They stalked through the woods, flashlights sending arcs of light through the pitch black. This wasn't an ideal hunting situation, but when were they ever ideal? Sam had the shotgun, loaded with real shells. Dean carried the Glock, resting his wrist on the arm holding the flashlight so that he could see what he was shooting at. The fog whispered over their faces, blotting any sound and making the darkness claustrophobic. No birds or bugs were sounding off anyway. They didn't want to be around whatever was here.

Dean thought he heard something rattle at 2 o'clock and stopped. Sam was watching their back and almost stepped on him, but when he saw Dean staring down, focusing his attention on hearing, Sam stopped as well. They unconsciously held their breath, straining for any noise. Dean glanced up as Sam at last and shook his head, starting forward again. Sam had no idea where they were in the woods. The darkness and fog had completely disoriented him. But killing the demon came first. Once that was done, they could wait until morning if they had to so as to find their way back.

A branch cracked at 5 o'clock and they both froze. Their eyes met. It was definitely there. Now it was just a matter of finding it and killing it. That was the nice thing about demons. Once they manifested in corporeal form, they would be killed conventionally, if not easily. Dean started forward again but another branch shattered nearly opposite the first. It was moving fast, circling them. Obviously, it wasn't hiding anymore. It knew they were there and was waiting for the chance to attack. No point in going further. Whatever was going to happen, it was going to go down right there.

They waited, poised, listening for the sound of rushing steps and crumbling underbrush. Dean eased the backpack from his shoulder and set it at the base of a tree, trying to make as little noise as possible. The fog was thicker now and they would hear it before they saw it. After a long minute of eternity, Dean whispered, "Sam?"

"Yeah."

"Anything?"

Rustling answered the question and they both spun, pointing their weapons. A bone-rattling scream came at them. It crashed toward them, all pretense at stealth gone. Dean managed to get off one shot before it barreled into them. Sam fired but was knocked aside so his shot went wide. He somehow managed to stay on his feet but saw Dean sprawl to the ground after the large, dark shape ran past them. Sam hurried over, hooking Dean by the elbow to help him up. "You okay?"

Dean nodded distractedly. "Fine. For a big sucker, it moves fast, huh?"

Sam opened his mouth to answer when the scream sounded again. Right behind Dean. Reflexively, Sam pushed Dean clear. The fog obscured all details but sheer size and bulk. It crashed into Sam, punching his chest and sending him ass over teakettle into a bush. It screamed defiantly after his tumbling form. Sam landed on his stomach, gasping for breath. He heard two pops and a scream of protest from the demon.

"Hey, asshole!" Dean yelled, firing off another round. "Weren't you looking for me?"

The demon stomped away from where Sam was desperately trying to clear his head. The shotgun. Where was the shotgun? Sam pushed through the dizziness and felt the ground around him. Shit. He must have dropped it when he fell. He scrambled to his feet and untangled his jacket from the bush, stepping closer to the sound of the fight. His foot kicked something hard. The shotgun. He grabbed it as he heard several volleys from Dean's gun…then a heart-sinking click click click.

"Dean!" He brought up the gun but knew he couldn't fire. He couldn't see anything and this time, the shotgun wasn't loaded with rock salt. He heard Dean grunt and scuffle as the struggle moved to his right.

"Little help!" Dean shouted. Sam ran toward the voice…and straight into the back of the demon. It had Dean by the neck and was raising a massive paw to strike. Finally, Sam could see what he was shooting at. He backed up a step and fired point blank. The demon reared up to full height, screeching at the sky. It dropped Dean and brought its other arm back, catching Sam on the shoulder and sending him staggering back. He held on to the shotgun this time. It was the only weapon out and ready. The demon staggered and growled before spinning around and shrieking. It was inches from Sam's face and all he saw was black maw and yellow teeth. The stench made him blink and turn his face. Sam chambered another shell. He heard Dean yell, trying to distract the demon again. Sam heard dull thuds and realized that Dean was throwing rocks at the demon's back to get its attention. The demon turned slightly and that was all the distraction Sam needed. He fired once again at point blank range.

That was the nice thing about demons. Once they manifested in corporeal form, they would be killed conventionally, if not easily. The demon's head exploded from the blast like a bag of meat and bone. Hot blood drenched Sam and if the demon's breath was bad, the contents of its head were worse. Sam gagged and took a step back, flicking detritus from his arm. The disturbance was enough to clear the fog a bit. Dean stood on the other side of the space, turned and his arm raised to shield him from the explosion. The headless demon lay in a heap, smoke rising from the stump of neck. It was enormous even without a head, all long arms, bunched muscle, and spines or quills poking through the course fur. Dean hurried over to Sam, who was struggling not to throw up considering what he was covered with. He grabbed Sam by the arms. "You okay?"

Sam's expression made it clear that this was the stupidest question Dean could have asked. Dean became aware of stickiness and let go of Sam's coat, grimacing at the black ooze on his palms. "Oh, gross."

Sam was already pulling off his jacket. "Thanks. Thanks a lot." He used the back to wipe off his face. "Can we torch this thing and go now?" It took a bit of looking, but Dean found the backpack and rejoined his brother. Together, they doused the demon's corpse in gasoline. Dean ignited a flare and tossed it. The heat of the fire drove the fog back even further and they both watched in silence. Sam tossed his jacket in the fire. There was no way he was even going to try to get those stains out. He added his top shirt to the blaze as well. He'd get rid of his pants once they were back at the motel.

The demon burned merrily for about 20 minutes, then the fire died back to red embers and ash. After stirring and scattering the remains, they headed in the direction they hoped the car was in. The night was cold and their breath clouded with each breath. Sam was down to one shirt and the damp of the fog chilled him quickly. He walked faster, trying to warm up. The fog wasn't as thick now and he thought he recognized a tangle of fallen logs. They were only slightly off course. He turned to tell Dean. Only Dean wasn't there. Sam peered through the wisps of remaining fog. "Dean? Dean!" The quiet moments that followed didn't help his panic. Then he heard a crunch of footfalls on the forest floor and saw Dean's shaped emerge from the darkness.

"I'm coming. Just…hold up a minute." Dean was hunched and walking slowly. He's hurt. Sam fought the urge to run to his brother. Dean would no doubt wave him away and get pissed off about Sam smothering him. When Dean was by his side again, he stopped and straightened. Sam bit his lip, trying not to ask. "I think I may have bruised a rib or something."

Sam couldn't take it anymore. "Let me check you." Dean rolled his eyes but held out his arms to give Sam access. Sam pressed the flat of his hands on each side of Dean's ribcage and applied gentle pressure. No sign that it hurt. He moved down carefully, wanting to find the injury but not wanting to hurt Dean more. But then Sam encountered something warm and wet. Dean didn't bruise a rib. Dean was bleeding. Sam moved his hands along the moist fabric and his fingers brushed over something hard. Dean recoiled and hissed.

"Ow!"

"Dean, you've got something…" Sam tried to feel it again but Dean jumped and twisted away.

"Damn! Sam!"

"Let me—"

"No! Leave it alone!"

Sam walked around Dean to check visually when he faltered. Sticking out of the back of Dean's leather jacket were three bolts or barbs. They looked similar to what had been poking through the demon's fur. Sam gingerly lifted the leather and was relieved when it was clear that the hide jacket had stopped these three. But the relief was short lived when he raised the jacket further and shone the flashlight on the blood staining Dean's shirt and jeans. The shirt was torn but hiding the wound. Sam tried to move the fabric and encountered was felt like a barb sticking out of Dean's back. Dean sucked in a long breath and flinched. Sam still couldn't see clearly. He was going to have to get him back to the motel room. He swallowed against the lump in his throat.

After a couple of deep breaths, Dean asked, "Well?"

Sam grimaced. "Do you want the good news or the bad news?"

Dean shook his head and tried to chuckle, starting to hunch again. "What the hell. Let's have the bad news first."

"Well, the bad news is that our demon appears to have been part porcupine and fired some quills at you."

"And the good news?" Dean grunted.

"You only got one."

"Great." Dean tried to straighten but gasped instead. Sam took the pack from him and hustled to his left side, hoisting Dean's arm over his shoulder and being careful to avoid the right side of Dean's back. It took a lot longer to get to the car than it took them to get out there. Dean was nearly doubled over and stumbling before the Impala loomed in the distance. Sam piled Dean into the car as carefully as he could but he still brushed against the quill a couple of times, making Dean yell. He got Dean settled on his left hip, gently shut the door, and scrambled to the driver's side. He broke every speed limit.

Dean was folded over in the seat next to him, breathing shallowly. Sam was focused on the dark road but risked a glance. "Hang in there, Dean. I'm gonna get you to the hospital."

"No."

"What?"

"No hospital." Sam could barely hear him over the engine.

"What are you talking about? Dean, you need a doctor."

"And how are you going to explain this thing in my back?" Dean had to struggle to push himself up. His face was shiny with sweat. Sam reluctantly slowed for a curve, not wanting to risk Dean falling on his injured back.

"Dean—"

"I'm serious, Sam. What are you going to say when a doctor pulls this thing out of my back? That I was attacked by a mutant porcupine?"

He was right. Sam knew he was right. There were just some injuries that were bound to draw a lot of unwanted attention. Sam clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth, trying to figure a way around it.

"Let's just get back to the room. You can take it out."

"Are you kidding? I can't!"

"Sure you can. It will be just like removing a splinter. A really big, evil, demonic splinter."

Dean was trying to joke for Sam's benefit, which made Sam want to cry. Instead, he nodded grimly and focused on the road. But he listened closely to Dean's shallow respiration and the occasional grunt or groan. He doubled back on the highway and headed for the motel. When he pulled into a parking space and killed the motor, Dean reached for the handle, twisted wrong, and growled angrily at the pain. Sam hurried to his door. Trying to be gentle was costing him time, but Sam eased and tugged Dean out of the car and into a standing position. He peered closely at his brother. "How are you doing?"

"All things considered, not too bad." Then Dean's knees promptly betrayed him. Sam managed to catch him under the arms before he crumbled to the ground. Sam used his foot to shut the door and dragged Dean into the room. Dean muttered giddily about watching the paint job. Sam couldn't answer. It was all he could do to keep Dean off the ground, unlock the door, and get him inside. He eased Dean into on of a pair of chairs by the rickety table. He couldn't let Dean sit back but Dean was in danger of falling over. Sam balanced him carefully, then stepped back carefully, holding out his arms, sure Dean was going to pitch face-first into the carpet.

"Are you going to be okay while I get some supplies?" Dean wobbled. Sam stepped forward to grab his shoulders, but Dean righted himself and nodded dumbly. Sam wasn't entirely convinced so he dashed about the room gathering what he thought he'd need. The first aid kit. A new bottle of alcohol. A box of gauze and the ice bucket. Dean cried out and Sam nearly dropped his armload. Dean was trying to take his coat off and suffering for it. Sam dumped everything on the table and put his hand on Dean's shoulder. "Let me do that." He gripped the jacket and pulled gently, trying to keep it away from Dean's back. Dean still had to reach his arms back to get it off and that caused him to suck in a breath. Sam tossed the jacket into the other chair and pulled up the bloody T-shirt. He slowly peeled it off, trying his best not to move Dean any more than he absolutely had to.

With the swag light directly above them, Sam could see the damage. The quill or whatever it was had entered Dean's back right over his right kidney. Luckily, if you could call it luck, it had gone in at an oblique angle instead of straight in. Dean must have twisted away from the exploding demon head at the last minute. It's probably what kept the damn thing from killing him. But just an inch of the quill was exposed, the rest buried in muscle. From the looks of the ones still lodged in the jacket that left about four inches to be pulled out. Sam fought a wave of nausea. He wasn't afraid of the sight of blood. He just wasn't crazy about the sight of so much of Dean's blood. Or the notion of having to pull this thing out of Dean's back, especially given how sensitive the wound was. He was going to have to do this quick. It was still going to hurt a lot.

He coaxed Dean to his feet so he could position him better. Sam sat him down facing the back on the chair. Sam figured it would give him the best angle to work, give Dean something to hold on to, and make it easy to catch Dean if he had to. The chair was against the table. Sam set Dean so he was leaning against the chair back. "Dean?"

Dean turned his head to see. "Yeah?" He was drenched with sweat but he seemed stoned almost.

Shock. He's going into shock. I have to work fast. "I'm going to be right back, okay? Just sit here. Don't move."

"Sure…"

Sam ran to the bathroom and scrubbed his hands. He could feel his fingers trembling and had to keep wiping sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve. You can do this. You have to do this. You know what to do. He kept up the mantra, trying to calm down and convince himself. He grabbed a towel to dry his hands and looked in the mirror. He looked like a terrified 12-year-old. Oh yeah. Great for the confidence.

Dean hadn't moved, his forehead resting on his arms that were crossed over the back of the chair. His ribs moved in short, sharp breaths. Sweat was running freely now. Sam toweled his back, carefully avoiding the wound. "How are you doing, Dean?"

"Back hurts," Dean mumbled into the chair.

"I'm gonna fix that right now, okay?" Sam knelt behind Dean and dabbed at the wound with some clean gauze. Dean grunted and flinched. Sam gritted his teeth and cleaned the exposed quill. Dean yelped and arched his back. The movement made him yell again. Every flinch, every painful cry, was eroding Sam's nerves. He put his hand flat on Dean's back. "I know it hurts. But I need you to not move, okay?" Blood slicked the quill again so Sam blotted some more. Dean growled and weakly thumped the table with his fist but he didn't move. Sam gripped the quill as well as he could and took a deep breath. "Please don't move," he pleaded. Sam took another breath and pulled.

"Fuck!" Dean bellowed, fresh pain rousing him from his fugue. He reared forward reflexively, undoing Sam's grip. Grimly, Sam took hold of the quill with the gauze and pulled again. "Fuck fuck fuck!" It wasn't moving. Sam couldn't get a good hold on it. Dean was trying to hold still but that was nearly impossible. A new thick trickle of blood ran down Dean's back. Sam leaned against Dean, trying to hold him down, and tried one last time. Dean kicked the table leg and pounded with his fist. Sam's hand slipped on renewed sweat. He backed off, shaking and gasping. Dean was panting hoarsely, blood running steadily down his back. Rattled as he was, Sam managed grab some more gauze and staunched it.

"I can't get it," he huffed. "I can't get it, Dean. What should I do?"

Dean was swearing a blue streak in a rasping whisper. At least he seemed more aware. If that could be considered a good thing. Sam crouched next to him, holding the gauze to the blood. Dean's eyed were screwed shut. A drop of sweat formed on his nose and fell away, soon replaced by another. He muttered something Sam couldn't quite hear. "What?"

"Pliers," Dean repeated, not opening his eyes. "Get the damn pliers out of the damn tool box and get this damn thing out of me!"

Of course! By now, the gauze was stuck so Sam grabbed the keys and ran outside. The toolbox was in its usual spot and Sam seized it, barely remembering to shut the trunk as he ran back to the room. The pliers were in the top tray. Sam dropped them in the ice bucket and upended the entire bottle of alcohol over them. Something told him to move the rest of the supplies, so he arranged them on the floor behind the chair. Dean had calmed some. He was breathing more normally. Sam draped the towel over his shoulder and splashed some of the alcohol over his hands. Dean being calmer had the same effect on Sam. He gripped the end of the quill with the dripping pliers and felt Dean tense. This was going to hurt more if Dean was tense. He was struck by inspiration.

He put his hand between Dean's shoulder blades. "I'm going to count to three. Okay?" Dean bowed his head and nodded. "On three," Sam reminded. "One—" Sam yanked hard. For a nanosecond, he felt resistance and was afraid it wasn't going to come out. Then it pulled free so fast that he almost lost his balance.

"God DAMMIT!" Dean roared. He lashed out with his foot and kicked the table leg so hard it collapsed. Sam was glad he'd moved everything. He dropped the pliers and quill in the bucket and dipped the towel in the fluid. He then pressed it to Dean's back. The alcohol made Dean howl and twist, but it was out. Sam kept the pressure on the wound with one hand and massaged Dean's shoulder with the other.

"I got it," he soothed. "It's out."

"Good," Dean rasped when he could speak again. "Because I think I'm gonna pass out. Or puke." Dean shuddered.

"Which one?"

"Puke!" Dean barked desperately. Sam had just enough time to grab the trashcan and move it into position when Dean seized and emptied his stomach. Wave after wave rumbled through Dean, long after there was nothing left. Sam held his head and managed not to imitate his brother, although other people throwing up always cause a sympathetic response in him. While Dean shook and came down, Sam checked the wound. Some blood was seeping but it was mostly clotted. He applied antibiotic ointment to a pad of gauze and applied it carefully, taping down the edges. He ducked into the bathroom to get Dean a glass of water. Dean rinsed his mouth, spat, and handed the glass back with an unsteady hand. Sam helped him to his feet and got him over to the bed. Dean started to get very heavy right before Sam got him to the mattress and Sam had to struggle to gently lie him down.

He put Dean on his stomach and pulled off his boots and jeans before covering him. Sam was looking at the stains and wondering how he was going to get them out when his knees started to wobbled and shake. Sam staggered to the other bed and collapsed. He shook violently for the next few moments. When it was over, Sam felt exhausted and weak. All he wanted to do was lie down and sleep but he needed to keep an eye on Dean. So he cleaned up the room and climbed into the shower. Being clean refreshed him and putting on clothes that weren't soaked in demon or brother blood helped immensely. He sat down on the bed again, his back against the headboard. Dean was still out. His brother hadn't moved or made a sound since Sam poured him into the bed. Sam wasn't aware when sleep stole up on him. His last conscious thought was, How many times can we dodge this bullet?