Title: And of Things That Will Bite
Prompt/Summary: Written for the spn_reversebang, for a prompt by the lovely and talented becc_j. Set mid-season 1. Sam and Dean investigate a case in which the victims suffer from debilitating nightmares before lapsing into comas from which they never wake. Soon, the brothers find themselves trapped the same nightmare, with only each other to rely on in order to come out alive.
Characters: Sam, Dean, OCs
Wordcount: 16, 159
Disclaimer: Not mine. Alas.
Warnings: No spoilers. Mild swearing. Show-levels of violence.
Art Master Post: See becc_j's LiveJournal. I highly recommend it, the art is spectacular.
Neurotic Author's Note #1: I lucked out spectacularly in my prompt. becc_j's three-panel comic is eerie and atmospheric, and just beautiful in the quality of its lighting and composition.
Neurotic Author's Note #2: Many, many thanks to the the lovely and talented faithburke, who beta'd this monster for me in record time. In fact, her turnaround was so fast I pretty much got whiplash.
Neurotic Author's Note #3: Thank you to the spn_reversebang mods for all their hard work putting this together! This has been a hell of a challenge. :)
It's not the first time he's had to sleep in his car. It's cold, though, and there's a thin layer of frost on the Impala's windshield, pretty crystalline patterns glowing by the cold light of the moon. Dean sits up, shivering a little in the chilly night air, and pulls his legs out from where they're wedged under the steering wheel. He's cramped and uncomfortable, his stomach sour, his mouth flooded with a bitter taste that makes him wonder just how much he had to drink last night. He stumbles out of the car, swallows hard to prevent himself from throwing up, then stands up and stretches, feeling the joints of his neck and shoulders pop and crack in a satisfying way.
He doesn't recognize the road, he realizes after a moment. The moon is hanging low and huge in the sky, and fields stretch to either side of him, silent in the silvery light, frost-covered and entirely devoid of life. It's the stillness more than anything else that tells him that something is wrong. It's too cold for insects, but there's no sound of scratching or scrabbling in the remaining stubble of corn stalks, no hint of the nocturnal creatures that habitually come out to root around for sustenance. No sound of birds, either, no owls out sweeping the skies for prey, but he can't shake the feeling that there's something... something he's missing. He shivers. He doesn't remember driving out here, doesn't know where this is. Was he working a case? He digs the heel of his hand into his eye, trying to rub away the remnants of the fog that's permeating his brain, and to gather his thoughts.
Sam. The name occurs to him a moment later, and he's amazed that he wasn't thinking it the whole time. Where is he? Dean fumbles in the pocket of his jacket for his cell phone, flips it open. Nothing. The screen glows, bright blue against the midnight blue of the star-lit sky, but there are no bars on the little cell tower icon. No signal at all, which is damned weird. There's nothing here to block the signal, he thinks, looking around. Then again, maybe there just aren't any cell towers around to provide signal. He's never really bothered to figure out just how these things work, since it doesn't impact his job much. Then the phone rings, the tinny tones of 'Smoke on the Water' loud in the eerie stillness, startling him so badly he actually drops the phone onto the half-frozen asphalt, sending it skidding.
"Shit!" his own voice sounds unnaturally loud, and he drops to all fours, reaching for the phone where it has slid behind the Impala's front wheel. He fumbles with the phone for a moment, finds it mercifully undamaged, accepts the call. "Hello?"
"Sam!" he doesn't bother keeping the relief out of his voice. "You all right? Where are you?"
"I'm fine. Freezing, but I'm okay otherwise. I think. I have no idea where I am," Sam's voice sounds remote, strangely distorted. "A road somewhere. I can't see anything for miles. I don't even remember how I got here —I just woke up out here, and everything's all fuzzy. Hell, I almost forgot about you for a couple of minutes, which is just weird. Dean, what the hell is going on?"
"Damned if I know," he rubs the back of his neck, trying to figure things out. "I don't remember much either. Look, we need to figure out where we are, first, and how to find each other. We'll work out the rest afterward. Look around, see if there's anything useful. A house, a landmark, anything."
"Uh..." there's silence for a moment. "There's a tree. Fields. That's about it. I don't even recognize any of the stars. Come to think of it... woah," Sam trails off.
"You don't see it?"
"Sam, this isn't exactly the time for that."
"Yeah, okay. Tell you later, then. How can I even tell what direction to start in?"
Dean's already opening the trunk of the Impala, rummages around for a flare gun. "I'll send up a flare. At least tell me if you can see it, okay?"
A moment later his nostrils are tingling with the acrid smell of combusting chemicals, and the flare is streaking up into the sky. He coughs a bit, scrubs at his nose, and on the other end of the line Sam lets out a muted whoop of triumph.
"I see it! I don't think you're far from me at all. Maybe a few miles."
He blows out his cheeks. "Okay, that's one thing in our favour, at least. You got a compass?"
"I should. Lemme check my pack." There's a faint rustling sound, then Sam comes back on the line. "Got it. According to the compass, you're South-Southwest from me. Which, conveniently, seems to lie mostly along the same direction as this road."
"I can work with that," Dean pulls his own compass out of the Impala's glove compartment. "I'm heading toward you. Just stay put, I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Okay. Uh, can you hurry? "
Dean snorts. "Gettin' soft there, Sammy. Time was a little cold would have been nothing for you to take."
"Screw you, you didn't have to sleep on the frozen ground half the night. Besides, I think there's something... Look, just get over here, okay?" Sam's tone turns anxious, and Dean feels his own stomach twist unpleasantly.
"On my way," Dean is already sliding into his seat, fumbling with cold-numbed fingers with the keys in the ignition. "Hang tight." He flips the phone shut, takes off with a squealing of tires on the icy pavement.
He doesn't dare push the Impala too hard. A sudden bend in the road could prove fatal at these temperatures, and Sam is counting on him. He crests a small rise, and it feels like the moon is dipping down from the sky to meet him, huge and luminous, practically filling the windshield with its glow. A broken fence lines the road to his right, sagging listlessly toward the ditch. Up ahead he catches sight of a gnarled tree, twisted and dying, its branches snaking up into the night sky. It glows briefly in the flare of the Impala's headlights, casting grotesque shadows on the dead grass of the slope behind it. That's when he sees Sam's familiar silhouette, shoulders slightly slumped, pack slung over one shoulder. The headlight illuminate his face, and for a moment Dean imagines that his brother's expression is wistful, almost longing, his face pale. He looks like a ghost, Dean thinks uncomfortably.
The moment vanishes. Sam smirks, and makes a show of sticking out his thumb. Dean grins, pulls up alongside him and rolls down the window. "I don't usually stop for strangers," he quips, "but since you're so purty and all..."
Sam yanks open the door and drops into the passenger-side seat. "Now, mister, I'm not that kind of boy!" he grins, then socks his brother hard in the shoulder. "Took you long enough. I thought I was going to freeze to death out here." He gives an exaggerated shudder, but even in the car's dim lighting Dean can see that his lips have turned blue and that he's shivering, teeth chattering slightly.
"Shit, you really are freezing," he puts the car into neutral, cranks up the heater, then gets out to fetch a blanket, tossing it at Sam's head upon his return. "Come on, wrap up. I don't want to have to cuddle you if you turn hypothermic on me."
"Bite me," but Sam is already pulling the blanket gratefully around his shoulders with fingers numbed from the cold. "Can you get pneumonia if the place you're in isn't really real?"
"What the hell are you talking about? Did you hit your head?"
Sam shakes his head, trying to fit most of his six-foot frame under the blanket, which is easier said than done. "Didn't you notice the moon?"
"Uh, no, Sam. I don't really moon-gaze when I have other problems to worry about. Like, oh, the fact that we're lost and have no idea how we got here. The only thing I noticed about the moon is that it's full and bright enough to see by. What else is there to see?"
Sam snorts. "That's your problem. You only see what you expect to see. Look again."
"Smartass," but Dean does peer out through the windshield again. "Holy shit."
He can't understand how he failed to notice it before, except maybe that the moon he's glanced at once or twice is so huge and bright, but the smaller, dimmer orb behind it is unmistakeable. Sam grimaces.
"See what I mean? Since when does Earth have two moons?"
"Weird," Dean agrees. "So what is this place, then?"
He can't make out Sam's expression even in the bright moonlight, but his brother's voice is low, and his tone sends a chill up Dean's spine. "I don't know, but wherever we are... we're not alone."
TWO DAYS AGO
"So that's how many victims?" Dean's mouth is full of eggs, bacon and hash browns all at once, but that apparently doesn't prevent him from trying to talk anyway. It comes out sounding more like "O ah ow ay itims?"
Sam cringes. "I swear it's like you were born in a barn. How the hell I ended up with good table manners is anyone's guess."
Dean washes down his mouthful with a swallow of coffee. "I have good table manners. I just don't bother using 'em if I don't have to. So. How many victims?"
"Eight so far in the last two weeks," Sam flips through the notebook full of clippings he's compiled about the case so far. "Symptoms are all the same: disturbed sleeping patterns, insomnia, nightmares or night terrors, and then one day they just didn't wake up. Two are dead, six still in comas."
"Sounds like you, except for the not waking up part," Dean is eyeing Sam's untouched omelette with an expression of disapproval. "If you're not going to sleep, you need to at least eat something, Sammy. Preferably with meat."
"It's Sam, and I'm fine." Sam takes a sip of his second cup of coffee, then makes a point of picking up a forkful of omelette. "See? Eating. Now, can we get back to the case please?" he puts his fork back down in order to smooth down the papers on the table.
"So you're saying I hallucinated having to wake you up from yet another round of screaming nightmares last night?"
"Sorry," Sam mutters, feeling his cheeks flush. He thought the nightmares were getting better, but last night they were back with a vengeance, and he remembers Dean shaking him awake more than once as well as waking on his own a few more times, tangled in sweat-soaked sheets. He spent the rest of the night fighting off the same strange, half-remembered dreams, and the other part staring at the ceiling and trying not to alert Dean to the fact that he was, yet again, not sleeping. Apparently he wasn't fooling anyone.
Dean sighs. "I don't want you to apologize, Sam. I want you to sleep. You're off your game lately, and you know it."
"Well, I'm sorry if the quality of my work isn't up to your standards."
"Geez, touchy. Maybe if you slept more you wouldn't be so grumpy."
"The case, Dean," Sam rubs at his eyes with the fingers of the hand not currently occupied with his cup of coffee. He's too damned tired to put up with Dean's shit this morning.
"Okay," Dean shovels another forkful of eggs and bacon into his mouth, swallows, then wags his fork in Sam's general direction. "So we have a mystery illness which is apparently not due to the abuse of Ambien. Theories?"
Sam shrugs. "No idea. Dad's journal doesn't have much on predators that attack you in your sleep, except for succubi, and there's no evidence of a sexual aspect to these attacks. Could be an energy vampire of sorts, I guess."
"No such thing as vampires."
"I know that," Sam knows he's being unnecessarily testy, but Dean is dancing on his very last nerve, and his head hurts. "I just meant something that feeds on life energy. Wouldn't have to be sexual."
"Okay, but that doesn't exactly narrow it down. What did the doctors at the hospital have to say? Since you stuck me with the boring part this time."
"We'll have to research some more. And definitely interview the witnesses on a one to one basis."
Sam nods. As much as he loathes this aspect of their job —the constant lying, pretending to be someone he's not, abusing innocent people's trust— it remains an unchangeable fact that they can't exactly go around broadcasting that they are, in fact, looking for a vengeful spirit or a flesh-eating creature of the night. Civilians just don't react well to that kind of revelation.
"The victims are all in the hospital, no apparent connection between them that I could determine. But get this —I overheard one of the nurses mentioning to another that she's been sleeping badly. Could be nothing, but it's enough of a coincidence that I think it's worth interviewing her solo."
"Is she hot?"
"What? I didn't say we wouldn't go if she wasn't hot. Just think of it as a really nice bonus."
Sam rolls his eyes. "One day, we'll find a case that you won't think of as an excuse to troll for phone numbers. Is there any coffee left?"
"Dude, you drink any more of that stuff and you'll be levitating right out of your seat. Besides, you have a hot nurse to introduce me to. Let's go, chop chop!"
"Hospital first. I want to get into the morgue, maybe talk to the pathologist who performed the autopsies, see what he has to say."
"You sure it's a guy? Maybe it's a really hot female pathologist."
"You really do have a one-track mind."
Dean smirks. "Hey, I'm compensating for you. You're pretty much a monk," he says, then looks immediately guilty, because they both damned well know why Sam hasn't been looking for female companionship. Sam brushes it off. The last thing he needs is Dean getting all awkwardly sympathetic. Just thinking about Jess... the wound is still too fresh, too raw to tolerate much exposure, no matter how well-intentioned his brother is.
"Fine," he crumples his napkin, flips his notebook closed, and gets up from the table, . "After you, Fabio."
Recovering swiftly and visibly grateful for the easy out, Dean leers and winks exaggeratedly at him. "Don't you know it."
The pathologist turns out to be pretty cute by modern standards, but male, much to Dean's disappointment. He's much shorter than they are, thinly built, and the rest of him is obscured by the blue hospital scrubs that are ubiquitous in all the hospitals Sam has ever been in. At least the uniformity allows for decent cover —hospital staff tend to respect and trust authority figures. The pathologist gives them a vaguely friendly nod as they come in, or at least Sam construes it to be friendly, since it's kind of difficult to tell what his expression is like behind his mask and protective goggles. He's in the middle of stitching the 'Y' incision back up on what looks to be the corpse of their latest victim, Martin Sheffield.
"You must be the guys from the CDC. I was told to expect you. Normally I don't like sharing my little kingdom here, but I'm willing to make an exception. Glove up, grab some masks, and step on up. Name's Nicholas Valente, but call me Nick. Make any Simpsons jokes, and you lose all your morgue privileges."
"Uh, right," Sam is a little taken aback, but manages to recover his poise a little bit. "Good to meet you. I'd shake hands, but, well..."
"I'm up to my elbows in a cadaver, I get it," Nick nods again, which is just about the only thing he can do in his current position. "Well, metaphorically, anyway. If you'd come by a few hours earlier, I could have used a bit of help on this one. It's got me stumped, anyway."
"You couldn't determine a cause of death?" Dean steps forward, flashes his fake badge in a perfunctory way, peers at the body with carefully practised clinical detachment before pulling on a pair of blue rubber gloves, letting them snap exaggeratedly against his wrists. Sam bites back a snort. Dean has always gotten far too much of a kick out of making rubber gloves snap like that. It must stem from an early adolescence spent watching way too much television.
"Oh, no, I found a cause of death. It just doesn't make any sense."
"Well, you know the patient history as well as I do. This is the second one I've had on my table this week, and the second death of an apparently completely normal, healthy adult. The symptoms presented are completely inconsistent with the cause of death, which looks to be severe anemia."
"Anemia? As in blood loss?" Dean makes a face.
"No, anemia as in too few red blood cells. There's no evidence at all of exsanguination: no wounds, no puncture marks, heck, not even a pinprick between the toes. It's like the patients —both of them— spontaneously got rid of all their red blood cells. Well, not all of them, but certainly enough to deplete their brains of oxygen and their blood of iron, all that jazz."
"Any theories?" Naturally, because he's wearing rubber gloves that shouldn't be contaminated, Sam's nose itches. He keeps his hands clenched in front of him.
"None that make sense, like I said. Have you talked to Neurology yet?"
"Yeah. Weirdest thing ever," Nick warms to his subject, gesticulating with one blood-spattered hand. "We didn't catch it in the first patient, because we weren't looking for it, but I found lesions on her brain, poor girl. So we've hooked up the others to test brain activity, and it is wild in there. The brain activity is off the charts, particularly in the area of the pons."
"Isn't that the part of the brain that regulates dreaming?" Sam asks, ignoring the startled look from his brother.
"Hard to say, with the human brain, but yeah, that's the prevailing theory. This subject presents with the same lesions as the first, and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that if I was to open up any of the others, I'd find the same thing. Not that I would do that," Nick adds hastily, as though realizing just how ghoulish he just sounded.
"Of course not. That would be really, really wrong," Dean says drily, and Sam carefully steps on his foot under the autopsy table, leaning on him with all his not-inconsiderable weight. Dean grunts softly, and Sam is very grateful that the table is low enough that Dean can't jab him surreptitiously with an elbow.
"So you're saying that the abnormal brain activity was likely caused by lesions to the brain, but that both patients died due to severe anemia?" Sam is still trying to wrap his mind around the contradiction.
"Wild, isn't it?"
"Yeah, not the word I'd use, but yeah, it's strange all right," Sam confirms. "Any ideas what might have caused it?"
"Not a clue. There's nothing in the patient histories that would indicate it, and you've probably already heard that they didn't exactly run in the same circles, even if the population around here isn't booming or anything. That mostly rules out an environmental factor. But that's where you guys come in, right?" he grins at them as he strips off his gloves and tosses them into a waste receptacle. "Us poor schmoes don't have the time and certainly aren't paid enough to go running around trying to find the one obscure little thing they all had in common that'll allow us to crack the case. We're not exactly House, M.D. over here. That's why they pay you the big bucks."
"Right," Sam tries to look as convincingly professional as he can manage. Dean doesn't bother answering, just gives him a look that suggests he might actually be an idiot masquerading as a pathologist. For the first time today, Sam finds himself wishing Nick had been a hot chick. Dean is better with women, or at least doesn't insult them to their faces. Nick clears his throat.
"Right, well. I'll be writing up my report this afternoon, so I guess if you want the official copy you can put in a request, okay?"
"That would be great, we'll do that," Sam promises, slipping off his own gloves and steering Dean back out of the room before he can get them into trouble. As soon as they're clear of the door, Dean elbows him in the stomach, and Sam, caught off-guard, practically bends double as all the air comes out of his lungs in a surprised whoosh. "Oof! Dean, come on! You could at least have waited until we were clear of the building, couldn't you?"
"Quit stepping on my foot, then! It feels like you crushed every one of my bones."
Sam snorts. "Don't be so melodramatic. I barely touched you. Anyway, you feel like going up to Neurology, taking a look at the neural activity of our victims?"
Dean shakes his head, heads toward the elevators. "Nah. What's looking at the brain scans going to tell us that Dr. Nick over there hasn't already told us? The brain activity is consistent with dreams going all screwy, right?"
"But the cause of death is definitely physical. Something's messing with the blood count, or whatever. Basically sapping the life right out of the victims."
"You've summed that up really nicely. Want a bow to go with it?"
"Bite me. I'm just saying that since it's not medical, we don't need to screw around the hospital anymore. I say we hit the books, or better yet, go interview that really hot nurse, see what she has to say about how she sleeps. I bet she sleeps naked," Dean gets a slightly dreamy look on his face.
"Dude, come on!" Sam is horrified. "You haven't even seen her and you're —not that you should be even if you had seen... God. Just... quit it, okay? You're seriously making me worry about you."
The elevator dings cheerfully, and Dean digs an elbow playfully into Sam's ribs. "Come on, lighten up, Sammy! It's a natural human urge. No shame there."
"Oh my God," Sam feels his cheeks flame bright red. "I can't believe we're related sometimes."
"So, we interviewing her here?"
Sam shakes his head. "No, her shift is going to be over pretty soon, and they're all overworked here what with the influx of new patients. I think our best bet is a house call later on tonight, that way she won't be distracted and we won't be keeping her away from her patients. I'll snag her address and telephone number from reception."
"Snag the receptionist's number while you're at it," Dean calls after him. "She was totally checking you out!"
Sam cringes, and prays to every god that will listen that the receptionist didn't overhear what Dean said. The girl gives him a friendly smile, though, and a few minutes later he's got not only the contact information for one Katherine Kowalczyk, but of all the other nurses working in the Neurology wing of the hospital, and the receptionist's number too. "Just in case," she says with a wink, and Sam finds himself blushing all over again. He stammers something he hopes is at least vaguely polite, and beats a hasty retreat back to Dean, who's leaning against the wall by the main entrance, looking smug.
"Way to go, champ!"
"Shut up," Sam mutters. "We have time to do some research before we can even think of going, anyway. You know where the library is?"
Dean groans. "God. Fine. But tell me we can at least get some food first? And you need a nap," he adds, practically out of the blue. "You look like shit, Sam, and you're going to scare the hot nurse into not putting out."
Dean raises both hands in a gesture of mock-surrender. "You are such a prude."
"You can't talk like that," Sam gives him a not-so-delicate shove through the sliding doors into the visitors' parking lot. "Women aren't there for your personal gratification."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, Francis," Dean rolls his eyes, fishes the Impala's keys out of his coat pocket. "Give me a little credit, would you? My point, though, is that you look even worse than this morning, which has got to be some kind of record. You still got a headache?"
"Who says I have a headache?" Sam allows himself to wonder briefly if his brother has developed mind-reading powers.
"Says the squint you've been rocking since you got up this morning. There's aspirin in the glove compartment. And you need a nap more than you need the aspirin."
"Let's just get this done, and I'll sleep tonight, okay?" Sometimes the best way to get what you want is to pretend to negotiate first. Dean sighs, apparently not fooled one second by Sam's apparent willingness to negotiate.
"Sure, you'll sleep tonight. Like you have for the past week? Is that it?"
"Dean..." Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. "Can we please not have this conversation now?"
Dean snorts, but rummages through the glove compartment of the car and drops the bottle of aspirin pointedly into Sam's lap. "All right, let's hit the books."
The library is overheated and filled with dust, making Sam happy that he remembered to take his allergy pills before leaving the motel this morning. The last thing he needs is to spend the next few hours sneezing into the books, leaving himself open not only to Dean's mockery, but to disapproving glares from the librarian. He does regret having dressed in too many layers against the early winter chill once he was no longer forced to wear the suit for the sake of appearances, but there's very little he can do about that now. He strips off his denim jacket but keeps his hoodie, never entirely comfortable being around strangers without at least a couple of layers of clothes to shield him. The only exception he ever found to that rule was Jess, and... he shakes his head, banishing the thought before it has time to finish forming in his mind. This isn't the time for that.
Dean is already heading off through the stacks, wandering and simply pulling out the titles that catch his interest. It's not exactly a foolproof method of research, and Dad was always on his case about his haphazard methods, but it works for him, somehow. Dean always seems to function mostly on instinct and intuition anyway, leaving Sam eating his metaphorical dust when it comes to understanding a case. In fact, it's pretty much how their entire lives have been: Dean breezes by on charm, good looks, and a brain that's so damned flexible that he never had to study a day in his life. For Sam, on the other hand, nothing has ever come easy. Oh, sure, he's bright, everyone knows that. It's just that he's worked his ass off for every single A that has come his way, spending hours on homework and studying and on extracurricular projects. He's lost count of the number of all-nighters he's had to pull in his life to keep up his grades, though now it seems like a pretty big waste. Maybe he should have taken a page out of Dean's book. He sighs, leaves Dean to his own peculiar methods, and goes to hit the library computers before going through the stacks with his list of relevant titles. By the time he finds Dean at a table in an isolated corner, his arms are full to capacity with books and obscure journals.
"Jesus, Sammy. How long were you planning to spend here?"
"Shut up. And it's Sam. It won't take that long if we just read through the relevant sections. These are reference books, not novels."
Dean waves a hand dismissively. "Whatever, geek-boy, knock yourself out. No way I'm doing your research on top of mine." He holds up a book on dream lore. "Already finding some pretty cool stuff in here. Did you know cats can totally steal your breath when you sleep?"
Sam drops into a chair, settles as comfortably as he can manage and cracks open a tome, sighing. "That's a myth."
"I dunno, man. Cats are evil little sons of bitches. Glad we never had one."
Sam doesn't bother answering that particular piece of nonsense, just pulls out a pad and pen from his bag to start taking notes. The library has gotten even warmer since they arrived, almost stifling, and he's half-tempted to pull off his hoodie. It's almost impossible to concentrate on the tiny text, and he blinks and scrubs at his eyes more than once, finds himself nodding off, the lack of sleep over the past few days finally catching up to him.
The next thing he knows when he opens his eyes, the library is gone, and he's standing on a road he doesn't recognize, surrounded by half-frozen fields. He shivers a bit, and pulls his jacket closer around him. There's no sign of Dean, no sign of any other human life for miles around. He takes a few tentative steps forward along the road, the thin film of ice crunching under his feet, and another shiver crawls up his spine. There's something out here, he can feel it even if he can't see it, right behind him. He can't bring himself to turn and look at it, feels its icy breath on the back of his neck, making the fine hairs there stand on end, and his own breath quickens into short, hitching pants. All he can think of is to get away as fast as he can.
He starts out at a slow jog along the road, then gradually speeds up, sees his breath misting in the cold air before him. He runs, faster and faster until he's all-out sprinting, but the thing behind him is keeping pace with him effortlessly, close on his heels but never quite touching him. At last he stumbles on some unseen bump on the ground, tumbles gracelessly head over heels on the asphalt, and as he rolls onto his back a great black shadow looms over his head, obscuring the great bright moon above, and lunges for his throat.
He comes awake with a half-stifled yell, Dean's hand clamped firmly over his mouth, his heart hammering painfully against his ribcage, breathing hard. He can feels sweat trickling uncomfortably along his hairline, dripping down the back of his neck and down his spine, and he shivers, breathing hard, and sits up from where he was half-slumped against the library wall.
"Sam, what the hell?" Dean hisses.
"Sorry," he mutters, wiping at his face with one hand, trying to get his heart rate to slow down even a fraction. "Must've dozed off."
"Yeah, no shit," Dean drops to a crouch by his chair, unable to keep the worry off his features. "You okay? You were moaning pretty loudly, there, and it wasn't the happy kind of moaning."
He shakes his head, trying to clear it, looking around in case he attracted the attention of the librarian, but they seem to have lucked out on that front. "I'm fine. Just a nightmare."
Dean wipes his mouth with his hand. "Sam, you can't keep this up," he starts, but Sam holds up a hand.
"Look, I get it. Just... I'm not doing this on purpose, okay?"
"I know that!"
"Can we just drop it, please?"
Dean huffs out a sigh, rolls his eyes, but he goes back to his seat across the table from Sam. "You're not going to be able to dodge this forever, you know. Eventually, this is going to come back to bite us both in the ass, because whatever happens to you? Happens to me."
Sam ducks his head, feels blood rushing to his face, partly out of anger, partly out of embarrassment. Because whatever else Dean might have said, he's right about this.
"You don't strike me as typical of the CDC," Katherine Kowalczyk eyes them with an expression that, while not exactly suspicious, isn't entirely trusting either, when she's opened the door and they've introduced themselves (or reintroduced, in Sam's case).
She's a striking woman, Sam thinks a little distractedly, fidgeting with his newly re-knotted tie. He already misses his more comfortable clothes. She's tall, with black hair pulled into a braid and then coiled and pinned at the nape of her neck, and features that, while not conventional, certainly make her beautiful. She's still in her nurse's scrubs, blue and faded in places from multiple washings, but obviously well-kept. They're rumpled from a long day's work, and there are dark circles under her bright blue eyes, hinting at fatigue that's been building over a long period of time. Still, she's obviously strong, perhaps as a result of having to lift patients in and out of beds all day.
"You get CDC agents out here a lot?" Dean flashes her one of his trademark smiles, and her expression thaws a bit. Sam fights the urge to shake his head at yet another demonstration of his brother's mind-boggling ability to get women to practically undress for him.
She laughs. "No, I suppose not. But I'm pretty sure they don't pay house calls," she takes a step back from her front door. "Come in. I just got home myself, so you'll forgive me if I work around you while you ask your, um, follow-up questions." She doesn't quite make air quotes around the words 'follow-up,' but Sam is pretty sure it's a close thing.
Dean follows her inside without being asked twice. "Nice place you got here," he says, eyeing the sensibly-furnished living room with approval.
It's a small house, cosy and inviting. The furniture in the living room is practical, mostly brown and beige, and looks incredibly comfortable. Sam is tempted to try taking a nap on the sofa, then banishes the thought from his mind.
"Thanks. Do you drink tea? If not I can make coffee," she's already heading into the kitchen, yanking the pins out of her hair, and Sam watches Dean watching it tumble gracefully around her shoulders, all the more attractive for still being a little tangled.
"Uh, tea is fine," Dean lies through his teeth, still following close on her heels. He hates tea, but he's learned to drink it when offered by well-meaning civilians. It's an ice-breaker. Sam likes tea, so it's never been an issue for him. "So we were wondering —oh, uh, hi there."
Sam hurries after him to see just what caused his brother's abrupt change in tone and demeanour, and stops short when he sees an elderly woman seated at the kitchen table, dressed in what looks like about fifteen layers of black lace. She's obviously related to Katherine, the eyes make that obvious if nothing else. She nods regally at Dean, but doesn't say anything.
"We're sorry to interrupt, ma'am," Sam digs around in his memory and finds his manners.
"It's all right," Katherine says from the stove. "Babcia, these young men are here from the CDC, asking questions about all those poor people who've fallen ill. Do you want to take your tea here instead of the living room?"
"Nie," comes the imperious response, in heavily-accented English. "I will have my tea as I always do."
"Babcia, are you sure?" Katherine comes to lean over her chair. "There isn't room for all of us to sit in the kitchen, so we'll have to sit with you, and they'll be asking questions—"
"You think they are worse than the Nazis?" the old woman scoffs. "Their questions do not bother me."
Dean clears his throat. "Uh, we don't mind, as long as your —grandmother?" he turned the word into a question, "doesn't find it too, uh distressing, Miss Kowalczyk."
He gets a smile. "Please call me Katie so I don't have to hear you butcher my last name again. It'll be fine. Milk, sugar, or lemon?"
Dean flushes a bit, then grins. "Uh, nothing, thanks. Katie, huh?"
Sam steps forward as Katherine's grandmother plants her cane firmly on the kitchen floor in order to rise to her feet. "Allow me, ma'am," he offers an arm, and pointedly ignores Dean's eyeroll. He knows he's never going to hear the end of the ribbing about being popular with little old ladies at the end of this, but apart from being the right thing to do, helping here will bring Katherine —Katie, he corrects himself— to view them more favourably.
He definitely gets an approving nod from the old lady. "A well-brought-up boy," she pats his cheek, and Dean makes a noise that sounds like he's trying very hard not to laugh, snort and choke all at the same time. Sam glares at him over the old lady's head. "You may accompany me to the living room."
She walks steadily for someone her age, back ramrod-straight and head held high, although she leans heavily on her cane and doesn't hesitate to clutch his arm so hard that her fingers leave marks on his skin. He helps her stiffly into a winged armchair, and at her direction pulls up a small table on which Katie sets the tea tray.
"You may pour, Katja."
Katie doesn't hesitate, pours the first cup and hands it to her grandmother, then pours out three more cups for the rest of them, motioning to Sam and Dean to sit. Dean immediately slides next to her on the sofa while Sam makes a superhuman effort not to roll his eyes and takes the only remaining chair in the room. "What is it you wanted to know that you couldn't find out at the hospital?"
"We're just trying to get a feel for the environment around here," Dean cuts in smoothly, ignoring his tea while Sam sips at his, taking advantage of the distraction to study Katie's reactions. "It's a small community, and this sort of outbreak is pretty uncommon. We're trying to work out patterns, common ground, that sort of thing. Doing the equivalent of when the police go knocking on neighbours' doors after a crime. I understand you knew some of the victims personally?"
She nods, unconsciously smoothing her nurse's scrubs with one hand. "Not well, but yes. Like you said, it's a small community. Everyone knows everyone around here. Rollie Oates worked at the lumber mill where my father worked, and I buy my coffee from Maria Watt every morning. Used to, I mean," she amends, mouth twisting.
"Did they have anything in common that you can think of?" Sam asks. "The same friends? Maybe they shopped at the same places? It would help us narrow down our search, see what common elements might have led to the contagion."
Katie shrugs. "It could be any number of things, I suppose, but I can't think of anything they'd all have had in common. We're a small town, but none of them are what I'd call close. In fact, they don't have all that much in common except for the fact that they're all roughly the same age and they live in the same area of town."
"So you didn't know any of them well?"
"I'm sorry, no. If I'd known that was why you wanted to talk to me, I could have pointed you to some of the people who knew them better, spared you the trip."
"No, no, you're being very helpful," Dean places a hand very carefully on her arm. It's a neat trick, one Sam hasn't quite mastered. A gesture that at once suggests intimacy and yet doesn't make the woman feel threatened. Sam can do it, but never with the underlying suggestion that it's only a sense of propriety that's preventing him from sweeping the woman off her feet and whisking her off into the sunset. How Dean can do it without coming off as a total sleaze is beyond Sam as well. Katie, predictably enough, blushes a bit, and smiles. "The more you tell us, the sooner we'll be able to pinpoint the cause of these comas."
Sam clears his throat. "I overheard you saying you've been having trouble sleeping. Bad dreams." He notes, from the corner of his eye, the old lady straightening in her seat, her attention fixed on her granddaughter.
"Katja, is this true?"
Katie's eyes darken. "Eavesdropping, were you? Not exactly professional"
He shrugs. "Not on purpose, but we need to follow every lead that comes our way. Is this new, or have you always had trouble sleeping?"
She doesn't answer right away, her expression turning anxious. "No," she confesses finally. "It's new. It can't be related, though. I mean, it's probably just the stress of having all these people get sick, too, you know? Psychosomatic, or something. Like I said, I don't know any of them well, we don't have anything in common, and if it's an airborne contagion the other nurses would be showing symptoms too, right?"
Dean makes a noncommittal noise in his throat, and Sam hurries to fill the awkward silence.
"We're just exploring every lead we have."
The old lady snorts. "She cannot help you."
"No?" Sam shifts awkwardly in his chair. He's too tall to fit comfortably on most straight-backed chairs, and always feels a bit like an insect on its back, all flailing limbs and waving antennae. "What makes you say that, ma'am?"
Katie gives her grandmother an exasperated look. "Babcia, I already told you that those people are ill. Those old stories are just that: stories. There's no room in America for your old-world fairy tales. I'm sorry," she says sheepishly to Sam. "She's just convinced herself that there's something evil in the town. It's superstition."
"Katja, I am not some mad old woman that you can dismiss," her grandmother snaps. "It is the same as it was in the camps at the end, I am telling you."
Sam leans forward in his chair, as much to ease the cramps that are threatening in his legs than anything else. "What about the camps?" he asks, keeping his tone gentle. "Did the men who imprisoned you do something..." he gropes for a word, can't find it.
The old woman stares him down, eyes glittering with an emotion he can't identify. "It was not the men we were afraid of. During the day, at least, we knew who the monsters were. At night, the real monsters would come, and they did not distinguish between Polak, or Jew, or Nazi."
"So I think it might be a mara," Sam says abruptly, looking up from where he's been reading through one of the numerous articles he photocopied at the library after it was obvious staying there wasn't going to work in the long-term. Researching in the comfort of the motel room was always preferable anyway, and he'd managed to hook them up with some slightly unreliable but free wireless. In light of that, he thought it would probably be a little hypocritical to reproach Dean for fiddling with the photocopier so that they wouldn't have to pay for the copies.
"A mara?" Dean is sitting cross-legged on the other bed, mirroring Sam's own pose, except that he's got what looks like half their guns spread out on an oil cloth, cleaning each one methodically. He looks a bit odd, gun in hand, dressed only in his boxers and sleep t-shirt, feet still clad in warm grey socks against the slight chill in the air, but it was either that or stay in the uncomfortable cheap suits they had re-donned in order to go visit Katie and her grandmother.
All in all, it was a productive visit. The elderly lady insisted that she would talk only to Sam, which Dean was all too happy to accommodate, since it meant that he got the attractive nurse all to himself. Of course, now Sam has a raging headache from trying to piece together a story that's well over sixty years old.
"What Mrs. Kowalczyk was describing," he clarifies. "She had a lot to say on the subject, actually."
"So, you got lucky with your special lady-friend," Dean leers, and Sam feels the pain spike behind his eyes.
"Bite me," he mutters, without much heat behind the words, massaging his eyes with the tips of his thumb and index finger. Since Dean is waiting on him, though, he holds up the blurry picture of a late nineteenth-century painting depicting a young woman dressed in white, swooning on a bed while a malevolent-looking little gnome-like thing sits on her chest, its malicious little hands pulled into its chest. Its eyes look like they might be glowing, but it's hard to tell in the reproduction. "Mrs. Kowalczyk said that it attacked in the night, while people slept, remember?"
"She said a lot of things," Dean points out, his tone not entirely approving.
"Yeah, she's getting on a bit, but her mind is sharp," Sam says reasonably, and Dean lifts one shoulder in a gesture that he takes as acquiescence.
Another problem of the job is that, more often than not, the witnesses with the most accurate information are also the ones who are the most unreliable: children, drunks, the elderly and the mentally unstable. They tend to believe what's in front of their eyes, to recount it with the most accuracy, because it doesn't occur to them that what they're seeing isn't mean to be real. Most normal adults rationalize it away: it's not a werewolf, it's a guy on some sort of drugs. It's not a Black Dog, it's just some stray that's gone feral. Not a ghost, just a trick of the light. And so on, ad nauseam. Sam has heard every rationalization in the book, and it never ceases to amaze him just how much and how deeply people can delude themselves about what's really out there.
"She was just a little girl in the camps." Sam has been trying not to think too hard about that, but the revulsion must show on his face, because Dean shakes his head.
"People, man," he says, "They're screwed in the head." Sam can only nod in agreement.
"Anyway, she remembers this creature, right? She said that no one saw it, but that people started dying for no reason. They could hear screaming even from the officers' quarters at night, and people started having nightmares that had nothing to do with what was happening to them every day. And then, one night, she started having nightmares too. She says it's the same thing as back then."
"She survived?" Dean sounds surprised.
"Yeah, she says they killed it. Or they thought they did. It was the end of the war, right? In '45, after Germany had surrendered, but before all the camps were liberated. Everything was in disarray, and she was young and starving and traumatized, so her memories aren't exactly reliable. She says she and a group of survivors and one Nazi soldier banded together and killed the thing."
"And you're sure it's this mara thing?"
"Pretty sure. From what I've been able to piece together," Sam continues, "the pattern is right. There isn't much useful lore on these things that I've been able to find around here. The library wasn't all that forthcoming. The internet was more useful, but again, it's a lot of bare bones stuff. It looks like the myth is Scandinavian and German in origin, and the creature is sometimes said to ride a horse, which is where the word 'nightmare' comes from. Given the myth's origins and the location of the camp in which Mrs. Kovalzcyk was kept imprisoned, I'd say that's what we're looking at."
"Great. Now we can totally win at Trivial Pursuit next time we play. How do we kill it?"
"It doesn't say," Sam admits. "In fact, I'm pretty sure that none of these illustrations are even representative of the creature. What little I got online is that it's a supernatural explanation for sleep paralysis, which is a medical condition—"
"Spare me the lecture, please. I know what sleep paralysis is, and this isn't it, so can we move on before I die of boredom?" Dean fits an ammunition clip back into the handgun he's been cleaning with a decisive click.
"Wow, and you wonder why I didn't miss hunting with you," Sam rolls his eyes. Dean stiffens, and Sam immediately regrets the unnecessarily nasty words. But it's too late, the damage is done. "Dean, I didn't mean—"
"Save it," Dean snaps his fingers in Sam's general direction. "I want to know how we kill this thing. What did the old lady tell you they did?"
Sam sighs. It's hard enough finding his footing on his own these days without having to worry about Dean on top of it all. He'll make it up to his brother later, he promises himself. "It boils down, basically, to consecrated iron, near as I can tell. One of the prisoners of the camp —Mrs. Kowalczyk thinks it might have been a priest but she's sort of fuzzy on that— uttered some sort of blessing over one of the Nazi officers' guns, and they filled the creature full of bullets. Then they burned the thing's corpse, and that was the end of it."
"Only it wasn't," Dean starts putting the weapons away, but his expression is thoughtful. "I mean, what are the odds that this is a different creature stalking the same old woman? You think she might have brought it with her?"
Sam screws up his face, the thought an unpleasant one. "Could be. It might have followed her, latched onto her or something, if she was its last victim but escaped. It means that whatever they did, though, it wasn't enough."
"So we're back to square one. We think we know what it is, but we don't know how to kill it permanently."
"I guess killing it temporarily is better than nothing," Sam offers, but he gets a derisive snort instead.
"I want this thing to be supernatural toast when we're finished with it. So consecrated iron, salt and burn, it's not enough. Has it got any other weaknesses?"
Sam leafs through his papers, going back to the parts he highlighted. "It's all pretty allegorical. Stories of stalwart young heroes going into the dream world, or whatever, and defeating the mara on its own ground. They usually run her through with a blessed sword or other blade."
"The actual stories describe it as a beautiful woman —sometimes a good-looking man or youth, depending. So I'm guessing it's actually human in shape, rather than like these hobgoblin-type illustrations."
"So... basically we're dealing with some kind of spirit?"
Sam shrugs. "Your guess is as good as mine. It would make sense, though. The mara could be just a spirit that lives off life energy. It's found a way into people's dreams, and siphons off their life force that way. Kind of like that striga, except with a different M.O."
"Shit," Dean wipes a hand across his mouth and chin. "I hate those things. So these heroes, or whatever, they actually go face the thing down on its own turf?"
"Yup. I mean, it's a classic storytelling device, right? It's the hero's journey: he dies, goes into the underworld, is tested, and comes out the other side victorious."
Dean tucks the weapons back into his duffel bag and sprawls back out on his bed after checking the salt line near the door and dingy window. "Where the hell do you come up with this stuff, anyway?"
"It's Joseph Campbell. I had to read it for freshman English, okay?"
"Whatever. So we have to go get this thing on its own ground, where it's obviously going to have the home field advantage, and then kill it with some sort of sword?"
"If it's any consolation, I think any sort of consecrated blade will do, and we have a few knives that'll do the trick."
Dean laces his hands behind his head and stares at the ceiling. "Yeah, but that still doesn't solve the problem of actually getting to the thing first. I mean, short of, I don't know, figuring out a way to make it target one of us and drag us into a coma —which, needless to say, even I know is a really stupid plan."
Sam scrubs at his face with both hands. "I know. I have a couple of ideas, but I'd have to look into it some more. I remember talking to Pastor Jim about dream worlds a long time ago, so I can always give him a call soon if we haven't found anything. This thing already has Katie in its sights, so we can't afford to delay much. The longer we wait, the more likely other people are going to die."
"Okay, then." Dean is already burrowing contentedly under his bedclothes, pulls the thin motel comforter up over his shoulders and tucks it under his chin, eyes closing. "We can't do anything about it right this instant, anyway. So I strongly suggest," he cracks an eye at Sam, "that you get some sleep." He reaches out and switches off the light by his bed. "G'night."
"Yeah. Night, Dean."
Sam sighs, gathers up his books and papers and drops them on the floor next to the bed rather than put them away. Normally doing that would drive him nuts, but he's exhausted, and even the thought of getting up to put them away seems daunting. He lets himself fall back onto his pillows, and, for the first time in months, his eyes close of their own volition, and he sinks almost immediately into sleep.
Sam finds himself standing on a strange length of road, one he's sure he's never been on before, but which nonetheless feels familiar. He's dreaming, he's quite sure of that too. The whole place has the odd, not-quite-real feel of a dream, the disconnected sensation of unnamed dread that he's come to associate with every time he allows his eyes to drift shut these days. It's strange, he thinks, because while he's no stranger to recurring nightmares, the dreams these last few times have been completely different from the regular ones. He keeps half-expecting to find himself back in his old apartment at Stanford, with Jess' blood dripping onto his face, to see her explode in flames before his eyes, expression accusing, voice echoing forever in his head. He allows himself to indulge in the thought for a moment, before the mind-numbing dread from before returns, and he feels the same icy-cold presence as before, somewhere just behind him.
He turns and runs, going as fast as he can this time, even as he's flooded with the knowledge that trying to escape is entirely useless. The thing isn't gaining on him so much as it's simply toying with him, letting him think he can get away. He keeps running, letting the pack slung over his shoulder fall to the ground, slip-sliding on the icy pavement until finally one foot slides out entirely from under him, sending him sprawling to the ground. He lands hard on one shoulder, rolls over in time to catch sight of a white shape above him, reaching for his throat with long, bony-looking fingers.
He comes awake with a jolt, so abruptly that it feels as though electricity is coursing through every single nerve ending in his body. Dean is sitting on the edge of his bed, hair mussed, eyes still crusted over with sleep. For a moment Sam can't move, can't catch his breath, feels his mouth and throat working in a desperate bid for air. Dean puts a hand comfortingly in the center of his chest, rubbing with his thumb.
"Easy, Sammy. It's a nightmare. You're okay, it was just a dream, okay?"
He manages a nod, feels tears pricking at the corners of his eyes and blinks them away, embarrassed at his own weakness, finally manages to struggle to a sitting position and buries his face in shaking hands, breathing hard. Dean moves his hand to the small of Sam's back, rubs in small circles while Sam fights to get himself under control.
"You okay now?"
Sam blows out an unsteady breath. "Yeah. Sorry. What time is it?"
"Just before eight. It's past time to get up anyway."
"Why didn't you wake me?" Sam wishes his voice wouldn't give him away.
"You looked like you could use the sleep." Dean hesitates, clearly debating something in his mind, then plunges ahead, his voice soft. "Was it Jess again?"
He shakes his head. "I'm going to take a shower."
He doesn't look up, pressing the heels of his palms against his eyes. "Seriously, can we not?"
For a guy who claims not to want any chick-flick moments, his brother's been pushing awfully hard for Sam to talk, but Sam isn't exactly in the mood to talk about anything, let alone what he's been dreaming about. He slides out of his bed, away from Dean, and locks himself in the bathroom, where he steps under the shower, turning the hot water on full. He stands there for as long as he can stand it, letting the steam and the water ease the stiffness in his muscles and rinse away the remnants of the nightmares. By the time he's brushed his teeth and combed his hair into submission, his hands have stopped shaking enough that he can shave without slicing his face to ribbons.
Dean is waiting for him, cell phone in hand, when he steps back out wrapped in a towel and feeling considerably more human than before. One look at his brother's face, though, tells Sam that things have gone south. "What happened?"
His brother scrubs at his chin with his free hand. "It's Katie," he says. "She's in the hospital. Her grandmother found her early this morning."
Dean nods, his face grey, guilt-ridden. "Like the others."
"God. Okay," Sam pulls himself together. "So we need to move fast on this. Find the mara, kill it, before anyone else dies. If it's got Katie, the odds are good that someone else is about to die."
Dean's already pulling on his clothes, forgoing his morning shower. "So what are we doing? Head to the hospital?"
"No," Sam rifles through his papers, dropping to one knee on the floor and keeping his towel closed with his other hand. "I think we can forgo that. I have to talk to Pastor Jim, make sure I remember this right, and then we need to pick up a few things. Unless you want to see her?"
Dean shakes his head. "I'll see her after she's awake again. What are you thinking? We don't have a way of getting into the mara's territory. If we just kill it in the real world, it'll come back, God knows when."
Sam looks up with a smile. For the first time since this case started, he's beginning to feel as though they might have a handle on it after all. "Yeah, actually, I have an idea about that."
"You seriously dragged me to a hunting cabin in the middle of a field so we could do this?" Dean hunches over unhappily, his hands shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket.
Sam doesn't look up from where he's gathering supplies from the trunk of the Impala. "Dean, we're about to perform a ritual that involves drawing large arcane symbols on the ground, burning a bunch of really fragrant herbs, and lighting more candles than a midnight mass. So, yeah, I dragged you to the middle of nowhere so we won't attract attention."
"You sure this is going to work?" Dean pulls his hands out of his pockets and grabs the duffel full of weapons from the trunk, jogging Sam's elbow as he does so. "Sorry."
"I'm not sure, no," Sam leads the way up the path, "but I think it's our best shot, and Pastor Jim agrees."
It's a matter of thirty seconds or so to pick the lock on the door —hunting cabins are never exactly secure even at the best of times— and they're in. He pulls out a piece of chalk and a piece of paper on which he's copied all the symbols they'll need, and begins carefully tracing them onto the dusty floor.
"You want to explain what you're doing to the rest of the class, maybe?"
Dean is helping by lighting candles, but Sam can tell from his tone of voice that he's not entirely happy about the proceedings. There are so many things he's forgotten about working with his brother, including Dean's tendency to take everything that happens to the victims to heart. He looks up at where Dean is lighting a match, staring into the tiny flame as though it might hold all the answers they've been looking for all their lives. Lord knows they've been dogged by enough questions for the last twenty-two years.
"Uh," he tries to marshal his thoughts while still drawing a straight line. "I don't exactly understand it all myself, but basically the mara isn't entering people's dreams so much as it's forcing them to enter its own dream. It's kind of a mirror of our own reality."
"Like an evil holodeck?"
Sam tilts his head, the corners of his mouth pulling down as he tries to wrap his mind around the thought. "Huh," he says finally. "Yeah, that's a pretty good way to put it. So, it's like a holodeck. What we're doing is basically building a bridge to the mara's world, or, in your terms, building the arch in the holodeck."
"And then we step through, and we're in this other reality?"
"Pretty much, except that, if I understood the ritual right, whatever we carry with us will also be there. Too bad there aren't any holodeck safeties to rely on. It'd kind of be nice to have a guarantee we're not going to die."
"They always turn them off in the holodeck anyway, which makes me wonder why they bother to have them at all, or why they allow ships to have holodecks with safeties that can be disabled. You'd think space travel was dangerous enough," Dean grumbles.
"Are you seriously expecting to have that conversation now?" Sam is incredulous. He shakes his head, and before Dean can answer he's pulled a length of sturdy cord from his pack and sets about binding each of their wrists in a series of knots.
"Sam, you kinky thing..."
He can't help but let out an exasperated huff. Dean just brings it out in him. "It's to make sure we can't get separated in the dream-world, you ass. Unless you want us to get lost in a world that's directly under the control of a supernatural creature that's trying to eat us?"
Dean nudges his shoulder with his free hand. "No sense of humour, Sammy."
He cuts the cord between their wrists. "None," he can't be bothered to argue. "Now all we have to do is cut the cords when we want to come back. Theoretically, at least."
"Why am I not reassured?"
They work in silence after that, until, after about twenty minutes, everything is set up. The incantation itself is short, deceptively simple, and for a moment after Sam has burned every herb in the small bronze bowl he brought with him, nothing happens. Dean shifts on the floor where he's sitting cross-legged, consecrated knife cradled in his lap.
"So how fast is this supposed to work?"
Dean's voice is fading, is the last thing Sam has time to notice before everything goes dark.
"So where are we going?"
Sam looks terrible, Dean thinks, looking over at him in the passenger seat. He's pale, the circles under his eyes even more pronounced than before, bruised-looking and slightly puffy. He's still shivering under the blanket, trying to keep his teeth from chattering too loudly. Dean keeps the car running, the heater on full blast, but it doesn't appear to be doing much good for now.
"Right now? Nowhere, and fast, near as I can tell."
Sam rubs at his eyes. "I'm pretty sure I've been here before."
"What?" Dean twists in his seat. "How come you didn't say anything?"
"It's not like there's been that many opportunities to tell you. It just looks really familiar, is all I'm saying. The fields, that weird tree, the broken fence. And..." he trails off uncertainly, and stares through the window of the car at the fields.
A shrug. "I don't know. Don't you feel it?"
"Feel what?" But even as the words leave his mouth, Dean feels the hairs on the nape of his neck prickle, as though someone is blowing a cool breath down his collar, and he shudders slightly.
"There's something out there," Sam says softly. "And I think it's hunting us."
Dean pulls the car out of neutral, and hits the gas.
The road seems to go on forever. Dean has never seen a road do that before, but there's no mistaking the fact that, after driving for what seems like an endless stretch of time, they don't get anywhere. The fields look exactly the same, and after a moment he recognizes the self-same tree under which he found Sam. He stops the car, switches off the engine.
"Shit." He breaks the silence that's begun weighing increasingly heavily on them. "This whole situation is jacked."
Sam nods. "I don't think we can get away from it."
Dean taps his hands on the steering wheel, anger simmering below the calm he's trying to project. "Hell, who says we should even be trying to get away? We're the hunters, here, damn it. Why the hell aren't we hunting this thing, whatever it is?"
Sam has his face screwed up, as though he's in pain, but when he speaks his voice is clear enough. "Maybe we are."
"What do you mean?" Dean feels an excited flutter in his stomach for no reason he can name.
"Think about it. Why are we here, together, in this place? What's the last thing you remember from before?"
He stops, letting the car idle, since Sam is still huddled in on himself against the cold, and tries to remember. "We were looking into those weird deaths. The coma victims."
The memories come flooding back so quickly he has to close his eyes, suddenly dizzy. The hospital, the coma victims, Katie. He gets a sudden, vivid impression of her, lying still and pale on a bed, prisoner of the mara's dream-world. "Jesus, how the hell could I forget that? That freaky old Polish lady, the ritual... what the hell happened? How did we forget all of that?"
Sam is rubbing at his temples, as though his head is aching, and Dean guesses he's experiencing the same disorienting rush of memories. "My guess? We're on the mara's turf, and it's been making us see and think exactly what it wants. Or trying to, anyway, but the ritual is giving us a chance to, uh, I don't know, stay grounded, or however you want to put it. We need to get off this road, regroup somewhere that's not as much in the open as this. It's toying with us," Sam sounds angry, Dean notes to his surprise, lips pressed together so tightly they form a thin, pale line in his face.
"Okay, so how do we do that? No matter how much we've driven, we've always ended up on the same road. How do we get off?"
"Kill the engine," Sam says decisively, and after a split-second's hesitation Dean complies. Sam has always had these freaky intuitions about cases, and Dean figures that he'd probably be dead about half a dozen times over if it hadn't been for these moments of brilliance his little brother is prone to. A moment later, though, Sam climbs out of the car, leaving his blanket behind, and Dean begins to wonder if he hasn't entirely lost his mind.
"Have you lost your mind?" he scrambles out after Sam. Dean has never been one to keep his thoughts to himself. "We're lost and close to freezing and you want to walk out of here?"
Sam shakes his head. "No, that's not it. We're definitely not walking out of here, if that's any consolation."
Sam grins at him, expression suddenly smug, like when he's finally figured out those last few clues that let him put together a really difficult crossword puzzle. It's one of those small joys that Dean has never understood, but kind of likes to witness anyway. "It's a dream, Dean. You ever tried lucid dreaming?"
"Uh, no. Except that one time in senior year, and the guy promised it would be really cool, but it was kind of a bad trip, man."
Sam snorts and pretends he didn't notice Dean deliberately misinterpret his words. "Okay, so I've never actually managed it myself, but since we came here on purpose, I figure that gives us an edge to work with. In lucid dreams, you basically get to control your own environment, right? You're in charge of the dream. So if I want to provide us with shelter, well, all I have to do is picture it. Like, right there."
He points to a spot a few dozen yards away in a field, and suddenly there's a cabin there that wasn't a few moments before. Dean tries not to gawk, because he'll never hear the end of Sam's smug I-can-totally-control-the-dreamworld talk after this. The cabin looks run-down, the single window they can see from where they are broken and crudely boarded up, the small porch sagging under the weight of years of neglect. For something Sam pulled out of his... um, brain, it's pretty dilapidated.
"You couldn't have conjured up a strip club instead?"
Sam snorts, but he's frowning a bit at the cabin. "It's not quite how I pictured it."
"What, you wanted a gingerbread house?"
Sam rolls his eyes. "No. I just didn't picture a cabin. Come on, let's go check it out."
"Woah there," Dean catches him by the sleeve before he can go tearing off up the newly-created path to the cabin. "Let's not go off half-cocked, okay? And God, why am I being the voice of reason today?" He jerks his head back toward the Impala. "Weapons first, and flashlights. Then we'll go check out the creepy cabin you conjured up out of that freaky subconscious of yours."
Sam nods, but he looks back wistfully at the cabin for a moment before following Dean around the car and watching as he pops the trunk. "I don't understand why it didn't work the way I thought it would."
"Maybe because the world isn't supposed to cater to your every whim, genius."
Sam swats his shoulder. "Jerk."
"Ow! Bitch. Don't hit me until after we've killed the supernatural fugly, how about? And stay put!" He reaches out and hooks a hand into the collar of Sam's jacket as his brother takes a few steps back toward the cabin. "What the hell, Sam? Since when can you not stand still for five minutes while we get our gear together?"
"Sorry," Sam shakes himself. "I just... I don't know, it's like I'm drawn to it or something."
Dean pauses in the middle of handing a sawn-off shotgun to him. "Sam, are you sure the cabin thing was all your idea?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean just that. We might be aware of all that's happening, but we're still inside the mara's world. What if whatever you're creating isn't entirely under your control? Could be we're playing right into its hands. Claws. Talons. Whatever it has that serves for hands."
Sam shrugs. "I don't know. We still have to go look, though."
Dean sighs, picks up another shotgun. "All right, then, lead the way."
And with that, he follows his little brother up the path and toward the cabin.
It's dark in the cabin, and musty. Dean brushes past a veil of cobwebs, spitting a bit as they tangle in his hair, stick to his face and lips. Sam is just a step or two ahead, sawed-off shotgun held level with a flashlight, the sickly yellow beam doing little to penetrate the darkness. Dean can hear his own and Sam's breathing, harsh in the unnatural stillness, then becomes aware of a third sound, a quiet, breathless moan. He taps Sam on the shoulder, motions to him to stay quiet, and steps forward, finally pinpointing the origin in the far corner of the cabin.
"Who's there?" the voice is soft, but in the quiet it seems so loud that it makes both of them jump. "Please, please don't hurt me..."
"Katie?" he takes another few steps in her direction, heedless of Sam's whispered warnings to be careful. He finds her huddled on the floor, shivering, eyes wide in a face drained of colour, and drops to a crouch. "Katie, it's me."
He shakes his head, and manages to wink and grin at her. "You can call me Dean, sweetheart. I think we're past being on a last-name basis, don't you think? Come on," he holds out his hand slowly, trying not to spook her. "You can't stay here, it's not safe."
She's shaking, teeth chattering, and even in the darkness he's pretty sure that her face looks as though she's been crying, but she's being pretty damned brave right now. "There's something out there," she moans, wedging herself further into the corner. "It tried to, to..."
"I know it did," he risks placing his hand on her knee. "I know, but we're not going to let it hurt you, okay? I need for you to take my hand, and we're going to go back to my car, all right? Me and Sam, we're going to keep you safe, don't you worry."
She shakes her head. "Nowhere is safe. Nowhere. Babcia said it would come for all of us, and I didn't believe her... oh God. What if it has her too?"
He can hear Sam moving about slowly behind him in the cabin, moving what little furniture there is, taking stock of their surroundings. If Katie is in here with them, it's pretty obvious that it wasn't Sam who conjured this cabin just with the power of his mind. The mara has to be around here somewhere, not too far, lurking in the shadows.
"It doesn't have your grandmother," he promises her. "If it did, she'd be here too. Come on, Katie, I need you to pull yourself together a bit, help me out here, okay?"
She draws in a shaky breath, then nods. "Yeah, okay. Sorry. I just..."
"It's okay. Come on, up you come," he grabs her arms, hauls her to her feet and lets her cling to him, still shaking. "Jesus, you're freezing! We'll get you a blanket from the car, get you warmed up again. Were you outside?"
She shakes her head. "Not for long. There was a road, and I ran until I found this place. I've been freezing since I woke up here. I don't know, it feels like I've been here for days, but it can't have been that long, can it?"
Sam comes up behind them, his face glowing strangely in the beam of his flashlight. "I'm pretty sure time moves differently here than it does in the outside world."
"What do you mean?" Katie sounds even more frightened all of a sudden.
"It's a dream-world," Sam explains gently. "We're trapped inside a nightmare. But don't worry, Dean and I will get you out, I promise."
"Way to sugar-coat it, Sam." Dean glares at his brother. "It's okay," he tries for a reassuring tone. "Think of it like... a lucid dream, right? Sam and me, we broke into your nightmare so that we can get you out again. By the way, Sam I hate to break it to you, but you didn't make the cabin," he says wryly.
"Yeah, I figured once we stepped inside," Sam's shoulders are still hunched against the cold, his lips turning bluish. "It's like what I was telling you before, remember? This world is a sort of mirror-image of the one we live in. So if we were in a hunting cabin, the mara creates a cabin in its own world too."
"So not an accurate representation, I take it?"
Sam snorts. "It's supposed to be a nightmare, Dean. Not Better Homes and Gardens."
Katie shifts closer to Dean, as though seeking out warmth there. "I don't understand. If this is my nightmare, how are you here?"
"That's not really important," Sam says dismissively, which Dean thinks is a hell of a feat, given how hard his teeth are chattering. "What's important now is that we get you to safety. Listen, have you seen anything unusual while you were here? Like, shadows moving when they weren't supposed to? Heard any sounds that didn't seem right?"
She nods, eyes wide. "There was a... I don't know. A shape. It was all in white. I thought it was a woman, at first, but it wasn't like any human I'd seen before. It was on the road before, too, it was trying to catch me," she swallows a sob. "What does it want?"
"Your life energy, basically," Sam tells her. "It sucks its victims dry by trapping them in a dream and making them afraid. The longer you stay, the more energy it drains, until your body dies in the real world."
She shivers again. "Is that why I'm so cold?"
A niggling doubt begins to form in Dean's mind as they're talking. Sam's been shivering and complaining of the cold since they first got here. "Sam... what were you dreaming about?"
His brother looks at him, startled. "What?"
"Your nightmares," he insists. "The ones from this week. Were they about Jess?"
Sam stops, his expression suddenly worried. "No. No, they weren't. I was... I... they were... shit," he glances around, as though expecting something to leap out at him from the shadows at any moment. "I was here. Well, not here, here," he amends. "But I was on the road, where you found me. It felt like I was being watched, stalked by something. I kept trying to run away, but it would catch up with me easily."
"It toyed with me," Katie breaks in softly. "Like a cat with a mouse. No matter how fast or how far I ran, I knew it was right behind me, and it was just letting me run myself into the ground. It could have caught me at any time."
"Dean, if you're right..."
"Then that means it's been affecting you too, and almost from the start. Shit," Dean has to stop himself from reaching out and just pulling Sam into his arms. "How could I have missed that? Damn it!"
"You couldn't have known."
"Oh, come on! We're hunting something that causes nightmares and disrupted sleep patterns, and I've been listening to you scream yourself awake for days now! What part of that shouldn't have been a clue?" he could kick himself. Repeatedly.
"Dean, I've been having nightmares for months. How could you know these were different?"
"I should've asked. Should've made you tell me."
Sam huffs an exasperated sigh. "Okay, fine. How about we save the recriminations for later? We still haven't found the mara, and we need to get Katie back."
"How do we do that?"
Sam looks at the nurse, who's folded her arms protectively around her chest, trying visibly to hold herself together in the face of the unknown. He places a large hand on her shoulder, and she flinches but doesn't move away. "Katie, do you think you can try waking yourself up? Have you ever done that in a dream before?"
She shakes her head. "I can try, though. What should I do?"
"Try just picturing yourself waking up, wherever you are. You just remind yourself that everything you're seeing isn't real, it's just a dream, and you wake yourself up."
"Pretty lame, Sam," Dean mutters under his breath. Then, aloud he adds, "How about we try this out by the car, then? At least we'll be out of this creepy-ass cabin. I don' t know about you, but it gives me the willies."
He's rewarded with a weak smile from Katie and an eyeroll from Sam, but he'll take what he can get. He hooks Katie's arm around his elbow, starts leading her away from the corner and toward the door, her legs trembling with the strain. Whatever the mara is doing to her, she seems pretty far gone, if luckily still mostly lucid.
She's wringing her hands anxiously, looking around, starting at every shadow they cast on the walls.
"Why didn't it catch me this time?" she asks. "It always did before. Where is it?"
"I don't know." He wonders where all the creature's other victims are, for that matter, and if they're even still alive. Sometimes, with supernatural things like this, he ends up coming out of a hunt understanding less about what he's hunting than when he went in. He hates that. He's about to pull open the door when Sam lets out a startled yell.
"Dean, behind you!"
Before he can so much as turn his head, a white shape materializes out of the shadows and hurtles toward them with a feral snarl.
Katie shrieks as Dean whirls to face the threat. He's forced to let go of her arm, fumbles with his shotgun and manages to send it reeling backward with a well-placed blast of rock salt. Sam has thrown himself full-force into the melee as well, and the creature howls with rage as he empties his own shotgun into its midsection. Sam was right, Dean finds himself thinking in that odd, detached way he has whenever they're in the middle of a life-or-death struggle: the mara doesn't look anything like the nasty little critter from the painting. If anything, he's reminded of Constance Welch, although the mara's features are anything but human. It looks human only in the vaguest of ways, with a long, distorted body and skeletal limbs that are reaching greedily toward his brother.
Sam cries out and goes down to one knee as the creature's hands brush against his neck, seeking purchase there, and without pausing to think Dean throws himself at it, yanking the knife from his belt and trying his level best to bury it to the hilt in its back. With a last snarl, though, it twists free and vanishes, leaving him lying on the floor in a tangled heap with his brother, breathing hard. Katie is a few feet away, huddled against the wall, knees drawn up to her chest, her eyes wide with fear.
"Damn it, where'd it go?" Sam coughs, scrambling to get purchase on the cabin floor.
"I don't know," Dean pushes himself to his feet, then puts out a hand to pull Sam up after him, tucking his knife back into its sheath. "Regrouping, would be my guess. I think it wasn't expecting two of us. Why the hell did it go after you just now? It's like it changed its mind halfway through its attack."
Sam coughs some more, rubbing at his neck. "I don't know. Maybe it's got a stronger link to me because of the nightmares? Katie, you okay?"
She shakes her head, and Dean can see that she's shivering even harder than before, her lips dark blue. "I'm so cold..." she manages, teeth chattering so loudly he can barely make out her words. "I'm so cold..." she repeats, and he feels his stomach flip as she suddenly flickers, the way he's accustomed to seeing ghosts do on their hunts.
"What the hell?"
"It's the mara," Sam says with a certainty Dean only wishes he could feel. "It must be attacking in the real world at the same time, feeding off the victims so it can fight off the—" abruptly he stops mid-sentence, and Dean has to lunge to catch him before his legs give way.
His brother manages to regain his balance after a moment, but his face is grey and drawn, pinched with pain. "We have to move fast," he gasps, pressing a hand to his sternum. "It's figured out what we're doing, trying eliminate the threat. One of us has to go back, deal with it in the real world. Give me your hand. The left one. I'll cut the string, send you back."
Dean shakes his head. "No way. You're going back. No, it's not negotiable. You're vulnerable in here, and I'm not. Well, I'm less vulnerable. You know I'm right. You go back out there, gank the bitch, and I'll stay here, do the same, and bring Katie out when I'm done. Sound good?"
Sam just shakes his head. "It's a lousy plan, but it's the only one we've got. Fine," he pulls his knife, and cuts neatly through the cord tied to his wrist.
Dean swears. "What happened?"
Sam's already trembling again. "Pretty sure that that's a clear signal I'm not getting out of here without outside help," he says ruefully. "Looks like you're going to have to go out there without me. Same plan as before, only you gank the bitch on the outside."
"Sam, you can't—" but Sam has already grabbed his wrist and sliced through the cord there. "Son of a bitch!"
Before he knows it, Dean finds himself back in the cabin where they first performed the ritual, the cord lying in a tangle at his feet. Sam is lying next to him, in the same position as when they finished the ritual, face pale, lips blue. Dean can see the whites of his eyes showing just under his eyelids, and almost despite himself he finds himself reaching out to check that he still has a pulse, that he's still breathing, and blows out a relieved breath when he feels his brother's pulse flutter under his fingertips. He shakes his brother, trying to rouse him, to no avail, and curses under his breath. Whatever the mara has done to Sam, it's binding. He's just going to have to kill the ugly bitch, he resolves. He gets to his feet, looking for the creature, and stops short.
Sam, or his mirror-image, anyway, is standing off to the side, his back turned, and Dean feels a flood of emotions he can't name when he catches sight of him, upright and conscious and visibly not dead.
His brother turns, then, then starts visibly, as though he hadn't expected to find Dean behind him. Dean can see his lips moving, but the cabin remains eerily silent. It's like watching one of those old movies, he thinks distractedly. He reaches out to grab Sam's arm, and nearly overbalances when his hand passes right through him, as though he's nothing more than a ghost. Dean looks back at Sam's body, still lying prone and far too still on the ground, and that's when he gets it: Sam's spirit is still in the mara's world. It doesn't explain how he can still see Sam, but he'll take what he can get.
"I can't hear you," he says, and sees his words mirrored back at him on Sam's lips, just as a white shape lunges at his brother's back.
Dean is about to shout a warning when he feels his own feet lose contact with the ground and he finds himself being hurled through the air. He collides heavily with the far wall, lands in a heap on the floor, and before he can find his feet again the mara is on him, shrieking and snarling, enveloping him in its icy-cold breath, bony fingers digging painfully into the flesh of his shoulders as it tries to get its hands around his neck. He kicks at it, twisting on himself, manages to wrap his fingers around the hilt of his knife and tug it out of its sheath. The thing snarls again, but it's weaker in this reality, and he uses all of his weight to force it up and off him, and they go tumbling across the floor of the cabin in a tangle of limbs and tattered white cloth. With a last, desperate lunge he lands on top of it, and has a last impression of glittering eyes and jagged teeth before he buries the knife up to the hilt in its chest. The mara shrieks, its back arching, and he keeps a tight grip on the knife as the creature thrashes in its death throes, holding on long after it's gone still and the light has faded from its eyes. He scrambles to his feet.
It's no use. Not only can Sam not hear him, but he's well beyond shouted orders anyway. He's spread-eagled on his back on the ground, and Dean catches sight of the mara's dream-form straddling him, hands around his neck. Sam's eyes have rolled back in his head, hands limp at his sides, and Dean fancies he can almost see the life draining from his body as the creature steadily applies pressure. It's futile, but he still lunges forward, takes a stab at the creature's back with his knife. Unsurprisingly, it passes right through, and right through into Sam's chest as well, making him recoil in horror, even though he knows it can't have had an effect. Sam's eyelids flutter, though, and Dean can see he's still trying, still struggling.
"Come on, Sam!" he's on his knees next to his brother's head. "Come on, fight it! You going to let some ugly-ass nightmare kick your ass? Get up!"
He turns his head, catches sight of Katie pressed up against the wall, just as he left her. She's staring at the mara, her face a mask of pure fear, but she doesn't seem to be in danger of dying or fading away like before, and he guesses the mara is concentrating on eliminating the threat to its existence first. He gets up, runs to her.
"Katie!" she doesn't answer, but she looks up at him, brow furrowing in confusion. "Katie I know you can't hear me but you have to help. Look," he points at Sam. "Do something! Distract the thing so Sam can kill it. Come on, Katie, it'll kill him if you don't!"
He can't tell if she's understood, but the next thing he knows she's pushing herself determinedly to her feet. It's like watching a death-echo, he thinks distractedly as she stumbles forward into the room: it's happening right in front of him, but he can't do a damned thing about it. He clenches his fists, shaking with impotent rage, wanting nothing more than to slice the thing that's trying to kill his brother into tiny ribbons, then feels his face break into a grin as Katie grabs hold of the broken remains of a chair and brings them down with all her strength across the mara's back. He can't hear what's happening, but the creature's back arches, its hands coming away from Sam's neck, and he sees Sam's eyes open, his throat work as he sucks in a desperate breath. Sam twists under the mara's loosening grip, mouth working, and Katie scrambles away, obviously looking for something. Dean spots it before she does: Sam's knife, lying a few feet away on the floor.
"It's over here!" He waves, trying to attract her attention.
She flashes him a triumphant grin, all but throws herself at it before sending it sliding across the floor to Sam, who snatches it up and plunges it into the mara's chest. Dean watches, fascinated, as the creature dies silently in Sam's grip. His brother gets unsteadily to his feet, and his lips move as he says something to Katie. Whatever it is, she steps toward him, and he takes her hand in his, holding it tightly. She closes her eyes, and a moment later fades entirely from sight. Then Sam turns back toward Dean, flashes him a smile, and vanishes.
"What the hell?" Dean lets out a breath, and is surprised to hear Sam laugh, somewhere behind him. "Sam!" he starts forward, reaches out tentatively, only to find himself with an armful of more than six feet of baby brother, breathless and laughing.
"Jesus, Dean it is good to hear your voice!" he's hoarse, but otherwise he's sounding better than he has in days.
Dean laughs, claps Sam on the back. "I could say the same thing, Sammy. You did it!"
Sam pulls back finally. "Yeah. You and Katie helped, though. I saw you, even if I couldn't hear what you were saying."
"What the hell was that, anyway? And where's Katie?"
"At the hospital, I'm guessing," Sam answers his second question first. "That's where her body was, after all. Her spirit was just trapped in the nightmare with us. Same with the other victims, I'll bet. We just didn't see them. God only knows where the mara was keeping them in that world. As for being able to see each other?" he shrugs. "No idea. Maybe it was the ritual binding, keeping us together the way it was supposed to."
Dean is busily checking Sam over for injuries, finds he doesn't actually care about the whole ritual thing, so long as Sam is safe. "You sure you're okay?"
Sam rubs gingerly at his throat. "Yeah. Throat hurts like a bitch. Whatever that thing did, looks like it carried back over here, but it'll pass."
He blows out a breath, feeling relief down to his toes. "All right, let's blow this popsicle stand."
He all but drags Sam outside, not bothering to clean up any of the ritual paraphernalia. Whoever owns the hunting cabin will just have to report a break-in by a satanic cult, he thinks. It'll make their year and give them a party story for life. He settles Sam in the passenger-side seat, ignoring his brother's protests that he's fine and to stop hovering. He does, however, grin unrepentantly as Sam gives him a flat look upon seeing his choice of music.
"Enter Sandman, Dean? Really?"
"Come on, Sammy, how could I resist?"
Sam huffs and slides down in his seat, but Dean can see a smile hovering on his lips as he cranks the music up as loud as it'll go. He grins wider, sings along with James Hetfield at the top of his lungs as he steers the Impala back onto the open road.