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Spiritum Proelia

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Dean traipsed into the bunker kitchen bleary eyed and on the hunt for coffee, grunting in acknowledgement of Sam's completely awake and chipper form perched over his laptop at the kitchen table.

“Three people died in the Veteran's Hospital in Kansas City last night.”

“Wow, shocking,” Dean sassed. “Newsflash, Sammy: People die in hospitals.”

“Not like this,” Sam shook his head. “The staff all reported to have heard strange noises before they heard the heart monitor beep.”

“What sort of noises?” Dean asked wearily, not wanting to leave the bunker anytime soon, pulling two cups from the shelf and filling them with coffee while he talked on. “Farts, groans, screams maybe?”

“No, the uh.... sound of stones being thrown down a hill,” Sam grinned as if he had just pulled the winning jackpot number.

“Ok, so they're nuts,” Dean was determined not to see a case here.

“I don't think they are,” Sam objected. “I say it's worth checking out, and besides, I kinda need to get out of the bunker for a while.”

“Why?” Dean asked indignantly, just when Cas stumbled into the kitchen, nodding at them to acknowledge their presence and moving over to Dean who slid the second cup of coffee over to him.

“Thank you, Dean,” Cas rumbled, wrapping his arm around the hunter and sighed after taking his first sip.

“Don't mention it,” Dean almost cooed and Sam just had to speak up now.

“That's why!” he shouted, slapping his laptop shut and stomping out of the kitchen.

“What's up with him?” Dean asked, Cas next to him only shrugging.

“I require pancakes to get awake and solve the mystery of my brother-in-law's very human mood swing,” he huffed and sat down on the stool Sam had just vacated with a quiet groan.

“Coming right up, sweetheart.”

 

“Sammy? Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” Sam cleared his throat and hopped off his bed, on which he absolutely hadn't sulked like a teenager. Not at all.

“Brought you some pancakes,” his brother came in and because Sam's stomach felt like a loose bag with holes in it, he nodded his thanks and started wolfing down the plate of food.

“So, you still wanna go and investigate that thing of yours?”

“It's not a thing, Dean. It's a case,” Sam sassed, trying to speak with his mouth full and still trying to get his bitchface to work.

“Fine,” Dean raised his hands in defeat. “Whatever gets you through the night. Besides, would be good for Cas to train his hunting abilities,” Dean chuckled a little mischievously as if he'd enjoy seeing his husband struggle with a case that he still thought wasn't one.

“Oh, ok. I was kinda thinking... Just you and me, you know? For old times' sake,” Sam fiddled around the matter that was really bugging him, namely that he felt like an outsider to the Dean and Cas show ever since Cas had doffed his angel wings and donned the wedding suit to call himself Cas Winchester for the rest of his and Dean's life.

It was mostly ok, he had wanted this one good thing to happen to Dean almost as badly as the two people in question, but things like the second coffee cup that Dean remembered to fill even when he was really tired, or the way Cas just accepted it and had been there completely comfortable made Sam want to have a break from the domestic bliss that he was an outside witness to.

“Hey, you told me I should take a hunter, someone who understands the life and we both know you meant Cas with it, so what's wrong with wanting to improve his skill set so he doesn't get torn to shreds out there? You know we can't stop hunting, we both tried and failed. And maybe Cas chopping off a vamp's head is as apple pie life happy as it gets for me.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” Sam huffed out a short laugh. “You cried tears of joy like a proud mother.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

“Bitch.”

“Jerk.”

They both had to hide away their smiles in order not to embarrass themselves in front of the other, so Dean walked around while Sam finished his breakfast.

“Look, all I'm saying is that Cas is part of the deal now. We have to take him with us, because too many sons of bitches already know where the bunker is, Crowley and his demons included and I wouldn't be as focused as I need to be if Cas stays behind. He's not up to defending the place if someone really wants in, not without his powers.”

“We could put it into lock down mode again?” Sam suggested.

“What, lock Cas in here, give him enough food to last him for a few days, telling him to shoot first, ask questions later?” Dean said bitterly, hinting at something that Sam immediately picked up on.

“Yeah, sorry. Dick move.”

“Dad move,” Dean moved his head a little as he said that.

“Ok,” Sam sighed, seeing the inevitable consequence arising. “Just could you try and you know, keep it down? Motel walls are really thin, you know?”

“I promise, me and Cas will be as quiet as mouses and sleep immediately when you go into your own room.”

“Yeah,” Sam snorted. “Like that ever happened.”

 

The drive to Missouri wasn't long, but it gave each of them ample time to think, rather than talk. Cas was wondering what sort of monster they would encounter today, because from what he'd been told it didn't seem like his area of expertise, but he longed to improve his hunting skills.

Sam stared out of the window, still not completely happy with Cas occupying the back seat, because if he was here that meant that things he just needed a break from would still go on as always these days and he was looking forward to this hunt much less now.

And Dean thought about his rumbling stomach and about the songs he belted out loudly for a couple of minutes, until he noticed that his brother's mood wasn't improved by the familiar action but actually worsened and so he stopped after a bit, just staring ahead brooding and hoping the first motel they found was in close proximity to a diner.

 

“So all the vics were found dead when the doctors and nurses came into their rooms, doesn't matter which time of day, so we can probably rule out a couple of creatures that only hunt at night.”

“And you say that everyone involved heard that sound of roaring stones, or thunder?” Cas asked, perched at Sam's elbow and frowning onto the computer screen.

“Yeah, that's about it,” Sam muttered uncomfortably when Cas leaned in closer to the screen and the younger hunter blinked angrily at Dean, who didn't seem to notice anything amiss, because he was apparently having a religious experience with his bacon cheeseburger.

“I say we go there and see for ourselves,” Sam looked at his companions in turn, Cas still perched at his side, Dean nodding with his mouth full while the former angel was nodding deliberately, still studying the article Sam had found as if he was gonna have to write an exam about it.

“Yeah, once I'm done with this beauty,” Dean hummed before he bit into the burger again with a half sigh.

 

“Agent Rogers and this is my partner Agent Stark,” Dean introduced him and Cas as they walked into the hospital and got passed along to the attending Doctor of the patients in question, a man named Johnson. “Our partner, Agent Banner is talking to the local police at the moment, but he will be along shortly.”

“Well, I don't know what you hope to find here, Agents,” the Doctor sighed when they showed him their badges, Dean coughing a little to remind Cas to hold his the right way around. “Whatever happened happened, and those poor men just died. I'll never forget their faces, masks of terror, but that in itself isn't really strange. A lot of veterans have trouble adjusting to being back here.”

“Well, we were informed that the deaths were strange, so to say and that some of your staff members claimed to have heard something before the patients were found dead?” Dean asked, pursing his lips and leaning in a little, expectantly.

“I believe they said something like that, which then made the papers. The part about the primal fear was wisely left out though. I've put the staff that claimed to have heard those sounds on sick leave, they're probably just overworked. The injuries we see here sometimes... It gets to you, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course. Still though, it's best to be absolutely certain everything's kosher, don't you think?” Dean smiled.

“Feel free to take a look around, but I'm telling you there's nothing that you'll find here. Police didn't find anything either.”

“Could we also have a look at the autopsy reports?” Cas asked before the doctor turned around and was about to head back into his office.

“Yeah, sure. They're not all in yet, but I don't think they'll amount to much. Can't put it in a report that they looked as if scared to death. But the fear in their eyes,” the Doctor shook himself and then put on a valiant smile when he looked in their direction again. “Haven't seen that since my own tour over there.”

“You've been in the war?”

“Yeah. Brought some of those boys over myself from Kabul,” Doctor Johnson nodded.

“That sucks,” Dean smiled, and pulled a card out of his coat pocket. “Well, you can call us under this number if you find something in the autopsy reports, or if anything else happens.”

“You got it, Agent,” the Doctor smiled and then walked off.

“Did he seem a little too affected by this to you?” Dean asked Cas once he had disappeared.

“No?” Cas suggested, not really confident in his understanding of human nature to fathom what Dean meant. “I mean obviously he is affected by the passing of his comrades.”

“Yeah, but more than he should be.”

“Maybe he has a trauma?”

“Yeah, maybe. I don't know though. Something's not right about this. I think I'm gonna have to agree with Sammy on this one. Definitely a case here.”

“Because of the fear on the patient's faces?”

“Yeah,” Dean breathed out. “I don't know a lot that could do that to a person once they've been through the kinda hell that these guys went through.”

“Nothing but a monster, you mean,” Cas pondered when they walked down the hall to the first room, which showed no signs of struggle, monster claws or any residue.

“Rules out a couple more uglies,” Dean frowned, checking every corner for sulphur nonetheless and sniffing the air. “There's a strange smell in all the vic's rooms, but I can't place my finger on it. Can you?”

“No,” Cas shook his head, sniffing again and then he summed up what they knew so far. “There are no signs, except for the expression on the victims faces, the smell and that strange sound?” Cas remarked when they completed their survey in the hospital and met up with Sam who reported that the police seemed just as clueless, which was hardly surprising, but a smile flitting over his face for a second because Dean now agreed with him that there was something supernatural going on here.

“I don't wanna hear the I-told-you-so,” Dean raised a finger and stalked off to the car. “We still gotta figure out what this thing is and I think we should see for ourselves how the vics look.”

“We're breaking and entering tonight?” Cas looked from brother to brother, who grimly looked at each other, nodding.

“Yeah, we are,” Dean said, meaning him and Sam.

“Why can't I come?” Cas tilted his head to the side.

“Because you have no experience with this sorta thing. And because you're not used to running on four hours of sleep. Hell, you're not even used to any hours of sleep yet. I don't wanna have to watch out for you all day tomorrow. You'll be perfectly safe, Cas. The thing targets the hospital, and you're not really it's hunting ground either.”

“You think that you have to be born human to fall into that category?”

“Yeah, you could say that,” Dean added, thinking the topic was closed now and got into the car.

 

Sam got his own room as per usual nowadays that Dean and Cas shared a bed and researched the lore on the yet unknown thing they were hunting while Cas sat down on his and Dean's bed in the trenchcoat he had not brought himself to doff also when he left the heavenly host and tried not to sound as pouting as he felt when he said: “I still don't understand why I can't go with you.”

“I told you,” Dean said, tuning the police scanner which he would keep running in case of emergency. Usually they only tuned it on at night, but this monster seemed to strike any time of the day it wanted. And it seemed to have a preference for veterans, because all the people targeted so far had served duty in a war. So what was it the monster was after that especially soldiers possessed to a great degree, even when their bodies were weak?

“Yes, I know,” Cas ripped Dean out of his pondering thoughts. “But I want to learn everything.”

“And you will,” Dean got up and sat down on the bed next to Cas, clapping his knee and leaving his hand there afterward. “Just give it time. Today you thought of the autopsy reports when I didn't, that was sharp.”

“You let me come up with that,” Cas shook his head with a slight frown. “I'm sure you would've said it if I hadn't.”

“Yeah, that's true,” Dean said embarrassedly, his unoccupied hand shooting up involuntarily to rub his neck. “But you still said it, that's what counts. Even if you really have to improve your people reading skills, babe.”

“I am aware,” Cas said stiffly, but still took Dean's hand while they quietly listened to the police scanner squawking out messages that weren't connected to their case.

 

“I got it,” Sam summed up his findings after a few hours of research. “This article I found describes the very same sounds that the hospital staff heard, and I did some digging in the men of letters library-”

“How? You haven't been to the bunker, have you?” Cas asked.

“I may have... started to scan all the journals and files and uploaded them into a cloud,” Sam hemmed and hawed and Dean laughed at his dorky little brother with his research obsession taking on another, even dorkier form.

“Only practical,” Cas nodded, throwing Dean a glance that said that it was inappropriate to ridicule Sam's providence. “But it seems like a Sisyphean task you have set yourself to do all on your own.”

“It's not that bad. Anyway,” Sam said quickly and cleared his throat. “We're dealing with a Skilleret.”

“That sounds like a band name,” Dean chuckled.

“Yeah, well. It's not,” Sam said eagerly wanting to display his other findings.

“I had to dig really deep, to the time when there were hardly any men of letters in America, but they were scattered all over Europe. The Skilleret is a monster that was first reported on the battle fields of the thirty years' war where it fed on the soldiers close to death, mostly when there were lots of wounded, they also carried them to nearby hideouts and stored them for later use. The accounts that the men of letters collected were supposing that the Skilleret were actually a much older monster and possibly originated in China.”

“Why China?”

“Because they were the first at inventing gunpowder, and from there it swept across India, Arabia and into Europe. Around the 16 hundreds, people started making canons which caused massive explosions, and get this: They sounded like this.”

Sam pressed a key on his computer and played them a short, probably reconstructed audio clip from a canon firing.

“Stones pushed down a hill,” Dean pondered when it started up.

“Thunder,” Cas added when the clip stopped.

“Precisely,” Sam grinned, closing the laptop. “And the smell you noticed?”

“Gunpowder,” Dean quipped. “Not like our guns smell these days, which is why I didn't recognise it, but definitely reminding me of fireworks.”

“Yeah, exactly. Perfect disguise to feed back in the day with all those wars going on or with firecrackers exploding whenever people celebrated. But what used to function as their cloaking mechanism has nearly made them go extinct now.”

“Why?”

“Because it's not exactly inconspicuous, Dean!” Sam fumed, resting bitch face number 4 in place.

“So? Their prey is half dead anyway. It's not as if they can run anywhere even when they hear that sound,” Dean said curtly, going to the fridge and pulling out two bottles of beer, and then coming back to the table where Sam was with all the research, handing Cas one without even stopping to think about it.

“Because hunters have brought them nearly to the point of extinction,” Sam said loudly, a bit taken aback that Dean hadn't thought of him maybe also wanting a beer. “There's tons of accounts in the men of letters files. They were all over Europe and when the expansion to America really started, some of them got on the ships coming here. But not many of them survived the trip without fresh game. Think about it, weeks at sea and if nobody got sick or had a near deadly accident, they couldn't feed and if they didn't have a feast before they left, they would most likely starve.”

“So how did this one make it here?”

“That's what I've been trying to find out. Some of them must have made it and multiplied again, because the early settlement wasn't exactly peaceful, if you remember anything about history class.”

“Vaguely,” Dean quipped, nipping at his beer.

“Then there was the war for independence, and the civil war where they could feast. After that, slim pickings in terms of war. It seems like they collect as much as they need with about 10 kills, but a monster being a monster, it will stuff itself if it has the chance. And then they breed.”

“Wait a minute,” Dean began pacing through the room, thinking hard. “You're saying these creatures love the blood or whatever of wounded soldiers, right? Totally falls in line with it only going after veterans,” he seemed to think hard because his forehead was scrunched and his mouth set. “Hang on, didn't Doctor Johnson say he hadn't seen such terror on people's faces since Afghanistan?”

“Yes,” Cas nodded.

“So?” Sam asked as if he didn't see the relation and wondered why Dean was wasting their time.

“Well, what if it needs a certain something that soldiers have, like fighting spirit or whatever? And what better way to get that than to mask yourself as an army doctor and be around sick or wounded soldiers all day?”

“That makes sense,” Cas pondered, looking at Sam for approval of Dean's theory nonetheless.

“So you're thinking it's the Doctor?”

“Fits, don't it?” Dean shrugged, swallowing half the word up so it sounded like 'don't', sipping his beer while Cas pondered his still closed one, until he slid it over the table to Sam with a small nod and the younger Winchester took the bottle with a short smile.

“Anything on how to gank it?” Cas asked while the brothers drank and Dean's face looked decidedly dopey at Cas using his phrasing.

“Still working on that,” Sam looked strained all of a sudden. “Like I said, uh... the men of letters library scanning is a work in progress and I made copies of the first pages of almost everything to have a general overview and also where to find the info in the filing system, but uh... I don't know yet.”

“So someone should go back and continue the research,” Cas smiled, and it seemed like he was forming a plan with the way he stared at the tabletop as if it held great many secrets, before he continued. “It's best if Sam goes, because we would just mess up your filing system. That means Dean and I can go take a look at the bodies after all. Maybe we can find out what it is the Skilleret feeds on.”

“No, Cas. We talked about this,” Dean shook his head.

“I know we did, but you need back up and Sam is not available.”

“But you're not really back up and would slow me down, get us caught,” Dean said sounding rueful yet firm.

“And we need you to monitor the scanner,” Sam interjected before Cas could get the rejoinder out that seemed inevitable, going by the angry expression printing itself onto his face now.

Dean walked over, hugging Cas tightly and whispered into his ear, though Sam could still hear it when he said: “You're not useless, ok?”

“Well, I feel like I am,” Cas replied, hugging back for a minute before focusing back on Sam. “Why doesn't the monster have a Chinese name, did it say anything about that in the men of letters files?”

“Yeah, because no one ever named it. They didn't even know it existed, but the men of letters specifically searched for accounts were deaths seemed strange and traced the pattern back there. They named it. More Sisyphean tasks,” he gave Cas a short smile.

“Well, you've done your duty as a legacy proud today, Sammy,” Dean said, fishing the keys to the Impala out of his pocket and throwing them at Sam who caught them without really looking, because he had expected them.

“Call me if something comes up, I might need the night to find everything.”

“You got it,” Dean gave back and with a dull feeling in his stomach watched Sam drive the Impala out of the motel parking lot and back to Lebanon, a duffel bag with the most necessary weapons and tools for breaking and entering at his feet.

 

Once it was fully dark he said bye to Cas, who pressed a kiss to his lips, rumbling: “Be careful,” to which Dean answered: “You too,” before he was on his way.

It was pretty easy to get into the morgue and Dean was in and out in no time, taking pictures of the contorted victims faces which indeed looked terrifying even with death slightly lessening the effect of their last scare painted onto their faces.

All victims had suffered very severe injuries during their service and medically their recoveries weren't plausible and could only be attributed to their strong will to live, which Dean talked to Sam about once he was outside the hospital again.

“I mean phew, those poor bastards,” he ended the report and Sam confirmed that that pattern matched the one the men of letters had recorded. Plus their guess with the storing system of the Skilleret was pretty calculated too, because they took some of their designed victims and tried to terrify them as much as they could to see how resistant they were and that they really did feed on the fighting spirit of soldiers and robbed them of their will to live.

“Makes you glad we never had to go to war, right?” he ended. “Anyway, it says that a dose of their own medicine will kill them. Now we just gonna find a traditional gunpowder maker,” Sam laughed ironically as if he had no idea where to start looking for something like that.

“Well think of something, even if we have to bring out your old chemistry set again.”

“Shouldn't be too hard then,” Sam said and Dean imagined his eyes sparkling with the nerdy wish to make his own gunpowder and by the clicking of keys in the background, that was exactly what his brother was researching next.

“Right,” Dean rolled his eyes, but grinned. “Why don't you haul ass back here and I'll pick up dinner for the three of us?”

“I was thinking I might stay here overnight,” Sam said haltingly. “Give you and Cas some space.”

“Dude, no. Not on a case. I need you here, because if something goes wrong you'll have my back while I watch out for Cas.”

Sam sighed, finally saying something he couldn't say face to face: “He's making you weak, Dean. He's slowing you down. And I know you love the guy, and I do too. But taking him out on cases like these when he's not had enough training and lacking the hunting instinct? It's dangerous.”

“Why don't you admit what's really going on, huh?” Dean grew angry. “You can just admit that you're jealous. You don't have someone and so it bugs you to see it.”

“It does,” Sam admitted and Dean was taken aback by his brother's honesty. “I mean Cas has been part of our lives for a long while, but it's different now that you're all close and getting him drinks and just having random chick flick moments because you can. I'm happy for both of you, you know that. Just sometimes I could use a break from it,” Sam groaned, flexing his neck so Dean could hear his neck cracking.

“After we get this done, ok? We can go to Vegas, just be brothers for a few days until you can't get away from me soon enough, but right now I need you here.”

“Alright, I'm gonna pack up and come back. Gonna be there in an hour or so,” Sam conceded with a sigh.

“Thanks, Sammy,” Dean hung up the phone and passed by a Thai place on his way to the motel, not really feeling like burgers again, and remembering that Cas had once said he liked it.

 

“Babe, I'm back,” Dean announced to their dark motel room, flicking the light on and dumping the food on the table in another moment because the signs of struggle were evident everywhere inside. “CAS?” Dean shouted, whipping out his gun and stalking further into the room. “CAAAS!” he shouted, flicking the ripped comforter off the bed and checking the bathroom that had a broken window. “Cas, no,” his chest heaved as he examined it, and ran back outside checking if he could see anything outside, but nothing. No signs of Cas or the creature, and Dean sat on the ground, his knees suddenly weak and so he just flopped down with a dull thud while hearing the familiar rumble of his car pulling up.

“Dean? What's going on? Where's...” Sam had his own gun out in no time after pulling the car into park.

“It took him. Sam,” he looked up his face a mask of hurt. “Son of a bitch took Cas,” he bit out.

 

When Cas came to, it was because he felt a slap on his cheek.

“Wakey, wakey,” Doctor Johnson grinned down at him, like he had done before he'd flung Cas across the motel room and knocked him out before taking him to a large dark room, which was almost empty as far as Cas could tell. There was only a dim light from an open door that led into a corridor illuminated by electrical light, so there was no telling how far he had to go if he'd manage to slip the restraints around his wrists and ankles, tying him to a very uncomfortable chair. Cas' head hurt and he wasn't sure he could stay conscious for much longer.

“You're heavier than you look, pal. Nearly didn't make it here with having to carry your fat ass here as well. But nevermind, you got what I need. The spirit you got in you,” he grinned, closed his eyes and came closer to sniff at the former angel. “You're unique. I never smelled anything so strong. That's gonna get me over many a long winter. Might even get me to be strong enough to breed once I eat your spirit.”

“You can't break me,” Cas rumbled angrily, the injuries he retained from the kidnapping stinging and his cheek from where he'd been struck hurting.

“You see, that's exactly why I picked you,” the Doctor grinned. “You're the best meal I'll ever have. And it will kill that partner of yours to see you dead and broken at his feet. Oh, did that trigger you?” he sniffed the air as if Cas' scent was even more intense now that he'd mentioned Dean. “Is there a little romance going on with that guy? Too sweet. I should just get him here, so you'll both smell riper than before. He's pretty feisty that one, but he's got nothing on you. If I wouldn't know better, I'd say you fought wars for thousands of years,” the Doctor walked around Cas, sniffing him now and again, before he actually licked across Cas' cheek.

“You're disgusting,” Cas scoffed, wriggling on the chair he was tied up on.

“I know,” the monster snickered. “But that's hardly something you need to worry about for much longer. I'll let you stew now, have you trying to come up with ideas to get out of here, that will make you taste even sweeter when I take it all from you,” he ripped Cas' head up by his hair one last time, sniffing the former Angel's pulse point while Cas groaned from the pain and disgust over the man moving his nose on his throat.

“Scrumptious,” the Doctor moaned and let go of Cas, leaving him alone and by the sounds of it sliding a metal door shut which put Cas into complete darkness and he almost wished he was unconscious again.

 

“Dean slow down,” Sam said with a heavy strain to his voice as Dean drove them to the hospital at neck-breaking speed. The younger Winchester wasn't really convinced that they'd find anything there since the Skilleret dragged their prey away from their usual hunting ground and not to it, but while he dug up any info on Eric Johnson, army medic and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, there was noting else to do than not die because Dean's hurry to get Cas back made them crash into a house or tree just off the road.

“Shut up, Sammy,” Dean groused, but also laid off the gas pedal a bit. “Find anything?”

“Gimme a couple more minutes,” Sam focused on the small screen. “Seems like Doc Johnson's paternal relatives all looked strangely alike and were all military as far as I can tell. Seriously, it's like an assembly of any war there's ever been. Golf war, Vietnam, Korea and so on.

“Draw up real estate, damn it,” Dean quipped as he brought the car to a screeching halt outside the main entrance to the veteran's clinic and loaded up a gun with completely regular bullets, so Sam felt obliged to run after him because firstly, they wouldn't work on the creature they were hunting and secondly, it wouldn't look good to have his brother barge into a hospital with a loaded pistol at the ready.

“Put that away,” he instructed, and Dean looked at his gun with a blank stare, then nodded and sat down on the squeaking, wobbly plastic seats near the main nurse's station.

Sam flicked through the pages on his phone and wished he'd have his computer because it took longer to hack into accounts with just his mobile, but after a few minutes, he'd come up with the location of a garage owned by the good Doctor that seemed like their best guess at Cas' location.

“Got it,” Sam smiled triumphantly, looking around for his brother and his expression fell suddenly when he saw Dean holding his head with both hands and rocking back and forth. “Woah, Dean,” he folded himself together to kneel in front of him and help him to hold on: “Steady. Deep breaths.”

“I'm fine,” Dean croaked.

“No you're not,” Sam disagreed, and waited patiently for Dean to contain himself.

“I have to be,” Dean bit out.

The noises of the hospital surrounded them while Dean calmed down, nurses walking briskly through the corridors with squeaking orthopaedic shoes, Doctors stopping by the nurse's station for a few seconds, mumbling unintelligible words before getting a patient's file and walking on, and very distantly, machines for automatic breathing and beeping monitors. But there was something else, and Dean's head peeked up suddenly when he came to realise what it meant.

“I hear it too,” Sam nodded and the next second they ran towards the sound, hospital staff getting out of their way hurriedly but shouting after them that this wasn't allowed and to stop right there.
Heading none of that, the Winchesters sped down the hall until they also smelt the tell-tale signs that the monster was here and was most likely feeding.

“Hey,” Dean shouted at the distorted face that was hardly recognisable as Doctor Johnson leaning over an unconscious man, a red somehow glowing light leading from the victim's to the predator's pharynx.

The monster form of the Skilleret appeared like something straight out of a fantasy or horror movie. It was sickly pale from what they could see under the hood in dark brown or black, they couldn't see which exactly because the monster moved instinctively away from them so the cloak it had thrown over itself swished as it retreated to the window. It's eyes glinted maliciously at being interrupted and when it opened it's larynx, it's voice sounded like stones bashed together: “You're too late.”

Dean didn't need to think anymore, he just aimed and shot, Sam next to him doing the same in another second.

The monster flew back against the wall, shots perforating his chest, but he didn't go down. He swept across to the window and jumped out of it, Dean running after immediately and aiming again, but the Skilleret was already limping away, the bullets having not done much, but they had stopped the feeding in time, or so they hoped despite the vicious snarl.

“Hey, are you ok, buddy?” Sam shook the victim, who thankfully opened his eyes and stared up at him.

“You're too late,” he said weakly, repeating what his predator had said. “I'm done for.”

“Shit,” Sam groaned when the heart beat made visible and audible by machines slowed down before it stopped and the monitor hooked up to the patient started it's ominous uninterrupted single beep that meant the heartbeat had stopped.

“Get away from the patient,” the nurses and doctors they had passed before raced in and started cpr on the veteran immediately.

Sam held up his hands, staring from Dean to the patient and back as he retreated to the wall to give the medical team space.

“Stay right there,” they were told because Dean moved as if he wanted to get out, while the medical staff tried their best to get the patient to come around again, applying compression to the patient's heart until the electric shocker was ready and loaded.

“Load to 300. Clear.”

The pedals were unloaded once more and then the heartbeat made the monitor beep once more. The soldier was back with them and while he was being cared for Sam and Dean took the chance to explain themselves and search the hospital for stuff they could use. Even an hour later, after the security cameras had revealed Sam and Dean to only have acted so strangely because there was an intruder there, the soldier was surviving and actually conscious again but there was something strangely hollow about him now.

“Do you know what attacked you?” Sam questioned the patient, while Dean was busy plundering the hospital's supply of ice packs to help them siphon saltpeter out of it and then he was off to the nearest 24-hour garden store that sold charcoal, sulphur and anything else that might contain potassium nitrate, because they had now learned that they needed the original gunpowder to start the hunt afresh, Sam again squinting at his phone screen to find the proper mixture.

“I don't know what it was, and I don't care. It doesn't matter,” the soldier who had miraculously survived the attack told Sam. “It's all so damn useless.”

“Was he like this when he came here?” Sam quietly asked the nurse that supervised the interview.

“No, Arnold was one of our most active and happy patients, constantly telling us about his recovery. Now it's as if he'd lost the will to live,” she whispered, assessing the still frame of the man in the bed staring up at the ceiling, when he wasn't asked any questions.

“Useless,” he muttered again. “We all have to die, might as well get along with it, don't you think?” he turned his head to look at Sam.

“Not today,” the younger Winchester shook his head and thanked him for talking to him, striding out of the hospital, brooding pensively about the partial recovery but the personality change of the victim. It was possible to survive the extraction of the fighting spirit, but what good would it do if they got Cas back but if he just wasn't Cas anymore?

He imagined Dean faced with the onerous task of taking care of his husband who had lost all the will to live and who would say things like: “Why am I even here, Dean? Why haven't I died when I was supposed to?” while his brother wrapped him in blanket and would look like the was burning on the inside when Cas couldn't see him.

“No way in hell,” he told the empty street. If they wouldn't rescue Cas in time and he'd not get his spirit back once the monster was dead, he'd have to do the right thing and deliver them all from having to live with hollow Cas. Dean couldn't do it, he'd be a martyr for the rest of their life but Sam could free him as he was sure Cas would do it for him if the situation was reverse.

 

When he and Dean were busy making gun powder, he told them about his talk with the wounded soldier and Dean shook his head, pestling block charcoal into powder.

“Kinda makes you wonder how many people came back from something like that with symptoms of PTSD when in fact the son of a bitch had done that to them,” Dean brooded, the whole situation really straining for his nerves. Somehow, because he and Cas were so close now, he felt a crippling helplessness at facing the very real possibility that he wouldn't see him again.

They mixed the first batch of powder, abandoning the idea to use cold packs because Dean had found enough crystallised potassium nitrate which was the core ingredient of gunpowder, which they then mixed carefully with a small amount of pulverised charcoal and a bit of sulphur.

Dean added a few drops of water, even though Sam was a bit anxious, seeing how he shook as he added it. He really didn't want to be blown to bits now, but Dean proved his nerves by managing everything while Sam readied empty shotgun shells to fill their ammunition in.

Dean brought the bowl over to the table, starting to fill the shells faster than he should.

“Woah woah, Dean. Slow down. I know you wanna get him back but we won't do him any good if we're blown to bits.”

“Damnit, I know,” Dean bit out, filling the shells at the same speed as before. “I swear man, if he's not ok...”

“He will be,” Sam assured his brother, who had already filled twice as many shells as he had.

“He'd better be, or I'll get his ass back from heaven myself.”

“Do you think that's where he'll be?” Sam asked, and then mentally kicked himself at Dean's focused expression wavering as he thought about his question. Where would Cas go? Would he even be there after... ?

“Can't think about that,” Dean shook himself, loading his sawed off and starting to pack everything together while Sam still filled shells.

 

Cas' mouth was dry and his arms were sore because he tried to free himself from his duct tape restraints. But more than the thirst or the uncomfortableness of the situation, the absolute darkness got to him. No matter how much he ripped open his eyes, there was no light at all that could illuminate his surroundings.

When he heard a noise behind himself he stopped moving the tape over the back of the chair, his airwaves obstructing strangely when a small shimmer of light appeared before his eyes as the door opened with a rusty grating sound and then distinctly closing again, cutting off every bit of light. Cas could hardly breathe, as he listened to quiet footsteps coming near and his nostrils flared, his brain ceasing to function, his only thought: Please let it be Dean, please let it be Dean, please let it be Dean.

“Honey, I'm home,” the monster whispered into his ear with a satisfied huff, fondling Cas' torso and sniffing him, his nose buried in Cas' unruly, sweaty hair. “Hmm, you're even better now. All matured and ready for the taking,” he purred.

Cas wanted to open his mouth to express his disgust, but the monster slapped him across the face again when he only felt him taking a harsh breath.

“Don't ruin the moment, asshole. Just relax,” Cas felt the creature walk around him and bending his head up, caressing his neck all the way down to his chest.

 

Sam and Dean arrived at the very same time outside of the garage, and gave themselves quiet signs to file in, flashlights and shotguns at the ready.

“Go,” Dean mouthed, covering Sam, who busted in through the door and saw the Skilleret bent over Cas, a crimson light glowing somewhere over Cas' gullet just when Sam aimed at the monster, shot and grazed his shoulder.

“Damnit, Sammy,” Dean shouted as the Skilleret hissed and moved back from Cas, not badly hurt and holding his arm, the wound on it hissing almost as badly as the monster itself.

“I didn't wanna hurt Cas,” Sam shouted back, reloading and firing at the charging doctor, his face contorted even in the semi-darkness.

He raced towards Sam, his mouth looking round like a slimy abyss as he sucked in air, a red light appearing in Sam's neck, startling Dean so he lost his aim and the shot he was firing missed the monster by at least a foot.

Dean watched his brother clutch his neck in horror, swallowing against the glowing ruby light, which made the monster hold for a second, before he kicked the shotgun out of Sam's surprised hands and grabbed him around the neck, Dean obviously not able to shoot anymore.

“I thought that was unique,” the Skilleret groused, his voice deeper because he had not switched out of his monster form. “The last time I've seen a light like this was back in Nam. Private Winchester was a sour fellow if there ever was one, the only one who's ever escaped me. My,” he pressed his nose into Sam's hair which he countered with a disgusted pursing of his lips and a groan. “You must be related or something. Probably his son. Uhh, how much I'll enjoy eating you is not to be put into words,” he turned to Dean, frowning and moving Sam forward with an iron grip around his throat until he was close enough to let Dean feel a painful burning in his throat as well.

He clutched his neck much like Sam had done, swallowing against the sizzling feeling that crippled him, his arms shaking so that he could barely hold his weapon.

“Nice bouquet, the three of you,” the monster complimented with a sneer. “You're not as bitter as this one, but not as pure and strong as that one over there. Yet, I think you'll taste great as well. Particularly after I ate these two first,” he hollowed his cheeks, an iron grip around Sam's chest and bending his neck with inhuman strength to suck Sam's spirit out.

Sam wriggled himself in the monster's grip, Dean aiming again but not getting a clear shot, also disturbed by Cas' troubled breathing and the way he tried to turn on his chair.

Focus, he thought, seeing a dedication in his brother's eyes even in the dim light and he reacted instinctively when Sam made a sudden movement, pressing the ball of his hand under the monsters chin with a sharp tug that made it clench it's teeth together and loosen it's hold for all of a second which Sam used to turn it's back towards Dean.

He finally had a clear shot, aimed and hit the monster square in the back. The wound hissed just like the shoulder hit, but this time it had done the trick. The Skilleret fell down and Sam was able to grab his shotgun while Dean stormed off to check on Cas.

Sam aimed at the monster again, which screamed in agony but wasn't dead yet and shot his second shell into it's chest until it finally stopped moving.

“Cas?” Dean's voice sounded weak as he cut Cas' restraints with the knife he always kept in his boot, taking his hands and kneeling in front of him. “Babe, answer me. Are you alright?”

Sam stayed back, thoughts racing in his head as he pulled the empty shells out of his gun and reloaded it, while Cas didn't answer and just shook his head over and over even when Dean put tender pressure on his neck and shoulder.

“I'm useless,” Cas finally croaked and all alarm bells were ringing in Sam's head. He heard him say: “Please give me a moment,” and Dean got up, rubbing his hands over his eyes as he said: “Ok, I'm gonna get some air.”

He passed Sam, hiding his face and stomping out while Sam thought the opportune moment to act had come. He moved towards Cas, shotgun at the ready.

The angel got up, looking dejected and then freezed at seeing his brother-in-law aim at his heart.

“Sam? What are you doing?”

“Did he hurt you? Did he suck out your will to live?”

“I am not sure,” Cas said honestly.

“How do you feel?”

“I feel-”

“Sammy, what the hell!” Dean had apparently not gone outside and was shocked by the sight that greeted him as he rushed back once he heard voices.

“I'm doing what has to be done,” Sam gave back, not letting Cas out of his sight and trying to keep an eye on his brother as well, should he decide to charge him. “Cas?”

“I feel alright, just that I failed at being a hunter, yet again. I let myself be captured and I am a burden on you.”

“Don't say that,” Dean groused. “Put the fucking gun down, Sammy.”

“No, Dean,” it was Cas who shook his head. “Sam is being prudent here. I would be nothing but a nuisance if I had lost my essence. But I can assure both of you, that I am as well as I can be. I am just a little shaken and I need sleep.”

“See, Sammy? Now stop it.”

“No,” Sam groused, looking at Cas, ready for the ultimate test as he stopped aiming at the former angel and suddenly aimed at his brother, who looked at him as if he had betrayed him when Sam's fingers moved to pull the trigger.

“No,” Cas shouted and raced forward, punching Sam in the solar plexus and wrestling the gun out of his grasp.

“Yeah, you're still yourself,” Sam huffed with a pained laugh, clapping Cas' shoulder and holding on to him to stop himself from toppling over.

“You ass,” Cas fumed, squinting his eyes and then chuckling deeply. “But a very effective method of checking if I am still myself.”

“Let's get out of here,” Dean bit his bottom lip, and made both Sam and Cas sit in the car while he dragged out the corpse and set fire to the Skilleret watching it burn for a while, grim and stoic.

 

They took the night to rest up before they drove back home, Dean mother-henning over Cas as if he was a sick child, reaching out to feel if he was still there about every five minutes or so, making sure he had enough to drink because the only side effects left with all three of them were dry throats. He handed out water bottles left and right, to Sam as well, who felt strangely touched by Dean thinking about him again.

“Why all the caring all of a sudden?” Sam asked, when they finally loaded up the car to get back home. “You didn't grab me some water before, or anything.”

“What?” Dean said distractedly, pondering how to safely stow the gunpowder until they could store it in the box they had in the bunker.

“Well, you made sure Cas had drinks...,” Sam said and suddenly it dawned on him. “You were taking care of him,” he stated without having any doubt about it. “You know he likes coffee but he can't make it himself, yet. And you hand him drinks because otherwise he still forgets that he needs to drink. Same with food. You are all domestic, making him pancakes so that he eats something he likes and then remembers he needs food now.”

“Yeah,” Dean nodded simply.

“I get it,” Sam said, feeling like a jealous bastard, and once they were all back in the car, he chivalrously allowed Cas to ride in the shotgun seat, and asked him: “Hey, Cas. I was wondering if you'd like to help me catalogue the men of letters files. It'd be quicker if two people did it and no one would have to go back to the bunker to finish research in the future.”

“I'd be honoured, Sam,” Cas gave him a small smile.

Dean behind the wheel just grinned, tuning up the radio and letting out a triumphant: “Ha, ha!” about finding a Bob Seger song on air.

“Dude, turn it down,” Sam huffed.

“No way in hell, Sammy,” Dean grinned and Sam simply stopped protesting. This was not the time to tease his brother about something he clearly enjoyed.

As the drive went on, Sam's head really seemed to clear because they had nearly lost Cas on this job and if he was being honest, he couldn't even imagine their life without Cas anymore.

“Hey, about that trip to Vegas, I was thinking we could show Cas everything, you know?”

Dean's eyes crinkled with a smile as he looked at Sam in the backseat: “Drag him off to a den of iniquity again, huh Cas?”

“Only if you're the one I can disappear into a back room with,” Cas sassed him.

“Gross, guys,” Sam huffed, but without any heat to it.

“Maybe you should be the one we should bring there,” Cas added and Dean chuckled loudly, clapping Cas' thigh and from the angle that Sam could see, he left his hand there, Dean and Cas' fingers most likely tangled together, or so he hoped because any other mental image would give him a trauma.

“Maybe, yeah,” Sam answered vaguely, seeing Dean's and Cas' smile whenever they cast a look at each other and without feeling as badly for himself as before this job, he thought about taking someone out on a date pretty soon.