Disclaimer: Don't own them. Just playing with them for a while.

Summary: While investigating the mysterious disappearances of several hikers, Sam and Dean are caught up in a town's dark secret that will leave them both struggling to survive. Set mid-season 2.

Warning: This story will contain mild language (sorry, but if you want to stay true to Dean's character it is somewhat unavoidable) and some graphic violence.


It was a beautiful spring day. One of those rare days that hover between winter's cold grasp and summer's humid heat, neither hot nor cold...just perfect. It was the type of day where housewives opened up windows and doors to air out months of stale winter air and school children squirmed and fidgeted, eager to race from the confines of their educational cells and hit the playgrounds and skate parks. Birds sang merely from the still bare branches, while the very air itself smelled of fresh earth, new blossoms, and the promise of new life.

Sam Winchester leaned back against the front hood of the Impala, breathing deeply of the fresh spring air, the locks of his long brown hair playing across his forehead in the slight breeze. His left arm was settled comfortably across the top of the Impala's side view mirror, his right hand loosely gripping the long neck of a bottle of beer. His long sleeved flannel shirt, which he had removed moments earlier, lay on the hood of the car beside him. Sam's eyes were closed, head tilted slightly back as he relished the feel of the warm afternoon sun across his face and bare arms.

The Impala was parked in a small gravel parking lot located somewhere along the south branch of Lake Jacoma, just outside of Blue Springs, Missouri. The gentle sound of waves lapping against a rocky shore played on the soft breeze, and somewhere nearby the loud calls of a flock of geese echoed through the air. The afternoon sun played happily across the gentle ripples of the lake, causing the illusion that the water was covered in millions of tiny crystals, sparkling and shimmering with the lazy movements of the water. Occasionally the waters of the lake would be disturbed as a fish would burst briefly through the surface, and distantly, in some un-seen portion of the lake, the sound of a motor boat drifted across the still afternoon air. The faint yet unmistakable scent of fish and wet vegetation permeated the air, distinct and yet not at all unpleasant.

Sam lifted his beer to his lips and took a long draw before dropping the bottle loosely back down to his side. The combination of the beer and the warm afternoon sun was causing him to feel drowsy, and he had to resist the temptation to lay down across the sun-warmed hood of the Impala, his back to the windshield, and take a long nap. It had been a very long time since he had felt so relaxed, so peaceful, and he savored the moment, knowing all too well that it would not last.

A sharp curse, followed by the sound of metal clanking against metal caused him to glance down where he could just see the bottom half of his brother's legs peeking out from beneath the side of the car. Another clank followed by another curse, and Sam watched as Dean's booted feet twisted in the soft gravel, pushing his brother another inch beneath the Impala as Dean struggled to position himself better to finish whatever it was he was doing.

"Need help?" Sam asked halfheartedly, lifting his beer to his mouth once more and taking another small swig.

Dean's movements under the car stilled at the question, and Sam could almost picture the look of incredulity on his brother's face. Dean's snort was muffled, but Sam could clearly hear his brother's muttered reply, and it caused him to grin. Though his family came from a long line of mechanics on his father's side, the gene had obviously skipped over Sam, a flaw which had never really bothered him overmuch. When he looked at a car, he saw a car, and it was as simple as that. It was different for Dean. When his brother looked at a car, he saw beneath the exterior, his mind's eyes stripping the vehicle down to its frame, evaluating and critiquing. There were very few things his brother could not do with a car, a trait Sam was very grateful Dean had picked up from their dad as it had saved their bacon…and their wallet…on more than one occasion.

"You can't say I didn't offer," he replied with a shrug, looking out across the blue waters of the lake. The beautiful weather, combined with the peaceful atmosphere around the lake, provided a much needed respite from the never-ending monotony of the road. He welcomed even small breaks like this, and couldn't help but hope that it would take his brother a while to fix whatever was wrong with the car.

Closing his eyes once more, he relaxed and let his mind take him back to his time at Stanford, the last time he could remember ever really feeling this calm and relaxed. He could clearly remember spending days just like this studying on a blanket spread out beneath the bell tower on campus, Jessica tucked comfortably beside him. The campus gardener had planted a variety of roses around the base of the bell tower, and Jessica had always enjoyed the smell of the first spring blossoms. Life had been so simple then, his greatest worry that a teacher might not like his essay, or an all-nighter out with friends would negatively impact his scores on a test. He had been happy and content, the prospect of a hopeful and happy future spread out before him.

Sam titled his head to one side, rolling his neck slightly to ease muscles continually tense from too many hours on the road. He found it hard to believe that barely a year and a half had passed since his life at Stanford. Since Jessica. So much had changed in that brief time that it felt more as though it were a lifetime ago. Sam had once allowed himself to believe that he would one day be able to return to the normal life he so desperately desired. Even with Jessica gone, he had maintained hope that his life held more than traveling back and forth across the country, staying in cheap hotels, eating unhealthy food, stealing and scamming to survive,…hunting, killing. That hope was gone now, shattered by the death of his father and the final words John had uttered to his eldest son. Now Sam knew there would never be any going back; never any normal.

Sam scrubbed a hand down across his face and tried to banish his depressing thoughts. It was far too beautiful a day to allow memories from the past and worries over the future drag him down. Dean had told him they would take it one day at a time, and so far, that plan seemed to be working. Life might not be a bed of roses for either of them, but at least they were surviving. At least they were together.

Sam took another long pull from his beer, glancing down at his brother's dusty boots poking out from beneath the car. He could hear Dean's occasional mutters and curses, combined with the clanking of tools against metal. He couldn't help but wonder for the millionth time what life would be like without his brother. Dean had been his anchor and support for as long as he could remember, his brother the one constant in a life filled with uncertainty and change. Though he had never admitted it to Dean, even when Sam had been away at Stanford, the simple knowledge that his brother was only a phone call away had provided him with a sense of peace and security. And now, with everything that had happened since their father's death, Sam often felt that Dean's determined faith and support of him was the only thing that kept him moving forward.

Sometimes Sam looked at how reliant he was on his brother and felt a blossom of fear deep in his stomach. It scared him that he depended so much on Dean, and at times he felt an almost desperate need to get away, if for no other reason than to prove that he could; to prove that Sam could exist apart from Dean. He knew a time would eventually come when he would no longer be able to depend on his brother's strength but need to find his own, and he felt at once both desperate for and terrified of that day.

"That should do it." Sam jumped a little as his brother's voice broke into his reverie. He watched as Dean began to wriggle his way out from under the car, dragging his tool box with him. His brother's grey shirt was stained with dirt, oil, and sweet, and as he pulled his head from underneath the car, Sam couldn't help but grin at the long, dark smudge that ran the length of his brother's forehead. It was obvious Dean had used the back of a dirty hand to wipe the sweet from his forehead, and he was probably completely unaware of what had been left behind.

"All set?" Sam asked, kicking open the cooler at his feet and fishing out a cold beer to hand to his brother.

Dean wiped his grimy hands on a shop towel before dropping the rag into his open tool box and taking the offered drink with a grateful nod. Popping the lid off with one thumb he raised the bottle and took several swallows. "Yep," he replied a moment later, lowering the drink to his side with a contented sigh. "Idler arm needed adjusted. Baby should run straighter than a ruler now."

Sam shook his head at the affectionate tone his brother always adopted when speaking about his car. It was as though Dean hadn't just spent the last hour flat on his back on the rough ground, cramped and uncomfortable as he attempted to get his baby back in perfect running order. Sam glanced down at his brother's hand gripping his beer, noting the predictable scrapes and abrasions across Dean's knuckles. Continuing to shake his head, he turned his gaze back out to the lake, choosing for the moment to forgo the normal ribbing he would give his brother regarding the relationship he had with his car.

Several long minutes passed as the boys stood in companionable silence, enjoying the nice weather and their beers. Dean was the first to break the silence. "You remember that small Cabin in Montana that we stayed in for a couple of weeks? The one that was by that lake?" he asked, his gaze flickering to Sam's face.

Sam nodded. "That was the summer of my freshman year in High School, wasn't it? Dad sprained his knee fighting some old lady spirit, and we holed up there while he was recovering." Sam smiled slightly at the memory. Dean had given their father a royal hard time over the fact that John had been sidelined by an 80 year old Grandma ghost. Sam could remember being in awe of his brother's daring. At the age of fifteen, he had viewed his father with a somewhat reverent fear, and would have never had the courage to tease him the way his brother had. "I remember we went fishing just about every day."

A mischievous grin flashed across Dean's handsome features. "Yeah, but I don't remember us catching much. That is, unless you count your ugly ass."

Sam frowned at his brother. He remembered only too well the instance Dean was referring to. The bank of the small lake had been heavily wooded, and as he had struggled to untangle the top of his fishing pole from a strand of low hanging branches, he had somehow managed to get the hook caught in the seat of his pants. Dean had laughed so hard it had been a full five minutes before he calmed down enough to help untangle Sam from his embarrassing predicament.

Sam glared at his brother, which only caused Dean to bark out a quick laugh, the lines at the corners of his eyes crinkling with his mirth. Dean turned back to his study of the lake, lifting his beer for another long drink, the ghost of his smile still stretched across his face. Sam stared at his brother's profile, realizing just how long it had been since he had seen his brother smile. Really smile. Not the fake grin he flashed when trying to con someone, but the real deal.

The last six months since their father's death had been a living hell for the two brothers, but Sam knew that as deep as his pain and grief over his father's death was, it paled in comparison to the devastation that Dean felt. Part of that was due to the manner in which John had died, sacrificing himself to bring Dean back from the brink of death. Sam knew that his brother struggled under the heavy weight of guilt over that fact. Dean had been closer to their father than Sam had ever been. Despite John's many faults and failures, Dean had respected and admired him above all others. Sam could still remember Dean telling him when he was a child that their father was a superhero. He knew now that Dean had truly believed that, had continued to believe that right up until their father had died.

As if sensing Sam's scrutiny, Dean turned his head and met Sam's gaze, one eyebrow arched questioningly.

Sam was saved from having to come up with something to say by his phone ringing. Quickly turning his eyes away from his brother's perceptive gaze, he fished the phone from his pocket and flipped it open to check the caller ID. Recognizing the number, he hit the accept button and brought the phone to his ear.

"Hey Bobby."

"Hey Sam," Bobby replied, his familiar rough voice echoing slightly over the connection. "You boys still in Missouri?"

"Just outside of Blue Springs." Sam confirmed. "Why, what's up?"

Dean shifted beside him, shooting Sam a questioning look, but Sam just raised one finger, signaling his brother to wait.

"I might have a job for you," Bobby replied. "Ellen just sent me some information about some mysterious disappearances just south of you, right near the Missouri/Arkansas border. I knew you boys were in the area and told her I would pass the info along."

Sam forced down a sigh as he straightened from his slouch against the car. He had known the peaceful afternoon wouldn't last.

"Tell me what you got…

"Alright, so tell me what we've got?" Dean asked, shifting in the booth to watch the retreating back of the waiter that had just taken their order.

They were in a small roadside diner; the sign in the window claiming it served the best BBQ this side of the Mississippi. As soon as they had finished ordering, Sam had immediately pulled out his laptop and was busy pulling up the information Bobby had forwarded them from Ellen.

"Eight missing hikers over the last three months," Sam responded distractedly, his fingers tapping out a steady rhythm over the laptop's keyboard.

Dean arched an eye and waited for more, but it seemed as though Sam was completely immersed in whatever he was doing on the computer. "Okay…" Dean hinted after a full minute had gone by without Sam elaborating, "fraid I'm going to need a bit more than that, Detective Jones. Last time I checked I hadn't developed any mind reading psychic abilities, so…"

Sam looked up long enough to shoot him a grimace before returning his attention to the screen in front of him. "Yeah, yeah, just give me a moment," he growled.

Dean bit back an impatient retort and instead settled back against the lumpy cushions of the booth. He reached for his coke and took a small sip, his face wrinkling in disgust. He would have much preferred a beer with his dinner, but since it looked as though they were in for a long night of driving, he had opted for the caffeine instead. He glanced around the small diner, looking for some sort of distraction…he had never done patience well…but there wasn't even a cute waitress working to offer any sort of diversion. The only other patrons were an elderly couple seated on the far side of the diner, their hands clasped together across the expanse of the table.

"Okay." Dean pulled his gaze away from the couple across the room and watched as Sam took a large gulp of his diet coke. "So, it looks as though all the hikers disappeared within the same 30 mile radius. The authorities seem to have ruled the disappearances as accidents and/or wildlife attacks. Apparently the area is pretty isolated and heavily wooded, with some fairly steep trails and sharp drop-offs, not to mention bears, cougars, and other wildlife."

"Sounds dreamy," Dean muttered.

"It's generally considered a pretty dangerous area to hike," Sam continued, sparing his brother a quick glance, "which apparently makes it a pretty popular area."

Dean snorted. "Yeah, because running straight toward the most dangerous area you can find for some nice r & r is a sure sign of mental stability."

Sam paused, casting his brother an incredulous look from beneath his lashes. "Considering what we do for a living, Dean, I'm not so sure you're in a position to judge."

Dean flashed his brother a quick grin. "Ahh come on, Sammy, you know there's a difference." He raised his arms, palms up in a quick shrug. "I know I'm insane. Never claimed differently. Besides, we're not running toward danger just for kicks and giggles. It's our job. We're not after some freak adrenaline rush."

"Right," Sam retorted, "So that time you got all excited about the possibility of hunting werewolves was just you being…what? Professional?"

"Damn straight," Dean shot back. "The difference is, we know what we're getting into, and we go in prepared."

Sam only shook his head in defeat. "Whatever, dude."

"So I take it we have reason to doubt the authorities version of this?" Dean asked, taking another drink and watching as his brother turned back to his study of the computer screen.

"Several reasons, actually," Sam responded, straightening from the laptop once again and meeting Dean's gaze. "First, there's the fact that the disappearances seem to be somewhat of an annual thing, dating back about ten years or so. Each year it's the same thing, half a dozen or so missing hikers all around the same time period—late winter to early spring."

"Hardly peak hiking season," Dean murmured.

Sam merely nodded. "But that's not all," he continued. "Apparently they have yet to recover a single body. Not one, despite numerous searches of the entire area. You would think if wild animals were behind the disappearances, some remains would eventually show up somewhere."

Dean grunted, a small frown drawing thin lines between his brows.

"Apparently the locals have renamed that area the Bermuda Triangle of the Ozarks," Sam went on, pausing long enough to take a sip of his drink.

"Catchy name," Dean muttered, tracing a drop of condensation down the side of his glass.

"But the weirdest part of this whole thing," Sam continued, "is the victims themselves. All of them follow the same pattern…young males between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, healthy and active, and from all appearances, passing through the area alone. Many of them weren't even reported missing until several weeks after they vanished."

Dean frowned, absorbing his brother's words. "All dudes, eh? So what do the authorities think about that little piece of information?"

Sam shrugged, "I'm guessing they're not quite sure what to make of it, so they just…"

"Ignore it, yeah," Dean finished the sentence for him, shaking his head in disgust as he lifted his glass and took another deep swallow. "Alright, Sammy, so you got me convinced that this painting isn't all between the lines. So what do you think we're dealing with? Wendigo? Werewolf?"

Sam frowned. "I dunno, Dean. Last I checked, neither of those creatures were exactly particular about the age and gender of their victims."

"Okay, so what then? Angry spirit? Nest of fraternity vampires? Pagan god of the woods?"

Sam shook his head, his forehead crinkled in thought. "I don't know," he repeated. "We'll just have to do a little research once we get there. There's a small town named Denton in the area. I say we go in and talk with the local folk, see if any of them have seen or heard of anything unusual in the area."

"Unusual beyond the fact that their tourists keep going Houdini, you mean?" Dean remarked.

Sam sighed. "If there are any stories or legends surrounding the area, the local folk will know about it."

Dean merely shrugged his agreement. "At least this time we have somewhat of a timeframe to start our research from. You said the disappearances started about ten years ago?"

Sam nodded.

"Alright, then. So whatever creature we're dealing with either woke up or moved in around that time."

"Looks like," Sam muttered.

Dean suddenly straightened in his seat and fixed Sam with a curious stare, "how exactly did we get pinned with this hunt, anyway? I mean, Bobby said he got the information from Ellen, right? But how the hell did Ellen come up with this? Putting this information together, tracing these patterns, it's more like something…"

"Dad would do?" Sam interrupted, a sad smile twisting the corner of his lips. "It's exactly how dad would have done it." At Dean's nonplussed look, Sam hurried to explain. "Apparently when we showed Ash dad's journal, he took more information from it than just how to track demons. Ellen said he was so impressed with how dad managed to track patterns and events that he created some computer program that would help put together abstract data to help pinpoint inconsistencies and anomalies and configure…."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Dean held up his hands, cutting Sam off mid-sentence. "Stow the wordy explanation, college boy; I think I get the point. Ash created a program that does what dad used to do in his head, right?"

Sam shrugged one shoulder. "Basically, yeah."

Dean shook his head in wonder. "That man's a freakin' genius. Weird as hell, but a genius nonetheless."

"No arguments there," Sam agreed.

Dean cast his little brother a sly look. "Hey Sammy, do all geek-boy geniuses wear their hair long, or do you and Ash just…OUCH!" Sam had kicked him under the table.

"So, Denton is about six hours away," Sam informed Dean, ignoring his brother's mutters about sharp feet. "I figure we can drive straight there, catch a few hours of sleep and start questioning the townsfolk first thing in the morning."

"Sounds like a plan," Dean agreed, still rubbing his sore shin. His eyes lit up when he saw the waiter approaching the table with their food. Dean breathed in deeply, a soft sound of anticipation escaping his lips as the waiter delivered his double bacon cheeseburger with extra onions.

Across the booth, Sam rolled his eyes. "Dude, do you even want to live to be thirty," he asked, eyeing Dean sandwich with something akin to disgust.

"Not if I can't eat this," Dean retorted immediately, taking a huge bite of the burger and rolling his eyes in mock ecstasy.

"You order the same thing every time." Sam shook his head, his own fork poised over the mixed vegetable that came with is chicken fried steak. "Don't you ever want to try anything new?"

Dean shrugged, then replied through his half-chewed mouthful. "Hey, in our line of business, you never know when your last meal will become your last meal, if you get what I mean. And I made up my mind a long time ago that this", he gestured toward the burger," was going to be my last meal."

Sam huffed out a sigh of resignation. "Your morbid, you know that?"

Dean didn't bother to respond.

Ty Gallups stared down at the body at his feet, his face twisted in a dispassionate scowl. He pressed the toe of his boot against the young man's ribs, rocking the body slightly, noting how rigor mortis had already begun to set in. "The men didn't notice he was sick?" he asked.

David Fuller shifted uncomfortably beside Ty, his gaze worried. "They said he had been complaining of stomach cramps, not really wanting to eat, but they didn't think it was that serious."

Ty snorted, fighting to hold back his rising irritation. "Apparently they were wrong," he growled, toeing his boot against the body yet again.

"What are we going to do?" David asked nervously.

Ty shot him a look of annoyance. "We burn the body and then I go and find us someone else."

David frowned doubtfully. "You think you can find another one so quickly? I mean, we have two days…"

Ty cut him off with a scathing look, turning to duck out of the small metal cage. "I'm well aware of our time constraints," he snarled. "I said I would find someone else, and I will." He paused outside the cage and glanced back at David. "Take care of his body and then meet me back in town."

David nodded reluctantly, and Ty turned and strode toward his truck. He knew he had his work cut out for him, but he was determined not to fail. What Ty Gallups started, Ty Gallups finished. He would succeed, and everything would go forward just as planned.

Climbing into his truck, he slammed the door and started the engine, turning the truck toward the small dirt track that would lead him down to the road and then back home to Denton. He had a meeting with Mayor Travis in thirty minutes, and after that…

After that, he would start hunting.

A/N-Okay, so this chapter was basically a set-up chapter, but don't worry, the action and blood-letting will start soon. Please review and let me know what you think. Remember, reviews feed my muse.