"So, how'd it…wake up or whatever?"
Sam was trying to figure out how to weave the three harnesses into something like a net that would catch the Olitiau long enough Dean could shoot it. Using his two hands turned out to be more efficient than Dean stumbling around with his one, but he knew it wasn't going to be enough for what they'd originally discussed.
He coughed into the crook of his elbow. "What?"
"C'mon, man," Dean was taking a break, cradling his wounded arm against his chest. "I've seen Mothra. I know how these monsters work."
Sam glanced up at him. "Mothra."
"Sure," Dean eased awkwardly forward, grabbing up a length of the rope, his voice tight as he continued, "Mothra, Godzilla, all of it. Something wakes the monster up after thousands of years of hibernation and then the army kills it after it destroys half of San Francisco or New York or Tokyo and we all learn a valuable lesson about not messing with—why are you looking at me like that?"
Sam was starting to feel oddly lightheaded, listening to his brother. "You just…you said that same thing before."
"Back at the hotel when you found the lore about the—you sure you don't remember anything?"
Dean tilted his head, his frown genuine. "Nothing more than I've told you."
Sam sat back, draping an arm over his bent knee. "Huh. You think it…like wears off?"
"Hey, you're the Bruce Wayne of this outfit, pal," Dean shrugged.
Sam rolled his eyes and returned to trying to figure out how to make a large enough net with the supplies they had. "Funny."
"You never answered my question," Dean pressed and Sam glanced over quickly at the wheeze of air he could hear behind his brother's words.
Dean looked drawn, pale in the shadow of the cave, the blood drying on the side of his face standing out like an accusation. Keeping his right arm close to his damaged side, he was twisting the long climbing ropes they'd used to lower themselves into the cavern into a series of knots with one hand.
"What are you doing?"
"Rigging a safety harness," Dean replied, as if it should be obvious. "If we end up having to go in after that thing, I sure as hell don't want to fall off that ledge again."
"How the hell do you know how to rig a safety harness?" Sam straightened, carefully hefting the length of rope in his hand as he watched as Dean twisted the thick strands into loops with dexterous fingers and then pull the knots tight with his teeth.
"I know you don't expect me to answer that," Dean replied, setting the rope aside and leaning his head back against the wall. "It's like… describing shadows. Or seeing something out of the corner of your eye."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't actually remember, but then suddenly I'll…I'll see something and I can't tell if it's real or not 'cause it feels like…like a TV show I saw once or something."
Dean closed his eyes, shaking his head and wrapping his left arm around his right, cradling his damaged side. "Okay, so, I see this black guy…and I get the feeling like I'm supposed to know him or something, but then he has these nasty teeth and all of a sudden," Dean opened his eyes and looked directly at Sam, "you're decapitating him with…I don't know barbed wire or something."
Sam swallowed hard. Gordon Walker. He remembered Dean collapsed in a heap, neck bleeding from where he'd been bit, and the crazy surge of demon blood-enhanced strength that had allowed Sam to end the vampire's life before it had taken theirs.
"That was real."
Dean sighed. "I was afraid of that."
"Guess it does wear off," Sam said. "Or maybe your body just processes the poison differently after being a demon."
Dean blinked at him, paling further. "Jump back. I was a what now?"
Sam darted his eyes away, flopping the harness he'd been messing with into a pile. "Forget it. Listen, I don't think this is going to work."
"No, wait, you can't just—"
"Look," Sam snapped, thinking of the empty sound of Dean's mocking voice as he'd chased him through the halls of the bunker, trying to catch him, cure him. "If you want to know—really know—then go wash that shit off in the pool down that tunnel."
Dean closed his mouth, narrowing his eyes. "Not all good stuff, huh?"
"You already know it's not."
A body bore evidence of its journey through scars, musculature, stance, movement, strength or weakness. But such evidence was inadmissible in the courtroom of the mind; all that mattered was how the journey was remembered, and how those memories capture each personal truth.
They were quiet for several minutes, not looking at the other man, the fire snapping through kindling the only noise in the cavern surrounding them.
"Someone had to wake it up," Sam finally answered Dean's question, his voice sliding against the quiet. "I remember finding out something about some kids exploring the caverns before they went missing, but I can't remember the details."
"No one controls it?" Dean asked, apparently conceding the point about his memory.
"I don't think so."
"'Cause I saw that movie, too, y'know. When they kill the monster but the real evil is the totally human dude controlling it."
Sam felt the side of his mouth pull up in a helpless, sad smile. "Yeah, we've lived that movie, too."
A hitch in his chest caught him by surprise and he coughed roughly, trying to stifle the sound as his lungs rattled. He felt Dean watching him as he worked to get his breath back and didn't want the older man looking too closely—it wouldn't be long until he discovered the signs of fever that Sam was starting to feel creep up on him through aching muscles.
If Dean got his memory back, Sam knew there was going to be hell to pay for the fact that being dunked in a pool of cave water was enough to trigger a fever.
"Anything we haven't crossed paths with?" Dean asked, taking a drink from one of their remaining bottles of water, then handing it to Sam.
"If there is, we don't know about it."
"Vampires?" Dean asked, a twinkle in his eye as if he were testing Sam.
"Uh, yeah," Sam bobbed his head in a nod, thinking again of Gordon Walker. Of Benny. Of Alex. "A few times. You actually got turned into one once."
Dean drew his head back. "What the hell? How'd you let that happen?"
"What?" Sam almost grinned. "I helped get the cure to turn you back."
"Oh, I bet that was tons of fun for me."
Sam winced, thinking of the way Dean had screamed in pain as the cure tore through him. "I wouldn't recommend a repeat." He glanced at Dean. "You were friends with one."
Dean arched an eyebrow. "Get out."
"I'm not kidding. You guys were tight. He saved your ass in Purgatory."
Dean chuckled slightly, sitting forward as he shook his head in disbelief. "You're telling me I, uh…not only went to Hell, but I was in Purgatory….where I met a vampire?"
"You had to kill him, though," Sam said quietly. "To save me."
Dean was quiet long enough Sam thought he'd abandoned his twisted game of truth or…truth. He should have known better.
Sam felt a strange sadness sweep him for a moment, remembering Madison's tragic eyes as he pulled the trigger. But then glanced at Dean and smiled, thinking of Garth. "Yeah."
"Don't tell me—I married one?"
Sam chuckled. "No…but we do know one and he thinks you're swell."
"Yep. Busted more than a few."
"Now, that's just sad."
"Hey, bustin' makes you feel good."
"You need to work on your ghost puns."
Sam just grinned and dug the last of their food from the pack, answering Dean as he continued with the supernatural baddies Hollywood had teased out for him.
"We haven't even gotten into the demons and angels part of the story," Sam informed him when he'd exhausted his list. "Dad taught us how to take out a lot of them; we learned the rest on our own."
"And we…we like this life?" Dean pressed, looking genuinely puzzled.
Sam stared solemnly at this other man across from him, thinking of the moment he'd realized it wasn't about just getting through one last hunt and returning to his real life. This is my life. I love it. But I can't do it…without my brother. I don't want to do it without my brother.
"Yeah," Sam replied with conviction. "We do."
He watched as Dean started to lean forward to grab the pile of harnesses Sam had been working with, then pause as a visible wave of pain washed over him. Frowning, Sam had to resist the urge to ease Dean back against the wall, suggest that he lie down. The bruising had been bad and he knew from experience how much broken ribs hurt. He glanced upwards toward the break in the cavern ceiling.
Killing the creature was only part of their problem.
"So, tonight, no full moon," Dean started, his voice like an over-stretched rubber band.
"And if we were to, say, just figure out a way out of here, that thing would head out next month to snack on more villagers."
Sam nodded. "Right again."
"And it's possible that those…kids might be still in here somewhere? The ones that woke that thing up?"
Sam frowned, watching his brother closely. "I doubt they're alive, but…yeah. It's possible."
Sam tilted his head. "What, Dean?"
"Well…just, I get it. Why you said we allow life to chip away at us." He exhaled slowly, a hitch in the sound and Sam saw his left hand shaking as he repositioned his broken wrist. "From what you've told me, doesn't sound like there's a lot of people in the world who know what you—well, we—know. Who do what we do."
"Protect people. From the truth…," he glanced at Sam with tired eyes. "Or, well, from the consequences of the truth. This whole time…since you hauled me over that ledge…I've been feeling this…this darkness. Around us."
Sam flinched at his choice of words. "Well, we're trapped in a cave."
"It's more than that. It's…it's like darkness inside." Dean shook his head staring at some middle distance, distress plain on his face as though the words were slipping from his grasp. "And I don't want to be close to it. I'm…I'm afraid to be," he whispered.
After a beat, he looked up at Sam and a familiar light shone in his eyes. "But, see, then you go and tell me stories about these two guys who kick some serious monster ass, and defy death because they've…I don't know…got work to do and I can't help but think…these guys, man. These guys stand in front of that darkness and…they stop it from becoming more powerful than the light."
For a moment, Sam just stared at his brother, silent. He took for granted that he knew Dean. He knew his brother liked his whiskey neat, his coffee black, and his Zeppelin loud. But there were times when Dean surprised him to such an extent, Sam wondered how many layers existed inside his brother beneath the ones he knew.
"Who needs memories," Sam managed around the lump lodged at the base of his throat, "when you've got Dean Winchester?"
Dean smiled softly. "I'd still like to remember you."
The flames shifted and bent with a tunneling gust of wind and Sam looked up toward the opening at the roof of the cave as debris filtered down—more twigs, several leaves.
"Looks like a storm's moving in," he said.
Dean shifted forward and Sam heard him stifle a hiss of pain. "Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing."
"We need a new plan," Sam said, picking up the harnesses. "We're not going to be able to trap it with this."
"Can we slow it down?"
Sam tilted his head. "Maybe…if we can predict its flight pattern."
"We piss it off enough, we can control its flight pattern," Dean said, using the cave wall as a brace and pulling himself to his feet.
"Do I want to know what you're thinking?" Sam frowned as he watched his brother fight for balance.
Dean's eyes were darting around the floor of the cavern, his lower lip caught between his teeth. "Think you can get like…six or seven sticks? Big ones, like for torches?"
Sam stood, coughing as he shifted elevation and noting how Dean's eyes shifted his way at the sound. "Torches?"
Dean nodded toward the tunnel. "It hunts at night, so…we're thinking it doesn't like the light, right? And the net was just going to keep it from getting out of the cave before we could kill it."
"And keep it from killing us."
Dean waved a hand at him. "Semantics."
Sam arched a brow at his brother, waiting for Dean to continue.
"I say we fill that tunnel with light so it won't come back this way," Dean mimicked Sam's facial expression, "and trap it on the dark side."
"So, wait. You want to go back into the…other side?" Sam asked, surprised, remembering Dean's earlier exclamation of resistance. "It's more like a grave over there than anywhere else down here!"
"Yeah, and from the way it smells, it probably is a grave…so to speak," Dean rubbed at his wounded face gingerly, "but if we want to put this thing down, we don't have much of a choice."
Sam knew Dean was right. And he hated it. "I told you this hunt was a bad idea."
"You did?" Dean asked with genuine surprise. "Why didn't I listen to you?"
"You did, but," Sam shrugged his shoulders, "then someone else died and your argument was better."
Dean nodded, then started to turn away from the fire—presumably to gather the sticks for torches—and Sam saw the blood drain from his face. He moved quickly around the fire and grabbed Dean's elbow, catching the other man as his knees buckled.
"Don't make me sit down," Dean said, leaning weakly against Sam, his forehead against Sam's collarbone once more. Sam gripped the back of Dean's neck and could feel fine tremors skating beneath his brother's skin. "I sit down, I'm toast."
"You're pretty close to toast now, man," Sam muttered, balancing Dean, but not pressing him to sit. "Can I check your bandages?"
"Don't touch the wrist," Dean pleaded. "Swear to God. Don't even breathe on it."
Sam nodded. "Roger that. Avoiding the wrist. How about your ribs?"
"They're still broken." He didn't lift his head, but Sam felt his trembling begin to ease. "But, uh…I think one of 'em might've…stabbed me."
Sam took a breath, stepping carefully away from Dean and out of the light shining in from the opening in roof of the cave. Filtered sunlight, turned a metallic hue from the approaching storm, hit Dean mid-chest and Sam used it to help him gauge how worried he should be. Pulling Dean's shirts out of the way, he swallowed at the sight of the darkening bruise.
"I gotta, uh…," he started as he reached hesitantly toward Dean's right side.
"Do what you ne—ah! Son of a bitch!" Dean flinched back roughly as Sam pressed against his lower right side. "Warn a guy!"
"I did!" Sam snapped, worry spiking. He didn't know how to tell for sure that there was internal bleeding, but the darkening bruise, the firmness beneath Dean's ribs, the pale, sweaty features…none of it looked good. "You want a countdown next time?"
"Go on three or something."
Dean swayed, reaching out to grab hold of Sam's arm to steady himself. "Just…wrap it up tighter."
"It looks bad, Dean."
Dean closed his eyes and rolled his neck. "Well, unless you have some miracle healing abilities you haven't bothered to mention yet, there's nothing much we can do about it."
Sam shot his eyes up to the hole in the roof. Miracle healing abilities…. Castiel. Could he hear them? He'd healed both of them easily after the…the ghoulpire. What if—?
Sam looked over at his brother. "What?"
"You having a private conversation with God or what?"
"We know an angel," Sam said.
Dean's grin was slightly drunken. "Isn't that a Scorpion's song?"
"He healed us, like, two weeks ago," Sam continued, looking up again. "I can't believe I didn't think about it before now."
"No, wait that's Send Me An Angel."
"But…I…," Sam rubbed his forehead. "I don't know how he'd get here, even if he can hear us."
"Why? His wings clipped?" Dean chuckled, then winced and coughed slightly, a groan echoing the sound.
"Well…yeah," Sam replied. "The angels fell when we didn't close the gates to Hell and—"
"Right," Sam nodded. "Not the time."
He unwrapped the bandage from Dean's ribs, ignoring his brother's pained hiss. Trying to figure out if simply wrapping them tighter would slow any possible internal bleeding, he ordered Dean to brace himself against his shoulder and began to reposition the wrap.
"Here's the new plan," Dean said, breathless, stubborn, unrelenting. "We trap that bastard, kill it, you get out of here and go get help. I'll wait for that angel to heal me."
"I'm not leaving here without you," Sam shook his head, wincing as Dean grunted when he pulled the wrap tight enough it would be hard for Dean to draw a full breath.
"Yes, you are," Dean gripped his shoulder tightly for balance. "It's the only thing that makes sense."
Sam shook his head. "No."
"Look, I admire the loyalty, but—"
"Shut up, Dean. I'm not leaving you," Sam snapped, tying off the wraps. "I've had to do it too many times before, okay? I am not…."
Dean was still gripping his shoulder, though Sam had dropped his hands from his ribs. He could tell Dean was searching for the right words that would convince him, but Sam was seeing an abandoned warehouse in Kansas City, an empty field in Illinois, a parking lot in Florida. He was seeing a hospital room and a Ouija board. He was seeing a faith healer. He was seeing a Spartan bedroom within a bunker.
"I can't leave you," Sam whispered. "So don't say it again."
"You could die down here, you know. With someone who doesn't even remember you. And has zero clue how to bring you back," Dean ground out through gritted teeth.
Dean swallowed roughly. "Why?"
"You're my big brother." Sam smiled slightly. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you."
"Dammit," Dean muttered quietly. After several heartbeats, he nodded once. "Fine, then go get us some torches."
Making sure Dean was close enough to a wall in case he needed to balance once more, Sam set off to search through the debris. He found six branches that he could break down to make torches and reluctantly removed the cop's outer shirt to wrap around the tops to burn. He knew they couldn't sacrifice any of their own clothes if they wanted to stay warm enough in the coolness of the cave and the other victim's shirt was too shredded.
When he returned to Dean, he saw that his brother had been busy. The bandage adjustment must have done some good because he'd been able to get down at least to his knees and access the ropes and harnesses as well as turn their pack inside out.
"Torches," Sam declared, dropping the supplies in a heap.
Dean grinned up at him. "Pain killers." He rattled a bottle. "Found 'em in that jacket you were wearing."
Sam frowned. No wonder Dean was moving more easily; that was the bottle of Percocet they'd snagged from Mrs. Markham's house. He hadn't realized Dean had pocketed them…but he should have guessed. Or at least checked the jacket pockets when he had the damn thing on.
"How many of those things did you take?"
Dean lifted a brow, his grin deceptive. "Enough I don't keel over, but not so much I'll pass out, how's that?"
"You're a pain in the ass."
Dean winked at him, then handed him a complicated-looking rigging of rope and harnesses. "Try this on."
Sam frowned, turning the rope around in his grip. It didn't take long to realize that it went over his shoulders and around his chest. "How the hell...?"
"Okay, I don't actually know, but…there's a name in my head and…the knots just made sense," Dean shrugged.
"What name?" Sam slipped on the harness, grimacing as the raw skin beneath his bandaged wrist rubbed against the ropes.
"Of course," Sam murmured. The endless skills Bobby taught them—the way his brother watched every move the older hunter made—why wouldn't sailing knots been part of the lessons? "Why is there only one?"
Dean ducked his head, then glanced around Sam toward the opening of the tunnel. "I figure one of us has to be bait."
"Uh, no." Sam shook his head. "I told you—you're the better shot!"
"Look, man, I can't…the ropes, I can't with my arm…," Dean shook his head, his freckles standing out in the shifting sunlight. "I'll call the bastard out and you take the shot. This," he flicked at the rope, "will just make sure you can get close enough without visiting the Abyss."
Sam felt a cough climbing up through his battered lungs. Swallowing roughly, he turned away so that Dean couldn't see his frown shift from irritation to worry. It hadn't been that long ago when he felt the end of their story lurking close. The fevered weakness growing in his limbs now paled in comparison to the virus that had burned through him in Nebraska, but the same sense of inevitability was here, the same fear of never seeing Dean again.
"I don't like it." He cleared his throat and turned back around, a hand to his aching chest.
"You don't have to like it," Dean said, tucking his chin down, his eyes on Sam. "You just have to do it."
"Story of our lives," Sam sighed, the coalescing effect of his memory drawing up a sheriff's station in Colorado and a horde of demons slamming against the warded doors and windows, the impossibility of Eve, the Leviathan…. "Fine, okay. But be careful."
Dean's grin was quick and confident, a shadow of his former self lurking at the edges of his wounded eyes. "Hey, careful is my middle name."
"I know your middle name," Sam huffed. "I only wish it was 'careful'."
The wind picked up over their heads and Sam glanced up, noting the darkening of the cave as the clouds rolled in. He tried to remember where in the landscape above them the cave entrance was located—on a hillside? In a valley? But came up blank. He remembered preparing for the hunt and everything going south once they were in the cave, but prior to that—
"You ready?" Dean broke into his thoughts.
Sam looked at him, noting the way Dean held his broken arm close to his chest, the thin protection his gray T-shirt and flannel offered against the cool of the cave, the sureness in his movement as he slid the .45 into his back waistband. There was something terrifying and yet strangely reassuring about his brother's confidence in the face of a giant unknown.
"Let's get this over with," Sam grumbled, crouching down to grab up one of his sticks and wrapping the cloth around the top.
They didn't have anything to use as fuel, so the torches wouldn't burn forever, but if Dean's plan worked the way they wanted, they shouldn't need long. Once all six sticks were wrapped, each man took one and lit it, making their way toward the tunnel entrance. Sam hung back as Dean headed inside, searching the walls for a place to wedge the torch. Finding one, he headed back for Sam's torch as Sam made his way back to the fire to light two more.
They silently continued this assembly line until Dean had positioned the six torches along the inside of the tunnel nearly reaching the opposite end, leaving on a few pockets of darkness between the light. The gathering storm had turned the outer cavern near dark, their fire acting as a beacon of safety.
"Is it a bad thing that I'm almost used to the stench down here?" Dean asked as Sam made his way through the dimly lit tunnel—carefully avoiding the deep pocket of water that waited in near silence, flush with the surface of the cave floor—and joined his brother near the other end.
"Think that's a sign that we've overstayed our welcome," Sam replied gamely.
Dean pulled the gun from his back waist band and handed it over. Sam watched as his brother then fished out the flashlight from his pocket and shone it around the pitch-black cavern. Seeing around him better than when he'd used the cell phone light, Sam was amazed they hadn't crashed headlong into the several stalactites jutting down from the roof and branching off the walls.
He winced inwardly as the beam traced the body parts and near-intact corpses that he'd remembered seeing when they first climbed over the ledge. He wondered which of these bodies had once been the kids who woke the Olitiau, if they would ever be identified. If anyone was maybe looking for them right now.
"There," Dean said, shining the flashlight beam against a rock slightly above their heads with a portion broken away. "Throw the end of the rope up through there."
"What do you plan on doing with it?" Sam asked, as he complied, making the hole with the second toss.
"Dude, I'm making this up as I go," Dean shrugged finding the ledge with the flashlight. "Just trying to keep you from getting dumped."
Sam smiled. Dean shot him a curious glance.
"You say you don't remember me, but…you're still protecting me."
Dean shook his head. "Don't read too much into it; you're my only way outta here."
"Uh-huh," Sam found a rock formation toward the base of the wall and tied the end of the rope around it, effectively harnessing himself to the cave itself. "Happy?" He nodded toward the knot.
"Thrilled," Dean replied through tight lips, the flashlight beam dipping a bit as he pressed his left hand against his ribs. "Okay, get that .45 ready."
Sam took a deep breath, stifling a cough, and lifted the end of the pistol toward the drop-off. "Why do I feel like Bilbo getting ready to fight Smaug over the Arkenstone?"
He felt Dean's eyes track to him. "Uh, 'cause you're a gigantic geek?"
"You read The Hobbit more times than I did, jerk," Sam snapped, squaring his shoulders.
"Maybe I don't want to get that memory back," Dean muttered.
Sam blew his breath out, watching the weak shadows from the tunnel of torches dance across the floor by Dean's feet. "Call this thing already."
His back to the torch-lit tunnel, Dean blew on the thin dog whistle twice, then waited. It felt as though the cave around them held its breath, the stench of death in the cloistered air folding close around them. Sam saw Dean's shoulders heave as he blew on the whistle again, the frequency high enough that neither of them heard a thing.
Until a strange, guttural shriek echoed from the darkness.
"Here it comes," Dean warned, the whistle still trapped between his lips. He blew again and the answering shriek grew louder.
Sam adjusted his stance. Sweat rolled down his spine and collected on his upper lip. He felt his lungs seize up in his chest and swallowed hard, afraid to take his eyes off the darkness for even a second. He heard Dean take a strangled breath, heard the scratching of talons on rock, heard the darkness itself scream and suddenly he was facing two enormous amber eyes.
"Oh shit," Sam breathed, trying to sight on the creature's center point.
The Olitiau twisted its leathery wings around its body and headed toward the tunnel and suddenly Dean was crossing the debris-littered cavern in a stilted gait, moving away from the torch-lit tunnel, away from Sam, the beam of the flashlight bouncing in his grip, the whistle in his mouth. Sam knew his brother was blowing on the thing only because the Olitiau screamed in response, the air around him trembling from the sound.
"Dean! Watch out for the—"
He heard the creature spray its frigid saliva toward Dean and cried out as he tried to get a glimpse of where the liquid landed. The bob of the flashlight revealed Dean was still upright, still blowing on the whistle, still moving, though not quickly. The creature swooped low to follow Dean, wings sending the gore and guano that littered the cave floor tumbling around Sam.
"Shoot it!" Dean yelled around the whistle.
Another spray of saliva splattered noisily against the wall and Sam knew his brother wasn't going to avoid impact long.
"I can't see, dammit! Can't get a shot!"
Sam turned and thrust out his right hand, somehow knowing instinctively that Dean would throw him the flashlight. He held it in his left, balancing the .45 in his right and aimed the beam at the massive creature, currently hovering over the abyss, it's broad, leathery wings wreaking havoc around them. Sam shot once, the sound of the ricochet telling him he'd missed his target. The Olitiau screamed and seemed to twist, diving away from Sam, away from the light, toward the center of the cavern where it hung from the thick stalactites beating its wings.
He couldn't see him, couldn't hear him, all he caught with his flashlight was a blurred image of wings and talons and debris-filled air. Hurrying along the ledge toward where he'd last seen Dean heading, ever conscious of the tether of his rope, Sam sought the amber eyes of the creature, needing to get to its heart to end all of this.
It was then he saw Dean, standing pressed against the far wall of the cavern, the mutilated body of one of the Olitiau's victims near his feet, fury in his eyes. He was blowing on the silver whistle for all he was worth, the creature zeroing in on him, clearly needing the sound to stop.
"Come at me, you son of a bitch!" Dean rasped, panting as the whistle fell from his lips, unable, it seemed, to gain enough air to blow on it any longer.
The Olitiau complied and before Sam could shout in protest, it swept at Dean, catching his brother up in the blade-like grip of its talons. Dean's scream was raw—rage more than pain—cutting through the air as the creature twisted to return to its lair, Sam the only thing between it and home.
"Shoot the bastard!" Dean gasped, unable to struggle, his pale face barely discernible in the narrow flashlight beam.
Sam blinked sweat from his eyes, tracking the Olitiau's jerking movements. "Dean!"
Sam held his breath, sighting along the flashlight beam, and fired. He emptied the clip, his jaw clenched so tight he was surprised he didn't break his own teeth. The Olitiau screamed, louder and longer than before, its wings beating desperately against the air, one crashing against Sam so hard it knocked the air from his lungs even as he scrambled to keep his footing. He tasted blood in his mouth, his chest and shoulder flaring with a sudden heat as though he'd been dragged across gravel.
The creature hit the floor of the cave heavily, its head falling back as the amber eyes dimmed. Sam went to his knees, instinct demanding he scramble away from the ledge, but before he made it two feet, the creature's legs crashed into him with its death throes and he was falling.
Dean's harness worked perfectly; seconds after losing purchase, Sam was jerked to an abrupt halt, an arm's reach from the edge of the cliff.
He gasped, crying out briefly from the shock, the flashlight and gun falling from his grasp. As the Olitiau tumbled over the edge of the cave floor and into the abyss, Sam reached out with nothing but desperation to guide him and snagged Dean by the collar of his shirt, ripping him from the grasp of the dead cave demon.
Both brothers cried out as Dean was released, and Sam felt the older man reach up with one hand, grabbing Sam's wrist and clinging for dear life. For a moment nothing moved; the only sound Sam could hear was their rasping gasps of breath, the slam of his own heart, and the scrape and creak of the taut rope as it rubbed against the rock ledge.
Then Dean's grasp began to weaken.
"Hang on," Sam gasped. "Jesus, Dean, don't let go."
Dean didn't reply, but Sam felt his grip tighten once more.
"I'm close to the ledge, okay? I just gotta…." He tried to pull Dean up with the arm his brother clung to, but his muscles trembled. Forcing himself to trust that the rope would hold, he released his grasp on the ledge, tipping forward in the harness Dean had constructed, and reached down for his brother with his other hand. "'m gonna pull you up to me, 'kay?"
Dean still didn't respond and Sam forced himself not to panic when he felt Dean's grip loosen once more.
"Hey, no no no. Don't you do that. You go, I go."
Dean held on, but it was loose and Sam could feel him trembling.
"Gonna, pull you up, now, okay?"
Sam puffed out three breaths, then with one hand tucked under Dean's shoulder and the other at the back collar of his shirt, he pulled upward, his growl of effort echoing dully on the walls around them and swallowed by the dark pit below. He nearly whimpered with exhaustion when he managed to get Dean to waist level and pressed his brother against the wall with his legs in order to adjust his grip. Dean seemed to come around enough to help out again and grasped Sam's arm, his broken wrist hanging limply at his side.
Hauling upward once more, cursing loudly as his brother's weight pulled at his exhausted arms, Sam gasped as he managed to get Dean face-to-face with him, holding him against the rock wall with nothing but his desperate grip and the weight of his own body, praying to anyone or anything listening that the rope harness held. He couldn't see his brother's face in the darkness, but he could feel Dean's harsh puffs of breath against his cheek.
"You with me?" Sam rasped.
"Yeah." The reply was weak, breathy, but there.
"Okay, stay with me," Sam implored.
"You did it," Dean gasped. "Nailed the bastard."
"Save the confetti for when we're not hanging over a hole to the center of the Earth," Sam's reply was strained. "'kay, gonna need you to reach up, grab the rope, man."
"No, you're gonna do this." Sam pressed his forehead against the side of his brother's head, Dean's short hair tickling his skin. "You're gonna do this…and we're getting the hell out of this tomb."
"Okay," Sam nodded, his forehead rubbing against Dean's hair with the motion. "Okay."
It was slow, awkward, and painful, but he managed to get Dean turned around to face the wall and help his brother get a grip on the ledge. As he pushed at Dean's legs to get him over the top, Sam heard a strangled, wet cough emanating from his brother that sent his heart rate into overdrive.
Reaching up to the top of the ledge, using the rope harness as leverage, Sam thought about his dreams, the messages that God was sending him, the path he was clearly supposed to be following. He refused to believe they'd been saved from certain death only to have it end now.
This way. In this place.
His prayer was desperate and instinctive. Please…someone somewhere…we could really use your help.
Arms shaking as he swung his leg upwards to solid ground, Sam focused on the one being he knew would come through no matter what, if he could. Cas…if you can hear me…if you can get to us…please…we're running out of time, man. Dean is running out of time.
"Hey," Sam croaked, pushing himself to his hands and knees and reaching through the darkness for his brother. "Hey, you still with me?"
"Ropes held." It barely sounded like Dean's voice, the way it trembled.
"Yeah, man," Sam nodded in the darkness. "You're gonna have to teach me how you did that."
"You were bad ass," Dean continued, his voice growing stronger as admiration laid a foundation for the sound. "Dirty Harry's got nothin' on you."
Sam grinned. "You ready to get outta here?"
"Think I'll just lay here a minute," Dean said on a rough sigh. "'s kinda nice in the dark."
"Aw, no, you don't," Sam crawled closer, finding Dean's head, then chest with his tapping fingers. His stomach clenched when he felt a rather large wet patch on Dean's lower right side. "Not leaving you here. Remember?"
Dean was quiet a moment and Sam had to use it to catch his own breath. He couldn't quiet the cough that clawed through his chest any longer and felt his lungs curl up as he hacked roughly, willing the water that stubbornly remained to expel.
"I really read The Hobbit?" Dean asked in the quiet that followed.
Sam chuffed. "Only about a hundred times. You said you liked the whole…unlikely hero, impossible odds kind of thing."
"If it makes you feel any better," Sam said, finding his brother's shoulders and helping him sit up, "you graduated to Busty Asian Beauties when you were like…seventeen."
"Oddly, yes," Dean replied, gasping as Sam tugged him to his feet. "That does make me feel better."
The last part was strained and Dean leaned heavily on Sam as they moved slowly through the darkness toward the rapidly dimming glow of the torch-filled tunnel, stumbling awkwardly around the carnage left behind by the Olitiau. Sam made Dean pause when they reached the tie-off of the rope and found he had to use the knife in his boot to cut the tether free, coiling the length of rope around his shoulder rather than leaving it behind.
He still had no idea how they were going to get out of there.
Dean waited for him, leaning against the cave wall until Sam was able to ease an arm under his left side and guide them both through the tunnel. Sam could smell rain and knew the storm that had been threatening had finally landed. He was hoping their fire was still burning—he couldn't tell which of them was shivering more at this point—when Dean suddenly stumbled a bit near one of the dying torches, causing Sam to heft him upright.
He flinched at the sound of Dean's wrecked voice. "I'm right here, man."
"I don't…." Dean was looking around, his pale features echoing confusion in the flickering torchlight.
Sam paused, looking at his brother with concern. "You with me, Dean?"
Dean rested a blurry-eyed gaze on Sam's face, his frown puckering the open wounds on his face. "You're bleeding."
Sam wiped at his cheekbone with the back of his hand, remembering how the Olitiau's wing had clipped him.
"We're still in the tunnel…," Dean's fingers dug into the meat of Sam's shoulder where he held himself upright, his brows drawing close.
Sam swallowed, feeling emotion tightening his chest at Dean's disoriented questions. "Yeah, we're heading back to that cavern, remember? The Olitiau's dead and we…we're gonna figure out how to get out of here." He exhaled. "Somehow."
They moved forward a bit more, away from one torch and toward another.
"How bad?" Dean asked, sounding for a moment like Dean. Like he remembered the life and reality that Sam had been sharing with him for the past several hours.
Sam winced as the skin across his chest burned. "Uh…think bad…then multiply by two."
"Oh, good," Dean nodded, sighing a bit. "For a minute there, I thought we were in trouble."
For reasons he couldn't begin to articulate, Dean's statement hit Sam just right and he started to laugh. Weak at first, then with growing strength as he guided Dean through the tunnel, the sound echoing almost eerily against the rock walls. He maneuvered them around the pool of icy water and toward the tunnel entrance, trying to get a grip on his ricocheting emotions.
His grin wavered, though, when he reached the pale light of the opened cavern, water pouring in through the break in the cave roof and thick clouds shading the late afternoon sunlight. The rain that had been threatening earlier now fell directly into the cavern and collected at one edge of the crevasse, creating a bit of a waterfall, the splatter of the watery impact spraying both men as they lingered in the tunnel entrance. Sam blinked the water from his eyes and got a good look at both of them.
Blood was smeared across his shoulder and chest from where the Olitiau's wing had scraped away his clothes and reached skin. None of the abrasions were deep, but all of them stung like hell. His forehead and cheek throbbed and his felt his chest tightening with another cough.
Dean was pale as before, but Sam could now see that the wet patch he felt earlier on Dean's side, just beneath his ribs, was clearly from the creature's grip. He couldn't tell how badly the talon had cut him, but it was bleeding freely, staining Dean's shirt and jeans, soaking up through the bandage around his ribs.
"It's raining," Dean rasped.
"Yeah," Sam nodded, seeing with dismay that the fire had been reduced to coals in their absence.
Most of the debris that had fallen in from the opening was wet; a frothy river had formed and was spilling from one end of the cavern toward the other, slipping through cracks in the cave wall that apparently fed the pool of water Sam had fallen into earlier.
He pulled Dean forward into the rain, thinking to get them across to the other side and find some kind of shelter from the blowing wind and rain, but found that the breadth and angle of the opening overhead denied them any respite. When they reached what had once been their fire, Dean's knees disappeared and he sagged in Sam's grasp. Easing him down and against the wall near their emptied pack, Sam gingerly wiped the rainwater from his own eyes.
Trying not to look directly at Dean, Sam pulled the rope from his shoulder and unhooked the harness, dropping it to the ground and stepping free. His shoulders and chest ached where the ropes had caught him, but he was thankful for that pain. Without it, they would have joined the Olitiau at the bottom of that abyss.
As it was—
Sam's thought process scattered as a harsh cough bent him in half and he felt his skin shudder from the force of it. They were in trouble; he knew that. Dean had known it a long time ago. This was not something they were going to be able to fight their way out of—and he couldn't help but be bowed by the unfairness of it all.
Crouching down next to where Dean sat slumped against the wall, rainwater sluicing the dried blood from Dean's hair and face and smearing the new blood on his gray T-shirt, Sam tried to ignore his brother's shivering. Dean was so pale his freckles were visible in the near-darkness, his eyes stood out like beacons of pain, and Sam could see blood staining his pale lips.
The next time you or your brother bite it, you're not going to Heaven or Hell…we're gonna make a mistake and toss you out into the Empty. And nothing comes back from that.
Sam cupped his head in his hands, feeling the rain on the back of his neck. They'd made it through so much…so much. And Billie's promise weighed heavily on him, because this time, it was done. Over. And it wasn't fair. He'd recently survived a zombie-like virus because God had shown him a path out.
Yet here they were, wounded, trapped in a fucking cave, and Dean didn't even know who he—
Sam caught his breath. He didn't want to move. It had been so long since he'd heard his name in his brother's voice he almost couldn't move. Emotion sat hot and heavy in his chest, pressing his heart against his ribs and threatening to choke him.
Sucking the rain from his lips, Sam cautiously lifted his head and looked through the gloom at his brother.
"I remember you," Dean whispered, his green eyes large in his wounded face.
Sam blinked, for a moment not daring to believe. He looked up at the crack in the ceiling above them, the rain splashing into his eyes, then back down at where Dean sat slumped and bleeding against the cave wall, rain plastering his hair to his head, soaking him to the bone.
"I remember you," Dean repeated, a tremulous smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.
Sam slumped forward to his knees, a sob clutching at his throat and swallowed by the storm. He sank forward, folding in on himself as his tears blended with rain on his face. A shuddering huff of sound that was almost a laugh slipped around the lump in his throat as he stared at his brother.
"It's about time," he managed.