Five: If You Go Down To The Woods Today…
In Seattle, an outbreak of swine flu took a serious turn, with over twenty fatalities in one hospital. By the time the CDC took control, over a hundred of the hospital staff were reporting symptoms. By the end of the week, there was serious talk of quarantining the city, but by then it was too late.
What later became known as Seattle Flu spread quickly to neighbouring Auburn and Tacoma. Within days, the first suspected case was reported in Portland. By the end of the week, there were confirmed cases in Vancouver, San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C.
The Seattle Flu reached Rockford, Illinois a month after the initial outbreak, courtesy of a grad. student from NYU who flew home to visit his parents. Kat Grantham, who kept a shotgun loaded with salt under her bed since her encounter with the ghosts of the old Roosevelt Asylum, became infected three days later. She was one of the few who survived the outbreak, but she lived to bury her parents and both of her brothers as the disease swept through her hometown.
There were a lot of dead to take care of in Rockford, so the the funerals were very hurried. After her family was buried, Kat took the contents of her father’s bank account and her own – almost $6,000 in total – filled her car with her possessions and drove out of town. She hit the I80 out of state and just kept going.
“I don’t get it,” Jo said. “What are we hunting?”
Dean grinned. “Me.”
Sam saw Jo’s look turn wary. “It’s a training exercise our Dad used to make us do. We’d take turns being the prey.”
Dean was stacking branches over the Impala. The job almost complete, he turned to face the others. “There are four rules,” he announced, for Jo’s benefit. “One: you can take anything you think you’ll need from the car, but once we start you can’t come back for anything. Two: everyone has to be back here two hours before dark. That’s eight twenty, but if I haven’t been caught the game is still on until we’re all here.”
“Meaning,” Sam interrupted, “that Dean has to be last back if he’s gonna win.” He winked at Jo.
Dean gave him a dirty look. “Oh, I’m gonna win, princess. Three: I get twenty minutes head start. Four: the winner picks the prize.” He smiled at Jo. “You and Sam can work together and share the prize or make it a three-way contest. Your call.”
“Jo,” Sam asked, “is your cell phone working out here?”
She checked it. “I’ve only got one bar, but it’s working.”
“Call if you get into trouble. All of us. This is just training. No one should get hurt.”
Dean nodded his agreement. “You both ready?”
“Ready.” They spoke together.
Dean threw the Impala’s keys to Sam. “Start the clock.” He took off at a run before Sam had even caught the keys.
Sam turned to the trunk quickly. “It’s best to travel light, Jo. Grab what you think you’ll need.” He reached for a coil of rope.
“Dean didn’t take anything,” Jo commented, opening her backpack and starting to look through the haphazard gear in the trunk.
“Of course he did,” Sam disagreed. “Didn’t you notice what he was wearing?”
“But he didn’t take a pack or – ”
“Dean didn’t want us to see, that’s all.” Sam added bottled water to his pack and a handful of Hershey bars for energy. Then he stopped, considering what Jo had said.
Dean had been wearing his black jacket rather than his favourite leather coat. The jacket was bulky and could conceal a lot, and Dean was a master at concealing his weapons. But Jo was right. Dean couldn’t have hidden water under that jacket, not if he’d packed an adequate supply. Sam grinned at her. “Or maybe he’s planning to double back. What do you think?”
“He said we can’t do that.”
“Yeah. About those rules,” Sam shrugged. “Dean left out rule 5: anything goes as long as we’re back before dark. Dad never sweated the rules. Dean won’t either. So what do you think?”
Jo considered. “I agree, he might be planning to double back. But we can’t wait around and hope. We’ll lose the trail.”
Sam nodded. “Either we split up and one of us stays close to the car…”
“No. I’m not babysitting the car! I came out here for training.”
“Then we follow Dean’s trail and stay alert for misdirection.” Sam zipped up the pack and swung it onto his back. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Jo agreed. She hoisted her own backpack onto her shoulders and led the way into the woods.
Dean watched them go from his hiding place in the undergrowth. They hadn’t waited twenty minutes, but then, he hadn’t really expected them to. He estimated he had five minutes, max, before Sam figured out what he’d done. He ran to the Impala and pulled out the supplies he’d prepared earlier. Rather than a backpack, Dean used a canvas duffel he could carry with the strap across his torso. Inside he had a couple of knives, shotgun, ammo, rope, water, food and a basic medkit. The medkit was an old habit: he didn’t expect to need it.
He checked the trail to see which way Sam and Jo had gone then took off in a different direction. Dean was careful to leave as little trail as possible at first, but before long the undergrowth was so thick he stopped trying: the only way he could conceal his trail was to fly, or maybe swing tree-to-tree like Tarzan. But he didn’t see any vines around.
The path Dean followed was not exactly familiar, but he did have a destination in mind. The wood was approximately circular on a map, but that was misleading. From where they had left the Impala, the ground sloped upward quite sharply. If you kept going up, you’d eventually reach a place where the side of the hill had broken away, perhaps in some long-ago earthquake. The cliff-face was full of small caves, but getting to them required at least a rope and safety equipment. Dean planned on leaving a trail most of the way to the top, then heading down a steep, but safer rock pathway toward the base of the cliff. From there he could circle back toward the car while Sam and Jo wasted their time searching the caves.
At least, that was Dean’s plan.
It all changed about halfway up the hill. Dean had been following a natural pathway that might have been a game trail. There was wildlife in the wood: small animals like rabbits and mice and larger game like deer. Dean had never seen large predators here but even a city-boy like him knew that where there’s game, there are animals that feed on game. Coyotes or wolves, maybe even bears. There could be human hunters, too – not his kind of hunter but locals after sport or a free meal.
So when Dean first saw the thing caught in what looked like a bear-trap, he wasn’t too surprised. What he saw was a mass of raw flesh, one leg outstretched and trapped in the metal jaws. Dean figured it was dead before the smell hit him. It didn’t smell like rotten meat, but it seemed familiar in a disgusting kind of way. The familiarity of the stench made him look again.
Oh, God, it was human! Dean moved closer. He could make out the shape more clearly: a naked, human-shaped figure. Naked? Out here? That was weird enough that he had to look more closely. Dean covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve, trying to block out that awful smell, and took a step closer.
And the thing moved.
It stretched out a bloody hand toward him and Dean saw eyes, a face filled with pain, distorted. He couldn’t tell if it was young or old, male or female, but it seemed human.
“Help me,” it rasped.
Dean thought he’d seen the worst things imaginable in Hell, but this came damned close. He moved closer still, sliding down into the gully, his only thought to answer that plea for help.
Then he stopped, finally remembering where he’d smelled something like this before. He knew what this thing was now…and it was definitely not human.
When Dean called, Sam knew at once that something must be very wrong. Dean wouldn’t call in the middle of this game unless he was in trouble. Dean’s first words only confirmed Sam’s fear.
“Game over, Sam.”
“What’s wrong?” Sam demanded urgently. “Where are you?”
“I’m okay, Sam, but I’ve found something. You need to see this. Which way did you go? Straight up the hill?”
“More or less,” Sam admitted.
“You suck at tracking, dude! Go back to my car. Bring the large medkit and silver bullets.”
“Silver? What the hell?”
“Yeah. Silver. Take the left slope then follow the path above the gully.”
Sam wanted to ask more, but he signalled to Jo. “We’re on our way. Sure you’re okay?”
“I’m not hurt. But someone – something – else is.” Dean ended the call without explaining further.
But he’d said enough. Dean asked for silver: that meant some kind of shape-shifter. He’d found something hurt. It was unlikely to be a werewolf, since it was daylight. There were other shape-shifting creatures…what Dean had found was anybody’s guess.
Sam repeated Dean’s words to Jo as they headed back to the Impala.
The smell told Sam what they would find before they saw it. He knew that smell. Shape-shifter. The human kind. He looked at Dean, a hundred or more questions on the tip of his tongue.
Before he could ask even one, Jo shoved past him and jumped into the gully. “It’s alive!” she called. “Help me!” She dropped her pack as she ran toward it and crouched beside the cruel trap, drawing her knife.
“Jo! Don’t!” Dean shouted.
She looked up, her eyes flashing angrily. “He’s hurt. How could you leave him like this?”
“Sweetheart, that ain’t a he,” Dean objected.
She gave him an exasperated look. “We’re hunters. I get that. But that’s no excuse to torture a helpless…person.”
“It’s not a person, either.” Dean strode toward her. “And when I decide to torture something, I’ll be a lot more creative than this. Trust me.”
“Yeah, you’re badass,” Jo said dismissively. “We can talk about relative ethics later. Help me. Now!”
Sam watched Dean jump to obey and wondered why he hadn’t tried to free the ’shifter sooner. Did Dean ask for silver bullets because he meant to kill it? Then why request the medkit, too? He stared at Dean, a horrible thought crossing his mind. They’d dealt with shape-shifters before…could he be sure Dean was himself? But this scene made no sense as a deception or a trap. Why would a ’shifter call a pair of hunters for help when one of them was clearly vulnerable?
Dean hesitated when he got close to the trap, but at a glance from Jo he knelt down. He took the two sides of the trap in his hands.
“Wait a second,” Dean said, sitting back on his heels. He stripped off his coat, then his shirt. He wrapped the shirt around one hand and reached for the trap again.
Sam moved forward, pulling off his own jacket. He shook it out and laid it across the ’shifter’s body. If they were going to help, there was no sense in doing it halfway.
Dean pushed apart the teeth of the trap, his muscles bunching with the effort. His expression was simple disgust. The shape-shifter whimpered as Jo lifted its leg out of the trap. Its eyes rolled upward toward Sam’s face. It was hard to hate something in so much obvious pain. Sam found himself reaching for his water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and held the bottle to the ’shifter’s lips.
To change shape, ’shifters literally shed their skin, ripped it from their bodies to reveal the new shape beneath. It looked to Sam as if this one had been stopped mid-shift. Strips of its discarded skin lay all around, the source of the horrible stench, but instead of fresh, clean skin underneath its body was torn, the raw edges of wounds still bloody. Sam would have understood what he was seeing if the trap were silver, but it seemed to be regular steel.
“Thank you,” the ’shifter whispered as Sam withdrew the bottle.
“The leg is broken,” Jo announced. Her fingers moved across the skin; she seemed to know what she was doing. “It’s a complete break. I don’t know if I have the strength to set it.” She looked at Dean expectantly.
Sam and Dean looked at each other. They each knew more than basic first aid and in a pinch they could both improvise, trying things they’d really only learned from TV, but Sam had never tried to set a leg this badly broken. He wasn’t sure about Dean, but even if Dean knew how, would he volunteer? For a shape-shifter? Dean hated those things, and with good reason.
Dean shrugged. “I guess the ER isn’t an option. We’ll need something for splints.”
Jo nodded, a little pale. “I’ll cut some wood,” she offered, drawing her knife.
Sam met Dean’s eyes questioningly. Was Dean trying to impress Jo? Why was he willing to help?
Dean gave a small shake of his head: he would explain later, the gesture said.
Okay then. Sam looked down at their patient. “I think we should get you onto your back,” he suggested, making his tone gentle. “Can you move?”
The injured ’shifter tried. It moved weakly. Sam didn’t want to put his hands on the thing but in the end he swallowed back his revulsion and helped it roll over. He couldn’t help noticing that the naked creature had no visible sex organs. He couldn’t tell whether that was because it hadn’t fully shifted or because that was its natural form…if a word like “natural” could ever apply to a creature like this.
Then Sam remembered what the shape-shifter in St. Louis had told Becky. They believed they were a mutation from humans, perhaps even an evolution. Though he had lived with the supernatural all his life, Sam understood evolutionary biology and he thought it was at least possible. That was a disturbing thought. He moved his coat again to cover the ’shifter’s body.
“We’re trying to help you,” Sam said, looking down into the creature’s liquid dark eyes, “but this will hurt like hell.” He looked around for something to place between the ’shifter’s teeth, but saw nothing. He drew Ruby’s knife from his boot. “Here, bite down on this.” He offered the hilt.
“Can’t,” it rasped.
“Sam, make it fast,” Dean urged.
Sam knew he was about to lose his nerve and nodded. “Then take my hand,” he offered reluctantly. The ’shifter obeyed, its fingers curling around Sam’s. Sam nodded to Dean.
Dean nodded back grimly. He winced as he felt his way around the break with this fingers. The injury was clearly visible: both bones in the lower leg were broken above the ankle, the leg bent in a place it shouldn’t bend. There were puncture wounds around the break from the teeth of the bear trap. Dean grasped the ’shifter’s foot with both hands, one hand at the heel, the other above the toes. “Slow and steady,” he muttered to himself, then began to pull.
The ’shifter gripped Sam’s hand and screamed. Had it been stronger it would have tried to get away. As it was, the ’shifter writhed, unable to keep still. Dean’s hands slipped. Sam felt the ’shifter’s reaction.
“Keep it still, Sam!” Dean demanded, the strain evident in his voice.
Sam leaned over, using his free hand to hold the ’shifter down. Immediately he understood Dean’s dislike of touching it. The flesh under his hand felt…squidgy. Really gross. He pulled a face and glanced up at Dean just as Dean released the limb he held, laying it down carefully. Dean ran his fingers over the leg once more.
“It’s straight…I think it’s set right.”
“It looks right,” Sam agreed, relieved to be able to get his hands off the ’shifter. He rubbed his hands on his pants.
“Can’t believe we’re even doing this,” Dean muttered. He looked around for Jo. She was there, at the top of the gully, watching them. Her face was pale, her eyes a little too wide as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing.
Jo recovered quickly, though. She held up the wood she carried and jumped down into the gully. “I have splints.”
Dean took the wood from her. “Jo, can you find your way back to my car? And find us again?”
She frowned. “I think so.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Yes. I’m sure.”
“There are some canvas sheets under the back seat. We’ll need them all. Blankets, a little gasoline and…there’s a sealed tobacco tin in the trunk, right at the back. Says ‘Finest Cuban’. Bring that, too.”
“You sure, Dean?” Sam asked, startled. The tin contained a small supply of morphine. They kept it on hand in case of emergencies but their painkiller of choice, if over-the-counter meds wouldn’t do, had always been alcohol.
“I think he needs it, Sam.” Dean nodded toward the ’shifter. It lay on its back whimpering softly.
Sam tossed the keys to Jo.
A few hours later, they had a half-decent camp. Sam and Dean carried the ’shifter out of the gully, none of them willing to remain among all that stench. They cleared a space at the top of the gully, dug a pit for a fire and, when Jo returned, divided up the blankets and canvas. It was a long time since they’d slept rough like this, out in the open air. The last time, Sam realised, was at Blackwater Ridge when they hunted that wendigo.
The shape-shifter seemed much improved. An old pair of Dean’s sweats covered the set and splinted leg. They had given him a shot of the morphine for the pain. Food and drink had made a difference, too. He – Sam found he thought of it as a he – still looked like an axe-murder victim because Dean had told him if he shifted he’d get a silver bullet, but he was sitting up and able to talk, though he didn’t have a lot to say.
Sam added more wood to the fire. He didn’t know how much the temperature might fall during the night. The fire might be needed.
Jo dumped an armful of wood next to Sam then sat down beside the ’shifter. “You got a name?” she asked.
He looked surprised. “I’m Ten.”
“I’m Jo.” She offered her hand. “Ten? As in the number?”
Ten took her hand briefly. “It’s a dumb nickname. My real name is Moore but no one calls me that. Dudley Moore starred in Ten. The movie.”
“What are you doing here?” Jo asked. “This isn’t a place most people come alone.”
Ten looked down, silent. “I was…walking,” he said eventually. “Alone.”
Sam met his brother’s eyes and saw Dean thinking the same thing he was. That was a lie. Just what was a ’shifter doing in these woods? They both turned to Jo and Ten.
“Why?” Dean demanded.
Ten shook his head. “You’re hunters.”
“Not that kind.” Dean jerked his head, indicating the bear trap down in the gully.
“You threatened me with silver. I know what kind of hunter y’all are.” Ten looked up at Dean. “Am I a prisoner?”
Dean stalked toward him and crouched down. “Now why would we want to keep you prisoner?”
Ten started to say something, stopped and tried again. “You’re hunters.”
“We’re not murderers,” Jo said gently, “but we need to know why you are here.”
Ten turned to Jo. “Can I ask a question before I answer that one?” When Jo nodded, he asked, “Do you kill people like me?”
Jo answered at once, “I never have.” She looked at Dean.
“We have,” he said bluntly. “Three, so far.”
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
“Because you haven’t done anything to deserve it. As far as we know. But trust me, if I find out you need killing, I will do it.”
Ten shuddered. “Some humans do terrible things,” he said. “But you don’t hate all of them because a few are evil.”
“Yeah, right,” Dean scoffed. “I bet you’re Mother Theresa.”
“I never killed anyone. We just want to live like normal people.”
“Normal?” Dean repeated derisively.
“We?” Sam said at the same time.
Ten would only look at Jo. “My family. There were twelve of us. Now there’s just five. We came here to hide.”
“Hide from whom, Ten?” Jo asked, her voice gentle, coaxing. “Hunters?”
A smile flashed across Dean’s face, quickly stifled. “Demons killing ’shifters?” he said approvingly.
“That fits with what Lenore told us,” Sam commented. “She said that Lu- that he would go after supernatural creatures.”
“So, there are other shape-shifters here?” Jo pressed. “In the wood?”
Ten nodded, clearly reluctantly. “We have…a place.”
“In the caves,” Dean said. It wasn’t a question. “You may as well tell us. You won’t get back there without help.”
Ten nodded again. “Yes. In the caves.”
Dean looked at Sam, who shrugged. Your call. He wouldn’t tell Dean what they should do. Not when ’shifters were involved.
Dean rolled his eyes at Sam’s indecision. “Let’s all get some rest,” he suggested eventually. “When it’s light, we’ll see if we can get you back to…your friends.”
Dean took first watch, sitting back from the fire with his shotgun across his lap. It was boring, but he wouldn’t sleep well knowing a pack of ’shifters was out there and with no one on watch.
Not long before Dean intended to wake Sam, he saw Jo stir and, a few minutes later, get up. Jo hadn’t slept well: Dean had been aware of her tossing and turning all the time he’d been watching. Perhaps she just wasn’t used to sleeping this rough. Or perhaps it was more than that: he remembered Ellen’s concern and understood Jo hadn’t been sleeping well for a long time. Jo stood up, wrapping her blanket around her shoulders. She knelt beside their banked fire.
“Cold?” Dean called softly.
Jo looked his way, her face in shadow. “Yeah. And if you dare say I’m soft – ”
“Why do you always assume I’m going to insult you?”
Jo actually thought about it. “I guess because you did before. That schoolgirl crack really hurt me.”
Dean frowned. He had never in his life called her a schoolgirl. “Jo, that was a demon lying to you.”
“But you were thinking it, even if you never said it to my face,” she accused.
Dean couldn’t deny it, though he would never have said it in such cruel terms. He had thought she was too young, and too untrained to be a hunter. He got up and crossed to the fire, crouching down beside her. “Jo, I’m not going to apologise for thinking you weren’t prepared for this life. But that was then. I wouldn’t have let you come training with us if I thought you couldn’t hack it.”
His words were meant to be reassuring, but Jo flared up as if he’d insulted her…again. “I grew up around hunters, Dean. I – ”
“I get it,” Dean interrupted.
She was holding her hands out toward the fire, warming them.
“Jo, if you’re cold, we could sleep together,” Dean suggested.
She jerked her hands back from the fire and stared at him.
“I didn’t mean that,” he protested. “I mean, you’re cold. Body heat will help. You’re safe with me, I swear.”
“Aren’t you on watch?” she asked sceptically.
“I was just about to wake Sam. C’mon, Jo. You need to rest.”
She nodded, rubbing her hands together. “Okay.”
After Dean woke Sam and passed him the shotgun, he and Jo lay down together on bedding still slightly warm from Sam’s body. Sharing the bed meant they had an extra blanket, too. Jo took a while to relax, but eventually she lay against Dean’s side and allowed him to hold her.
It felt good to hold her. It felt good to lie down with another human being so close, her body warm against his. Dean did not intend to make a move on her. If he had any interest in Jo, a forest gully with Sam watching them would not have been his choice of venue. Even so, he caught himself stroking her hair. Jo sighed sleepily and leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Dean?” she whispered.
“What did you say earlier about vampires?”
Dean had been drifting off to sleep; her question brought him back to wakefulness. Vampires…had they been talking about vampires?
“Something about the apocalypse?” Jo prompted.
“Oh, that. According to Lenore, Lucifer hunted down the other supernatural creatures last time he was free. She thinks the same thing will happen again.”
“You believe her?”
“I don’t think she had any reason to lie. It fits with the ’shifters being here, too.”
“Do we care? I mean…”
“They’re monsters, Jo. I’d wipe them all out myself if I could so I don’t care what kills ’em. Except for one thing.”
“You’re a hunter, Jo. Can’t you figure it out?”
She groaned. “I’m too tired to think. Clue me in.”
“They’re more dangerous when they’re being hunted. If Lenore’s right, I think we’ve got a lot more than demons to worry about.”
“Shit. Dean, what’s the good news?”
He smiled in the darkness. “There’s two hours until dawn. Get some sleep, honey.”
Jo pulled a little away from him. “Honey?” she repeated. She sounded like she’d caught him with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Go to sleep, Jo.”
Dean tried to get up without disturbing the woman in his arms. Jo mumbled something in her sleep and rolled onto her side. He extricated himself from the blankets and headed for Sam and the ’shifter. They were arguing. Only in whispers, but it sounded like a serious fight. It had been going on long enough to wake Dean up.
“What’s the deal?” Dean demanded.
Sam turned to Dean. “He wants to shift into one of us.”
“No freaking way!” Dean’s response was automatic.
“I don’t want to shift,” Ten protested. “I have to. I can’t hold one shape forever. Shifting will help my leg heal faster, too.”
“So shift. That doesn’t explain why you want to steal Sam’s face or mine.”
“It’s easier if I have a model.” Ten gestured to his own face, which bore the scars of his injuries. “Look what happened last time I tried to shift without one. Or did you think I wanted to look like Freddy Kreuger’s uglier brother?”
But Dean was adamant. “I know how your shifting works. You have some kind of psychic connection to the people you pretend to be.”
The ’shifter nodded.
“So no way in hell am I letting you into my head. Sam?”
“Same here,” Sam agreed.
“God, I never knew you were such a pair of wusses!” Jo called.
Both men turned to see her walking toward them.
“Jo, it’s not – ” Sam started to protest.
“If you don’t want to spend another night in these woods, we have to adopt him, kill him, or take him back to his people. I vote for door number three. Sam?”
Sam looked surprised. “Yeah. Number three,” he agreed.
“Dean?” Jo turned to him.
Dean shrugged. “Sure. Walking into a den of ’shifters is right there on my list of ten things to do before I die.” He started to turn away, then glanced back over his shoulder, raising a hand as if something just occurred to him. “Oh, wait. I already did that.” His voice was heavy with sarcasm.
“Went into a den of ’shifters?” Jo asked.
“No. Died. Jo, are you nuts?”
“I just want to finish what we started. And if you can get past your stubbornness for long enough, I think they might know some things you’d find useful. What do you think?”
“I think we shouldn’t have messed with him in the first place.”
“You’re full of shit, Dean Winchester. If you really believed that, you wouldn’t have called Sam yesterday.”
She had a point, but Dean scowled. “Are you done?”
Jo turned to the ’shifter. “Isn’t there someone else you can become? Someone you know?”
Ten nodded. “Usually, yes, but that’s what I tried to do yesterday.”
“And it didn’t work,” Jo concluded for him. “I get it. What about a photograph?” Jo dug into her jeans pocket and produced a leather billfold. From it, she extracted a worn photograph. “This man, maybe?”
Ten glanced at the picture, but he didn’t look hopeful. “It’s too small, but…” he looked at Jo, “is this a man you know very well?”
Dean knew it was Ash in the picture when she answered, “He was a good friend. He died a few years ago.”
“Then, I could take his shape from your memory of him. I mean, if you will allow me.”
Jo took a step back. “I don’t want you in my head any more than they do.”
Ten nodded, bowing his head. “I understand. But if you think about him, really concentrate, I won’t see anything else. I only need to touch your mind for a moment. I promise you can trust me.”
Jo turned to Dean, her eyes appealing for help. Hey, sweetheart, you’re the one who called me a wuss. You make your own call on this one. He shrugged. She tried Sam, but he wouldn’t help her either. Finally, she looked back to Ten. “Alright. What do we have to do?”
“Just think about him, really hard. I’ll touch you for a moment.”
Jo nodded and closed her eyes.
She was an idiot to do this, but Dean wanted out of this wood, and they couldn’t go until Ten was taken care of. He watched Ten reach out and touch Jo’s cheek briefly with the tips of his fingers. Then he stepped back and touched his own face with the same hand.
Abruptly, Dean remembered how these things changed shape. He took Jo’s arm and turned her around so she wouldn’t see him. “You don’t want to watch this, Jo. Trust me.” He held both of her arms – lightly, no force involved – to keep her back to the ’shifter as it tore off its own skin.
But in his concern for Jo, Dean failed to appreciate just how much the sight would push all his own buttons. He couldn’t look away without showing Jo – and Sam – the great gaping hole in his psyche. Ripping off its skin might be natural for the ’shifter; for Dean it was a flashback to Hell, to the hundreds of souls he’d tortured in just this way. Memories he had repressed for a year with booze and iron will rose to the surface. The scent of the ’shifter’s discarded skin reached him, but what Dean smelled was blood and sulphur. He swallowed back the bile rising in his throat, gritted his teeth and tried harder than he ever had before to keep his expression neutral.
It was a relief to Sam when the change was over. He could see Dean struggling, and thought he understood why, and he could see Jo’s impatience. It was a big improvement for Ten, too. Jo’s mental image of Ash must have been very good: Ten was an almost perfect copy, right down to the small scars on his hands from welding and penknife-cuts. Only his voice, which was unchanged, broke the illusion that this was Ash standing before them.
Finally, they were able to set off. Ten was able to walk, but not without help. Sam ended up being his crutch as they climbed the hill toward the caves. Dean walked ahead while Jo brought up the rear. All three hunters were armed with silver.
The overall terrain of the wood was familiar to Sam, because he’d spent so much time training there as a kid. But childhood was a long time ago and he saw a lot that was unfamiliar. Left to nature, the woodland was in a constant state of change.
Ten had told them there were five ’shifters in his family, so as they came close to the place, Sam expected to see some signs of habitation. But as they drew near to the caves, Sam began to suspect something was…off. What he remembered as an area of dense woodland had been cleared. There were stumps where trees had been cut down. One one side of the clearing stood a large pile of timber, neatly stacked. The open space, cleared of undergrowth, had grass shortened and flattened by the passage of many feet.
As he spied the clearing ahead, movement caught Sam’s eye and he turned toward it. “Dean!”
Dean stopped in his tracks and signalled to Jo to do the same.
Sam gripped Ten’s arm hard. “How many?” he demanded.
“Sam, what?” Jo asked. She sounded confused.
“Look around,” he told her tensely.
Dean and Jo both took notice and Sam, too, studied their surroundings more closely, still holding Ten’s arm with a bruising grip. He saw movement behind a thick tree trunk. A figure lurking in the branches above. Another in the shadows further away. Four…five…ten…twenty. More. And every single one of them was armed. Sam saw the glint of light on handguns; one dark figure carried an axe; he saw shotguns and rifles. Hell, he even spotted a bowman. He saw Dean pale slightly as he took in the same sights.
“You son of a bitch,” Dean muttered. He drew his gun.
“Dean,” Sam warned. Even with silver bullets, they were so outnumbered it felt unreal. Sam shook Ten’s arm roughly. “If this is a trap,” – Sam had no doubt it was exactly that – “you die first.”
“There is no need for that,” a woman’s voice said clearly. She emerged from behind the woodpile. The woman was a very striking figure. Had she not been a shape-shifter, Sam would have guessed she was part Native American, part African American and perhaps with some Polynesian ancestry, too. She had long, dark hair, dark skin and exotic features, perhaps not beautiful but not a face any man would soon forget. Of course, it wasn’t really her face. She kept her hands in the pockets of her long, grey coat as she walked toward them, making Sam wonder if she held a weapon there.
Sam met Dean’s eyes, silently telling him to take the lead on this. He waited for his brother’s answering nod before he drew his own gun. He clicked the safety off but held the gun at his side, pointed at the floor rather than aimed.
Dean stepped up to meet the woman. “We’re not lookin’ for trouble,” he announced.
Sam let out his breath. Knowing Dean’s hatred of shape-shifters, he’d half-expected Dean to gun her down.
“Neither are we.” The woman’s voice carried and she looked at Ten. “But we will defend our own.”
“We didn’t hurt him,” Dean objected. We found him caught in a bear trap.”
“One you and your companions set?” she asked archly.
“Then release him.”
Dean looked around them pointedly. “And what then? We go in peace?”
The female ’shifter hesitated.
“Yeah,” Dean smiled without humour. “That’s what I thought.”
Sam tensed. This could get ugly.
“They helped me, Gita!” Ten called to her.
She gazed at him for a moment, then her eyes returned to Dean. “We came here for safety. We are harming no one.”
“So we’ve heard,” Dean answered carefully.
“You don’t believe it.”
“I never met a ’shifter that wasn’t a killer.”
She looked disgusted. “I never met a hunter who wasn’t, either.”
“Then I guess we have a problem. See, we didn’t come here to hunt. But we are leavin’, lady. I got no problem leaving a massacre behind us if that’s the way you want it.”
“Release him and we’ll talk.”
Dean turned to Sam. He nodded. Sam thought it a bad idea, but he had to back Dean’s play. He released Ten’s arm. “Go.”
Ten took a step forward. He was tired from their long walk and moving forward without help was difficult for him, but he managed to limp those few, painful steps to the woman’s side.
Sam moved up to stand with Dean. “My brother is telling the truth. We didn’t come here to hunt you. We found Ten injured. We did our best to help and brought him to you.”
She considered his words. “Will you all give your word to tell no one what you have seen here?”
Sam would have simply lied. He expected Dean to do the same, or to refuse. But Dean said, “If you’re not a threat to anyone, we won’t tell. But if I read one story about some poor schmuck being in two places at once within a hundred miles of here, or any mysterious suicides or inside jobs by employees with perfect records, we’ll be back. And we won’t be alone. You understand me?”
She looked into Dean’s eyes. “How do I know you are trustworthy?”
Dean shrugged. “You don’t. But we could have killed him when we found him. We didn’t. We could have left him there, and by now he’d be screaming in agony. We didn’t.”
“May I have your name?”
That was a tricky one. The name Winchester was known, mostly because of their father’s reputation but in part because of their own. If she knew that Dean Winchester had good reason to bear a grudge against ’shifters, she wouldn’t trust them.
Jo came forward and interrupted quickly. “Harvelle,” she said. “I’m Jo. This is Dean and Sam.”
The female ’shifter nodded. “Very well, Dean Harvelle. I will take you at your word.” She smiled. “Go in peace.”
“That was insane!” Jo declared when the Impala was finally clear of the wood.
Dean laughed, and Sam thought only he heard the hysterical edge in his brother’s laughter.
“It got hairy for a while, didn’t it?” Dean asked rhetorically. “That was fast thinking, Jo, giving them your name instead of ours.”
“Are we going to tell?” Jo asked.
Dean glanced back at her. “We should.”
Sam reached out to turn the music down. “I’m not so sure, Dean. They hadn’t just arrived in the wood. Those ’shifters have been there for months. Maybe even years.”
“What’s your point, Sam?”
“If they’re a threat, some other hunter would have found them by now.”
“Maybe they did. And lost,” Dean pointed out.
“Why don’t you let me do some research first?” Sam suggested. “If I find any hint that they’re a danger, we’ll put the word out.”
Dean grinned at him. “Research? Now I know you’re back to normal.”