Author's Notes: By my estimate, I've determined my setting to be Fall, 1994, with Sam being 11 and Dean, 15. I'm using some local legends, primarily the legend of the Belgreen Bear and the cryptid Big Black Cats of Alabama, for this story, and that means some of the places mentioned are real, but fictionalized for story-telling purposes. ~ Written for 2012's SPN-Gen-BigBang.
Disclaimer: I do not own any rights to Supernatural, and I am making no profit from this story.
Tooth and Claw
"…Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw…"
- from"In Memorian A.H.H" by Lord Alfred Tennyson
At the top of the pole was a light, a white gold glow haloing the rectangular sign below announcing the name of a school of no consequence. The light flickered, jittered, and spat, as if it were swatting at the swarm of moths. But, there was no angel waiting, no demon on the prowl. The light had always flickered, always would, and it didn't mean a thing.
"Something's changed," Sam disagreed.
Dean raised a brow at his brother, but Sam was still staring upward, squinting through the night at the sign, specifically at the words, in bold blue font, beneath "Belgreen High School" and above the arrow pointing to the country road across the four-lane highway. Dean caught on. "Won the State Championship. Good for them," but he was already done with the conversation. "I'm surprised you remember the place. You were, what? Twelve? We weren't there long."
Dean could feel Sam's eyes on him. "Eleven. And, there was a hunt," he stated, in answer.
The Impala moaned as both men stepped out into the chill night. It wasn't late into the evening, but Fall brought with her early sunsets and clear, starry country skies. Dean gave the front of the gas station a passing glance. The middle-aged attendant looked vaguely familiar, and he wondered if the same kid-turned-man was still working the register after all these years. The thought alone had Dean pulling free plastic to pay at the pump.
"I didn't realize the route would take us through here until we'd already crossed into the county, Dean. It wasn't on purpose. I wouldn't make you come back here."
"It's no problem, Sam."
Sam let out a heavy sigh. It was a comforting sound for Dean, because it was always the same, even after all these years; all the death and change and…that little detail, that sigh, remained the same.
"I mean it," Dean said, and forced a tight grin. "Seriously, man. I don't know why you're making such a big deal out of it. Thought you liked the school."
"Because." Sam leaned against the side of the Impala, shoulder to his brother's. "When Dad brought us here, it was right after what happened to Christopher. Wasn't exactly a great time for you."
Dean figured that Hell and Heaven and everything in-between would kind of make all that came before dull, colorless, but he could still remember every detail about some of their earliest hunts. And, he could certainly still remember what Sam was talking about. Could still taste the rock salt from when he'd landed on the floor, sucking in a breath of dust and their only protection, his arm beneath him, his vision blurry, but his ears just fine as he listened to Christopher scream.
"Yeah, I forgotten that part," Dean lied, and screwed the gas cap back on. He gave the sign another glance. The light above was still flickering. "Go Bulldogs." He snorted and elbowed Sam. "Hey, I wonder why they never changed their mascot to a bear."
Sam rolled his eyes. "Let's go."
The moonlight fell at his back, leaving his body a shadow outlined in white. Dean recognized that it was his father's form standing at the front door, but he didn't move to greet him. He stayed in place, sitting on the creaking wooden boards, breathing in the old house's musty air, his back pressed against the wall, throbbing arm held against his aching chest. The half circle of salt remained intact. Protecting him from—
The ghost was gone, but he stayed in place. Silent. Waiting for something. He let his eyes fall from his father to the spot on the floor across from him. It was smeared in blood. Blood that wasn't his.
His father's eyes followed the trail. Saw the body.
"Son," he said—growled. Like the word was a curse. "What happened?"
"Christopher," Dean answered. The sound surprised him, and he blinked to awareness, as if he hadn't quite been sure he could still speak. "Christopher followed me here."
His father's shallow breathing was loud as he moved forward, surveying the damage, determined what to do next, as he always did so quickly. John paused, though, not going straight to task, unable to lift his eyes off the other boy's scattered remains.
"Damn it, Dean."
"Damn it, Dean."
His father's growl woke him from his dazed half-sleep. Dean jerked up in his seat, slamming back into the now: Impala, a dusk so foggy it could have been twilight, the musk of manure on a cow pasture slipping in through the cracked window. And, then the burn at his fingertips, where he'd squeezed the paper cup too tight, sloshing coffee over the rim.
John sighed from the driver's seat, shaking his head. "Drink up," he ordered.
"Yes, sir," Dean muttered, fighting back a yawn, and tackling the drink for a second time. It wasn't scalding hot anymore, thankfully. "How long?"
John kept his eyes on the road but lifted a hand off the steering wheel long enough to swipe the grit out of his lashes and pull his thumb and index down the sides of his mouth, over a three day old beard. "About twenty minutes. Finish your coffee."
The sun peaked out over the distant tree line in a matter of minutes, as it often did in the Fall, and set the field against the old highway awash with white light. Cattle raised their heads, basking. The grasping shoots of goldenrod against the barbwire fence beside them seemed to catch fire with the glow. Dean winced but forced his eyes to stay open. In the few hours before they'd left Knoxville, while his dad had been running around town, tying up loose ends and making phone calls, Dean had been given a chance to sleep off his pain meds in the motel. A few hours of reprieve, but it still felt as if they'd vanished from Tennessee, moving from mountains to hills to sloping pastures, and Dean had only managed to nod off for a few minutes at a time, despite the pill his father had given him.
Dean wanted to sleep, like the doctor had told him to do. He wanted to sleep and to forget why they'd had to skip town so quickly. Why his father had needed to pull a few favors to get them a new place set up before morning. But, more than he wanted the sleep, he wanted to not see Christopher Robinson's face; that meant not dreaming.
He downed half his cup, instinct bringing his eyes up. In the rearview mirror, Sam, too much brown hair spilling over his face, mouth lax and legs drawn up to make him look five years younger, was still snoozing against the big cooler in the other seat, as if the crisp breeze didn't bother him in the least. The battered copy of The Incredible Journey he'd been reading in the ER was tucked under one knee.
The image made Dean's throat dry out and his cast suddenly feel heavier, despite the fact that it was currently balanced on a folded towel against the shelf of the side window. Elevated; doctor's orders. He shot his covered forearm an annoyed glance, eyes trailing the scratched knuckles of his fingers up to the plaster, following it to the L at his elbow. His flannel long sleeve was big enough to be rolled up into a thick bunch over the top of the cast. Dean had to fight the urge to pull out his knife and cut the damn thing off before it finished setting. Pain or no pain, he knew he was going to come to hate the constant reminder over the next few weeks.
"I'm dropping you two off at the school first." John's announcement was met with silence. "Someone'll be there to show you guys around—all your paper work's in order. You can give the nurse your pain meds. I'll leave your duffels with Ed's wife. His house is in walking distance. I don't need to remind you what to do when you get there this afternoon."
Ward the entries. Patrol the grounds. Keep Sammy inside until you're done.
Dean's jaw twitched, but he didn't say the first thing that popped into his mind, didn't offer to skip a few more days of class to help Dad with this other hunt. He was fifteen, had been hunting for a few years now, but he knew, without a doubt, that this move was specifically for him. "Even soldiers need recovery time," his dad had said, when they'd loaded into the car five hours ago. What he didn't say was, "You're broken," but Dean could hear it, just beneath the surface. His dad was letting him off easy.
"What about Sammy's school?"
John snorted. "Told you, Dean, the school's small. Elementary and up, all in the same building. You'll be able to keep a better eye on your brother that way." The man's cheek twitched, but he bit back his amusement so firmly, the expression should have been named The John Winchester. "They don't even have a football team—not enough men. Which is a might bit odd for any place in Alabama."
Dean raised a brow, forcing amusement into his voice. "Jesus, you really are dumping us in the backwoods this time."
John made no comment to the contrary.
His dad had pointed out the main advantage to a small school and conveniently left out the huge disadvantages, like the fact that, in a place this rural, everyone knew their neighbors. That went double for classmates. Or the fact that they were staying with the principal, which would only get the gossip mill cranking out more rumors. Dean pushed a breath out through his nose, holding back the comment—they weren't going to be there long enough for it to be a problem, or else their dad wouldn't leave them there in the first place. Their dad thought things through like that; Dean was the one who didn't consider consequences.
The coffee churned the acid in his stomach. He could taste it on the back of his throat.
Sammy stirred in the back. "'S D'n okay?" came his sleep-slurred voice.
Dean rolled his eyes. "Dude, I'm right here. And, I'm fine. Wipe the drool off your face—we're almost at school, and you'll want to look good when you kiss up to your teachers."
He cocked his head back as best he could without dislodging his elevated arm and saw Sam's eyes go wide as he scrambled to find the ragged backpack behind Dad's seat. The image lightened something in his chest, and he sent his little brother a teasing grin.
"Don't forget to dab some brown on your nose so they see you coming."
It wasn't hard, falling into his role, even with yesterday still weighing heavy on him. Even with the cast reminding him what they'd left behind in Knoxville. Being a big brother was easier than thinking.
"It's not funny, Dean. I haven't even brushed my teeth!" Sam whined, and then seemed to catch himself sounding like a little kid. He huffed, looking for something smart ass to say and coming up short since he was still weary-eyed. "I guess I'm the only one who cares about proper dental hygiene in this family."
Dean snorted; who did the squirt think had forced him to use a toothbrush every morning for the past eleven years? "Don't worry, I'll do something rude so they still know you're the good brother—even without 'proper dental hygiene'…Jeeze, you've been watching too much PBS, Sammy."
Something seemed to click, and Sam went quiet a moment, sitting up straight in his seat. "You're not going to school today," he announced, in that I-know-everything-already voice that he'd started using recently. "The doctor said you had to rest for forty-eight hours, Dean. That's two days."
Just in case big brother couldn't do the math—Dean rolled his eyes and pretended he didn't notice the way his father's knuckles whitened against the steering wheel. He stepped up to the plate before their dad had a chance. "Sammy, doctors say stuff like that so they don't get sued—we're Winchesters. We don't need two days. I'm good to go—plus I get to use my arm as excuse to not do nothin'. Bet you five bucks I've got a pretty girl copying notes for me by second period."
Sam stuck his bottom lip out, not taking the gamble, but he did cross his arms, his slit-narrow eyes on the rear view mirror, begging his dad to look back and notice him sulking. Dean had been noticing that switch recently, too—one minute Sam was begging for Dad's attention, the next he didn't want anything to do with the man. Dean couldn't say that he liked the subtle changes falling into place, but he figured he must have been the same way at that age. A phase. Isn't that what the counselor at his old middle school had called it? "Your son is going through a phase, Mr. Winchester?" Because no way she knew that Dad was the one who'd had him ditch school early to help with the hunt.
Yeah, Sammy was just going through a phase, too, a little earlier than most. Because, he was Winchester, and they got shit done. Dean nodded at the thought and shifted back into his seat, pretending he wasn't anywhere close to joining Sam in his girly brooding.
His dad drove off the old highway and onto a newer one, and Dean figured they must be close because the Impala had been sticking to county roads all the way down the south-west journey across Tennessee to the farthest northern tip of eastern Alabama. A run-down gas station appeared over the hill top, nestled next to a small church. The sign, announcing the location of Belgreen High School, stood at the edge of the parking lot, pointing an arrow to the far side of the highway, where a narrow road was tucked into a patch of woods. One turn and a few minutes later, the school popped up out of no-where, a U-shaped brick building, one story tall. Across the road, a gravel drive sloped down to a gym parking lot adjacent to a tiny white concrete building with a few cars parked in front of it, despite the hour. The Bulldog Grill was painted in bold blue and gray letters over the front wall, along with a cartoon canine's open, smiling maul.
Bulldogs. Not for the first time. Dean snorted. He owed Sammy a candy bar—he'd bet on tigers as the mascot this time. But, at least there was somewhere to eat close by…though, Dean wasn't sure how much he and Sammy would be able to get away from these people, the Hester family. He felt claustrophobic at the mere thought of being stuck in normal-ville his whole afternoon.
Even though it was a good hour and a half before school started, there were already a few parents, factory workers judging from their rubber boots and hair nets, dropping off their kids. John eased into a spot in the guest parking instead of the drop-off drive. A man was waiting near the front of the building, waving the early students inside, like it was his sole duty to look chipper at ungodly hours of the day. His attention quickly turned to the Impala, and his smile brightened as he trudged across the dew-slick grounds.
Sam was out of the car already, Dean and John moving a second behind him.
"John!" the man greeted.
Dean gave him another once-over. Tall, narrow-shouldered with a pouch of fat at his belly, what was left of his white hair wispy and flying in the breeze, thick glasses on his long nose, Ed Hester didn't necessarily look like an imposing guy, but not all school principals did, Dean reasoned. Ed cupped their dad's hand like it might fall off during the shake and smiled warmly at the family.
"Ed," John said, his voice gravelly. "Thanks for doing this."
Principal Hester patted him on the arm before pulling back. "It's the least I could do after you helped my family—and it isn't a bother at all," he paused to give Dean and Sam a glance and a wink. "I'm not as young as I once was, and I could use two strong backs to help me finish up some projects around the house that Bernie's been hassling me about…You boys excited to be back? Lord, I bet you don't even remember the place, do ya? You were, what, in second grade then? A tiny lil' thing. I'm sure your father filled in the blanks for you, though…"
Filled in the blanks? Dean raised a brow and shot his dad a look. John brushed his fingers through his hair, piping up before his sons had a chance to answer.
"How is Bernadette? Still making those famous biscuits of hers?"
Apparently, he'd forgot to bring some things up during their drive, like about the case he'd helped this Hester guy out with back in the day—and that they'd been at this school before. Dean stared at the front doors of the main building, as if the memories would slide back into place, but he was still drawing a blank. They must not have stayed long back then, either. Still, it wouldn't have killed Dad to bring it up…Even if it was usually a pain, Sam's insistence that he practically interrogate their dad for info would have been useful on the ride here.
But, Dean's thoughts were elsewhere.
Before he realized it, his dad was wrapping up the details with Principal Hester, and promising to grab a sausage biscuit from Bernie when he dropped off their belongings at the house where the boys would be staying. John was standing over his boys an instant later, giving each of them a stern squeeze of the shoulder and a tight smile. He didn't have to repeat himself when it came to the rules, and he wouldn't embarrass them with more affection.
Sam was already chatting up the principal before the Impala roared to life and rolled down the same old road. Dean stared after it a moment, pretending not to notice that he was being left as the other two walked toward the school. It wasn't like he was going to miss the tour.
Dad wasn't coming back tonight. It had sunk in earlier that he and Sammy were going to be stuck with strangers for a few days, but Dean had ignored the voice in his head that said his father had found a new hunt way too fast. That his dad was lying to him. That "I'll just be a couple counties away" meant he was ditching them for a long bender that didn't involve any supernatural occurrences. That Dad might have decided his teenage son had screwed up too badly this last round to ever be left alone again.
No longer elevated, his fingertips past the cast began to tingle.
It wasn't bright out, not with the forest standing tall on either side of the school. Dean studied the shadows in the closest woods, remembering something from long ago, about a barn being to the far side of the school building, not too far from the playground tucked behind the cafeteria. About big kids sneaking off there, and Dean maybe following once. But, the rest was a blur.
"Guess I've been here after all," he muttered. The fragment of the memory wasn't enough to occupy his head for long though. "God. This is gonna suck."
Then he saw it, a shadow on a shadow between two of the trees. It shifted, moving off behind the brush. Crawling. Dean choked on his own words before the curse could slip out—no, it was nothing. Because now that he'd blinked, the area looked too dark for him to make out more than the shape of branches. And, if it was something…it was probably just a dog. It could have been big mutt wandering the grounds for scraps.
It sure as hell wasn't what he thought he'd seen. It couldn't have been a friggin' bear…right?
Dean frowned. Sam would probably know—the kid lived off those nonfiction nature books in the library. And, as if his brother had heard his thoughts, Sam shouted his name across the yard, standing in the open doorway to the main hall as if he already belonged there. Dean rolled his eyes.
"This is gonna suck," he repeated, almost wishing someone was there to hear him.
This was not where he should be.
John Winchester knew that much, but it didn't slow his steps as he walked around the nose of the Impala, surveying the old pick-up parked further down the fenced-in mud path. He stepped around a deep rut of red clay, eyes ahead as a figure, an elderly man, stepped out of the farming truck. The cool morning had turned into a hot afternoon, as the season tended to lean toward in the South, and the old man was already swiping off his oil-slickened head with a rag.
"You Carpenter?" the man asked and spit a wad of tobacco at the closest patch of weeds. He was on the wrong side of seventy, dark skinned, his knuckles ashy and his palms callused when John took one to shake. "The 'wildlife biologist' who called 'bout seein' where those animals been gittin' attacked?"
John nodded in confirmation. "I'll take that to mean you're Mr. Neilson, the landowner?"
"'Spect so." Despite his curtness, the man's grin was toothy and spotted with gold fillings. "Glad to see someone's taking an interest—'bout time, too. 'Course, I ain't fool 'nuff to think it has to do with my cattle or my dogs. You're here because Widow Upchurch got attacked up in Slickville."
John raised a brow, but didn't give away his surprise. Most people, even in these tight-knit communities, hadn't connected the attacks Mr. Neilson and his neighbors had been reporting off and on to the Alabama Board of Conservation for the last decade with the two recent attacks across the county. "That's twenty miles north."
"I know how to pick up a newspaper, Mr. Carpenter. You're here for her but figure you should start where the attacks been takin' place. Well, you thinkin' right, because wasn't no 'wild hog' that got the widow."
John wasn't much in the mood for a chat. He'd spotted the widow's gardening accident and resulting death in the odd news portion of a paper when he'd stopped at a rest-stop at the state line. It was good luck, too. If he hadn't found a job quickly enough, he'd have been stuck at Ed Hester's place. With his boys. Which was exactly where a good father would have been.
John swallowed down that guilt; could have, would have, wasn't what was happening right now. Right now, he had a case. As soon as he'd passed into the county, he'd made two stops, at the records department and the library, before coming to the conclusion that, as his hunch had insisted, there might be more to these accidents. Part of his optimism had to do with the rumors he'd heard about this area—for the past century, word-of-mouth had passed around a local legend about the area being home to large black cats that were in no way acknowledged by the wildlife experts in the state. 'Course phantom cats weren't anything new. People were always seeing creatures that didn't exist. On occasion, though, those creatures that didn't exist were capable of ripping someone's guts out.
As far as he knew, no hunters had been given enough reason to actually plow through the reports, not when there were always odd occurrences popping up all over the U.S. that were actually attached to an obituary column. That changed with the widow's death. And, after what he'd learned earlier this afternoon, she might not have been the first and only victim.
"I know what you are."
The words stilled John. His gaze narrowed as he looked the old man over again and fought the urge to check for the handgun inside his jacket.
"You're one of those cryptozoologists," Mr. Neilson announced, proud of himself. "My granddaughter told me about you fellas. You're looking for somethin' strange, aren't ya? Skunk Ape or somethin'?"
"You caught me," John said, forcing a smirk to his lips.
Mr. Neilson nodded twice. "Knew it, knew it. Well, these knees of mine don't like walking over this part of the property no more. Gonna let you get down to it. Hope you find what you're lookin' for, Carpenter."
"I will," John assured. The old man was already turned back toward his truck, and didn't notice the threat for what it was, or that it had been directed toward the tree line.
Days were getting shorter, and the sun would be setting soon enough. He had brought flashlights for the occasion. It wasn't the safest move, being out here at night before he knew what he was hunting, but then again, jobs never got finished if one was overly precautious—silver, iron, and salt seemed like just the right amount of precaution. And he already knew for a fact he wasn't going to make it back to Belgreen tonight. Or tomorrow night. He needed the time for research, for clearing his head of the mess he'd left behind in Knoxville and filling it back up again with the task at hand.
God, he didn't want to admit it, but Dean was the other reason he didn't want to head back just yet. Maybe the main reason.
Both his boys used to look at him in reverence, like sons so often do when they're young and stupid, but Sam hadn't been able to suspend believe once he got a good taste of normal in the public school system. Dean, on the other hand…Dean still looked at him like his word was law, and that's exactly the way he'd raised him. But, John had the feeling that the next time his eldest stared him in the eye, some of that respect would be gone.
The smell of blood hung in the house like perfume. John saw his son first, the other boy second. The pieces fell into place quickly enough. Christopher—the kid's name was Christopher, the only person Dean had mentioned more than once since they arrived in town—was in…pieces. Christopher had followed his boy to the house and now the kid was dead. Christ, how could Dean have been so stupid? How many times did he have to tell the boys to watch what they said around…
John couldn't lift his eyes from the corpse to see that Dean was hurt and frozen in place. When he finally did look his way, it was because Dean had spoken again.
"What if it had been Sammy?"
It wasn't an accusation, but John heard it as one. It angered him, the very idea, and he tried to cover it. Failed. "Get moving. We need to clean this mess up."
Of all the dumb-shit moves he'd ever made, putting his wounded son to work was nearing the top of his list. Putting his wounded son to work on a clean-up that involved his dead friend. Between the adrenaline and the fear, what he'd done to his son didn't sink in until he was already at the hospital, and the litany of grievances all seemed to boil down to that one repetition playing in the back of his mind: What if it had been Sammy? What if it had been Sammy? What if…
Fuck. What if it had been Dean, peeled and spilled on some dusty floor?
John felt the liquor he'd swallowed between County Records and the Neilson property boiling its way back up his throat, but he didn't retreat. You didn't leave a job unfinished, and John sure as hell was planning to keep busy as long as he could manage.
End Notes: This story is a total of 4 chapters long, so stay tuned for for the rest. I hope you enjoyed this! Comments are love.