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The Postern
a secondary door or gate, particularly in a fortification such as a city wall
No Way Back [Book 2, Part 3] 
02.03.11
Merged
No Way Back
Book 2  :  Of Wolf and Man
part three



November, 2010

Dean forced his fingers to loosen up a little on the steering wheel. “I’m telling you, every friggin’ time we come here, people are too busy being incompetent asswipes on the wrong ends of gun barrels to help us with anything.”

Sam just shook his head, the corners of his lips twitching up into the ghost of a smile.

“Something I said seem funny to you?”

“No, ‘course not,” Sam replied quickly. “Just …”

Dean grit his teeth as the Impala rounded the corner. The barricades that had once provided false peace against the whore’s demon army were gone, but the steeple on the white-washed church stood just as Dean remembered it. Several other vehicles were pulling in to the parking lot ahead of them; a Jeep, a couple of trucks and a black SUV. It looked like the militia was still in working order after all. “Just what?”

Sam leaned his head toward his brother, shooting him a pointedly amused stare. “You, Dad, and New Year’s Eve.”

Dean flipped Sam off and pulled up beside one of the Jeeps. “Whatever,” he tossed over his shoulder, “I’m talking about those Bible-thumping psychos, and you know it. You coming or what?” He slammed the door on Sam’s answering chuckle and scanned the growing crowd of hunters.

A blond guy jumped out of the second truck with a whoop and a grin on his face that Dean couldn’t help but mirror. He reached into his jacket pocket and produced two cigars, offering one to Dean in a gesture of celebration. Dean shook his head, raising both hands in polite decline. “Nah, I’m good.”

Before the blond guy could respond, Dean found himself stepping back to avoid one hundred and thirty pounds of Colombian moving at the speed of light. The other guy put his hands out to signal slow down and said, “Easy, Lee.”

Lee embraced the blond man and clapped him firmly on the back, then darted out a hand and relieved him of his extra cigar. “Damn, Hawk. Have you ever missed a shot? This guy,” Lee grinned at Dean and thumped his friend on the chest. “My man, I’m telling you. My man!”

Hawk looked over Lee’s shoulder and directly at Dean as he lit his prize. His eyes twinkled, bright from the rush of a successful hunt. “The help today wasn’t too shabby out there either,” he said to Lee, then extended his free hand to Dean in greeting. “Glad you could make it. Welcome to the team.”

Lee whipped his head around to take a closer look at Dean, surprised. “You know Blake?”

Dean ignored Blake’s handshake and his eyes went hard. “Thought it was Hawk.”

Lee chimed in, “Hawk-eyes, man, ‘cos he’s got the skills. Hundred yards, two hundred – don’t matter, Hawk don’t ever miss. He can see forever.”

“Must be handy.” Sam joined them and handed Dean his duffel bag before he stuck out a firm hand to both of them. “I’m Sam,” he said, nodding coolly at Blake, “just glad we can help. The Pastor is a good man.”

Blake stared at Sam and nodded slowly in uncertain agreement. “... Yeah.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed and he returned the look on Blake’s confused face. “Do we know each other? I mean ... have we maybe met before?”

Before Blake could respond, Dean shifted his bag off of his shooting arm and used it to elbow Sam in the ribs.

Sam raised his eyes to see Gideon come down the steps of the church with a communion tray in his hands. Each plastic cup was filled with clear liquid. At his appearance, the hunters all stopped unloading and moved to form a line. Dean shot an inquiring glance at Blake, who just shrugged and moved to step in line with the rest of them.

“Security checkpoint,” Lee explained. “Everybody gets a dose of holy water.”

Dean raised his eyebrows. “Really? You guys get much demon trouble these days?”

Lee shook his head. “Nah, but the pastor, he’s just … well, since everything, you know?” He clapped Dean on the elbow and went to round up the stragglers.

Dean fell into step behind Blake, and Sam followed suit.

When everyone had joined the ranks, Gideon walked down the line, holding out the tray to each hunter. He looked different than Dean remembered. It was something in his eyes.

When Gideon reached them, Blake snatched his cup from the bronzed tray and turned to tip the holy water in Dean’s general direction. “Hey, Pastor,” he said, “God sent you some backup.” Blake downed the holy water in one smooth gulp and chased it with a mighty draw off the cigar in his hand.

Gideon’s eyes settled on Sam first, but found Dean soon enough. The Pastor went stock still. Dean cleared his throat and stared at the ground. Lines of soldier ants marched across the bright white asphalt sidewalk, intent on their purpose.

Lee poked his head around Sam’s broad shoulder, angling for a better view. “Uh, guys? We got a problem?”

Gideon brushed past Dean. “Finish this,” he murmured, shoving the tray at Lee. Then he touched Sam lightly on the arm. “Follow me,” he said, spun on his heel and strode straight back inside.

Dean stood rooted in place.

Blake’s features turned impassive and unreadable. “He seems tense,” he observed. Then he blew a perfect smoke ring through the air. It hung around Dean like a halo. “You guys always make so many friends?”

Sam shoved Dean from behind, urging him to move toward the door, but Dean kept his eyes on Blake as they shuffled past. He held Dean’s stare for a few steps, but then he threw his cup on the ground and broke for the woods, still wreathed in smoke.

Dean followed Gideon through a high doorway. He looked up and around for telltale signs of things being off or dangerous for Sam, who followed closely on his heels. Nobody spoke.

Gideon led them through the building, exited the other side and crossed a white gravel wash that smelled heavily of lime. Dean trailed the wash with his eyes and saw that it curved around the building they were approaching on either side and disappeared, some kind of protection or safe house. He glanced behind him and watched Sam step over it easily.

They barely all made it into the room before Dean had to stop short. Gideon was suddenly in his face. “Mind telling me what this is about?”

Dean didn’t blink. “You wanna go first? I thought you’d be tired of heading up the holy roller hit squad by now.”

Gideon appraised Dean with a murderous look in his eyes, which tamed when Sam took a few steps forward, bringing himself into focus. He cleared his throat and started over. “We hunt evil. In case you hadn’t noticed, situations have become exponentially bad since you were here last. Almost every town in this county has a unit like ours. Now, how about you tell me why you’re here, in this place, in my home, with my crew? Who are you looking to destroy this time?”

Sam huffed and Dean turned his head to shoot him a hard glare before addressing Gideon. “We need a word or two with an old friend of ours.”

Gideon shook his head and moved away. “I wish I could say that I was happy to hear that, but in my experience, Dean, you bring more pain and suffering to the people in this town than you bring relief. I’d thank you to leave now.”

“You can’t use two more able-bodied hands?” Sam tried.

Gideon looked Sam up and down but didn’t meet his eyes. “Not yours.” He busied himself with papers and maps on a low table. The two men behind Sam and Dean took that as their cue to step forward and press the issue with the weapons in their hands.

Dean tucked his hand in his pockets nonchalantly and ignored them. “You’re hunting an alpha, right? The king skinwalker.”

Gideon glanced up from his desk to stare at the maps on the wall and his hands stopped moving. “Did you read that on a fortune cookie?”

“We got called here,” Sam replied.

“Gwen Campbell. She one of your crew?” Dean cut in.

“She has been here for some time, yes, after the passing of her family. What do you want with her?”

Sam didn’t disguise a careful glance at Dean, who only blinked and kept his eyes on Gideon. “She’s a ... distant acquaintance.”

“And you want to kill her. Is that it?”

This time Sam couldn’t hold himself back. “No! Not at all. Look, Gwen is our cousin. She called us here to help you guys.”

Gideon moved stiffly to face them again. “Yes, we have had a problem with skinwalkers in this area. I assume that, like Gwen, you have experience hunting down the fathers of monsters.”

“We know a thing or two,” Dean began and Sam echoed him with a sharp nod. “More than we’d like, actually.”

Gideon did not look convinced.

“She called us,” Dean pulled the trump card, “because it just so happens that we have the only weapon in the world that will end your furry nightmare.”

Sam and Dean walked out a few minutes later with their packs and headed toward the bottom of the hill, pausing to gaze at the surprising number of highly organized structures.

“Metal and Fire? Sections Three and Five? Seriously, who comes up with this crap?” Dean commented.

“I don’t know, Gideon seems to think pretty highly of this Blake guy. Or maybe it’s because he just doesn’t trust us together.”

“Try not at all,” Dean said dryly. “And he’s right not to. I’m not gonna tell him how this works out in our favor. They might know you, but they don’t know me. We can keep a low profile, no explanations needed for how you suddenly grew a brother.”

“Speaking of the unexplainable,” Sam countered, “why did you tell Gideon we brought the Colt when we didn’t? What if it turns out that we actually need it? What if he wants to see it?”

Dean fidgeted in his pocket for his keys. “Details, Sam, details.”

“Well, then why are we really here? This place is crawling with hunters. We could have met Gwen anywhere,” Sam asked, but his face gave Dean the impression that he wasn’t going to like any of the reasons.

With a long-suffering glance up to the darkening cloud cover, Dean answered, “Hey, finding out who sent Gwen through the recycle plant would be the biggest bonus round ever, but what I’m really looking forward to is seeing our good friends Walt and Roy again. The fun part will be staying out of their way until we’re ready. You and me — we gotta keep a low profile.”

Sam’s voice dropped two octaves in disbelief. “You couldn’t have just told me that before? That you knew they were here?”

Dean shrugged. “I wasn’t sure until now. But look at this place. Come on, Sam. Tell me that the shadow on our backs wasn’t coming from Miss Babylon 2010, trying to cut us off before we could get to her. You ever hear of any other hunters killing in the name of God like that?”

“Yeah,” Sam said reflectively. “Us.”

Dean walked away down the hill and left Sam standing there.

*

Dean was watching hunters move like worker bees in and out of the church, hauling weapons, tents and sleeping bags outside and loading them into the small fleet of vehicles that circled the parking lot, when Lee appeared and slapped him on the back. “Dean, right? You talk to the man? You gonna come on our ride-along? Where’s your brother?”

He stared steadily at the smaller man, and Lee ran out of air, stumbling over his last few words when he realized that Dean wasn’t going to answer. “Uh,” he stammered, “can I … get you anything?”

Looking one more time at Sam’s distant frame, rummaging through the Impala’s trunk, Dean replied, “Yeah. Gwen. She’s about this tall, brown hair, no brain-to-mouth filter. You seen her?”

Lee grinned. “True, true. Just don’t let her catch you sayin’ that to her face. She’s a tough chick; kicked my ass a few times just for lookin’, and that was before she went and got all cozy with her boyfriend.” He angled across the street and leveled a finger at a small green cottage. “She’s been living in the Wilder house since the little old lady moved to Florida. She must be home otherwise she’d probably be standin’ here. Knock first. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Dean blinked. “Gwen’s runnin’ with somebody?”

“Rollin’ around in the ferns, more like,” Lee snorted. Then he clapped a hand onto Dean’s shoulder. “Hey, sorry about your luck, man, but there’s plenty of chicks out there. You’ll find someone!”

Dean nearly choked. “Right. Sure. Thanks anyway, I’m just gonna …” he jerked his head toward Gwen’s house, backing away slowly until he reached the street. Lee watched him go, shaking his head in sympathy.

He passed a white ‘79 Firebird in the driveway, complete with large red wings spanning the front hood. When he knocked on the door, he was rewarded with the click of a hammer pull, and nothing else. He held his hands out where she would be able to see them through the peephole. “Gwen? Lee sent me. I’m not armed.”

“Like hell,” she retorted. “What’s under the jacket, Dean? Don’t tell me just your abs of steel.”

He winced. “Alright, fine. Just my forty-five, okay? I’m not here to hunt you, Gwen. You gotta trust me on this one.”

“The last time I was about to trust you, you took that gun and put a bullet in my chest,” she said flatly. She pulled the door open with one hand, and aimed her pistol at the ceiling with the other. “You coming in or what?”

Dean let his hands drift to his sides.

She turned her back on him and retreated to the kitchen, setting the gun on the coffee table as she went.

He shook his head. That girl was either stupid, or she had some serious balls. He followed her inside. Something about the overstuffed couch and lace doily motif compelled him to wipe his boots on the doormat, and he looked up to see Gwen staring at him with raised eyebrows.

“What,” he grunted, “just because I killed you, that makes me the kind of guy that would track mud all over old lady Wilder’s carpet?”

She handed him a beer still beaded with condensation from the fridge. “Cute.”

He took it.

She studied the shag carpet, hooking her thumbs into her belt loops. “Gideon and his crew ran every am-I-human test in the book on me when I signed on,” she said, “so if you think you’re here to plug a revenant or gank some kind of shifter, you can forget it.”

“Gwen, look -” he started to say.

“Save it,” she said dismissively. “I know what happened. I don’t need an apology. You and me, we’re good as far as I’m concerned.” She looked straight at him then, none of the bravado present that he remembered seeing in her before. “I just want to know why I’m back. You didn’t have anything to do with it?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

She bit her lip. “I figured. But then who … and why?”

He frowned. “I don’t know, but want some advice from personal experience?”

She shrugged.

“Whoever it was, and whatever it is they want, it can’t be good.”

Gwen glared at him. “You think? Gee, and here I was, wandering all alone in the dark like a lost puppy until you came along.” He thought about protesting until she smiled softly. “Relax, I’m kidding,” she said, but she wrapped her arms around herself protectively.

Dean sighed. “We’ll help you, alright? We’re on your side — Sam and me both. We can call Cas down here, get him to check your soul for fingerprints.”

At the angel’s name, Gwen paled, her dark eyes going wide. “You cannot bring an angel to this town! After Leah? Gideon may not mind, but the townspeople around here are still plenty jumpy, Dean. If any one of Gideon’s men caught wind of an angel around here, we’d all be dead. No way, it’s not safe,” she said firmly. “After the hunt, once we’re clear of this town, I’ll go with you. We can do whatever you want.”

“Sounds fair,” he agreed. “Now you wanna tell me how come it looks like the entire compound is packing for an extended vacation?”

She shrugged as if the answer should be obvious. “Skinwalkers have packed up with each other, formed groups. They’re out there, so that’s where we’re going.”

Dean’s eyebrows raised. “Out there? As in, the woods out there?”

Gwen beamed. “Cheer up, Dean,” she said, thumping him in the ribs. “We’re going camping!”

*

Deep inside the woods, two shapes moved quietly through the underbrush. The roof of the world above them was damp and grey, and their voices were muted by softly falling rain.

The first young man’s voice was a low growl. “They’re coming for us, man! I don’t care what Blake says, we have to take them out!” He bent closer toward his friend’s ear as they reached the outer edge of the meeting circle. “We have to do it now.”

“Shut up,” Matty responded, carefully eyeing the others around them. “Let me think.”

Blake stepped from the shadows of the trees, wreathed in mist and hemmed in by the cautious eyes of the pack.

The Shaman appeared behind Blake, and a low noise could be heard on many sides. Abe walked to the center of the circle and rammed his walking stick into the softened earth. The damp breeze dusted over the feathers and shells like a wind chime. The crowd settled and fell quiet.

“There’s been a change of plans,” Blake began. He let them pace quietly and re-organize their thoughts. “Samuel Campbell didn’t show. If he’s still alive, he’s not responding to the call that Gideon sent out.”

A female stepped forward. Her long hair hung in tangles across her shoulders, and her voice dripped with impatience. “And what about his children,” she sneered hungrily, “Are we going to have them instead?”

Abe turned to face her and her skin flushed red. She bowed her head and shrank back into the shadows, but her fingers were curled into claws.

In the answering hush, the fine mist merged into large drops of moisture, playing percussion in the leaves of the canopy around them. Blake walked calmly to the woman and lifted her chin with one finger. She met his eyes defiantly, hatred seething from her very core.

Blake put his hands on her shoulders. “You have suffered,” he said gently, “so much. So much running, so many deaths; the hunters always come for you, don’t they? What’s your name?”

She blinked, surprised, and her shoulders began to tremble under his hands. “Jenny,” she answered, the pained whine of an injured animal threading through the name. The rain fell harder, streaking down her dirt-stained face like tears.

“Jenny, I understand how you feel.”

A hissing sound rose all around the clearing, and everything was suddenly obscured in rolling white clouds of steam. Jenny flinched and tried to pull away, but Blake held her firm. Her eyes went wide with fear as the first of the trees caught fire, popping and snapping loudly under the onslaught of the boiling rain. Yells echoed through the curtains, but her eyes never looked away from his.

The rest of the pack scattered, breaking for the trees. The forest began to flicker and glow as the flames rose, and the heat in the clearing became unbearable.

Her knees gave out, and she sank to the ground and began to sob. Blake put his hand on the top of her head, and she shuddered beneath his touch.

“And now you understand how I feel,” he whispered.

The temperature dropped and the rain cooled, driving the steam and flames away. As the fog cleared, Blake could see the rest of the pack emerging from the woods cautiously, checking their hands and arms for injuries.

Blake’s voice was calm. “Anyone that so much as thinks about going after Gwen -- or her family -- will answer to me. Have I made myself clear?”

The skinwalkers took in the sight of Jenny quaking at Blake’s feet. For a long moment, no one moved, and the only sounds were the beats of the rain and Jenny’s frantic sobs. Finally, an older one stepped hesitantly from the edge of the woods. Blake nodded, motioning him over, and he collected Jenny from the ground and eased her away.

“These new hunters are nothing to joke about,” Blake continued, pushing through the shocked silence. “We promised them a battle and we have to give them one. We need to focus on minimizing the casualties on both sides. The new plan,” he said, “will need some volunteers.”

Matty spoke up quickly. “Anything you need, I am willing and able.” Matty’s friends looked on grimly, muttering to each other behind his back.

“Thank you,” Blake answered. “I need you to act as a decoy for your father. I would have risked having him in the field before, back when the plan was a fruitless, solitary strike. Now that we have a full blown battle on our hands, we can’t afford the possibility of harm coming to him. We have to keep our options open in case our theater changes.” Blake folded his arms behind his back. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but you’ll have to pose as the Ahblycan for the duration.”

Murmurs rose up. Abe began to walk an arc inside the circle, looking from face to face. He stopped before Matty. When Matty nodded, Abe pointed and looked at Blake, signaling his approval.

“Good,” Blake nodded back.

The Shaman left his staff set deep into the earth. He approached Matty and took his face in both hands, his long fingers strong and unyielding. He pulled him forward roughly until their foreheads slammed together and their noses were aligned. The one that had been walking with Matty in the woods made a grab for him, but Matty jerked his arm away, gripping his father’s face equally hard.

They stared closely at each other for several seconds. Lightning passed between their eyes and Matty began to shake, muscles spasming and twitching uncontrollably from the intensity of the alpha’s stare. The electricity started at his head and rolled from his neck into the ground in sheets; wave after wave until his skin began to turn white, peeling and falling away.

Abe took a breath and blew out a forceful puff of air. Matty’s charred body vanished in a cloud of dust that covered them both, black and thick like demon smoke. Seconds later, two wolves rolled out of the cloud, shaking and licking at their coats. Where Matty used to be, a white, heart-shaped face with glacial blue eyes gazed up at Blake in surprise. He twisted his head around to see a new white tail behind him and a reddish-brown and cream version of his old self standing calmly in the dispersing haze. He sneezed.

“Works for me.” Blake nodded in satisfaction as Abe, now the red wolf, returned to his place and curled around the Shaman’s staff. “Part two of this little escapade is that we need to replace as many of the hunters with your kind as we possibly can, between now and then. I know that not all of you have reached that level of skill. Those of you who have will be invaluable for this mission. Any takers?”

Several stepped forward.

“What you do with them in the meantime is up to you. If you have to knock them out and string them up, do it. Remember, this is to save lives. The territory here is going to dictate close encounters. We need hunters shooting wide and blades flying over heads. I’ll be in charge of bringing your father in safely. Understood?”

Several nods surrounded him. The red wolf’s tail swished gently and the white wolf yipped and let out a sharp howl.

“Awesome,” Blake concluded. He raised his hand and poured fire onto a pile of deadwood. The hiss of evaporating water filled the small clearing, and the logs began to glow. “Let’s eat.”

*

Gwen’s eyes fluttered open lazily. Pre-dawn light filtered through the vertical blinds, barely illuminating the edges of the bedroom’s country style furniture. They would need to be out by the trucks soon. Already the air was tinged with anticipation. She sighed, not quite ready yet to get out of bed. Blake’s arm was lying heavily across her hip, and she shimmied out from under him, grateful when he didn’t stir.

She dressed quickly, but slowed down to press her fingertips to the twisting leaves inked into Blake’s bare shoulder. The leaves shifted beneath her touch, touching back; a gentle reminder that his extraordinary story was real, that he wasn’t just some insane figment of her overstressed imagination. She smiled to herself and left him there to sleep.

She opened the kitchen window and put a pot of fresh coffee on. There was wind in the trees, and across the street Riley was motioning at someone, last-minute instructions on where to put the extra Coleman stove.

She was two sips into her first cup when there was a knock on the door. When she opened it, Dean was standing on the other side. He was breathing steadily, like he was trying to count to ten in his head. “I just made coffee,” she offered. “Come on in.”

He followed her to the kitchen and she poured his drink in a dark blue mug that said ‘World’s Greatest Granny!

“Here you go,” Gwen said, and the swivel chair creaked as he sat down, accepting the coffee with a skeptical look at the inscription and a murmured thank you. Something in his stance was setting her nerves on edge. “Dean? Something wrong?”

He cleared his throat and took a careful sip of his coffee, maybe trying to count to ten again. There was a long moment of silence before he set Granny’s mug back onto the table. “Our assignments,” he said finally.

“I’m sorry?”

“Gideon sent out a list of all the teams last night. Want to explain this to me?” Dean produced a typed piece of paper from his jacket pocket and waved it through the air.

“Paper? Well, first some guy cuts down a tree -”

Dean’s fist clenched around the paper, crumpling it in the center. “Explain why the water tribe is down one guy from all the other teams, and your little fire kingdom has Sam as a plus-one.” Dean’s voice had gone cold, interrogation mode, but there was a thread of real concern running underneath the layers of suspicion. “This guy Blake. Sam doesn’t remember him, but he’d said you all hunted together before. Did you?”

Gwen took the paper from Dean. It was the hunting camp’s section list. She had helped Blake split them into the six elemental teams a few nights ago, but it looked like Sam had been moved before they handed out the sheets.

She frowned, her mind spinning even as she pitched her voice with just the right amount of careful nonchalance. “Sure we did, several times. It’s fine, Dean. Nothing to worry about.”

Dean pressed his lips into a thin line and stood, turning away from her. “You know something,” he informed her kitchen cabinets, “Blake called me a few months back looking for Sam, asking about things that were none of his business. I told him to shove off. Now he’s here.” When he turned to face her again, his eyes were brewing storm clouds.

Gwen found herself taking a step back when he pointed his finger accusingly at the dead center of her chest, and she shivered.

“This is my brother’s life,” Dean growled, “so don’t tell me not to worry!”

“Blake wouldn’t hurt Sam,” she protested firmly, discovering her voice again.

Dean huffed. “I asked around. I know Blake designed this little system of yours, which means he wanted to be Sam’s new camp counselor. You called us here, Gwen. Right to this guy. So from where I’m sitting, something stinks in Denmark, and you’re right in the middle of the crap pile. You tell me. Can I trust him? Can I even trust you?”

Something inside snapped a little. “Trust me? You shot me!”

Dean’s eyes flashed. “Anything happens to Sam because you called me here, and I just might do it again!”

“That’s enough, Dean.” Blake’s quiet voice penetrated the charge in the air, jolting them both out of their glaring contest. It rang with authority. “Leave her alone.”

Dean spun toward the new voice. His hand moved for the gun tucked into his waistband, and Blake took a half-step back into the hallway in response; ready stance. Gwen’s heart launched itself into her throat. “Stop it,” she yelled. “He could kill you!”

Both men froze, each assuming that she was yelling at the other. She suddenly wanted to laugh; she didn’t actually know who she would put her money on.

Dean stood down, but he was glaring murderously back and forth between them. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” he hissed. “Blake is the boyfriend?”

Blake leaned a shoulder against the door frame and looked amused. "I'm your boyfriend?"

“Who I … date,” Gwen winced over the word, “is none of your business.”

“The hell it isn’t!” Dean bristled, and it made him seem stronger somehow. Dean’s tone mirrored the one she remembered hearing from Samuel to lay down his laws - flat and deadly - coiled like a spring and ready to strike.

Gwen’s hand inched for the small pistol she kept tucked under the counter.

“What’s your angle?” Dean’s eyes narrowed. “You couldn’t get to Sam, so you decided to use Gwen instead? What do you want with the Colt, Blake?”

“Why?” Blake asked casually. “Did you bring it?”

He mirrored Dean’s expression perfectly, and Gwen was struck by how alike they were. Dean blinked, clearly put off by Blake’s audacity.

“No,” Dean ground out and his fingers clenched into fists.

“Too bad,” Blake sighed. “We really could have used it to take down this alpha.” He paused to let that sink in, then shrugged loosely. “Come on, Dean, relax. Who exactly do you think I am?”

“I think that I don’t know you, and you seem to be awfully interested in my family,” Dean snapped.

“Fair enough,” Blake conceded. “But from where I’m sitting, I’m the guy who backed your brother on dozens of hunts while you were off playing husband. I’ve been with Gwen since before you even met her. All I’ve ever done with your family is try to protect it. Where have you been?”

“You son of a -”

There was a ripple of charged heat in the air, and Dean’s gun hand moved so fast that if she hadn’t already been halfway there, Gwen never would have outdrawn him. “Don’t,” she barked, leveling the pistol to draw a bead right between his shoulder blades. From the way Dean froze, she knew he felt it. Blake seemed to sag against the door frame, and he was breathing rapidly. For a moment, no one spoke.

“I won’t let anything happen to Sam,” Blake said finally, catching his breath as the adrenaline drained away. “You have my word.”

Gwen watched Dean’s shoulders rise and fall. His hands dropped to his sides, and he gave Blake a short, tight nod. “Fine.” The single word was full of threatening promise. He glanced at Gwen, and she lowered the pistol to the counter top. Her hands were shaking. “Thanks for the coffee,” he said. “Better pack it up. We roll in half an hour.”

They both watched him leave, and she winced when the door slammed behind him. Blake came around the counter and took her securely in his arms. The crook of his shoulder was hot, but rapidly cooling against her cheek. She wondered how close Dean had come to getting himself disintegrated. “I’m sorry,” he whispered into the shell of her ear.

“It’s okay,” she sighed. “He’s just protective.”

“Me too.” He kissed her forehead, then laughed softly. “It could have been worse, you know. At least I remembered to put on pants.”

She groaned, swatting him away. Sam and Dean in the same woods with Gideon, Blake, and a whole bunch of greenhorns. This was going to be the camping trip from Hell.

*

Camp watch was selected. The more seasoned hunters in each section were instructed to set up shifts of two men for a twenty-four guard. No one raised an eyebrow at two new hunters being tapped for duty, and Dean had jumped at the chance to get a look around.

Sam shifted his position to relieve a cramp and watched the other side of camp through the binoculars. After a few quiet moments, his neck jerked. “Huh. Unreal. I see them.”

“You do?”

“Yeah,” Sam handed them over and shoved his fists in his pocket to keep them away from the cold. “Two o’clock.”

Dean lifted them and paused over the location. Roy and Walt were gathering up food at a cook station less than one hundred yards from the Impala in camp. “Bingo.”

“Dude, listen. We keep our heads down. We keep to ourselves. We take the reins on the holy roller nurse’s wagon if we have to, but you are not going to blow in and get caught, Dean.”

“I hear you. We keep to ourselves and we keep our distance from each other around camp, just in case one of us gets spotted and needs bailing out. But man, I’m tellin’ you,” Dean grumbled, “ever since we got here, the hair on the back of my neck has been standing straight up. I want to get this over with.”

Sam rubbed his nose and a streak of blackened grease appeared on his upper lip. “Hey, I’m with you. Nobody said that pulling this off was gonna be easy. Gideon isn’t exactly watching our backs.”

“Meaning what?” Dean blinked. “You think he’d blab about us being here, especially since he’s got two new plebes for latrine duty?”

“After what you promised Walt and Roy and the stories they’ve heard, even if Gideon doesn’t say a word, they’re gonna be watching each other’s backs for us anyway.”

“Yeah, well, they should.” Dean returned to his watch duty. “You have something on your face.”

“Where?” Sam rubbed his forehead.

“On your,” Dean turned his head to look, “everywhere.”

Sam pawed at his face and then bent his head to rub it on his jacket sleeve when he heard Dean whisper, “Sammy, don’t move.”

A low growl drifted from the bank of the hill behind them: a spot that was supposed to be covered by another watch post fifty yards to their northwest. A sniffing noise followed the growl and Sam could make out the crisp footpads of two distinct groups advancing on either side of them. He caught Dean’s attention with a small jerk of his head, but Dean waved his hand in front of his own face to indicate that he couldn’t see anything.

Sam risked rolling slowly over onto his back. He reached for the spare rifle and drew his pistol from his jeans with this other hand, flicking the safety off.

A rifle shot rang out from the woods to their right. There was a yelp, and an animal too big to be a dog toppled from the treeline behind them. Its neck skidded and twisted loosely as it went end over end, stopping ten feet from Dean’s boots.

They rolled to their feet. Growls went up around them and two more wolf-like beasts rushed from the opposite side. Sam and Dean opened fire, hitting marks that had managed to get within feet of their position.

Two shooters appeared at the top of the embankment, firing again into the fray. They fired in unison as the last wolf lunged and its body halted in the hail of bullets. It plopped to the ground boneless, its bloody head half-torn away from its spine.

“Got him! I got him! Hawk, did you see that?” Lee was down the hill in three swift jumps and tried to lift the beast from the ground. “Holy mother Mary, he’s massive! Look at them teeth.”

Dean and Sam lowered their weapons. Dean leaned back toward Sam to give him an unmistakable head shake. “Really?”

“Lee, what the hell,” Blake responded, descending with his rifle still tight to his shoulder. “Keep it down.”

“Man, Blake, look. He’s the size of a frikken bear!” Lee whispered and drew his hunting knife to gut and skin it.

Blake grimaced and turned away. His gaze landed on Sam, who had a rifle aimed directly at his face. In the blink of an eye, he fell to one knee just as Sam fired.

A close, canine yelp rose from the edge of the hill that Blake had just walked down. It had been right behind him, waiting to pounce, but he hadn’t seen or heard it. The hillside was overwhelmed with scurrying sounds that melted into echoing gunshots and faded into the distance.

“Woah ...” Lee exclaimed from his spot behind the carcass, then continued his work.

The smile set on Dean’s face was not a smile. “Imagine seeing you two here.”

“Same to you,” Blake said. Clearly shaken, he reached for his rifle and leaned against it to lift himself off the ground. “Are you guys good?”

Sam nodded. “Yeah, we’re fine now, thanks.”

“Anytime,” Blake took one look at Lee and then at Dean and pointed toward the hill with his thumb, “I better be heading back.”

“How’d they get past you?” Dean asked suddenly. “The post behind us has a better sight range.”

A chuckle rose from behind the bloody meat and Lee lifted his head. “Hardly. We walk out here sometimes, take it as it comes. Hawk landed the one that fell in your lap, man. He’s the king.”

“Like I said, I need to head back, take care of the other watch,” Blake repeated quietly. “They weren’t as lucky as you.”

Dean dropped his head back slightly, gauging Blake like he wanted to strap him permanently to a lie detector.

Sam walked forward and extended his hand. “Thanks, man.”

Blake ran his hand through his hair and then took it without meeting Sam’s gaze. “Ditto. Good team and all that,” he replied quietly, then walked away.

Sam glanced over to see Dean’s annoyance turn into anger as he watched Blake’s retreating form. He shook his head and gathered up their gear.

*

The camps were subdivided by section in a clearing on the south-facing side of a lake. Fires were already being lit to stave off the encroaching cold of an early winter night. Most of the vehicles were parked strategically in crescent shapes, affording some protection against intruders.

Dean stalled as long as possible, checking his phone and inspecting their gear, until Sam finally gathered their bedrolls from the trunk and headed toward the fires without him. When Dean caught up, Sam didn’t acknowledge him. The ground crunched under their feet as they walked, stale frozen crisps that turned into earth again at the touch of heat.

“I don’t care where you sleep, Sam, I’m sawing my logs in the car.”

“You’re not staying with your section? But it’s a real camping trip, Dean,” Sam teased. “Did you bring marshmallows?”

“Sure, I brought a big bag and I’m going to stuff them all in your mouth at the same time. By force, if necessary.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “You know what? You suck at pretending that me being around Blake isn’t freaking you out.”

“I’m not freaking out,” Dean objected quickly.

“It’s freaking out,” Sam retorted, “when the chance that he’ll be around makes your idea of keeping a low profile fly right out the door. You won’t tell me what happened to set you on edge about this guy, and I quit asking you because that’s what you wanted.”

“I wasn’t kidding about the car. I hate camping, Sam.” Dean winced into the biting wind and pulled on the collar of his leather jacket. “You know that. We could have a roof over our heads somewhere.”

“Oh yeah, nice and abandoned houses with no running water,” Sam reminded him, “full of rats.”

Dean glared at him sideways.

“Good times,” Sam added.

“Now you’re putting this thing up by yourself.” Dean swung a shoulder downward and the huge green plastic duffel slid from his back and plopped onto the ground, toppling over and rolling almost thirty feet down the grade and into one of the camps.

Dean suddenly looked too beat to play chase, so Sam walked absently after it, stumbling over thoughts of hot dogs on old, dead sticks cooking at a campfire, dead bodies, shadowed halos, stark death, and blurry smiles of contentment on his dad’s face.

A large bonfire was surrounded by pocketed ones in various stages of life, some low and glowing, others bright and licking at pots of food. Blake’s was small. Sam approached at an amble, regarding Blake as he sat on a well-worn camp stool, his booted foot still slung over one end of their duffel, saved from a certain demise in the flames.

“We meet again,” Sam said. Blake didn’t look up at first. He was muttering something under his breath, like someone you’d expect to see on a cell phone. Sam leaned forward just to make sure. “Blake?”

He startled. “Yeah? Oh, hey Sam.”

Sam’s forehead furrowed momentarily. “You alright?”

Blake held his drink in one hand and made a fist with the other, switching hands back and forth a few times. “Yeah. Just running over some strategies in my head.”

“You’re sweating.”

“Guess I’m more nervous than I thought. I could use some good company.” Blake shrugged, but then grinned unexpectedly, running a hand over his sun-bleached hair and scratching the back of his neck. He looked around Sam nonchalantly. “Where’s your brother?”

More than a little weary, Sam took the chance to unwind. “Oh, probably off somewhere pushing baby strollers off cliffs, or drowning kittens ... running over bunnies, maybe.”

Blake chuckled. “Are you fraternizing with the natives, Sam?”

Sam shook his head. “Maybe some other time.”

Dean stepped into the ring of light, wordlessly helping Sam pick up the odds and ends that had escaped from the sack when it rolled down the wash.

“Hello, Dean,” Blake offered.

After a pause, Dean rounded to face him with a meditative tilt of his features.“Man, you have some nerve.”

“Excuse me?”

“I just think it’s convenient … that ever since we got here, you’re around every single time I even think about a piece of bad news. You call up my brother looking for a gun most hunters don’t even know exists. You’re holed up in the one town on Earth that no one in their right head would come to willingly. The closer we got to you and this pathetic stretch of country, the thicker the monsters got. You’re smooth talking everyone and you’re … sleeping with my cousin.” His eyes lacked the smile that slid across his mouth. “So, you are excused … I’d say that’s more than enough reason to steer clear when I see you comin’.”

Blake stifled a sharp laugh by turning it into a cough and an awkward smile. “Oh. I didn’t realize. I owe you an apology.”

That drew a long pause and an actual glance of gratitude from Dean. “Okay.”

”I’m sorry that my eyes are better than yours,” Blake said, smiling.

Gear in hand, Dean marched toward him. “How about you go f—”

“Dean!” Sam interjected, but Dean already had a finger pointed at Blake that rotated back toward Sam’s face.

“— yourself, superstar. You might have all the rest of them convinced that your crap doesn’t stink, but you’re not shining me. When this whole thing blows up in everybody’s face, and it will, he’s not gonna be standing next to you.”

Sam looked stunned.

Blake tilted his head and pulled his phone from his jacket. “Sure, let me just make a note on my calendar. About when is that gonna be, Dean?”

“Go to Hell.”

Nonplussed, Blake rebounded. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Dean gave Sam a stern look, then shot Blake full of arrows with his eyes. “You do that. Sam? I’m going to the car.” He stalked off with his gear slung over his shoulder.

“Vastly more comfortable than Hell,” Blake shot back as Dean disappeared into the dark.

Sam hid a cringe under the guise of retrieving their tent from near Blake’s feet. “If you’re looking to make an enemy, you’re well on your way,” he observed, but instead of shouldering his gear, he started to set up the tent beside Blake’s.

Blake raised his eyebrows. “You’re gonna stay?”

Sam huffed as he snapped the thin black support rods in place. “Trust me, it’ll be quieter down here.”

Looking up at the stars, Blake took a small almanac and journal from his pack on the ground and leafed through the pages. He re-plotted a few astronomical points in the journal, leaving Sam to his work. When he was done, he looked up to find that Sam was finished, too.

He cleared his throat. “I like your brother, Sam, I genuinely do, but I don’t think he likes me very much.”

Sam dusted his hands on his pants and threw his bags into the tent. “You have a funny way of showing it. He’ll come around when you stop being such a dick. He just needs some time.”

“I have my reasons,” Blake said dismissively. “I can’t say that I blame him for being protective of you, especially considering your abilities. And he just got you back, right?”

Sam’s slanted expression turned steely.

Blake held up his hands. “You and I were friends, Sam, trust me. I keep my ear to the ground. It’s not always good things that people say about you and your brother, but I don’t judge a book by its cover.” Blake picked up a nearly empty beer and sipped it pensively. “Sometimes I wait for the movie to come out.”

Sam looked stricken, and he lowered himself to sit cross-legged in the dirt. His face reflected deep feelings as he stared into the fire. After a few minutes, he risked a sideways glance at Blake. “Didn’t know you knew all that.”

Blake offered a friendly smile. “You and Gwen used to be, well, I won’t say close, but let’s say that I know more about you and Dean than most, and I can relate.”

Sam’s head jerked in surprise. “How is that?”

“I’ve been looking for the same thing as you: answers. If I’d had someone like your brother, I probably would have had more luck,” Blake said pointedly. “There were a few things I checked into several years back. I heard about strange family accidents and the like, but the kids always disappeared before I made it, right along with whatever monster had been hunting them.”

Sam’s face went dark and still. “Wait, back up. Monsters were after the psychic kids?”

With a nod, Blake set aside his work for the night. “Yep. Vampires mostly.”

“How would you even know that?”

Blake looked at him incredulously. “Because I’m a scholar of the obscure and weird, and because, uh, they told me.”

“What?” Sam struggled to keep his voice low and he rubbed his fingers across his forehead. “You mean to tell me that a monster ... all monsters are hunting ... just specific children?”

Shaking his head slowly, Blake leaned forward. “Not all monsters, but enough of them. Think about it, Sam. On one hand, there’s prophecies about the end of the world. On the other hand, you’ve got these human kids popping up that can do all kinds of stuff that they shouldn’t be able to do. For any living thing that prefers this life to a Hell on Earth? The smallest indication that a kid wasn’t normal would make that whole human bloodline a target. It’s step one in preventing a hostile demon takeover.”

“They were trying to prevent the apocalypse.”

“Did you and Dean think it was just entirely random?”

Sam blinked, looking into the fire like his entire world had turned upside down. Finally, his jaw twitched, but he wouldn’t look directly at Blake. “Are you one of us?”

“No. Not exactly.” Blake fidgeted. “And if I was, I wouldn’t go around telling people, would I?”

Sam’s shoulders remained tense, but he smiled softly. “No. I guess not.”

“Sam, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or anything.” Blake shuffled the pile of research into his arms and got up.

He walked to his tent, deposited the books, and grabbed a heavier jacket. Pulling the jacket on, he raided the ice chest for another beer and took one last look around. His eyes landed on the plastic bin of dishes. Shrugging the bottle under his arm, he lifted a mostly clean tin mug out of the pile and rubbed the edges clean with the jacket.

When he returned to the fire, Sam was still there. He reached for the communal coffee pot, filled the mug to the brim and handed it to Sam, who blinked as he accepted it. “Sorry. I just ... need to think.”

Blake shrugged his acknowledgement and returned to his chair. He took a rolled cigarette from his jacket pocket and lit it with a long drag, holding his breath while he flicked out the match. Then he grabbed the nearly frozen bottle of beer and held the side of it up to his mouth as he exhaled slowly. The smoke clung to the bottle, and he twisted it around in his hand, watching it move and curl. “Yeah, well, you’ve got a friend here. You always have. You and Dean.”

Sam watched Blake closely. “Right.”

Neither pushed the conversation. They sat in silence while Sam thought and drank his coffee.

“We could start a club,” Blake suggested suddenly and smiled sideways into the neck of his beer.

“Section 5 is kinda lame,” Sam agreed. “How about the All Boy’s Club?”

“We’d need a tree house for that one. Plus Gwen would hit me.”

Sam chuckled and spun the grinds at the bottom of his coffee mug. “The Expendables.”

“Order of the Phoenix.”

Sam looked up, grimacing at the contemplative look on Blake’s face. “Now that’s taking it too far.”

Blake frowned. “What’s wrong with it?”

Sam’s eyes searched Blake’s. “Seriously?”

“It’s a good name,” Blake protested, looking a little uncomfortable.

Sam’s mouth dropped open. “You know all this stuff that nobody else has ever even dreamed of adding up, but somehow you’ve never heard of Harry Potter?”

Blake wrinkled his nose. “Who?”

“Man, that rock you live under must be super cozy,” Sam said, giving up his losing battle.

Blake shrugged. “It only gets the History channel.”

Sam watched Blake turn back to the flames, settling quietly into his chair. There was a comfortable familiarity between them that Sam couldn’t quite put his finger on. They had probably talked late into the night like this before, lots of times. He wished he could remember. He wondered what they really knew about each other. Blake must know way more than average, and Sam found himself wishing that everyone was as accepting of him as Blake was being. That was an uneasy amount of wishing.

It must have been some kind of bond to not seem to suffer in the face of Dean’s anger... or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe the difference was him. In the old times, he would have walked away to follow Dean. He would have knocked on the roof of the car and tried to convince his brother not to lose his cool. But not now. He thought he would miss that need - to be in each other’s business all the time - like Dean obviously did. But now it was like opening a door to find a dark, empty room. There was no reason to go in.

He studied the bottom of the mug peacefully and listened to the sounds of the camp settling for the night. Trees that had been cloaked in yellow and orange from the fires were slipping silently into red. Winds from the north gentled and swayed to the west after sending in a wave of cloud cover.

Blake went to bed. After watching the dying flames for a few more minutes, so did Sam. Heavy silence penetrated the ground, dragging under the minds of hunters lying down for a moment’s rest. It felt like something was watching, but nothing was out there ... no one.

There was screaming everywhere. Voices and sounds and sights turned his blood to ice and his limbs to stone. The only thing that he could move were the muscles under his skin, and he could crawl with them if the surface was smooth enough. He crawled somewhere, anywhere, but it didn’t stop.

They flayed him. His nerves splayed out and took root in the ground where he lay sprawled, forced to drink from the screams and fear and blood of his brother. Whenever he was moved, dragged, ripped from his place, the roots would tear and bleed out. They would grow and be torn out again, an endless garden of souls, cut and withered for the senses of another, tossed into a heap, but never dead.


Sam woke up in the tent, birds cawing and chirping in the trees above him.

Book Two, Part Four

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