making sure there was a distance between them by the time James and Oz looked up.
And out of sight, out of hearing, something moved in the cave far below.