Dean's First Hunt

John Winchester plugged his left ear and pressed his right into the phone. Dean was making uncoordinated kicking motions in the background as he chanted along with the theme song to some action cartoon. "It's a what? Can you spell that for me?" Sammy was very carefully arranging plastic farm animals on the floor.

"Nithling," repeated Bobby. "N-I-T-H-ling. They're very weak creatures; thoughts can ward them off and they have to go after the person three nights in a row to kill. They mostly prey on the brain dead, so half the time, hunters don't even bother with them. But this one must be getting bold if it's decided to feed on babies."

"How is it killed?"

"Just shoot it or stab it, then put iron in its mouth and it'll stay dead. The hard part is catching it. It stays in the astral plane until it finds prey. It's a bitch to hunt to without bait."

John glanced back at Dean who was still singing the theme song despite the fact that the TV had switched to commercials. "It takes three exposures to kill, right? So one hit is safe?"

"Far as I know," acknowledged Bobby. "Why? You gonna bring along a coma patient?"

"In Vietnam, I met these monks who studied for decades to learn how to not think any thoughts, or something like that."

"Where are we gonna find a monk?"

"We're not. I think I know someone who's a natural."

"Dean, c'mere, I have a present for you."

Dean's eyes went wide. They didn't really do presents on any regular intervals, so presents were always a surprise. Lately, presents had all been knives and guns and hunting books, but Dean could tell by the shape of the rumpled plastic bag that it wasn't any of those things.

John held out the package. "You're a tough kid," he said, "and I know you want to start hunting."

Dean looked in the bag. It was…a Walkman? And a KISS tape? Awesome! But what did that have to do with hunting?

"I want you to come with me tonight," said John. "We'll leave Sammy with Pastor Jim and go kill us a monster."

Dean inhaled sharply, feeling a warm, buzzing pride. "Yes sir."

John Winchester wasn't a monster, no matter what that judgmental asshole Bobby Singer thought. He had told Dean what to expect and the boy's enthusiasm hadn't waned. There might be pain, John had said. There might be fear, but there probably wouldn't be danger. And Dean had nodded a somber yessir before excitement and pride took over his face again and he had clambered into the truck.

"I still think this ain't right," said Bobby.

"Yeah, you've made your opinion known," grumbled John. "Look, he's got to start sometime. He wants to do it. How's he going to learn to defend himself and his brother unless he gets out there and starts doing it? Some monster – one of these things – killed my wife!"

Bobby couldn't exactly see how all of those sentences fit together. He glanced at the backseat, where Dean was banging his head to his Walkman. "You ever notice how none of the other hunters have kids? There's a reason for that," he said.

John took a swig from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. "Shut up and drive."

Dean was alone in the clearing. He was a little afraid at first, but he was more nervous about messing up the hunt and letting his father down than about any possible harm from the nithling. Dean was good at focusing on one thing, though. When he was training, he was training. When he was standing guard over Sammy, guard duty was the only thing on his mind. And right now, Dean was focusing one hundred percent on the music, just like his Dad told him to.

"I! Wanna rock and roll all night!"

Dean jumped and strummed an air guitar.

"And party every day! Oh, I! Wanna rock and roll all ni-"

Then things started happening and happening fast. There was a whoosh and a crack and something like fire in Dean's breath and his soul and Dean could hear his father yell, "Down!" They had been practicing ducking for years; it was reflex. He was planted flat on the ground, still, but he kept his toes and hands tucked tight so he could spring up and run if his dad gave the command. Gunshots were loud, but Dean was used to them.

Just like that, it was all over. Bobby put some iron buckshot in the thing's maw and buried it shallow for good measure. As the adrenaline wound down, Dean began to notice and feel the pain, a burning, stabbing sensation in his lungs that radiated down his arms and legs, but he stayed down, trembling in the caked dust, waiting until his father told him he could get up.

On the drive back, John Winchester sat in the backseat, holding his son tight as Dean weathered the convulsions inflicted by the nithling. Dean's breathing was loud and ragged. John hadn't said a word.

Bobby peeked in the rearview mirror. Dean's face was pinched and tense, contorted in obvious effort. Bobby took pity on him. "These nithlings," he said offhand, "they're real bastards. They get in your head and mess around. Might make you start laughing, crying, who knows? And there's nothing you can do about it."

Neither Winchester answered, but within a minute or so, Dean was sobbing into his father's jacket. He'd be embarrassed later, but for now Bobby's made-up factoid gave the kid all the excuse he needed.

For John's part, he kept his arms wrapped tight around the boy, paying no mind to the tears and the snot staining his bomber jacket. He didn't say anything except, "You did good, you did good."

Interlude III

One of the advantages of having Castiel around is that he doesn't sleep, which makes long drives a lot easier. Not that Castiel is allowed to drive the Impala, of course. Cas doesn't know how to drive in the conventional sense. He has claimed to be able to 'pilot' the car 'in accordance with local law and custom' by means of some crazy psychic angel magic, but Dean immediately responded by decreeing the Impala to be a mojo-free zone.

It's nice for the driver to have someone to talk to, though Cas's conversation skill level falls somewhere between Yoda and a Furby. Still, it makes the endless stretches of identical highway a little less soporific, and that's a good thing because it would be a real shame if the almighty Winchester boys ended up dying in a completely mundane car wreck.

It's Sam's turn at the wheel, Dean drooling lightly in the back seat. Sam waits until Dean has been out for at least an hour before he hooks up his iPod dock. Sure, the rules technically allow the driver to pick the music, but Sam doesn't want to push his luck too much. He sets it on a mix of catchy, high-energy music to keep himself focused. Sam sings along quietly, vaguely. A lot of the songs aren't in English and Sam doesn't really know the words.

Castiel is in the passenger's seat, staring forward, expression blank.

Sam was never a fan of awkward silence, so he asks a pointless question. "Do you have a last name? You know, a surname?"

"I have no need for one. I'm the only Castiel in existence."

"What about other angels? There's more than one Michael or Gabriel in the universe."

"But there is only one Michael the Archangel."

"So every angel has a unique name?"

"Yes, with the exception of Thomas and Thomas, but they're best understood as a single soul twice incarnated, so I suppose that doesn't count." A pause. "Why are you asking about this?"

Sam shrugs. "Honestly, I'm just making conversation."

Castiel looks at the iPod and tilts his head to the side. "Are you aware this song is about necrophilia?"

"I- uh, no, it's just a party song. I never read the translation but- Wait, you speak German?"

"I speak all human languages, as well as passable Dolphin. I always meant to learn Honeybee, but I've never had the opportunity."

"Yeah, time flies when you're immortal, huh?" asks Sam with a laugh.

"Bees," reiterates Cas, "not flies. The language of flies is guttural and obscene. I have no interest in it."

"Well, I'm learning all kinds of new things tonight," says Sam.

"Of course," Cas continues as if Sam had not spoken, "I find human speech grating as well, though I have acclimated somewhat over the millennia."

They lapse back into silence. This story doesn't go anywhere.

A story I never wanted to tell

In the beginning, they only got places with one bed. It was cheaper, and John usually passed out in front of the TV or stayed out hunting anyway. They were in Minnesota and Sammy and Dean were settled in front of the TV. John was in the back room of the cabin with a skin mag and a bottle of tequila, wearing only a ratty t-shirt. He didn't get much time to himself; he sure as hell hadn't dated since Mary died.

He settled onto the bed and stroked himself. He wasn't making a goddamn ritual out of the act, he just wanted one jerk off a month that wasn't a rush job in the shower. His muscles tensed and he enjoyed the photographic tableau of Monica Mist and her twin sister Melanie.

Then the door creaked.

It was Dean, who should have fucking known better than to barge in.

John froze, and yes, he panicked. He yelled out the first command he could think of: "Go to bed, Dean!"

And Dean always obeyed, so he crept into the far corner of the bed, putting as much distance between him and his half-naked father.

And then John really didn't know what to do, so he let inertia carry him through a few more strokes before it was obvious his erection wasn't coming back. He took another long swig of tequila and another until he fell asleep, his confused son trying to avert his eyes from his father's nakedness.

I know what you're thinking, but no, it never went farther than that. I never wanted to include this story because while John Winchester had his faults, that wasn't one of them. I'm not sure what the story means. I guess it shows how Dean obeyed his father even when it felt wrong, but I'm guessing you knew that already. And it shows how John was sometimes too drunk and overwhelmed to make good parenting decisions, but I'm betting you knew that already, too. I have a sister who's a social worker and she throws around terms like 'enmeshment' and 'poor boundaries', talking about family members who don't keep a solid line between where the I ends and the you begins. So, I guess this story shows how the Winchesters have really shitty boundaries, but you what? I'm damn sure you knew that already.

Interlude IV

The boys were in the front of the Impala, with Castiel perched in the middle of the back seat. Sam was taking notes on a poorly-indexed book on Hmong native art. Dean was trying to decide whether to pull off at the upcoming rest stop or wait for the one after it.

And then they heard Castiel mutter in a perfectly even tone, "Laughter. Laughter. All you hear or see is laughter. Laughing at my cries. And here's the part where they forget how to play their instruments."

Dean squinted one eye. "Cas, are you singing along with Metallica?"

"Yes. You've played this tape already. I know the words."

"It's not exactly singing," said Sam. He had a point. When Castiel tried to sing in this voice of his vessel, his tone remained almost perfectly flat, the same gravelly monotone he used for speech. "It's more like weird, rhythmic chanting."

Dean grinned in the rearview mirror. "We have got to take you to karaoke night, man."

"Maybe he could rap," suggested Sam, "but I have a hard time picturing him doing Ice-T."

Dean was suppressing giggles. "Yeah, what do you think, Cas? Vanilla Ice more your speed?"

"I am unfamiliar with either artist, so I cannot estimate which is more," Castiel made air quotes, "my speed."

"No, no, wait," said Sam, barely holding back laughter, "Cas is a gentleman. I think he'd prefer Sir Mix-a-lot."

Castiel's gaze shifted back and forth from one brother to the other. There was almost certainly a joke here at his expense, and he didn't know what it was about. But the brothers were laughing together and that was a good thing.

Cas held the microphone gingerly, uncertain how far from his face he should hold it. "Hello," he said. "My name is Castiel and I am here to perform a ballad for your…entertainment."

"I like big butts and I cannot lie. / You other brothers can't deny."

Not only was Cas's voice perfectly flat and expressionless, he pronounced every letter of every word completely.

"Oh baby, I want to get with you / And take your picture."

He occasionally added commentary.

"Got it going like a turbo 'vette." Cas turned to the right. "Dean, I'm unsure how a veterinarian of any speed contributes to this saga."

He misunderstood lyric notation.

"I'm going to get you home and grunt, double up grunt grunt."

And some sentences were just inherently hilarious when barked by an angel in an accountant's meat suit.

"My anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns, hon."

The audience ate it up.

"So ladies, if the butt is round and you want a triple-X throwdown, dial 1-900-Mix-a-lot, although that's not the lyricist's actual phone number. It's actually area code 555-738-1082, but I would strongly advise against contacting him for a sexual encounter as he is infected with the herpes simplex virus and is currently in the midst of an outbreak." Castiel tipped his head to the side and added, "Baby got back."

The Second Voice

The fight was over quickly, but the demon got one last blow, an act of spite. Before it dissipated, it produced a small burlap pouch and swung it overhead, spreading sulfur over the combatants.

Dean was slow to shield his eyes and Sam could feel a fresh stinging in an open wound, but the one most affected was Castiel. His eyes were wide, rolling in great uncontrolled arcs. He rasped out a deep moan as he rubbed uselessly at his arms and his face. The sulfur was affecting him differently, burrowing into his skin.

"Need to…" breathed Cas, "need to wash."

"Okay," said Dean, "okay, hold on. You're going to be fine."

"Regular water or holy water?" asked Sam.

"Water. Just water. Just…I can't concentrate…enough to…"

"C'mon, quit whining," said Dean. "Just because you have to take a shower like the rest of us." He put an arm under Cas's shoulder and led him to the bathroom. He pushed Cas in and shut the door. "I'll leave some clean clothes by the door. For god's sake, don't go popping around naked." And then, after a beat, after the water started, "Are you okay? Is it working?"

It's not until Dean hears Cas's gravelly 'yes' that he joins Sam at the counter to rinse out his eyes.

"You okay?" asked Sam, passing Dean a wadded-up sweatshirt to dry his face.

"We got the demon sonofabitch." Dean nodded, satisfied.

"Yeah, it's-" Sam stopped, because there was a sudden sound filling the room. It wasn't loud, exactly, but it was everywhere. It sounded like wind and cellos and heartbeats and birdsong. It was overwhelming, majestic and profound. The brothers were frozen in place.

At a pause in the sound, Sam dropped to his knees. He could see what heaven could be for him. It was a library, not because Sam was a nerd or a bookworm, but because libraries have facts and answers and resolutions. It was organized. It wasn't vague or confusing or uncertain. He needed this place. He felt right in this place. The building was warm, clean and well-lit. He started off in non-fiction, by the philosophy books, next to law and ethics. He edged his way out of the aisle, into the periodicals section, where Dean was trying to teach Castiel the art of adding mustaches to magazine photographs. Sam slipped past without greeting them. He wandered back past the science books and he saw Jessica, whole and happy as she perused a microbiology text. He could hear Bobby arguing with the librarian over a fine. And then he found the fiction books. His mother was leaning on a shelf in children's fiction, looking at his father who was sniffing a teen paperback. Sam hid from them too. He crept along the wall until he came to the reference section. Reference had always been his favorite, the place where he would prove Dean wrong about the definition of a word or he would do some good honest research about the weather in the county over the past twenty years. He reached down to an encyclopedia (FaithFusion) and thumbed through the pages. They were blank at first, but when Sam squinted, he could see grey text fading in, repeating hundreds of times on hundreds of pages. It was righteousness. It was forgiveness. It was truth. It was salvation. It was the Word of God.

Dean was momentarily torn between worrying about Sam and making fun of him for falling over, before he felt a tightness around his chest and stumbled backward. He could see what heaven would be for him. It was a warm cabin tacked onto a cold garage. He was taking broken cars and buffing out the dents, touching up the paint, fixing parts that were worn out or snapped. And then he knew somehow that the workday was done, his labors were over. There was a dirty fridge in the corner of the garage. He opened it and pulled out two beers – one for him and one for Sammy. He went into the cabin and there was Sammy, a baby cooing happily as his mother and father fawned over him. John Winchester looked up at his elder son and gave an affectionate nod. Dean smiled. He turned back to the garage and there was Castiel, his wings visible, black and noble. "You've done everything you needed to do," said Cas. "Your work is done. You can rest."

There was a hiss as the shower turned off and the noise stopped.

Cas appeared in the doorway, his clothes magically clean, bearing no sign of the sulfur attack. He looked at the brothers, who were both on the floor, overcome, their faces transfixed in rapture. "I apologize," he said. "I'm aware the effects my second voice can have on listeners, but I was under the impression it was traditional to sing in the shower."

You might be wondering why I didn't include the angelsong story before and it's because I get unsteady when I think about it. I'm not the kind of guy who says high-minded things like this, but I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to hear Castiel's second voice. Angels have three voices: their true voices, which can shatter glass and burst eardrums, the voices of their vessels, which are flat and unexpressive, and their middle voices, which are only used for singing praise for the Creator or creation. In Cas's mind, he was simply singing the word 'hallelujah' over and over again, in a minor key melody that repeated every three hallelujahs. He hadn't sung in a while and he missed it. I miss it too. I hope when I die, I can hear it again.