A week later, Sam and Dean were in the badlands of Arizona. After getting Joshua resettled in Idaho -- the killings it seemed, had been accidental, a side effect to trying to reason with people and get them to help you when you suddenly had claws you weren't sure yet how to control -- they'd headed south, making a call to Bobby to let him know what they'd found.
Bobby had taken the news that he was stuck with the extra hair and those trees better than Sam might have expected. But then, as Sam had already gathered, he'd always been something of a crazy hermit, sticking close to his junkyard on the outskirts of civilization -- a woodwose wasn't much of a stretch. He could still research with the best of them, and had a whole new field to become expert in. Learning environmental theory and brushing up on his cryptozoology would keep him occupied and in demand as a hunter guru for years to come. Jo was planning to stick to Idaho a bit longer, help Joshua work out how to live in his new form, then head back to Nebraska and spread the word of the "new world order" through the hunter network, keep people like the three men in the woods, whose names Sam still didn't know, from bringing down any more innocent creatures or changed hunters.
The idea that their job, already dangerous and pulling the people who did it to the very fringes of society, could drag a person out of that society entirely with one wrong or large kill would hopefully be enough to help stem the change of balance in the world. The hunters who'd already been changed, well. Sam figured they all had a choice. His own experience seemed to show that once a person got tainted, be it with demon blood or wild magic, they wouldn't be changed further, but the idea that Dean could somehow turn into something even more bizarre and further from human than a satyr had kept Sam up at night, even as Dean had snored away in the opposite bed.
Heading south had been Jo's idea. She refused to say much, just "Try the desert. There's something you've gotta see." She'd been right so far, so Dean and Sam had taken her up on it, though they took their time.
It was like they were on vacation. Sam had even suggested the Grand Canyon, and while Dean had nodded, eyes going all distant, a soft smile on his face, when it was his turn behind the wheel -- and yeah, part of their drive had been spent working out how Dean could drive with goat legs and horns that brushed the ceiling -- he steered them further east, and instead they'd wound up here, parked along the side of a back road in the badlands, staring out across the rocky desert towards a towering orange mesa.
"Chupacabras," Dean said. Sam shook his head.
"They go after goats. Not usually people."
"Hey, man," Dean slowly turned his head, more aware now of his horns and their proximity to Sam's head, and grinned. "Goats have rights, too."
Sam laughed. "Cactus cat," he offered.
"Nah, they just wanna get drunk." Dean rubbed his goatee. "La Llarona's toast, though. Women in white are still totally fair game." He pushed himself away from the car, ending the conversation. Or, rather, putting it on pause. They'd been discussing the ins and outs of what they could and couldn't hunt since they'd left the Idaho panhandle. So far, the "can't hunt" column was outnumbering the "can". Sam was beginning to suspect he'd have to get a day job just to keep up with Dean's insatiable appetite for pie. He could probably survive well enough on leaves, but Sam was not about to be the person to point out that goats, in general, didn't live on baked goods.
Dean walked for a couple steps, getting the feel of the rocky ground beneath his hooves, the muscles in his legs flexing beneath his fine golden fur, then launched into a run, letting out a whoop of pleasure as he went. Now that his muscles had finished settling into their new formations, Dean had discovered a new love for running, moving far more gracefully and much faster than his bowlegged human legs had been able to handle. Sam, who once he'd reached six-two had been easily able to out-pace his brother, now found it difficult to keep up. Most times, like now, he didn't even try. There was no one and nothing around for miles, just them, their car, and the desert, and he knew Dean well enough to know that he wouldn't leave Sam behind.
Dean reached a small rock formation, just a pile of stacked boulders maybe twenty feet high, dwarfed in comparison to the distant mesa, and with a single push of one leg, managed to jump a good third of the way up, balancing precariously for a moment on a ledge a little smaller than one of his hooves, then launched himself even higher. Goats, Sam had learned, were excellent climbers, a fact Dean was happy to take advantage of. As he neared the top, Dean slowed, coming to a stop on a long ledge, his head turned to the sky.
"Sammy," he breathed. "Look."
Sam jogged closer to the rock formation, craning his head to follow Dean's gaze. A long line of dark clouds had appeared on the horizon, moving swiftly across the sky, covering the mesa in shadow. A long, pointed tendril of vapor led the way, looking almost like the head of a bird, stretched out in front of its curving wings.
Looked a lot like the head of a bird, actually. A whole lot.
Dean continued to stare upward as the line of shadow swept across the desert towards them, turning his head to keep his eyes fixed on the head shape. Within moments, the sun was eclipsed, the blue of the sky now a dark, threatening gray that seemed to flex for a moment, dropping down lower over the desert with a rumble that seemed to shake the very ground beneath Sam's feet. The shape sped up, and Sam could see that the other end trailed off into a smoky, cloudy tail behind a wall of clouds that whisped like feathers at its edge. Dean let out another whoop and launched himself off the rock formation, landing in a crouch and springing forward into another run, fist coming up to pump the air as he chased after the shadow of the shape across the ground. He couldn't keep up, and soon the the dark shape stretched across the opposite horizon, dropping behind another distant set of rocks and disappearing as though it had never been. Dean stumbled to a halt next to the road, about fifty yards down from where they'd parked the Impala, doubled over with his arms across his stomach, and laughed so hard he cried.
Sam caught up with him as Dean was wiping the tears from his cheeks, his smile stretching wide across his face and his strange eyes framed by fine crinkles. Sam couldn't help but grin back, even as his eyes were drawn continuously to the horizon, his skin still tingling with the feel of the rolling rumble through the air.
"Thunderbirds," he said, his voice pitched low and tinged with no small amount of awe.
Dean shook his head, the dying sun flashing off his horns and teeth. He glanced over, opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head again. "Gotta say, it's way prettier than the Snallygaster."
Sam laughed, picturing the bizarre looking monster that had gotten them started on this whole thing. "That's not hard to do."
Dean started back towards the Impala at a leisurely pace, making up for the lack of pockets by bracing his hands on the backs of his hips. "God only knows what someone would turn into if they tried to off that sucker."
Sam followed, quickly catching up to walk in step beside Dean. For all that Dean's stride had gone through a significant change since Maryland, they still fell into an easy, matching rhythm. Dean reached up to scratch at the base of his left horn, then trailed his fingertips up the shaft of it, his cheerful expression dimming as he brushed at the broken off stump.
Sam cleared his throat quietly, then spoke. "We could have them removed."
Dean frowned, hand dropping down from his horn back to his hip as though he'd been burned. "What?"
"It's called 'debudding'. You cauterize the base so they don't grow back."
The frown became a scowl. "Right, and I'll just shave my legs every day and get special contacts and no one will ever know you have a monster for a brother."
Sam grimaced. "That's not fair."
"You're talking about amputation, Sam."
"I'm talking about you being able to fit through a door without ducking."
Dean's hand went back up to the stumped end of his horn. "Oh, so it's because I'm taller than you, now."
Sam groaned. "Dean -- don't do that, man, I'm trying to be helpful."
"Then stop talking about cutting bits off of me. These things aren't like hair, Sam. It hurt enough getting 'em shot at."
They made it to the car and Dean held his hand up for the keys -- Sam's to carry now that Dean had given up on pants, at least until it was jacket weather again. Sam tossed them over.
"You'd fit in the car better."
"So would you if we hacked your legs off at the knees."
They climbed in, and Sam found himself more aware than ever of the way his legs fit into the passenger side foot well. He scowled. Dean started the engine.
"How about a glamour?"
"'Cause spells always work exactly how you want 'em to."
Sam huffed, looking straight out the windshield at the road as Dean put the car in gear, but didn't take his foot off the brake. He tried again.
"You could go into diners again. Flirt with waitresses." He chanced a glance out of the corner of his eye and watched his brother's expression go wistful at the idea of spending time with a waitress. It lasted only a moment.
"You just don't want to have to order pie to go every time."
"That's right, Dean. I don't."
Dean looked over, his right horn scraping against the roof, and grinned. "Too bad, bitch."
"You don't want to be normal."
The grin vanished and Dean turned his eyes back to the road. He still hadn't taken his foot off the brake. "Want's got nothing to do with it."
Sam shifted so he was sitting almost sideways in the seat, facing Dean full on. "I know you, Dean. I know how you feel. Hell, I've been where you are."
Dean seemed dead set on ignoring him, so Sam tried a final tactic. "Fine. Guess we'll settle down somewhere, then."
Dean jerked. "What?"
"You don't really think you can keep traveling like that, do you?"
Dean's jaw clenched. "I can still hunt just fine."
"What if a cop sees you behind the wheel? They won't all be deserted roads. And how do you expect to book a motel room? Or hustle pool?"
Dean grunted, then smacked an open palm on the wheel, and Sam knew he was winning. He let Dean stew in silence for a few minutes. It was the old battle for superiority -- whoever spoke first now lost.
Dean broke first. "You know, you really woulda made a damned fine lawyer."
Sam grinned. "So you'll do it?"
"We'll look into it. A glamour. Just for the horns, though, and nothing really involved. Got it?"
Sam nodded hurriedly. "Got it."
Dean looked out along the road, then twisted his head and peered back the way they'd come, just barely missing gouging a hole in the ceiling liner. He licked his lips.
"Just 'cause we can't hunt 'em. . . ." Dean trailed off, leaning forward to get a look at the sky through the windshield in the direction the thunderbird had gone. "Doesn't mean we can't chase 'em, right?"
Sam shrugged. "Don't see why not."
Dean threw his weight into spinning the Impala's wheel and slammed his hoof down on the accelerator, leaving a layer of rubber behind on the road as he abandoned it in favor of the open desert. The Impala groaned and rocked, and Sam slammed sideways into the door, but Dean didn't let up on the speed for a moment. His face seemed to light up from the inside, and in that moment Sam stopped seeing the imposing horns, the alien eyes, and the goatee. He stopped seeing the satyr-shape and instead saw through it again to the man underneath.
This was Dean. Huffy anger, bipolar mood swings, and reckless decisions. He was suspicious and cheerful, childish yet deeply responsible. He was a hero. A Bacchanalian asshole. No matter the packaging, he was what he was.
Sam wondered if this was what Dean had meant all those years ago, after Dad died. When he insisted, over and over, that no matter what Sam could do or how freaky Sam might become, he was still Sam and Dean still believed in him. He thought of the time, an eternity no matter how brief it had turned out to be, when he and Dean hadn't had that faith in each other, and thanked God that, despite the angels and the demons and the war and the pain, he and Dean had gotten it back.
Sam threw his hands up over his face as Dean narrowly missed plowing into a cactus, and decided that while he was thanking things he should throw some gratitude to the universal force of perversity that liked to meddle in their lives. Sure, maybe it had turned them into metaphorical playground balls in its game of universal dodge ball, but at least it always seemed to throw Sam and Dean together.
There sure as hell were worse ways to go.