Xayacatl

The Call of the Mask

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It really hadn't been one of Dean's better days.

He hit the floor, hard; the momentum throwing the full weight of his body forward onto his injured collarbone. The explosion of pain mushroomed, obliterating his senses as it engulfed the world. His vision fuzzed and blurred, a furry rainbow strobing like the feed from a bad antenna. Disorientated, Dean lost track of where his limbs were, of where he was. His head rang with a heavy, bell jar soundlessness. He scrabbled to take the pressure off his injury, but his movements were sluggish and off balance, sending his stomach into a sickening barrel roll as the fire in his shoulder continued to blaze.

"Dean!" He heard Sam's frantic warning, but it came too late, from somewhere far, far away.

Seconds later and the elder Winchester was yanked upwards with a violence that nearly tipped him over. He grunted in surprise, only managing to draw half a breath before an arm encircled his throat and squeezed. Inky blots replaced the colours in his vision and he gagged, swallowing abruptly as the cold, predatory barrel of a gun prodded him below the ribs. He felt himself being pulled backwards by the throat while the gun jabbed insistently. Losing his footing, he choked as his Adam's apple bounced off the beefy forearm that held him.

"Steady now." Billy's voice in his ear. "No funny business!"

Billy?

Sonofabitch! Dean raged silently, impotently; furious that the older man – his friend – had gotten the drop on him. But...what the hell? This was Billy. The guy who'd saved his life. The man who'd served alongside his father.

"Let him go!" Sam demanded, livid; the words booming around the hangar. With cold determination, the younger man raised the gun he'd used to take out Manning and aimed steadily at Billy. His breathing was laboured, blood still trickling from his nostrils and from the split skin at the corner of his mouth, and Dean could tell his brother was scared. And as much as he hated Sam having to come to his rescue, Dean hated seeing that even more.

The arm tightened around his throat. Struggling for air, Dean fought through the haze, trying to calculate the angle of Sam's shot. Damn, it was going to be close.

"You're not gonna shoot me," Billy wheezed. "I'll blow another hole through your brother before you can even blink."

Sam's jaw clenched, his eyes venomous.

"Now, I want that mask, and you're gonna give it to me." Billy's voice hardened, and he took another step backwards, dragging Dean with him.

Don't even think about it, Sammy! Dean wanted to growl, but the elder Winchester's protest never made it past his lips as Billy choked him once more. He saw Sam jerk in response, but the kid stayed true to his training, his aim never wavering.

"All this..." Sam sneered, staring at Billy with unbridled disgust. Dean could tell the kid was stalling, desperately trying to think of a plan. His eyes darted to Dean every few seconds, and the elder Winchester tried to help him, to reassure him, but his thoughts were becoming more and more syrupy; his oxygen dwindling. "All this for that damned mask! You were after it all along, weren't you?"

Dean felt the gun press harder into the tender flesh below his ribs and he couldn't suppress a wince. A gut shot. As far away as they were from help, there was no way he'd survive it.

"You have any idea how much people will pay for this thing?" Billy laughed, and Dean's heart plummeted. "More'n enough to make it worth droppin' a few bodies." Dammit, but Sammy had been right all along. It all made sense now, his brother's uneasy suspicion. Clearly the former marine had only ever been out for what he could gain, no matter who he had to use and discard along the way. Shame burned raw, but Dean pushed it down. Later, when they got out of this, he'd give himself the pounding he was due.

Sam's mouth tightened into a grim line. He didn't look surprised at the revelation. "You don't want to do this, Bill. Just let Dean go and we can talk about it." His breaths came in heavy pants as he visibly tried to hold on to his fury. "I swear, if you hurt him, I will end you!" He snarled, teeth bared.

Dean felt Billy's head shake and again he was manhandled backwards like a ragdoll. "Uh, uh. I got a buyer lined up ready an' waitin'. I ain't about to let that mask go. I don't care what I gotta do." He drove the gun harshly into Dean's gut. The elder Winchester let out a strangled groan, the sound muffled by the arm at his throat as he folded forwards.

Sam's arm wobbled.

Dean snagged his brother's gaze and tried wordlessly to protest, sensing that the kid was moments away from caving. They couldn't let Billy get the mask, not to save his worthless hide. There were too many evil people in the world who were capable of using it for purposes he didn't even want to contemplate. Any one of them could be Billy's buyer. They had to stop him.

But Sam was looking anguished, and for the briefest of moments, Dean saw him as the young boy he'd helped raise; lost and unsure without his big brother's guiding hand. He watched the interplay of emotions crossing his little brother's features as the seconds tensely ticked by, could see the warring factions, the opposing arguments. He knew the instant the battle was won.

Or lost.

"Alright, alright!" Sam blurted. "I'll give you the mask. Just let him go!"

"Atta boy." Dean didn't need to see the grin to know it was there, and his fists clenched in helplessness. "Put the gun down, nice and slow." Billy ordered, still keeping a tight hold on Dean, apparently worried that Sam would attempt to double-cross him.

"Okay," Sam gave a stiff nod, holding the gun away from his body and gingerly lowering it to the ground. He placed it several feet in front of him and then looked up at Billy, his eyes bouncing to Dean's. Checking.

Resigned, Dean blinked slowly in capitulation, a band of nausea tightening around his stomach. He watched as Sam reached towards Manning's unconscious form. The mask had slipped from the young pilot's face and was propped against his skull, mouth grimacing at a lopsided angle. Sam grasped it, lifting it carefully upwards, staring intently at it. And then he paused.

Dean felt Billy tense up behind him.

Crap.

"Sammy!" Dean choked out, his voice barely a wheeze. "Don't!"

"Sam, give that to me, now. Or I'll kill your brother!" Billy bellowed past Dean's ear, making him flinch.

But Sam didn't appear to be concerned by this latest threat to his big brother, didn't even appear to be aware of anything except the object in his grasp. With slow deliberateness, he lifted the mask to his face. There was a flare of blue-grey light as it connected, and when Sam removed his hands, it stayed there as if glued. He turned towards them, the chanting starting up as if he'd been unmuted mid-speech. The words sounded odd and disturbing coming from his lips

Dean could sense Billy's indecision as his eyes tracked his brother's, the arm at his throat loosening a fraction, the gun no longer digging so forcefully into his side.

And then Sam moved with a speed that neither of them expected. Every person they'd seen, or heard about, who'd been affected by the mask had walked and talked and thought like zombies, had taken time to work up to their destructive acts. But Sam's hand pounced for the gun like a striking cobra, snatching the firearm up so quickly Dean's head spun.

A beat later and the gun was pointed at them again, but this time there was nothing in Sam's gaze. His eyes were as white and dully cold as Manning's had been. Sam was gone.

"Son of a bitch!" Billy spat. His own weapon vanished from Dean's side and the elder Winchester could do nothing as the older man drew a bead on Sam.

There was a horrible, anticipatory silence as fingers tightened on triggers.

And a shot rang out.


It started off in slow motion.

The hit was dull, broad like a two-by-four, and Dean's breath caught in his throat as Billy jolted behind him, confusion temporarily overriding awareness as body and brain struggled to comprehend what had just happened. Numbness followed in the slipstream of the bullet's passage, rippling outwards from the wound and leaving a horrible expectancy in its place; a strange vacuum of calm taking over before the inevitable storm broke. Coldness spread to the tips of his fingers and toes, prickles dancing in its wake.

Then the full, pyroclastic force of the pain devoured him, seismic waves of agony rolling over and over. White stalactites stabbed at his vision and for a moment the world was a centrifuge, Dean at its core. He couldn't see past the bulky arm that still encircled his throat, but he could feel molten blood beginning to leak from somewhere beneath. His strapped up hand felt slick and slimy with it.

He'd just been shot. Grazed, he realised faintly. Same shoulder. Almost the same wound. He wanted to laugh, a heady, hysterical laugh. He'd just been shot again. Sam had just shot him.

And that was when everything started to fast-forward.

When Billy began to fall, it took every ounce of Dean's waning strength not to go down fully with him. He could feel his heart battering frenetically in his ears, floundering as if in the midst of its death throes, and it felt like the pain alone would suck the life from him. The arm was still around his neck, but heavier now, lifeless, wrenching at him as though Bill was an anchor to be weighed. And the strain felt as if it would snap his neck in two.

Pulled downwards, he tried to twist around to regain his balance. One knee hit the ground with enough force to make his teeth rattle; his head spun, his shoulder screamed. He lurched sideways, struggling to keep himself upright as Billy's weight still dragged at him. Everything was noise and chaos, a tumult raging between his ears as he tried to figure out which was was up.

But somewhere beyond the cacophony, Dean was aware that he didn't have time for any of it, and as adrenaline flooded his body, his senses began to sharpen. The sudden clarity was disorientating. Where his thoughts had previously been oozing, they were now avalanching. Several certainties were converging on him, clamouring for his attention. Sam had shot him. Sam had killed Billy. Sam was wearing the mask. Sam had a gun. And Dean was leaving himself wide open.

Sam's greatest fear...It was about to become a reality if Dean didn't do something now.

Growling through the agony in his shoulder, he ruthlessly shoved Billy away from him and heaved himself upwards. He barely heard the thud as his father's former comrade hit the concrete. He was heading straight for Sam. The mask would only have one goal, and Dean was damned if he was going to let the thing succeed. The blood was still spurting from the gunshot wound – from both wounds – he realised now, the first one already torn at the seams. He wouldn't have long before blood loss slowed him down...but he wasn't prepared to die yet. Sam needed him too much. His only option was to disarm his brother.

There was no reaction in the younger man's eyes as Dean moved, his expression hidden behind the mask's rigid leer. Dean tried to forget that it was Sam – that it was his kid brother – it was the only way he'd have a fighting chance. Lungs heaving, he threw himself towards Sam, leading with his undamaged shoulder and bracing himself for a collision that might just finish him anyway. Going for Sam's weapon, Dean ploughed into his brother.

It was like running head first into a wall. The impact jarred Dean's bones from top to toe, reverberating in his chest and ricocheting along his fragile, recently fixed collarbone. He felt it splinter anew, the sudden resurgence of pain burning through all the air in his lungs and short-circuiting his brain. He thought he might have cried out, but with all his senses dampened and overwhelmed by agony, he couldn't be certain. All he knew was that on the inside, he was howling.

But Dean Winchester was not about to be defeated by his own body. He'd spent years cultivating a tolerance for pain that allowed him to focus on nothing else but the survival of his family and himself. And he had no doubt that it wasn't just his own life he was fighting for. If Sam woke up to find him dead...

Fiercely, Dean built a dam in his mind, holding back the torment, shoring it up with his unyielding determination, not only to live, but to stop Sam from having to bear the weight of killing his big brother.

Dean grabbed for the gun, speed and the element of surprise briefly gaining him the upper hand. Sam's stance was rock hard, but when Dean rebounded off him and staggered off to the side, he realised with faint surprise that he'd gotten what he'd aimed for. The gun hung loose in his grip, though, his fingers shaking as his strength began to wane. His breaths came in increasingly shorter, shallower gasps and his head was filling with a swirling, murky fog. Sam had already turned to follow him, and Dean was sure he wouldn't be able to last the impending battle.

He stood for several helpless beats, realising too late that he hadn't made any plans beyond grabbing the gun. "Sam!" his voice broke as he called out in the vain hope that he might be able to get through to his brother before masked-Sam pounded him into the concrete. "Sammy, listen to me! You have to fight this!" He stumbled back several steps, but there was no sign that his words had had any effect. Sam continued to advance on him, and with a growing dread Dean realised just how big his little brother really was.

"Dammit!" the elder Winchester hissed, his breaths still laboured as the earlier numbness returned, seeping down his right side. Despite his best efforts, his body was giving up, shutting up shop and boarding up the windows. He wasn't going to be able to withstand this.

When the first punch came, it slammed into him with the force of a bullet train. Dean pitched sideways, his balance whirling around the room like a spinning top. His ears popped and the ground see-sawed.

The second blow smashed in from the opposite direction, rupturing his bottom lip and sending him reeling back the way he'd just come. Blood streamed freely from burst skin above his eyebrow, dripping straight into his eye and blurring his vision. He still had the gun, a weapon he couldn't even use in his nerveless left hand, but he held on tight, determined not to let it go. Maybe as long as he had it, masked-Sam wouldn't notice Billy's gun lying just a few feet away.

Dean floundered, insensible of direction or purpose, except to get away from his brother. Backing away, his heel nudged against something soft and bulky; Billy's wrist. It was a stark reminder of what the mask was capable of, if he'd needed one. In a daze, he skirted the body of his former friend and continued to stagger backwards.

He stared at Sam, knowing his brother wasn't really there, but wanting – needing – a last look. This was the end of the line, and he knew it. "Sam..." he groaned, his tortured body throbbing and gasping for air. "S'mmy, if...there's even the sm-smallest ch-chance...that you might remember any of this..." he faltered, feeling lightheaded and non-corporeal. "It's not your fault."

Sam continued forward with the same cold, robotic steps.

"It's not...your fault. And you're gonna be okay." Dean managed, his chest tightening, blood pooling in the crook of his strapped elbow. He braced himself as Sam drew nearer.

When the crash came, it wasn't what Dean expected.

Time turned viscous once more, but his brain couldn't seem to keep pace with his eyes. The scene played out through the lengthening telescope of his vision. Sam reached Billy's body and stepped past, obliviously intent on his target. Dean's eyes widened as Billy's hand twitched, as his fingers grasped at the flapping material of Sam's left pant leg, fisting it tightly. Dean's mouth tumbled open, astonished at the realisation that the older man was still alive. He stood rooted to the spot as Billy yanked backwards with extraordinary strength. Caught off guard, Sam toppled backwards, hitting the ground with a solid thump.

It was the defibrillator charge Dean needed. He jolted back to life, another potent shot of adrenaline yanking him from his stupor and sending him blundering forward, gun in hand. He was at Sam's side before his masked brother could move a muscle. The kid's eyes were flat and sterile as they locked onto his. It wasn't Sam, he tried to tell himself. Not Sam. Dean averted his gaze, unable to look at his brother as he did what needed to be done.

"Sorry, S'my," his apology was sincere as he raised the gun, letting out a gasp as the motion pulled at his upper body, and cracked it down as hard as he could on his brother's temple. Sam's head pitched from side to side at the blow, his eyes slamming shut and the mask sliding off as if nothing had ever held it there.

Dean let out the breath he'd been holding, slumping forward as his muscles dissolved. He was shaking as he exaggeratedly blinked his eyes, trying to keep himself from passing out. Darkness prowled at the edges of his vision, waiting to pounce, waiting for an opening. But he couldn't succumb, not yet. There was still work to be done.

The elder Winchester groaned loudly as he lifted his head, giving voice to all his pain, frustration and exhaustion. His skull felt too heavy for his body, as if someone had replaced it with a bowling ball. His right and left sides felt disconnected from each other, a strange impermanence stealing over him. He didn't have long to do this. Taking a shuddering breath, he cleared his throat, swallowing back the stowaway sob that sought escape. He needed to get the job done. He had to finish this.

The elder Winchester glanced back at Billy. The older man was still, lifeless, the act of coming to Dean's aid most likely being his last. He inched to Billy's side, checking his pulse, needing to make sure that there was no lingering threat to Sam while he finished the spell. Satisfied that the older hunter would no longer be a problem, he returned his attention to his mission.

He crawled first to the small Cessna, figuring that there was likely to be a first aid kit somewhere in its cabin. At the rate he was bleeding, he wasn't confident that he'd be able to remain conscious for much longer. He needed to find something he could press against the wound.

The small set of steps was already pulled down, and as thankful as he was for that small mercy, Dean nevertheless eyed it with the utmost dread. Cursing, he reached up behind his neck with his free hand and began fumbling with the clasp of his sling; he couldn't afford to be one-handed anymore. Releasing the straps he cast the contraption aside, gritting his teeth against the tectonic agony of bone grinding against bone. Light-headed, the hunter used his good arm to drag himself up the stairs one at a time, his vision whiting out with each step.

By the time he'd made it into the small cabin, he felt soaked with sweat and blood, the heat all around him suffocating and leeching. The kit, when he found it behind one of the rear seats, took several tense moments to open. With Dean's dwindling energy, the zip was a lead weight, refusing to budge.

"Aw...C'mon!" he pleaded with the red canvas bag, convinced it was all going to end there and then, when he was so close. But then the zip flew open, sending a shower of supplies scattering like marbles. The gauze was what he needed, though, and he grabbed at it, wadding it up and placing it in the palm of his weakened hand, contorting his injured limb as far as he could to press down on his haemorrhaging wounds. He hissed at the dual stabs of pain that assailed him, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. Through his blurring vision, he could see vials and syringes. For a moment he considered it, but just as quickly dismissed it. He needed to be alert.

Lurching back towards the plane door, he almost nosedived straight out onto the concrete, catching himself at the last minute with a grip that wrenched so hard he thought his arm might just tear clean off. Reaching the ground, his knees locked and would have buckled but for his determination to maintain his forward motion. Making it back to his brother's side, he dropped to the ground harder than he would have liked, air leaving his lungs in a rush as the thunderbolt impact struck the base of his spine.

Not even trying to suppress the pained grunts that had started to accompany every breath, he fumbled with the pocket of Sam's suit jacket; but all sensation seemed to have vanished from his fingers and he struggled to make them follow his commands. Finally locating the piece of folded paper he needed, he engaged in a brief tug of war with the pocket lining, too exhausted to voice the curses that sprang to his lips. He emerged the victor moments later, wrestling the piece of paper free and smoothing it out across his knee.

The words wriggled like freshly unearthed worms.

"Son'f'bitch," he wheezed, laying it down on the concrete and pinching at the bridge of his nose. How the hell was he going to do this? "D'mmit," he cursed again as he remembered that the ritual was still unfinished. He glanced around, eyes locating the discarded baggie on the other side of Billy's body.

"Awwwwe-some," he slurred as he grasped the wrinkled piece of paper and clambered to his knees. His first messy attempt at standing made it clear that his legs would not hold him, so he drunkenly crawled his way past Billy's corpse, lumbering towards the bowl of unfinished spell ingredients. He cast the dead hunter a long look as he did so. Dean knew his father's old buddy had lost his way some time ago, he could see now the truth in all of the accusations Sam had hurled at him. He understood how things had been, but he was still sorry.

"Th'nks, buddy," Dean's eulogy was brief, but his own body was running on borrowed time.

By the time he reached the bowl, breathing was painful, his lungs tight and compressed. He let the incantation flutter down as he reached for the final ingredient with his free hand. His fingers were as limp and cumbersome as sausages as he struggled to open the bag. Little clouds of ground chilli pepper puffed up and out when he eventually managed, stinging his eyes further and threatening a sneeze. Dean stiffened and squeezed his eyes shut, convinced he was done for, but after a few slow, shuddering heaves the feeling passed.

Confident that he had regained at least some semblance of control, Dean poured the pepper into the bowl, holding the bag as far away from himself as he could. He grunted out the final word and pulled out his lighter with painstaking care, trying to ignore the tremors in his arm as he touched the flame to the mixed spell ingredients. Sparks shot up with a crackle, and the mixture darkened and popped.

Dean was reaching for the written incantation when the urge hit him; the irresistible urge to leave it alone, to turn around, to go to the mask, to put it on. To forget. He could feel his body readying to respond, limbs moving without his consent, the mask his puppeteer. Every facet of his attention turned back towards the mask as though it were a magnet. Its promise was enchanting, seductive, the compulsion to give in more potent than anything Dean had ever experienced before. His hand stopped in mid-air, his body beginning to swivel on the spot.

The pain from his wounds was like a living thing, devouring him from the inside, more powerful with every passing second. The mask beckoned to him with the promise of peace, of oblivion. It pushed and pulled at him, imploring him to let go. If he went to the mask, if he just touched it to his face, the boiling, scalding pain would evaporate.

"Nuuhhh!" he groaned, bowing his head and clutching at the gauze, pain steaming from his wounds with a hiss that squealed loudly in his head. It would be so easy...why was he even fighting?

His eyes twitched shut as images assaulted him, attacking and conquering his senses.

Crowds of people scattering and stampeding like startled cattle...the visceral stench in the air as blood spilled onto pale tiles...the stinging slap of bodies hitting the floor...screams, sobs, groans...death ...Sam's eyes, white and cold...Sam pulling the trigger...Sam marching vacantly towards him.

Sam.

Dean's eyes snapped open, the mask's presence in his mind growing fainter, stuttering and flickering.

Sam. His worst fear. Sam would die if he went to the mask.

Sam would die.

Twenty-seven years and a lifelong vow began to break the mask's hold, its draw beginning to fade.

Sammy would die. He would kill his brother. Dean couldn't let that happen. There was no way he was letting that happen.

"No!" Dean growled, feeling the mask's hold snap and disappear.

Coming back to himself, the elder Winchester snatched up the incantation, dizzy as his heart began to pound again, the pain somehow magnified now that the mask's anaesthetising effect had vanished. He didn't have much time. Gritting his teeth, he began to read, the words sounding foreign to his ears as his lips mangled them. He thought he'd heard Sam practising them earlier, but the pronunciation was still alien.

Dean had incanted many spells over the course of his life. He'd banished demons and poltergeists. He'd bound witches. He'd summoned and trapped monsters of all shapes and sizes. He'd felt the air around him thrum with electrical energy, his skin prickling with the sense of bated anticipation. Spells had a substance to them that ebbed and flowed, the words of the incantation bringing forth a tangible force that shifted and turned like a Rubik's cube, always changing, never static.

So when the first few lines of Sam's scrawled text dropped with a heavy clunk, the hangar silent and flat around him, Dean knew he was getting it wrong.

The words fuzzed and blotted on the page as he coughed out a muffled curse. He had to slow down, had to get it right. His mind was boiling over, thoughts bubbling and roiling, and it took a near Herculean effort to calm himself down. His brain, starving of oxygen, was starting to detach from the task at hand. Darkness was encroaching, his body's emergency shut-down procedure moments away from kicking in.

The elder Winchester blinked several times, trying to recall the sounds Sam had used, the way his brother's tongue had rolled over the words. The memory faded in and out, the playback tinny and clunky like a badly dubbed movie, but it had to be enough. Raising the incantation again, Dean attempted to recreate the lilt of his brother's voice, the pauses and the accented tones. It was hard to hear himself over the commotion in his head, but he felt something stirring within, tugging at him, making the hair stand rigid on the back of his neck.

It was starting to work.

The soft humidity in the hangar turned sharp, piercing; a clarity in the air signalling to Dean that something was coming.

Half way through the incantation, Dean felt the mask testing the boundaries of his consciousness once more, looking for a weak spot, but the spell was acting to keep it at bay. Holding firm, he continued, jumping skittishly as the mask began to rattle and shake against the concrete. He wanted to turn around to look at it, craved the sight of it. The mask's euphoria began to build again, tempting him, seducing him.

But Dean had to hold on to the pain, had to let it keep him grounded. Giving himself to the mask would mean the end of him, the end of Sam. He reached the final line of the incantation and the atmosphere in the echoey hangar grew thick, oppressive, bearing down on him. He felt the weight of thousands of years as the curse fought back and it nearly crushed him. His back bowed under the pressure, vibrating his fractured bones and sending spasming waves flooding through his body.

Crying out, he gripped the page tighter and brought it closer to his eyes. The last few words took everything he had, they tore at his throat; the sudden heat in the room burning at his lungs. He was so close, but the mask's curse was fighting hard.

And then, just when he thought he wouldn't make it, he shouted out the final word, expelling it from his body as though it were a deadly toxin. As soon as it left his lips, Dean heard an ear-splitting crack. Reeling in shock, he turned shakily back towards his brother, his mind tempesting. Through his hazing vision, he could see Sam still lying there, oblivious, unharmed. The mask, however, had split clean in two, its veneer dulled and worn. It looked as old as it was. It looked utterly harmless.

Dean swallowed, nodded and blinked. It was over. "Good," he puffed out. "That's good."

And then he collapsed.

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