Tell me, tell me, Tam Lin, she cried
If you be humankind
Or a spirit from a darker place
Than I can hold in mind?
Oh, I was born of mortal flesh
As human as you be
Until from my horse one day I fell
And the Fairy Queen caught me.
- The Ballad of Tam Lin
“You take the attic.” Dad jerked his head toward the stairs. “Curse boxes, cursed objects, anything for the lock-up—you know the drill.” He’d turned away and made for the kitchen before Dean had the chance to say anything.
Not that Dean had anything to say. It had been a routine job. They’d burned the witch’s body out past the north side of town hours ago, and there were two people still breathing and waking up for work tomorrow morning thanks to them. Call it a win, Dad had said, so Dean did.
Except that it still felt like Dad’s win; screw-all to do with Dean, really. He’d shown up and pointed a gun and followed instructions, and he was pretty sure Dad could’ve still taken the bitch out without his ass there to hold the can. This had been a milk run, and there was a reason Dad never gave Dean a serious hunt to handle alone.
Twenty-five years old, and he still felt like he was on Take Your Kids to Work Day.
But he didn’t feel like getting his ass kicked today (for one thing, it was still aching from where the damn witch had tossed him into a headstone), so he just said, “Yessir,” and tramped up the stairs.
Anyway, the hunt had helped take his mind off of some other stuff. Stuff that made him flush with a different kind of shame, stuff that he pushed down deep to keep it hidden, only it still felt like it was lodged somewhere in his throat, ready to come bursting out someday and change everything.
Before Dad called, Dean had been kicking his heels in Oregon, still sore after the way things had ended with Cassie. The crappy-ass weather up there had suited his mood, so he’d gotten a motel room and spent a couple weeks hustling pool, picking up odd jobs in the daytime, keeping an ear out for anything supernatural—any excuse to call Dad back from the ‘fact-finding mission’ he’d taken off on that was apparently so important Dean couldn’t be trusted not to screw it up.
A couple weeks of nothing, and Dean had figured maybe it was time to get back on the horse. Cassie had thought he was nuts and dumped his ass, and he should’ve been smart enough to see that one coming. He could sulk over it like some whiny emo kid, or he could go out and find some chick who was up for a little no-strings fun, and take his mind off the whole shitshow. Only, once he’d gotten there, none of the chicks at the bar had caught his eye. There had been one cute redhead who’d been trying pretty hard, and some other night Dean would probably have put his game face on and bought her a drink, but somehow that night he just wasn’t feeling it. He’d ended up making small-talk with the bartender instead, this guy who was maybe thirty, with piercing blue eyes and a little scruff on his jaw, and a t-shirt tight enough to show off the thick muscles of his arms.
Dean normally wouldn’t have noticed those things on a guy—only that was a lie, and that was the problem. Dean wouldn’t normally have let himself notice those things on a guy. That night, though, he’d had a little too much to drink, and he’d been feeling a little antsy and a little reckless, and hell yeah, he’d noticed. So maybe Dean had made a little too much eye contact, kept the guy talking when there were other customers waiting for their drinks—but it wasn’t like he’d seemed to mind. And eventually Blue-Eyes had finished his shift, and Dean had caught his wink and followed him out back, bummed a cigarette with sweaty fingers even though he’d barely smoked since he finished high school. Blue-Eyes had grinned, leaning in to light it for him, and Dean had let him. (You ain’t got much choice here, he’d told himself, unless you wanna explain why a guy who doesn’t smoke is carrying a lighter.)
He’d closed his eyes and taken a drag, holding his breath a second so he wouldn’t cough, and when he opened his eyes again, Blue-Eyes was still in his space, catching the smoke on his exhale. Close enough to kiss him, almost.
That thought had frozen Dean where he stood. Then he’d mumbled, “I gotta go,” dropped his cigarette and split and carried on his drinking back at the motel room. And in the morning, he’d gotten a text from Dad telling him to haul ass.
Dean had been trying not to think about it since. Been doing pretty well at that, mostly. He scowled and pushed it out of his mind, shone the beam of his flashlight around the landing and peered into the gloom.
Lights were out, of course, but the first floor was pretty much like every other witch’s house Dean had ever been in. As in, it fucking reeked. How they could act like normal people in public and then come home to something that smelled like a slaughterhouse dumpster, topped off with an acrid whiff of incense and a moldy after-smell of dead plants… yeah, he’d never be able to figure it out. He checked that Dad was out of sight and then covered his nose with his sleeve.
There wasn’t much up here. A bookcase, but he couldn’t see anything more supernatural than a couple Anne Rice paperbacks (seriously?) on the shelves. The room on the left held the witch’s altar and casting circle, but they’d already trashed that pretty damn comprehensively when they’d interrupted her attempt at a summoning. The spellbooks were already safely stashed in the Impala’s trunk, and the rest was mostly sigils and candles, the kind of crap that’s only dangerous when somebody’s actually using it.
The door on the right stood ajar, and Dean gave it a push and shone his flashlight inside.
A bloodcurdling shriek came from the other side of the door.
He took an instinctive step back, reaching for his gun, the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. Before he could call down to warn Dad, though, something raced past his feet and thudded down the stairs.
Something small and black and furry, and still yowling its goddamn head off. Of course she’d had a freaking cat.
Dean let out a sigh of relief, ignored the urge to sneeze, because the cat couldn’t have gotten that close to him, and stuck his head around the door. It was just a bedroom—a double bed with one pillow in the middle, and a framed picture of the witch with the sister she’d been trying to curse standing on the dresser. Kind of sad, actually. Or it would’ve been, if Sabrina hadn’t gone straight for murder without trying out family therapy first.
He closed the door and headed up to the attic. The stairs were well-trodden, not dusty, which probably meant she was keeping some more magical crap up there. Fucking A.
Outside, a car door slammed. Dad’s truck, by the sound of it, though it was pretty muffled from up here. Dad must’ve found something downstairs that needed to go to the lockup. Dean shrugged and tramped on up into the gloom.
It sure as hell wasn’t clean up here, but it wasn’t thick with dust and festooned with cobwebs, either. Storage boxes scattered the floor, one of them open. There was furniture, some fancy ritual-looking silverware—and then a flash of gold that Dean caught out of the corner of his eye. He blinked and turned around.
There was a mirror leaning up against the boxes at the far end of the attic, gleaming dully in the dim light. It was big: one of those antique-looking ones in a gold frame that people with too much money liked to hang over their fireplaces. Clean, too. Either it hadn’t been up here long, or the witch had taken it out of storage sometime recently. Dean moved closer, picking his way around the boxes on the floor, blinking at the reflection of his flashlight in the mirror’s surface. For a second, the light played tricks on his eyes and he thought he saw movement reflected in the glass—the stupid cat again, maybe?—but when he glanced behind him, there was nothing there.
Dean turned back to the mirror.
Then blinked in surprise, because the gold frame wasn’t just a gold frame any more. Sometime in the couple seconds he’d been looking away, it was like it had melted. Or come to life, or caught fire. It wasn’t a static thing anymore—it formed and reformed and licked like flame around the edges of the glass.
Which Dean couldn’t see his reflection in any more. He blinked, checked his flashlight. Still working. But all he could see in the mirror was—
Not a reflection of anything. The funky-smelling attic and all the junk in it were gone. Instead there was a stone doorway opening onto trees. Grass. Sunlight angled across the dirt floor. It all looked kind of inviting. Dean could almost imagine that if he walked out that door and around back, he’d find a silvery lake with a pier for fishing, a cooler stocked with beers and maybe a couple hot co-eds on a weekend break taking turns to dive off the side…
Yeah, this was definitely one for the lockup. Dean crossed back to the top of the stairs, keeping a careful eye on the freaky-ass mirror.
“I got something,” he called down. “We’re gonna need a pretty big box for this one.”
No reply. Dad was probably still outside, loading whatever he’d found downstairs into the trunk. Still, Dean didn’t really wanna go look for him and leave the freaky mirror up here unwatched, not now that it had… woken up, or whatever the hell was going on here. He cast a glare in its direction. Then he figured maybe that wasn’t a good idea, because what if it could tell he was pissed at it or something?
Then he forgot about being pissed at all, because there was movement behind the glass.
Dean raised his gun and crossed back to the mirror.
The image was indistinct—just a dark flutter, like the wings of some ginormous bird. He crouched and peered into the glass.
Around him, the air came alive.
He shot upright, breath catching in his throat, turning to aim his gun at whatever was doing this. Another witch? Something on the other side of the mirror?
But there was nobody back there to shoot at, and before he could yell for help, the air shimmered and changed around him like a curtain of rain coming down across his vision.
When it lifted again, he wasn’t in the attic any more.
He was standing in shadow, in a place that was all green and gold. Dirt under his boots, rough stone walls on three sides. The door opened in front of him onto a forest in summer, leaves rustling gently in the breeze, sunlight casting blurry shadows through the canopy above. There was a window, and some kind of earthenware jar on the sill with flowers in it.
A bird sat beside it. A crow or a raven or something. Big and black, anyway, and it was watching Dean with its bright beady eyes.
Dean looked back at it. Well, glowered, because that fluttering motion he’d seen in the mirror that had made come back over to it? He was pretty damn sure it was the stupid bird’s fault.
He pointed his gun at it too, just in case. “What are you?” he demanded. “Shapeshifter? Were-something? That magic bitch’s familiar?”
The bird cocked its head and didn’t answer.
Dean glared at it a moment longer for good measure, then turned back to the mirror. If he’d gotten here through it, then he should be able to get back out the same way, right?
But the glass just reflected back the room he was in. The dirt floor, the square of sunlight coming in through the door, the trees, and the fucking bird. Which, Dean was pretty sure, was actually looking kind of smug right now. He hesitated a moment, then gave the glass an experimental poke. Nothing gave under his touch. It was just glass, cool and inert. And if there were any instructions for making the damn mirror work again, they were probably back in the witch’s house.
Awesome. Probably served Dean right for being happy he had a job to take his mind off the other crap, though. Lesson One: never decide you’ve got enough on your plate and things can’t possibly get worse, because the universe will serve you up a triple-decker shit sandwich just to prove you wrong.
And there he went, whining about his problems again instead of fixing them. Focus.
Maybe there would be a clue around here somewhere? Whoever this weird little shack belonged to might know how to fix it. If they wanted to fix it. No guarantees, which probably meant Dean should take a look around before they came home. Not that there was gonna be an instruction manual, but maybe some kind of spellbook, some crap like that? This sure looked like a witch’s hideout, with the gloomy interior and the bird that wouldn’t stop staring at him. Maybe the witch he and Dad had taken out had been hopping through the mirror and crashing here when she was through the looking glass?
There was a second room back behind the wall with the mirror, and Dean poked his head around the door. Nobody there. No books, either, and not a lot of furniture. Just one chair standing beneath the window, plus a blanket folded in the corner. When he touched it, the fabric was heavy and warm, with this weird, unfamiliar woody texture. It was pretty clean back here—so somebody was definitely using the place. Dean frowned and made himself focus.
He checked the corners and the shadows, just in case—supernatural fuglies liked to stash their crap in some weird places, after all—but came up with jack. With a sigh, he headed back into the first room and took another look at the mirror. Still nothing.
Behind him, the bird’s reflection watched him beadily for another moment, then flapped its wings and took off.
Dean let out a breath, feeling embarrassingly relieved at the fact it wasn’t looking at him anymore. He could almost have sworn the damn thing was a shifter, the way its eyes followed him around with nearly-human intelligence. Plus, having it watch had been making him feel kind of dumb, poking at the unresponsive surface of the mirror without a clue how to make it work.
His relief only lasted a second. He was still squinting at the mirror, eyes screwed up against the reflected sunshine, when a shape darkened the doorway behind him.
He turned on the spot, blinking as his eyes struggled to make out the dude’s features where he stood silhouetted against the light.
Scruff of beard; cap shading his eyes from the sun. Shorter than Dean but broad across the shoulders, and he held himself with the easy confidence of somebody who knew he could kick your ass even if he had no intention of doing so. The guy didn’t look even the tiniest bit freaked at finding a random, armed stranger in his hut, just looked back at Dean with surprised amusement, his eyes sparkling in the shadows.
They were blue.
Dean shook the thought away and raised his gun. “Who the hell are you?”
The dude just lifted an eyebrow and ducked through the door. “Now, it’s been a while since I was in human company, but kinda seems like I should be asking you that question, don’t it?” The way he said it was so damn casual—like Dean was a raccoon that had gotten into his garbage, not a stranger who’d been whooshed through from the other side of a magic mirror.
“Been a while since you were in human company?” Dean repeated. “That means you’re some kinda monster.”
The dude shrugged. “I’d say it’s relative.”
Dean snorted. “I’d say it’s pretty damn simple.” Another thought occurred to him, then. “You ain’t seen a human in a while. But you knew I was one right off the bat. How?”
“Your heartbeat.” The dude tapped two fingers against the center of his chest, rabbity-quick. “Sure, you look pretty tough, but something’s got you all worked up here.”
Vampire. Well, that would explain why the guy lived in a gloomy forest shack shaded from the sunlight. Dean grimaced. “Yeah,” he said. “That might be because of the bloodsucker in the doorway. Or the fucking—what is this place, anyway?”
The vamp eyed him steadily for a moment. “How about you put the gun down?” he said. “Then we’ll talk. Nice and civilized.”
“Civilized?” Dean snorted. “What, are we gonna sit down for blood and crumpets?” His grip didn’t waver. Not that regular bullets were gonna be any use against a vampire, but he definitely wasn’t putting it down now that Fangs here had asked him to.
The vamp gave a soft, mirthless laugh, eyes going distant for a second, like Dean had reminded him of something he didn’t want to think about. “Been a long time since I drank blood,” he said.
Dean made a face. “Dude, there’s only one sucker here, and I’m pretty sure it ain’t me.”
“Funny.” The vamp took a step into the room, and Dean’s finger found the trigger. He stood his ground, but he wouldn’t stand a chance if the vamp attacked him—and he guessed the vamp knew it, too.
He cast an involuntary glance behind him, at the mirror. He’d only been poking around in here a few minutes—but Dad would notice he was missing soon enough, right? Maybe he’d figure out there was something up with the mirror, find a way to get through.
The vampire followed his eyes—and when he looked back at Dean, there was something tired in his expression. “Whoever you’re thinkin’ might hop on through from the other side?” he said. “They ain’t coming. They never come.”
For a moment, Dean just blinked at him in surprise.
Then he steeled himself. What the hell was he doing here, thinking of the vampire as him, letting himself imagine it had human feelings? A monster was a monster, and Dad would kick his ass if he came through and found Dean shooting the shit with a vampire like it was a person.
He mustered up a sneer. “Or maybe your monster buddies just figured it wasn’t worth trying to save you,” he pointed out. “That’s the thing about humans. We got souls. We got families that mean something.”
The vamp took another step toward him, holding up his hands, like he was a bartender and Dean was the drunk asshole he was trying to talk down before the police got involved. “Sure you do,” he said. Not sarcastic, not exactly. It was more—the tone of voice Dean had heard Dad use, heard himself use, when he was trying to reassure some freaked-out civilian that everything was gonna be fine now the monster in the closet was dead, only he knew that was never the truth and his heart wasn’t really in the lie anyway.
Maybe that was what made Dean spit back, “Damn right I do,” and empty his clip into the vampire’s chest. The shots rang out loud in the quiet of the hut.
The vamp wobbled a little on his feet, putting out an arm to steady himself against the wall, fangs pushing their way out. Always looked like too many teeth, like they couldn’t possibly fit in a skull that had once belonged to a human being.
Dean’s heart did a fearful flip in his chest. That had been dumb. Now he was gonna get his throat ripped out for his trouble if he didn’t think fast. Maybe he could dodge around the vamp while he was still unsteady, get lost in the woods and find somewhere to hide out—
The vamp straightened, blinking a couple times, still between Dean and the doorway. After a second, his eyes cleared, and the fangs retracted. He was frowning a little, like he had a headache.
He sighed and looked levelly at Dean. “Really wish you hadn’t done that, brother,” he said.
“Don’t call me—”
That was as far as Dean got before the vampire closed the distance between them and knocked him out cold with a single punch.
He came around tied to a chair with a throbbing pain in his head. Not in his neck, though, which was almost as big of a surprise as the fact he was still breathing.
Didn’t mean he was out of the woods yet, though. Could be the vamp was just saving his snack for later.
Carefully, Dean cracked an eyelid. He didn’t raise his head—safer to let the bloodsucker think he was still out for as long as he could get away with it.
Yeah, only Dean’s luck had always sucked ass, so the second he took a peek he found the vamp seated opposite him, cross-legged on the dirt floor, his eyes trained on Dean’s face, his expression patiently amused. For a second, Dean considered closing his eyes and playing possum a little longer, but then one corner of the vamp’s mouth quirked up in a smile and he said, “Don’t let me disturb your beauty sleep.”
Dean grimaced, and that let him know just how badly his face was aching from being by the vamp. Dude hit like a truck.
“Sorry about that,” the vamp said, inclining his head toward Dean. “Guess you wouldn’t believe me if I said I didn’t want to hurt you?”
“How do you figure, Sherlock?” Dean’s hands were tied behind his back, and he groped around back there as best he could without attracting the vamp’s attention. He’d been tied up with rope, which would normally have been cause for relief, but he couldn’t reach for any of his knives, or even a lockpick or his goddamn car keys, without the vamp noticing. Plus the bindings felt pretty secure. The bloodsucker knew what he was doing. Dean was gonna have to keep him talking a while.
“Well,” the vamp said, “there’s the fact you’re a hunter. Or somethin’ like that, judging by what was in your pockets.”
“You’ve run into hunters before, huh?” Dean forced a grin. “Don’t worry, I won’t let you get away this time.”
The vamp ignored that part. “Mostly you’re carrying the same kind of gear they did,” he said. “’Cept for this.” And he held up Dean’s cellphone, turning it one way and then the other so that the screen caught the light. For the first time, Dean saw something uncertain in the vamp’s expression, a ripple beneath the calm surface. “Tell me somethin’. Back in the world—where you came from. What year is it?”
He was looking at the cell like Dean had just dropped a lightsaber in his lap, and Dean felt a new kind of fear tighten up his insides. This vamp had never seen a cellphone before? That meant he was from, what, the early nineties? At least. And that meant that nobody had come through the mirror in at least a decade.
Fear of being eaten by a vamp, Dean could deal with. That crap was his bread and butter. This was a bigger, lonelier kind of fear, and for a moment it stole away his voice.
He forced it down. Straightened up as best he could and pasted on a grin. No way he was letting the vamp see he was rattled. “Tell you what,” he said. “How about a little quid pro quo?” He resisted the impulse to add a Clariiiice, seeing as that was just gonna be wasted on a dude who’d been stuck in here too long to appreciate his references.
The vamp blinked. “Answers for answers?” He set down the cellphone carefully on the dirt floor. “Sounds reasonable. Still ain’t untyin’ you, though.”
Dean scowled. “Fine. What is this place?”
“They got a whole bunch of names for it.” The vamp frowned a little, leaning forward to rest his chin on one hand. “Some of ‘em call it the Green. Or the Otherworld. Or the Land of Summer.” He shrugged, giving a little smile like he knew what he was about to say sounded batshit crazy. “Or fairyland.”
“Fairyland?” Dean stared at him. “What is this, Peter freaking Pan?”
“Pretty sure that was Neverland,” the vamp told him. “Anyway, it’s my turn now.”
“Fine.” Dean rolled his eyes. “Ask away.”
“I already did. What year is it?”
“Two thousand four.”
That made the vamp look up at him, eyes wide beneath the brim of his cap. “Say again?”
Dean thought about refusing, parroting back, It’s my turn now, but there was something shocked and soft and human in the vampire’s expression, and Dean found himself saying again, slower this time, “Two thousand four.”
“Huh.” The vamp looked down, breathing out like he’d been hit in the stomach. Dean couldn’t help but follow the movement, and notice where his shirt had gotten all torn up when Dean shot at him. There weren’t any wounds visible, so Dean had been out cold long enough for him to heal up, but there was blood on the ragged edges of the fabric. The brim of the vamp’s cap cast a shadow over his face, so Dean couldn’t see his expression, and when he looked back up he’d gotten himself together. “Your turn,” he said.
How long you been here? was on the tip of Dean’s tongue, but his brain caught up with his mouth in time, and he said, “How do I get home?” instead.
The vampire nodded his head toward the front room. “Way you came. Or there are other portals back into the human world. Course, I couldn’t tell you where you’d find yourself if you stepped through…”
“I already tried that,” Dean pointed out. “It’s… I dunno, locked, or whatever.” He narrowed his eyes. “Unless you know how to get me back through.”
“I know how to get back through,” the vamp said, with a nod. “But it ain’t as easy as hopping over a fence.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “So there’s some ritual or something. I can do that.”
“Ain’t as easy as ‘mirror, mirror, on the wall,’ either. You need permission.”
“What, from your bloodsucking ass?”
The vamp actually laughed. “Not that it ain’t plenty picturesque here, but you think I’d still be hangin’ around if it was that simple? No; you need permission from the King.”
“The King,” Dean echoed, not quite believing what he was saying. “Of fairyland.”
“That’s what I said.”
Dean really had wandered into his own fucked-up version of Alice Through the Looking Glass, except that he had an annoyingly reasonable vampire instead of a talking rabbit. Right now, he wasn’t sure which was weirder.
“This is insane,” he said.
The vamp shrugged. “Preachin’ to the choir here. Believe me, I said the same thing when I ended up here. And, well—” He spread his hands. “You can see how much it helped me out.”
Awesome. All Dean could do right away, he guessed, was play along. “Okay, fine,” he said. “How do I get a hold of this fairy king dude? Hotmail? Carrier pigeon?”
“Hot—?” The vamp blinked, mystified, then shook his head. “Never mind. Castle’s a couple days’ walk from here. You promise to quit tryin’ to kill me, and I’ll take you there.”
Dean snorted automatically. Wasn’t like he had many options here, though. “You don’t give me a reason, and I’ll hold off,” he said. “That’s all the promise I got.” Then he paused. “Wait. A couple days?”
The vamp nodded. “North of here. Forest’s thick, and it’s uphill once you get out of the trees.”
“I don’t got days,” Dean protested. “My Dad’s gonna think some goddamn monster got the jump on me.” He’s gonna think I got distracted, couldn’t take care of myself. He’s gonna think I ain’t up to the job.
He didn’t say that last part out loud, but maybe something in his expression gave it away, because there was a flicker of something in the vampire’s eyes, and if he’d been a person, Dean might have called it sympathy. “Time’s kinda funny here,” the vamp told him, and the way he said it, it sounded like a peace offering. “Little fast sometimes, little slow other times. Might be you hop back through that mirror and find you only been gone a few minutes.”
“Yeah, or maybe it’s been a week already,” Dean pointed out.
The vamp shrugged, but didn’t try to make him feel better about it. Dean figured that was probably for the best. “’S the only way out I know of,” he said. “You wanna try findin’ another, be my guest.”
Dean gave a sigh. “Okay,” he said. “Fine. Let’s go find the freaking… king of the fairies.” He shook his head.
The vamp got to his feet and circled behind him. Despite the whole conversation they’d just had, Dean’s heart skipped with apprehension at knowing there was a vampire in the room and he didn’t have a bead on the guy—but, a moment later, the ropes holding him to the chair slackened. Dean disentangled himself and stood, rubbing the feeling back into his hands.
“If we’re gonna be traveling together,” the vamp said, then, “guess we should probably introduce ourselves.” He held out a hand. “Name’s Benjamin Lafitte. Friends call me Benny.”
“I ain’t your friend,” Dean said, more out of habit than anything, but he shook the vamp’s hand. It wasn’t icy-cold like he’d expected, just kind of room temperature. His grip was solid. “Name’s Dean. Winchester.”
The vamp—Benny—nodded solemnly, except there was a little hint of a twinkle in his eye. “Nice to meet you, Dean. Gimme a couple minutes to get packed, and we’ll hit the road.”
Dean nodded. Cleared his throat. “So. Don’t suppose there’s any chance you’re gonna give me my gun back.”
Benny grinned at him. “Not even a little.”
They headed out a half-hour later. Benny didn’t give his gun back, but he did surprise Dean by handing him a pack before they left.
It was made of the same weird fabric Dean had seen earlier. Not that he was an expert on this crap, but it wasn’t canvas or leather, and it kinda felt like it had been woven out of tree bark. He figured there was probably a bedroll or something in there—useless, because no way was Dean closing his eyes with a vampire for a travel buddy. Still he hefted the pack onto his back, and Benny nodded toward the door.
Like hell was Dean turning his back. He shook his head and made an exaggerated you first gesture, and Benny shrugged, pulled the brim of his cap down over his eyes, and walked out into the sunlight.
It was bright outside the little hut, but once they got into the trees, the sunlight filtered through the leaves and cast a green haze over everything. It wasn’t too hot, wasn’t too cold—just warm and sleepy, like the few summer afternoons Dean and Sam had gotten to spend out at Bobby’s when they were kids, lazing out back and drinking ice cold sodas and throwing stones at stacks of beer cans, no school and no monsters and no Dad.
Dean felt a momentary pang of guilt, remembering the relief of it. Yeah, Dad could be tough to be around, sometimes—but he was back in that witch’s house, probably tearing the place up trying to find out where Dean had gotten to, and here Dean was reminiscing about the times when he hadn’t been around like some ungrateful little shit.
He shook himself, made himself focus on his surroundings. The path was narrow but clear, and the forest floor on either side was covered in little white flowers like icecream sprinkles. It smelled good here, sweet and green and earthy. Unspoiled, or anyway that was what Dean might’ve called it if he’d been some pretentious college asshole out for a hike. Sam would’ve come out with some hippy bullshit about how it was good for you being out in nature, probably stopped to point out all the plants growing along the way and what they were called.
Benny tramped along ahead of him, his pace steady but not slow, glancing back over his shoulder every now and again just to check Dean was keeping up—or wasn’t trying to kill him which, okay, fair assumption. It was quiet apart from the sound of their footsteps, and Dean tried to stay alert (Dad’s voice in the back of his head, You daydream, you die. You daydream, somebody else dies. You want that on you?) but something about the whole sleepy warmth of the place made his mind drift.
It made him imagine stuff. Like, that there was something, or someone, watching him out of the shadows of the wood, a flutter like wings rustling at the edges of his hearing, a sound of laughter that vanished the second he turned his head, and that was maybe just the wind anyway.
Dean swallowed hard. “’S kinda nice here,” he said aloud, not so much because he wanted to sit down and chit-chat over lunch with a bloodsucker as because he was gonna start seeing freaking Tinkerbell in the trees if he kept quiet.
“It sure is,” Benny agreed, only there was an edge in his voice. Dean waited for the ‘but’, only it didn’t come.
“That why you’re still here? Because you came from the—the human world, right?” Real world, he’d meant to say, only this place felt solid, and Dean could smell it and feel its warmth on his skin, so who the fuck was he to decide on real and not real?
Benny turned and glanced back at him over his shoulder. There was something sharp in his expression. Not pissed, exactly, just unsettled. The kind of look you sometimes saw on the faces of the vic’s relatives when you stuck your nose into an old case, like you’d dislodged something that wasn’t supposed to come loose.
All Benny said, though, was, “I did. But that ain’t why I stay here.”
Dean frowned at him. “Then why? ‘Cos I mean, no offense, but it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot to do around here unless you’re into—” He glanced around. “I dunno, being a lumberjack or something. At least tell me the chicks are hot?”
That last part didn’t get an answer. Benny turned his eyes front again, and Dean figured none of it was getting an answer, but then Benny stopped and looked back at him. “I stay here because I can’t get back home,” he said. “Because I don’t have permission.”
Dean stopped in his tracks, trying not to think about the sadness that had crossed Benny’s face as he said it. He pushed it down and made himself ask the question that was actually relevant: “Does that mean the King might not let me go back either?”
“’S a possibility,” Benny admitted, after a moment. “Good-lookin’ human like you, he might just decide to keep you here. But then, you’re a hunter. You know things. The Good Folk, they like to know things. Like to make you solve their riddles. Like you to owe them a favor. Might be more important to them than those pretty green eyes of yours.”
Involuntary heat rose in Dean’s cheeks, and he scowled. “You tryin’ something on with me?” he said. “’Cuz I don’t swing that way. Sorry.” He plastered on the cheeky grin he used for situations like this, the one that he hoped said, I’m totally secure in my masculinity and I don’t need to get defensive, but I might just break your face if you don’t drop it.
He definitely didn’t think about Oregon, or the bartender who’d leaned in to light his cigarette, or how Benny’s eyes were the exact same shade of blue.
Benny just grinned at him and said, “Course you don’t.”
Whatever Dean had been going to say to that was cut off by a flutter of wings and a shadow alighting on Benny’s shoulder.
It was the bird from the cottage, and it eyed Dean with something that looked suspiciously like disdain before it butted its head against Benny’s cheek like a cat asking to be petted. It managed to avoid poking Benny in the eye with its beak, almost like it was being careful.
Well, if Benny was telling the truth, this was freaking Fairyland. Maybe the animals could think like people.
Or even communicate with them, because Benny and the freaky-ass bird eyed one another for a moment like they were having a silent conversation, and then Benny frowned, swerved off of the path, and said, “This way.”
Dean eyed him suspiciously. If he was a vampire looking to lure some unlucky human into the woods, drink all his blood and ditch the body, he wouldn’t do it on the beaten track, either.
Like Benny had heard what he was thinking, he rolled his eyes. “Now if I meant you harm, don’t you think I would’ve done it back there when you were out cold?” He inclined his head toward the bird. “Bran here tells me the path up ahead ain’t clear. Now, there’s some of the Folk think it’s real good fun to play games with travelers, lead ‘em astray, turn ‘em around ‘til they can’t find the noses on their own faces anymore. You wanna get to the court before this time next week? Then we can’t risk crossing them.”
Benny could’ve been lying. Hell, he could’ve been lying right from the start. Dean didn’t know this place, didn’t have any way of knowing what was truth and what was bullshit. But what choice did he have? It was either believe Benny or head out on his own, so he shrugged and followed.
The bird flapped its wings and rose up above the tree canopy again. As they walked, it darted back and forth between the upper branches and Benny’s shoulder, occasionally sharing that weird silent-talking look with him again, and then Benny might change their course a little or glance around like he was checking for something before he walked on.
They pushed on like that for maybe an hour, the sun passing its highest point up above, Dean following Benny’s way through the undergrowth. Then Benny stopped dead, and Dean had to put up his hands to avoid stumbling into the back of him.
“Dude,” he said. “Gimme a little warning, would ya?”
Benny held up a finger in a hush gesture, and that was when Dean heard it. Laughter drifting through the trees—and music, high and sweet and weird, not like any instrument Dean had ever heard before.
It rang in his head and sent tingles down his spine; it was like hearing stars, sunlight, the color silver. It froze Dean there on the spot for a moment, and then he just knew he needed to find where it was coming from. He took one step toward it, then another—
Benny grabbed his arm. His grip was inhumanly strong, and Dean winced before he let go. The surprise had been enough to startle Dean out of his trance, though, and he blinked and looked at Benny. “What the—?”
Benny nodded in the direction of the music. “You gotta keep your wits about you in this place. The Folk—their music sure sounds pretty, but be careful of it. Don’t follow where it leads you without lookin’ where you’re putting your feet.”
There was lore about that kind of thing, Dean was sure, though he’d always thought it was mermaids, not fairies. He gave a short nod. “Roger that.”
Benny glanced cautiously in the direction of the sound. “We might avoid them, if we’re careful. Stay behind me.”
But a couple more paces into the forest, a movement caught Dean’s eye and made him stop and turn on the spot. He peered into the shadows between the trees, and then a skinny wisp of a figure detached itself from them and resolved into a sort-of-human shape.
Its eyes shone big and brown in its face, and it was kind of blurry round its edges, like it was made from sunshine and shade. Dean couldn’t figure out if it was male or female, but either way he was pretty damn sure it wasn’t a person. It took a step toward them, its gaze fixed on Dean’s face. Benny took a step toward it in return, one arm held out, like he was trying to ward it off from Dean. Dean recognized the posture: it was the way he’d held himself in front of Sam when they came face to face with a monster, back before Sam took off. Weird seeing it on a monster; weirder seeing it protecting him.
The figure smiled at Benny. It was a cold smile, all amusement and no warmth. “Hello, cousin,” it said, which was enough to give Dean pause, make him cast a quick glance in Benny’s direction. “What have you brought for us today?”
Dean’s insides sank. Of course he should’ve known better than to trust a goddamn vamp. Of course Benny had been playing him.
But Benny looked the thing in the eye and shook his head. “He ain’t for you,” he said, still holding himself in front of Dean like he meant for the creature to have to go through him first. “This man seeks an audience with His Majesty.”
“But the castle’s such a long walk from here.” The creature pouted. “Won’t you at least stay and play with us a while?”
“We ain’t got all day,” Benny said shortly, and started to shoulder his way past the figure.
“Just a little while?” The creature spread its hands and twirled on the spot, its raggedy garments flaring out around it. “The party’s already started.”
And then, without being conscious of having moved, Dean was standing in the middle of a freaking dancefloor.
Or something like that, anyway. There were bodies moving around him, whirling fast enough he couldn’t count them, darting in between him and Benny until he couldn’t see where Benny was any more. It was dark suddenly, the sun gone down between one blink and the next. The clearing they were standing in was lit by these tiny, darting gold-colored lights, like fireflies, or something out of a Disney movie. There was music, too: not the high thin sound Dean had heard a moment ago, but just as compelling. Fast, in time with the manic whirling of the dancers, and insistent. It dug tiny little hooks into him and urged him to move, a fiery itch beneath his feet.
A dancer caught his eye—a chick with gold fishscale iridescence on her cheeks and firefly lights in her eyes who smirked and held out a hand. For maybe a second, Dean was aware that she had cat’s claws instead of fingernails, and that it was a bad idea to follow anybody that didn’t look a hundred percent human. Then she was taking his hand, a warm tingle where they touched that shot up his arm and touched off sparks at the base of his skull. The swirl of the dance caught him up, and he found himself thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to let himself be pulled away on it, to float on top of the music instead of all that endless tramping through the trees—
Benny’s hand gripped his arm like a vise.
Dean frowned at him. “Dude, what’s the problem?” he asked, but Benny wasn’t looking at him.
“Leave him alone,” he said—to the sparkly chick, not to Dean. “He ain’t yours.”
“Ain’t yours either,” Dean muttered, trying to wrench his arm out of Benny’s grasp. “Don’t fucking tell me what to do.” Resentment surged up in him—a goddamn bloodsucker acting like he knew best, Dean was gonna—
Only then the sparkly chick loosed her hold on his hand, broke eye contact and melted back into the crowd of dancing bodies. The fizz down his spine evaporated, left him feeling flat and empty like a beer that had been open too long. He blinked.
“You’re a hunter,” Benny said to him. “You ain’t honestly tellin’ me you never heard about the Folk and their dances.”
Dean scowled and let himself be led to the side of the clearing. When they stopped walking, he realized he was holding up his free arm defensively, ready to throw a punch or jab somebody with his elbow, and he dropped it abruptly to his side. Benny just nodded and let go of his other arm. He’d been holding on tightly, and Dean winced and flexed his fingers.
“Didn’t mean to hurt you,” Benny said, and the way he ducked his head made Dean think that maybe he meant it. “But I couldn’t leave you in there. Might never have found your way back out.”
“Yeah?” It came out sounding a little ragged, a little defensive, and Dean swallowed hard. He’d been this close to letting the fairy chick lead him off, letting every damn lesson Dad had ever taught him fall by the wayside.
Benny didn’t make any pissed-off comment about his tone or his ignorance, though, just nodded. “’S one of the ways they lure humans here. You step into the circle dance, you lose track of time, where you need to be, who might be worryin’ about you. Some folks end up here without even realizing they’ve crossed the border.”
Dean raised an eyebrow. “They manage to get through that mirror without realizing they’ve done it?”
“There are other ways in and out, or so I’m told. Ain’t ever seen one myself.”
“Huh.” Dean looked at him. “You never tried to find one? Another way home?”
Benny’s smile didn’t reach his eyes, something regretful in it. “Couldn’t leave without permission if I wanted to. There’s other things’ll keep you here, too.”
Something jostled Dean’s elbow, and he looked around. There was another figure at his elbow, looking at him with unsettling, shiny eyes. This one might have been a dude, but Dean couldn’t say for sure. It smiled at him and held out a cup.
It was carved out of wood, but shiny and smooth when Dean’s fingertips brushed it. The liquid inside was dark and syrupy, and it smelled sweet and good—like brown sugar and good liquor, like woodsmoke and wet grass, like Cassie’s perfume and the smoke that the blue-eyed bartender had exhaled into his mouth…
“Yeah, and that’s another of their tricks.” Benny’s voice cut into his trance, and Dean dropped his hand, shaking his head at the figure with the cup. It shrugged and turned away from him, raising the cup to its lips.
When he turned to look at Benny, he wasn’t smiling any longer. There was something strained around his eyes, and he held himself stiffly. Over his shoulder, inhuman eyes watched them. Dean glanced behind himself, and there were eyes on them there, too. Dozens of them, like a peacock’s tail, or the wings of one of those freaky-ass moths. Heat prickled over his skin, and the beat of the music was an insistent throb inside his head, like some zombie bass player had reached down inside him and was plucking out a rhythm on his spinal cord.
“Let’s get out of here,” he suggested.
Benny nodded. “Best idea you’ve had all day.”
They took cautious steps toward the edge of the clearing, eyeing the people around them—the Folk, Benny had called them, and that sounded a little less Disney than fairies, so Dean figured it was good enough—cautiously, trying not to catch their eyes.
They almost made it.
Only, with one foot outside the circle of light, eyes already picking out the path through the undergrowth, Dean felt something pluck at the sleeve of his jacket. He whipped round and found himself looking at another pair of those staring too-bright eyes set in a pale, sharp face.
“Don’t go yet,” their owner said, in a voice too childlike for the face. “The night’s only just begun.” No cat claws on the hand gripping Dean’s arm, but up close the skin was gleaming and scaly, kind of reptilian. Dean pulled his arm out of its grasp, but it was a struggle.
“Sorry, pal,” he told it. “Just remembered, I’m washing my hair tonight.”
He took another step away, but more hands caught at him—plucking at his clothes, digging talons into his skin. They dragged him back, and more and more faces swam in his field of vision.
The music was making him dizzy. The laughter of the Folk rang in his ears.
There were so many of them, clutching like they were going to drag him underwater and drown him. He couldn’t see Benny in the crowd, and when he tried to shout for help he couldn’t hear his own voice, couldn’t be sure if the words had made it out of his mouth. His knees crumpled from under him.
The Folk were crowding in around him, all claws and teeth. Somebody pressed a wet kiss to his cheek, and he shuddered.
There was a hiss in response, and then a blow caught the side of his face hard enough that his head whipped to the side. Something dug into his shoulder—claws or teeth, he didn’t know, couldn’t see—
And then there was a disturbance in the crowd, something forcing its way through. A hand gripped his arm. It didn’t have claws or scales or fur.
“I gotcha,” said Benny. “And this time, we run.”
Dean nodded and stumbled to his feet against the tide of grabby hands. Benny steadied him, hauled him through the press of bodies, and for a moment Dean was actually glad of that unnatural strength. The Folk kept closing in around them. They ran.
And ran, tripping over roots, torn by branches, like the forest itself was trying to hold them back. They reached out and steadied each other and kept running. Dean’s heart beat double-time in his chest, his own breathing too loud in his ears, the music and the voices of the Folk receding behind them. There was noise in the underbrush, something giving chase—and then, all of a sudden, like somebody had hit a mute button, it stopped.
A second later, Benny slowed his pace, so Dean did, too, steadying himself with one hand on a tree trunk while he caught his breath. “They stopped chasing us?” he got out, at last.
Benny wasn’t looking at him, though. He had his back turned, the broad span of his shoulders tense, and when he said, “Gimme a minute, brother,” it sounded a little slurred. Like he was talking through a mouthful of teeth. That was when Dean registered that his shoulder still stung—just where it met his neck, where something had bit or clawed at him. When he put his hand to the spot, it came away bloody.
His breath caught in his throat and he took a step backward, his hand going to where his gun would normally have been. His inner voice—which still sounded a hell of a lot like Dad—was cursing him out for being dumb enough not to grab some kind of a weapon in the confusion. Benny didn’t move, though; didn’t spin around on the spot and pin Dean up against the tree trunk and take a bite out of his neck. He just held himself very still for a moment, breathing deep and shuddery, and when he turned back to Dean, his face was normal.
Dean let out a sigh of relief. Kind of made his head spin, though. A vampire had just saved his ass, and hadn’t just been saving the kill for himself. Which went against everything Dad had taught him about bloodsuckers, not to mention every piece of lore and every monster movie on the planet. Like he’d just walked into a real-life episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jesus.
Could all be a trap, he guessed. There could be some bigger, shittier endgame going on here. Like a whole nest of vamps waiting for them somewhere in the forest, waiting to take turns sucking Dean’s blood like he was a pitcher of Margaritas with five straws in it.
Trust was the biggest mistake you could make. Dad had hammered that into him pretty damn well.
But it was still the only option Dean had here, so he nodded and said, “Uh, thanks.”
Benny acknowledged that with a jerk of his head, an amused eyebrow-raise. Maybe hearing Dean not accuse him of plotting his death was a surprise. The smile was back on his face, though, and those blue eyes had regained a little of their spark, and Dean had to try pretty damn hard not to feel relieved by that.
“So,” he went on, changing the subject so he wouldn’t have to think about it, “they gave up following us? Just like that?”
Benny nodded. “Funny thing about the folk—well, one of the funny things about them,” he amended. “They ain’t got much in the way of an attention span. They see something, they want it, and they want it bad. But most of ‘em, the moment it ain’t right in front of their faces, it’s like they forget it was ever there. They’re like little kids. Probably forgot what they were chasin’ after once we’d been outta sight a little while and somethin’ else shiny caught their eyes.”
“Huh.” A thought occurred to him, then. “So—that why you didn’t go for the jugular? Couldn’t see the blood, didn’t want it any more?”
Benny gave a shrug. “Could still smell it.” He paused. “But to tell you the truth? I wouldn’t like to say. There’s somethin’ about this place that changes you. I seen that with my own eyes.”
Something clenched inside Dean’s chest as it occurred to him that maybe Benny hadn’t come here alone. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Benny looked down. “I seen humans who got here after I did turn into one of them. That’s how the Folk keep their numbers up. They can’t do it any other way, so they lead humans here and the place changes ‘em.”
“Like vampires without the fangs.” The words were out before Dean’s brain caught up with his mouth, and man, that had been a dumb thing to say. But Benny only nodded.
“Pretty much. There’s some of the Folk like to drink human blood themselves. Maybe their kind is some sorta cousin of mine, from way back when.” Benny frowned a little. “Maybe that’s how this place doesn’t get to me the way it gets to humans. Some kinda immunity.”
“Maybe.” Dean paused. “But if you can’t turn into one of them, then why’d they snatch you in the first place?”
Benny’s smile morphed into something pained. “King likes exotic pets. And he’s one of the few that remembers what he wants.” His hands clenched at his sides, and Dean figured maybe he shouldn’t ask any more questions about that right now.
“Guess we oughta keep going,” he said, and Benny nodded gratefully.
They started walking, and after a moment, Benny stopped with a pleased, “Huh.”
“What’s up?” asked Dean.
Benny pushed at the ground with his boot. “We’re back on the path.”
The darkness turned back into daylight as they left the clearing further behind, its pocket of temporary night letting them go. A couple hours later, the light filtering through the trees turned a rosy gold color, like a postcard sunset. They kept walking until the sun—if there even was a sun here, if it was the same as the one back in the real world and not some illusion—had sunk away and the light started to fade. There was something kinda reassuring about that, seeing a natural end to the day instead of an illusion.
Benny looked at him, then, and said, “Best we get off the path. Can’t say who might pass through here overnight.”
Dean wasn’t planning on sleeping with a vamp by his side, even a vamp who’d somehow resisted drinking his blood when he was freshly cut. But his limbs were aching and his eyelids drooped of their own accord, and he figured hey, he could at least sit down and rest his legs for a couple hours.
They pushed through the undergrowth until they found a small clearing, soft with moss under their feet, but enough greenery around them that they weren’t visible from the path. There was a rustle in the trees above them as the bird found itself a perch in the branches. Benny set down his pack and sank to the floor—surprisingly gracefully for a dude his size, Dean noticed, and then felt his cheeks flush at having noticed and thanked whatever lucky stars he had that it was dark. Benny sat back against the thick trunk of a gnarled old tree and nodded at the ground.
“You get some shut-eye,” he offered. “I don’t need to sleep. I’ll watch.”
Dean snorted. “Yeah, right,” he said. “Thanks, but I’ll stay up.”
He decided on a tree of his own and sat back against it. Wasn’t exactly comfortable, with the bark digging into his back and the ground beneath his ass, but taking the weight off of his feet felt awesome, like finally getting back to the motel room and a drink and a shower after a rough hunt. Now if only there was a shower here, he’d be in Heaven. Dean’s eyes drifted blissfully closed at the thought, and he shook himself awake, the Dad-voice in the back of his head telling him not to be such a goddamn idiot, it’s like you want to end up a monster’s juice box. He dug fingernails into his palms and cast a glance over at Benny.
He was still, in profile. Almost peaceful, humming quietly to himself and not turning to look back at Dean.
“What is it, bro--Dean?” The forest seemed quieter now, and Benny’s voice was soft, the gentle Southern drawl of it like a lullaby.
Which wasn’t anything Dean wanted to be thinking right now. He hunched forward over his knees. “You never did tell me how you ended up here.”
Benny made a soft noise, not exactly a laugh and not exactly a sigh. “’S a long story.”
“Yeah, well.” Dean grinned, not that Benny could see it in the dark. (Unless he could? Maybe vamps had, like, infra-red vision or something. That would almost be cool.) “I got all night.”
That got a laugh out of Benny. “Fine. Just remember, you asked.”
He went quiet for a moment, then, and Dean almost thought he’d changed his mind. Dean was on the point of opening his mouth and saying, Don’t worry about it, when Benny’s voice broke the quiet:
“I guess it started when I got bit,” he said. “It was 1938, and I was working on a fishing boat outta New Orleans. We slept out on the water one night, and that was when they came. Guess they’d mistaken us for some other boat in the dark, because one of ‘em was tearin’ through the hold, sayin’ ‘Where is it, where’s the money?’” Benny’s head bowed, and Dean couldn’t see his expression in the dark. After a second, he shook himself. “Anyhow, they didn’t find it. So they took what they did find.” He shook his head. “They were real strong, like ten guys each. I don’t—I didn’t know what I thought was happening. And then one of ‘em jumped me, and then I woke up the next morning feeling thirsty like I never did before. Adrift in the middle of the sea, nobody for miles around.”
Dean blinked. “They turned you but they didn’t… I dunno, sign you up for the vamp recruitment program?”
Benny shook his head. “Guess they figured I was dead, else somethin’ went wrong and they had to cut loose before they were sure I was turned.” He looked down, and when Dean glanced over, he saw Benny’s hands clenched tightly in his lap. “A boat picked me up not long after. They pulled me onboard, gave me dry clothes, food, water… but I couldn’t drink enough to get rid of the thirst.” Benny swallowed. “And then one of the fellas on board cut his hand gutting a fish, and the smell of it—” He broke off for a moment. “Well, you can guess how that ended.”
He was quiet, not looking at Dean. “Yeah,” Dean got out, after a moment. “I can guess.”
“Anyhow,” Benny went on. “I didn’t know what I was right away, not until I ran into my first hunter. But I did know I couldn’t go home. Once I got on shore I headed North. Worked my way when I could, stole when I couldn’t. Fed—huh.” He stopped, like his breath had run out. “Well, you don’t wanna hear the details. I ain’t sayin’ I never screwed up, ‘specially at first. But once I figured out I couldn’t survive without the blood, I lived off of animals, mainly.”
Dean raised an eyebrow. He’d never heard of vampires doing that before, and the Dad-voice in his head said, Bullshit. But another part of him—the part that was sitting side by side with a vamp on the forest floor, listening to him tell his life story like a human—pointed out that hey, hunters only looked out for dead humans. One lone vamp snacking on the occasional cow? Yeah, that could pass under the radar.
“Thing is,” Benny was saying, “when you live your life after dark, you get to seein’ some things that make you wonder, ain’t some people monsters too?”
Dean looked at him sideways. “Yeah,” he said. “I noticed.”
“Guess that ain’t news to a hunter.” Benny inclined his head. “Gonna have to forgive me. I ain’t seen a face that wasn’t one of the Folk in so long, I guess it’s all comin’ out.”
That made Dean blink in surprise. He guessed he’d figured that one monster was pretty much the same as another; that human contact wasn’t a thing you needed unless you were, you know, human. Only the story Benny was telling—the weird half-life he’d been living, not part of the human world but not part of any vamp nest, either—well, it made a freaky kind of sense. If nobody ever taught you how to be a monster, then maybe you’d cling to the person you used to be as tight as you damn well could.
“I was out walkin’ one night,” Benny went on, then. “It was New York, near the harbor—I don’t know how it is now, but back then Red Hook was poor as dirt, an’ if you lived there, likely as not nobody gave two shakes what happened to you. Wasn’t like I was in any danger, though, so I hopped on shore to stretch my legs, happy as you please. Hadn’t gotten far when I heard shouting.”
Dean nodded and didn’t interrupt. His eyes were getting used to the dark now, and he could make out Benny’s distant expression, the faint frown on his face.
“First of all I figured, not my problem. Wasn’t my job to go breakin’ up human fights. But then I realized one of the voices was a woman, an’—well, I didn’t know what was happenin’, but I knew it could be bad. So I went to take a look.”
He paused, and after a moment Dean prodded, “And?”
“And it was strange. I heard this girl screamin’, but by the time I found the alleyway, she was just standing there like somebody in a trance. Swaying on her feet, lookin’ like—like she couldn’t see what was around her anymore. Like she was someplace else inside her head. An’ the man with her said, ‘Give me your arm’, and she just held it out.” Benny took a breath. “That was when I saw he had a knife. It wasn’t an ordinary knife, though—old-fashioned, like something dug up outta the ground. So I ran at him before he could start cutting up this girl, and once he looked away, it was like she wasn’t hypnotized anymore. She took off runnin’. Not a word to me, but y’know, can’t say I’d have been minding my pleases and thank-yous in her situation.”
Despite himself, and despite the creepy-ass story, Dean managed a laugh. Benny looked at him sideways, like he’d forgotten Dean was there, but he was happy to remember it. The surprise looked good on him, Dean thought, and then mentally kicked himself for thinking it.
“So,” he said, to distract his dumb brain. “What happened? What was the guy?”
“Well, that was the funny thing,” Benny told him. “He’d been about to cut this girl open, so I figured he was one of my kind. But when I got close enough to slug him—he smelled funny. There’s a reason vampires don’t drink the blood of our own; I figured that out the first time I got in a fight with one of my kind. Vampire blood smells like the mud from the bottom of a river an’ all the rotten things in it—an’ it pretty much tastes like that, too. But I hit that man hard enough to make his nose bleed, an’ he didn’t smell like that. Didn’t smell human, either, though. Just better’n anything I ever smelled in my life. Like liquor to an old drunk, or water to a man who’s been in the desert a long time.”
“He was one of the fai—the Folk, right?” Dean said. “The ones that drink blood.”
“So what happened then?”
“Well, he was up an’ running before I got another hit in. So I followed him into a building, didn’t stop to see what it was. Then he vaulted through this funny-lookin’ window. I was mad, an’ the smell of that blood was doin’ something to my head, so I just climbed through after him. Didn’t look where I was goin’.”
“And you ended up here,” Dean finished for him. “It was the mirror.”
“That’s about right.” Benny’s voice was too light for what he was saying. Dean knew that tone of voice: same one he used whenever he needed to laugh about some fucking horrible supernatural murder so he didn’t cry about it. He shifted uncomfortably where he sat.
“And the mirror closed up right after?” he asked. “Like it did with me?”
There was a long pause, and Benny bowed his head. “Not exactly,” he said. His voice was low, uncertain, but then he seemed to decide he might as well spill the whole thing. “You know what I told you earlier? Bout how you shouldn’t drink their wine?”
Dean nodded. “Yeah. There’s a whole bunch of lore about that kinda stuff.”
“Well,” Benny said, “turns out the same thing happens if you eat fairy food. Or drink fairy blood.”
“Huh.” It was pretty much all Dean could think of to say. Not like it was an unexpected end to the story. Vampire drinks blood, sky’s blue, grass is green.
“The Folk came, after that,” Benny went on, his voice a little strained. He obviously didn’t wanna let the awkward moment linger, either. “Dragged me away and took me up to the castle. Gift for their King.”
Dean glanced across at him, eyes narrowing. “So how come you ain’t up there?”
“I fought. Guess the Folk ain’t used to it, humans bein’ a little easier to enchant. Now, the Folk like to play with you—trick you, hurt you if they feel like it, just to hear you scream. But they ain’t exactly committed. They would’ve gotten bored draggin’ me back there every day, I figure. So the King let me go, said I was free to wander around this place wherever I wanted, just so long as I showed when he summoned me.”
“So, what, you just stayed?”
“Hell no. First thing I did when I got outta there was head back to the mirror. I figured I’d just climb back through, but it tossed me back into this place like a rubber ball bouncin’ off a wall.”
“So you’ve been here ever since.”
Benny nodded. “The portal opened up a couple times since—humans comin’ through—but I never tried to get out again.” He paused. “And don’t worry, I didn’t ever harm a one of those people. Didn’t ever manage to save one of ‘em, either.” He trailed off, eyes front, and Dean sat back against his tree trunk.
“I guess… thanks for trying to help me,” he offered, after a moment. Felt weird to be saying thank you to a vampire, and weirder to be admitting he needed help from anybody, but it wasn’t like this was a normal day.
“You’re welcome,” Benny told him, with the barest hint of a smile, and then he was quiet.
Dean didn’t mean to fall asleep. Okay, so maybe Benny sounded genuine, but he still wasn’t planning on closing his eyes with a vamp right next to him.
He must have done, though, because the next thing he knew, he was yawning himself awake as the morning light filtered down through the trees. There was something covering him, and as he pushed himself up into a sitting position, Benny’s coat slid down off of his chest.
“Mornin’, sleeping beauty,” Benny said, from the other side of the clearing.
Dean blinked at him. “Wha?” he mumbled, and then, finally processing the fact that he’d slept through the night and woken up alive and uninjured, “Dude, uh. Thanks for not eating me?”
Benny’s smile looked pained, just for a fraction of a second. Then the look was gone, and Dean couldn’t be sure it had even been there at all. “Wasn’t no trouble,” he said.
Dean winced as he climbed to his feet, muscles protesting at the night they’d spent on the forest floor. Plus the inside of his mouth felt like a raccoon had taken a crap in it. He made a face.
Benny chuckled and held something out to him. Dean frowned and took it, turning it over and over in his hand. A quarter-sized scrap of bark, or something like that, dry and kind of reddish in color. Smelled a little like cinnamon. “What’s this?”
“It’s a root. Grows in the forest floor. You chew it,” Benny told him. “Helps you freshen up in the morning. Fella I knew when I was human used to take somethin’ similar with him out on long boat trips. Better’n nothing.” He bit off a corner of the piece he was holding himself. “Ain’t tryin’ to poison you, I promise.”
Dean shrugged, popped the cinnamon-smelling thing in his mouth, and hefted his pack onto his back.
He chewed as they walked along, and yeah, okay, it kinda worked. Better than nothing, like Benny had said. Dean still probably smelled like ass—he would’ve killed for a power shower—and the thought of coffee made him want to cry like a baby, but hey, it was something.
They walked for most of the day, the bird—Bran—flying off ahead of them and then circling back to Benny. Sometimes they tramped along in surprisingly not-awkward silence, and sometimes they ended up talking about whatever came into their heads. Benny told stories about his time as a sailor—first in the Navy, then as a fisherman—and his wife from back when he was human, and his two kids, his voice going soft and distant when he mentioned them. Dean, in turn, actually found himself talking about Sam. First time he’d voluntarily mentioned his brother to anyone but Bobby (Dad was a definite no-no) since Sam took off.
Being around Benny made him feel a little more open, a little less cautious, like he wanted to share stuff. The way he’d felt around Cassie, around the blue-eyed bartender back in Oregon before his common sense kicked in. He felt less like a hunter and more like a real person.
It was dumb. Benny was helping him, but that didn’t mean he felt anything like that for Dean. He’d said he had a wife, back when he was human, and it wasn’t like dudes in his time had been known for their free-and-easy attitude to sexual experimenting. Hell, neither were dudes in Dean’s time. Neither was Dean. Plus, Dean was the first person Benny had seen in years who wasn’t one of the Folk. He wanted company. Dean was just gonna make an ass of himself if he mistook that for anything else.
Anyway, Dean wasn’t a real person. Dad had drilled that into his brain his whole life, and the whole screw-up with Cassie had just brought it home. He put his head down and walked faster.
It was Dad’s voice.
It came from somewhere off the path, just in the shadows of the trees. Dean whirled on the spot, relief flaring up inside of him. Dad had noticed he was missing, gotten through the mirror, somehow tracked him down. Dean never should have doubted him.
The brief flash of relief faded right away, replaced by a cold sinking feeling in his stomach. Now he was gonna have to explain to Dad what he was doing palling around with a vampire. How in the hell was he supposed to do that?
He swallowed hard, stopping in his tracks so that Benny almost ran into the back of him.
“Give a guy a little warning,” Benny said, holding his hands up, but there was no anger in his voice. It was easy, gentle, just like everything else about him.
Yeah, he was gonna have to stop thinking about Benny that way. His heart skipped, and he was suddenly certain that Dad would look right through him and see what he was thinking. What he’d been thinking back in Ohio; what he’d thought, on and off, since he was thirteen years old, watching the swim team tryouts at some high school whose name he’d long forgotten and fidgeting on the bleachers to hide a semi.
“Dean.” The voice was sharper this time. “You know how long it’s taken me to find you in this place? Quit screwing around and let’s get outta here.”
Dean drew in a breath and nodded to himself. “Yessir,” he called out. His voice was shakier than he wanted it to be. “Coming.”
“Who are you talking to?” said Benny.
Dean turned back to him, frowning. “What?”
“You’re talkin’ to thin air, bro—Dean. An’ I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but your pulse just started goin’ double-time.”
Dean scowled. “You seriously telling me you can’t hear anything?” His brain raced. Maybe Benny had just been distracted, not paying attention to his surroundings. Didn’t exactly seem like him, though—not from what Dean had seen of him so far. So maybe he was lying, pretending there was nobody there to get Dean to stick with him.
“Dean! I swear, you don’t get your lazy ass over here right now, I’m leaving without you.”
It was the kind of threat Dad probably wouldn’t follow through on just to teach him a lesson—only he might, if he got pissed enough.
“Got it,” Dean called back, and he was all set to step off the path when Benny caught him by the shoulder, his face grim. Dean shrugged him off. “Dude. Let me go. My Dad’s here, he got through the damn mirror. You don’t seriously expect me to believe you don’t hear anything?”
Benny’s expression stayed stony. “Oh, I hear something alright,” he said. “Only what I hear ain’t the same as what you hear.”
Dean blinked. “What now?”
“Whatever you think you hear, it ain’t real. You heard your father callin’ you? That’s because it’s what you want to hear. That’s because it’s what’ll get you off the path, get you lost in these woods.”
“You got ten seconds.” Dad again. “Ten.”
“Of course it’s real!” Dean winced at the pained note in his voice. “If anybody can figure it out and get in here, it’s Dad.”
Benny held up his hands again. “I don’t doubt it. But that ain’t him, any more than what I hear is really—” He broke off, lowering his eyes. “Well, that don’t matter. But you’ll see.”
“Eight. Seven. Six.”
Dean stood paralyzed, looking from the trees to Benny and then back again. “I can’t just let him go without me.”
“Hold on a minute, brother.” Benny touched his shoulder again—but it was careful, no force behind it. “This doesn’t work, they’ll pick another ruse. Somebody else you wanna see.”
Dean gritted his teeth, stuck in an agony of indecision, and Benny gave a sigh. “Think about it,” he said. He was frowning himself, gaze set hard like he was trying not to look at something.
“Three,” supplied Dad’s voice. “Two.”
“If it really was your old man,” Benny said, “would he be hidin’ back there? Lurking in the shadows refusing to show himself, like—well, like a monster?” He made an up-and-down gesture at himself, a brief self-deprecating quirk of a smile before the frown came back.
Dean groaned, still frozen on the edge of the path. Benny could be lying—but it made sense. Dad was the charge in, all guns blazing type. Unless he needed to be stealthy, and if that was the case, he wouldn’t be yelling out to Dean like he wanted to draw attention. Dean let out a breath, and stayed put.
“One,” said the voice, and he couldn’t help the flip his stomach did, the same hot wash of shame he always got when he knew he’d screwed up burning in his cheeks.
Benny gave his arm a reassuring squeeze—though going by his expression, he wasn’t feeling too reassured himself. There was a long moment of silence.
And then: “Dean?”
The voice was sleepy and uncertain, maybe a little fearful, and it was Sam’s.
Dean’s breath caught in his throat.
“Brother,” Benny warned him. “Remember, it ain’t real.”
“I told you not to call me that.”
Benny just nodded, and didn’t let go of his hold on Dean’s shoulder.
There was no way Sam could be here. Dean knew that. It was just logic. Even if Dad had gotten over his dumb stubborn pride and called Sam, and Sam had driven up from California, and they’d figured out a way through the mirror—Dean and Benny had been walking fast, making good time. Sammy might be a health freak, but he didn’t have rocket skates. Even if he’d walked through the night, not stopping to sleep, no way he’d have caught up with Dean and Benny right now.
Even if he and Dad hadn’t gotten in a screaming fight the moment he’d picked up the phone. Even if he’d actually agreed to come.
“Dean,” Sam’s voice said, again. “Don’t laugh, okay, but this place is kinda giving me the creeps. Can you come show me the way out of here?”
There was just the hint of a tremor at the end of the sentence, and despite everything he’d just told himself, it caught at Dean’s heart. Because this was how Sam used to sound, back when they were kids, back when he still thought Dean had all the answers. Back when he still needed Dean.
For a second, the memory held him there, frozen on the spot. Benny was looking at him—looking kinda worried now, his eyes fixed on Dean’s face like he’d forgotten whatever voices he was hearing.
“Dean? What’s going on, man? Why won’t you help me?”
It was plaintive. Sam hadn’t sounded like that in—well. Dean wouldn’t know, because he hadn’t spoken to Sam in a year. Anyway, Sam didn’t think he had all the answers anymore, and he’d made it pretty damn clear he didn’t need Dad or Dean before he took off for Stanford.
“Crap! Dean! I think something just grabbed my leg!” The note of fright in Sam’s voice was lifted straight out of Dean’s memories.
Gently, Benny took him by the arm. “We should get outta here. The Folk ain’t giving up, and when they don’t get what they want—well.” His expression said it all.
Mutely, Dean nodded. He let Benny tug him away from the treeline, took a few more steps up the path. Up ahead, Bran flapped its wings impatiently in the trees, looking back at them like it was telling them to move their asses.
“Dean!” It was a yell now. “Dean! Help me!”
Except Sam’s voice broke on the last word; turned into something else, ragged and ugly and more like a bird shriek than something that could come out of a human mouth.
Benny’s voice beside him was low and steady. “Run.”
They ran. Their boots sent up leaves and dust from the path, and the voices seemed to echo all around them—first up ahead, then off to one side, then to the other. It was confusing as hell, and more than once Dean found himself facing in the wrong direction, stumbling face-first into Benny when they were supposed to be running the same way, or having to be caught by the arm and pulled back onto the path. His heartbeat thudded in his ears. If they could just get out of earshot—
Abruptly, the voices cut out, like a soundproof barrier had come down between them and the Folk. They stumbled to a halt. Dean breathed in, deep and rough, his lungs screaming like they’d been gone over with sandpaper. He doubled over, hands on his thighs, too damn winded at first to notice Benny wasn’t out of breath like he was.
Well yeah, of course he wasn’t. He wasn’t technically alive. He looked spooked, though. Not seen-a-literal-ghost level spooked, but pretty spooked.
“What happened back there?” Dean asked, once he’d gotten his breath back.
Benny shrugged. “’S just a game, far as the Folk are concerned. Them that make their way into the human world like to try it there, too. I’m guessin’ there are stories, if you know where to look.” His voice was steady, but his expression was still distant, unhappy.
“Sure, there’s lore about that kinda thing. Somebody decides to take a walk after dark, gets turned around, ends up back where he started.” Dean paused, casting another look at Benny’s troubled expression.
He probably shouldn’t ask. Maybe Benny didn’t wanna share. Hell, even if he did, getting into a heart-to-heart with a vampire was a pretty damn stupid idea. If Dad was here, he would’ve told Dean that.
But Dad wasn’t here, so Dean took a breath.
“What did you hear?” he asked. “Back there? What did they say to you?”
Benny’s smile was painful to look at. “Papa.”
Dean winced. “Crap. Uh, sorry I asked, dude.”
“Ain’t no need to apologize.” Benny sounded like he meant it, and a second later he shook himself out of his funk. Dean recognized the gesture—stowing your crap, putting on a smile. He’d done it often enough himself, because that was what Dad, or Sammy, or the civilians who would end up monster chow if Dean got distracted, needed him to do. Because it was what he needed to do himself, sometimes.
Seeing it from the other side felt a little weird. Somebody who was better at all the feelings crap would probably have said, You wanna talk about it? or come out with one of the comfort-by-numbers phrases Sam was so good at reciting when he had to talk to some kid whose mom or dad had been eaten by a werewolf.
Dean was saved from having to think about it any more by Benny rummaging in his pack and holding something out.
“You might wanna hang onto this,” he said.
Dean blinked and took the thing he was holding. It was wrapped in the same rough, barky fabric that the packs were made of. Felt kinda hard underneath, though, and it was heavier than he’d expected when he took it. He unwrapped it carefully.
It was a dagger. Dark in color and cold to the touch. Iron. Worked on ghosts—maybe it was good for killing fairies, too.
“Ain’t much the Folk can’t stand,” Benny said, cutting in on his thoughts, “but cold iron is one of ‘em.”
Dean held the dagger up, turning it so that it caught the light. “So how’d you get this? Seems kinda weird, them letting you hang onto it when they know you wanna go home.”
“Yeah, an’ they know there’s one of me an’ a couple thousand of them. I went on the attack, they’d rip me in shreds before I managed to take out more’n a handful of ‘em.” He lifted an eyebrow in warning. “Same goes for you. Don’t go thinking this means you can run in half-cocked. But if one or two of ‘em come at you, least you’ll be able to fight back.”
Iron wouldn’t kill a vamp, but it would damage Benny long enough to get away if Dean decided he needed to cut and run. Which kind of made Dean think he wouldn’t have to.
False sense of security, warned the Dad-voice in the back of his mind.
Dean told it to shut up, and clapped Benny on the shoulder. “Thanks, man,” he said.
Benny gave a small smile. They walked on.
The sun sank again, and they stepped back off the path to make camp, Bran perching in the branches a little way off like it was keeping lookout. This time, they found one huge, thick-trunked old tree to settle back against, sitting shoulder to shoulder and looking out into the dimness of the forest. Those golden firefly lights flickered occasionally, far back in the trees, but they never came close. Watching them, Dean was reminded of the times he and Sam would lie back on the hood of the Impala and look at the stars, sneaking out of the motel room while Dad was out buying booze, or waiting for him to come back from a job. Sam—of course—knew all the names of the constellations, and he’d point them out while Dean half-listened, dozing.
Now, Dean kind of wished he’d paid attention. Who knew when he was gonna get to speak to Sam again? If he was ever gonna get back through the mirror?
If Sam would even know that he was gone?
He shook himself and looked over at Benny, meaning to change the subject, but found himself saying, “You ever have anybody, back in the real world? You said you were married once, right?”
Benny looked back at him—a careful, measuring look, like he was trying to figure out where this conversations was going. Then he gave a slow nod. “I was,” he said. “We had two little ones. I jus’ hope when they—when they grew up, they did okay. Lived safe, without any of this.” He glanced around them, and Dean got it.
“Any of this supernatural crap? Yeah, Amen to that.” Dean paused. Probably too much of a personal question, but then he’d never been famous for his subtlety. “But there wasn’t anybody, after that? After you got turned, I mean?”
Benny smiled a little, the faint curve of his mouth just visible in the dark. “No. Figured out soon enough it wasn’t safe for anybody to let her guard down around me.” He paused, just a moment, eyes still on Dean’s. “Or his.”
Dean blinked, startled, and swallowed hard. Had he given himself away somehow—something in the way he looked at Benny, the way he talked? He was lucky Benny was Benny, and not some asshole. But Benny was Benny, so the least Dean could do was not be an asshole back. He nodded. “I get it.”
Benny leaned back against the tree, his expression falling into relief. “Thought you might.” He looked over at Dean again. “How about you? Anybody waiting for you back home?”
After a moment, Dean looked down. “Not anymore,” he said, and then, because that didn’t seem like enough, “I was with somebody for a little while, but when she found out about all of this, she kind of freaked. Can’t exactly blame her.” He paused, then, looked down at his shoes. “Then I met somebody else and I dunno, maybe it coulda been something, but I pussied out.” It wasn’t that he’d thought the thing with the blue-eyed bartender was gonna go anywhere, more that saying it out loud felt like admitting something. Dean swallowed again and figured, hey. In for a dime. “Never saw him again.”
Benny gave him a sympathetic look. Warm, eyes crinkling up at the corners. “’S rough, brother.”
This time, Dean didn’t correct him. “Damn right.”
A yawn caught him before he could say anything else. Probably for the best, because he wasn’t sure there was much else he could say without making everything awkward as hell.
Benny lifted an eyebrow. “You wanna catch some shut-eye?”
Sure, Dean should’ve protested. But he was beat, eyes scratchy with tiredness, and he hadn’t heard Dad’s voice in the back of his head since he heard it in the woods earlier. Maybe he ought to be worried about that. Or maybe not.
“Sure,” he agreed, and his voice caught around another yawn. “Night, Benny.”
“G’night.” Benny’s voice was gentle. Dean curled up with his makeshift pillow and let sleep pull him under.
Dean woke the next morning still feeling gross as hell. He’d slept in his clothes often enough, staking out some monster or just crashing in the Impala because he didn’t have the cash for a motel, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. When he woke up, squinting, and Benny offered him a piece of the weird bark stuff, he popped it in his mouth and chewed without complaint.
He still smelled pretty ripe, though, and he guessed Benny was feeling the same way, because he got to his feet and grimaced, tugging at the edge of his shirt.
“You know, I’m sure there’s a stream around here somewhere,” he said.
Dean let out an audible groan of relief. “Please tell me it’s big enough to take a bath in.”
“Don’t rightly remember.” Benny tilted his head, then looked up into the branches and gave a short, two-note whistle. A second later, there was a rustle of leaves and Bran landed on his shoulder. “Go take a look, would you?” Benny asked it.
The bird cocked its head, like it was imitating his own gesture, and Dean got that weird sense of almost-human intelligence again. Then it flapped its wings and took off.
A couple minutes later it was back on Benny’s shoulder, and they shared another moment of psychic-looking communication. Benny grinned, then. “Yup. Ain’t far.”
They tramped away from the path, following Bran’s lead through the trees—and sure enough, after a little while, Dean heard the sound of water. Something sparkled through the trees—and then they were standing in front of the stream.
Mostly it was narrow and fast-moving, running clear over weed-covered rocks, but a little way downstream the banks widened, and there was a natural pool right there in the middle of the trees. Out here, the water was probably cold enough to freeze the balls off a snowman, but it was clear and clean, and Dean was already exclaiming, “Fucking awesome” and peeling off his jacket as he walked toward the bank.
“Hold up there,” Benny warned him.
He gave an inward groan, but stopped anyway. After a couple days in this place, he figured Benny knew when something nasty might be lurking, and it was probably a good idea to listen if he didn’t want to end up with a dozen more creepy-ass Folk on his tail.
Benny crossed in front of him and kicked at the foliage at the water’s edge. And sure enough, there was a rustle in the bushes and something darted out.
It was small—less than knee-high—and it moved too fast for Dean to get a good look, but it was dripping wet, leaving a trail behind as it scampered off into the trees. And the sound it made—this weird, high-pitched chattering. It actually sounded kinda pissed.
Benny turned back to him, and he raised an eyebrow. “The hell was that?”
“Water sprite. Ain’t gonna do you any lasting harm, but they got a nasty bite. Don’t want one takin’ you by surprise.”
“Huh.” Dean eyed the water again, more cautiously this time, and Benny gave the greenery another kick, turning back to him with an encouraging smile when nothing emerged.
“Pretty solitary, most of ‘em,” he said. “Don’t like to share. C’mon, let’s take a dip.” He pulled off his jacket and dropped it beside the pool, then crouched to unlace his boots.
The shirt he wore underneath was thin, stretching over his broad shoulders and the muscles of his arms. Dean found himself staring, frozen where he stood, his mouth going dry.
Benny looked up at him. “Critter’s gone. Promise.”
Dean cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he got out. “Uh. Sorry.”
Benny just shrugged. “Ain’t got nothin’ to apologize for,” he said, and carried on undressing.
Dean turned his back, suddenly self-conscious. Like he’d used to feel at the various high schools he’d gone too, hiding hunting injuries in the corners of locker rooms to avoid unwanted questions—except that this time it wasn’t suspicious claw marks he was worried about, just the possibility of an unwanted boner. He waited for the splash of Benny getting into the water, then folded his clothes at the edge of the pool (the Dad-voice inside his head had been quiet, but he still couldn’t bring himself to leave his crap in a mess). He climbed in himself, then, grateful that the water was waist-deep.
When he turned around, Benny was watching him. Eyes sparkling, slight smile on his face, totally unembarrassed to be naked. He didn’t exactly look like he was checking Dean out—but he didn’t exactly look like he wasn’t, either. Dean swallowed hard, and Benny laughed at him.
“Relax,” he said. “There’s nothin’ nasty in here. I promise.”
That ain’t the problem, Dean didn’t say. Kinda the opposite, actually. Instead, he scowled and said, “I’m not scared of any… freaky-ass little water monkey thing.”
Benny grinned and leaned back in the water. It was just about deep enough to float in, and he kicked his feet lazily and floated over toward Dean on his back, looking up at him with those piercing eyes. “Course you ain’t,” he agreed, and Dean’s stomach dropped. For a second he thought, with panicky certainty, He knows.
Dean felt himself flush and he ducked his head, turning away.
“’S alright,” Benny said, then, softly, and he righted himself, his hand finding Dean’s hip.
Dean’s breath caught in his throat, like he was some blushing teenage girl who’d never been kissed before. Benny’s hand was big and steady. Not cold, or anyway not any colder than the water—but the shock of being touched was like an electric current. He felt warm, alive. Which would’ve been fucking hilarious, with Benny being a vampire, except that panic chased everything else away before Dean had time to laugh.
He stepped back, out of Benny’s grasp, and shook his head. “I—” he started to say, and then didn’t know how he was supposed to finish.
“’S alright,” Benny told him, again, and his hand dropped back to his side. He was smiling a little. Not exactly happy, but kind of… soft. Yeah, he knew alright. And he got it, and he wasn’t gonna push.
The realization made Dean duck his head again, cheeks burning. “Sorry,” he managed.
Benny shook his head. “Don’t be,” he said. “C’mon. Let’s wash up. Ain’t got far to go now.”
That last part should’ve been welcome. The sooner Dean got to the castle, the sooner he could get back to the human world, and Dad, and the chance of seeing Sammy again someday. Hell, it was welcome. Only somehow, at the same time, it sounded like a door closing.
They washed and got dressed again in the quiet of the forest. Bran joined them again from wherever it had been hiding, and they found their way back to the path.
Dean half-concentrated on where he was going, following in Benny’s footsteps while his mind turned over and over.
What a goddamn mess. He never should’ve dropped Benny a hint about the whole guys thing. Or he should’ve been clearer, shouldn’t have stepped away, should’ve taken the chance while he had it. He couldn’t figure out which was right.
And before he got anywhere near deciding, the castle of the King of the Folk was looming up in front of them.
He didn’t realize what it was right away. It didn’t look like he was expecting, not that he’d really known what he was expecting. Some kind of Disney movie thing with turrets and streamers, he guessed. But then something rose up in front of them, covered in mossy green, like a cliff face or a mountainside.
Dean frowned and turned to Benny, shaking himself out of his funk. “How are we supposed to get up there?” he said, and took a step closer, reaching out a hand toward the sheer stone surface.
Benny put an arm in front of him, stopping him dead. “We don’t,” he said, and his voice was low. He glanced up warily, like he was expecting something to swoop down out of the trees and attack them, and Bran landed on his shoulder and huddled in close to his head, its beady eyes darting everywhere.
“Huh? Then what do we do?”
“We go inside.” Benny looked back at him. “This is it.”
Dean saw it, then. Light creeping through narrow gaps in the rock—the same golden firefly-light as they’d seen in the woods. The gaps were windows.
And that probably meant somebody was watching them.
The second the thought occurred to him, Dean felt the point of a knife—or some kind of weapon, anyway—poke at the small of his back.
One of the Folk stood behind him, watching him beady-eyed. “Are you trespassing?” it said, and there was a hint of gleeful expectation in its voice that made Dean wonder what the Folk did to trespassers.
“No,” Benny said, before Dean could open his mouth. One of the Folk was on him, too, holding some kind of caveman-looking spear thing. Benny held up his hands and turned to face it slowly. “We’re here seeking an audience. My friend here needs to ask the King a favor.”
Friend. After what had happened—or not happened—earlier, the word stung a little. But it was Dean’s own damn fault, and anyway, he didn’t have time to think about that right now.
The creature guarding Dean made a face like a kid that had just been told playtime was cancelled. “This way,” it said, and jabbed him in the back with its spear again, kinda harder than necessary.
Dean frowned. “Which way?” he started to say, and then shut up as the sheer face of the castle seemed to open out around them.
They hadn’t taken a step, but suddenly they were in a stone corridor lined with twinkling lights.
Dean risked a glance over at Benny. His face was grim, but when he caught Dean’s eye he nodded, just about managing a smile. But his hands twitched at his sides like they wanted to curl into fists, and Dean recognized the look. Benny was putting on a brave face, but being here was getting to him.
Not exactly reassuring, but there was no backing out now. Dean nodded back, and they let the Folk lead them into the castle.
A small crowd formed around them as they went, the Folk lining the sides of the corridor, whispering to one another and watching with their bright eyes. They pressed in close, but never close enough to touch. Dean hunched in on himself anyway, remembering the gathering in the forest and all of those grabby hands.
The walls of the corridor rose sheer above them as they walked, and then the space widened out and they were standing in the audience chamber. In front of them, on a throne lined with moss, sat the King of the Fairies. They drew to a halt in front of him, and Dean felt Benny go still and stiff at his side more than he saw it.
It didn’t even feel weird, picking up on Benny’s moods like that, the same way he did with Dad and Sam. It should’ve done, probably; but right now, the idea that in a couple more days, Dean would be back in the real world and they’d never see each other again felt like a bad dream.
He let it stay a bad dream for now, because he couldn’t afford to screw this up. He pissed off the King, he might never get back to Dad and Sam. (One thing was for sure: the second Dean got back through the mirror, he was heading out to California.)
He raised his eyes. The King smiled down at him.
It was weird—he didn’t look like Dean had expected. Dean didn’t know what he had expected. Maybe one of those elves out of the Lord of the Rings movies. Weird Renaissance Fayre type clothes. Probably a beard. Instead, there was this Jay Gatsby looking dude perched on the throne, chin resting on his hands, smirking at them. His eyes were intelligent—bright, more humanly aware than the rest of the Folk, but no warmer. He looked Dean over like he was eyeing up the merchandise on a fruit stall, but didn’t say anything to him.
There was a flutter of wings, then, and Bran rose off of Benny’s shoulder to perch on the back of the throne. It looked at the King like they were communicating, the same way it had with Benny, and after a couple minutes’ creepy-staring, the King tapped his chin with a fingernail and turned to face them.
“I’ve been lenient with you in the past, Benjamin,” he said.
Hearing Benny’s full name made Dean blink—and Benny didn’t exactly look happy about it, a muscle in his jaw twitching under the King’s scrutiny.
The King ignored him and went on: “I’ve kept you on a long leash. After all, you were rather a lot of trouble when I last tried to offer you my hospitality.” He inclined his head in Dean’s direction, then, and those cold eyes made Dean shift uncomfortably on the spot. “But I hear you’re rather fond of this human.”
His gaze darted toward Bran. Dean’s heart jumped in his chest, and then his stomach sank as he realized what the bird had been doing. He’d figured it was Benny’s pet, or his friend, or something, but it hadn’t been protecting them at all. Just spying on them.
“So,” the King went on. “Here’s your choice. I’ll let your human go—on one condition. You stay here, in the court.” He smiled. “Either you do, or he does.”
This was Dean’s stupid fault. If he hadn’t felt the way he did, if he hadn’t come out and hinted at it, then maybe the damn bird wouldn’t have noticed. Then at least Dean would have been the one bargaining for his own way out. But he couldn’t ask Benny to stay in this place, with the crowds of Folk and the creepy-ass King, just to save a guy he’d known three days.
“Ain’t there—” Dean paused, ducked his head. “I mean, uh, Your Majesty?”
The King turned those cold eyes on him and gave a slow nod.
“Isn’t there something else you want from me? I, uh.” He cleared his throat. “I’m a hunter. I know things. Plus we—me and my Dad—we got lockups on the other side. All kinds of supernatural stuff we picked up hunting bad guys. You can take your pick.” Not exactly a promise Dean could keep, because Dad would kick his ass six ways to Sunday, but it was all he had right now.
The King regarded him, apparently uninterested. “Trinkets? I have plenty of those already.”
Benny’s arm across his chest made him stop. He blinked, but before he could wrap his head around what was going on here, Benny was stepping out in front of him, looking the King in the eye.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll stay.”
Dean stared at him in disbelief. “Benny,” he said. “You can’t—I can’t let you—”
“Pretty sure it ain’t your decision, brother.” Benny was smiling at him, and the smile tied Dean’s stomach into knots.
He closed his eyes; opened them again. “You don’t gotta do this.”
“No,” Benny agreed. “I don’t. But I am.” He paused, and took a step closer to Dean. The creature at his back moved forward, too, but then the King waved his hand and it stood back. Benny leaned closer, his voice low in Dean’s ear. “Me, I know what I am. Stickin’ around here ain’t gonna make me any less human. But you?” He paused; took a breath. “You’re the first human thing I saw in years. You stay here, and all that goes away. Now, I could stand by and let that happen, but I ain’t about to. And you ain’t about to make me change my mind.”
Dean opened his mouth to argue, even though he wasn’t sure what he was gonna say back—You think I’m worth giving yourself up for, you’re even crazier than I thought, maybe—but he didn’t get the chance.
“Then it’s decided,” the King announced, and he clapped his hands together in glee, grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. Then he plucked something from the breast of his cloak and held it up to the light.
It shone faintly in his hand. Bran hopped forward off its perch on the back of the throne and snatched the thing up in its beak, then beat its wings and deposited the shiny thing on the floor at Dean’s feet.
Dean glared at it, just on principle—and for a second he could’ve sworn the bird ducked its head like it was ashamed. The shiny thing drew his attention, though, and he stooped to pick it of the floor. It was shaped like a feather, and faintly silver. He lifted it carefully, a little scared that touching it was gonna zap him with fairy mojo, but it was light and inert in his hand.
“Permission,” Benny said, softly, at his side. “You’re goin’ home, Dean.”
Dean nodded, swallowing hard around the lump in his throat. What the hell was he even supposed to say here? “Benny—” he started, and Benny reached out and caught him by the hand.
The touch made him forget anything he’d been about to say.
“You got a family that needs you,” Benny told. “An’ I’m pretty sure you wanna see them again. Mine? Well, if my girls are still alive, they’ve done just fine without me.” He paused. “An’ anyway, the old man’s right. I am fond of you.” He leaned forward, then, and kissed Dean on the cheek. His lips were soft and dry. Not cold, like Dean had kind of imagined. “Now remember what I told you. The Folk ain’t exactly steady. You oughta get away from here before they change their minds.”
Dean’s hand went to his cheek without his say so, fingertips pressed to the spot where Benny had kissed him. It tingled faintly. “Promise me you’ll try to escape,” he managed. His voice was a little hoarse. “You’ll try to get outta here.”
Benny gave him a sad little smile. “Sure thing, Dean.” He squeezed Dean’s hand one more time, then let it go. “Time to go. Don’t look back.”
The little hut in the forest stood empty and undisturbed. The chair was still in the back room, the ropes Benny had used to tie him to it draped over the back. The door had been open all this time, but nobody had touched a thing.
Whole lot of good that had done. Benny wasn’t coming back.
Dean stood there in the quiet for a moment, breathing in the cool and the dark. The trek back through the forest had seemed to go faster. Maybe that was because he’d walked through the nights, not daring to stop and rest with nobody to watch his back. Maybe it was because some part of him had kept wanting to look back, had ached a little more every time he thought about the distance between him and Benny.
The Folk had let him be. Dean figured maybe that was because of the feather in his pocket, like it was some official seal of protection from the King. He was probably supposed to be grateful for that.
He’d have preferred to be fighting them off ten at a time with Benny at his side, any day.
He sighed and scrubbed a hand down his face, and pulled the feather out his pocket.
The mirror stirred.
It came to life again, just like it had back in the witch’s attic. Its edges turned to golden fire, and it was like the glass melted away. Dean could see the attic on the other side—still dark and dusty, just like it had been when he left. Plus he was pretty sure all the boxes and assorted magical crap was exactly where he’d left it. It was like he’d never even left at all.
Maybe Dad was still there. Maybe Dean would never have to explain this to him. Yeah; that would definitely be a good thing.
Dean took a breath and touched the feather to the surface of the mirror.
Just like last time, the air shimmered and shifted around him—and between one blink and the next, he was back in the witch’s attic.
He got there just in time to hear the engine of Dad’s truck as he drove away.
“Yeah, they definitely got to this one.” The storage locker door gave way as Dean pushed it, the key dangling uselessly from his hand.
This was the third of Dad’s old lockups they’d found broken into. The Leviathan—because who the hell else would it be, Sam’s imaginary friend Satan?—had been targeting them one by one, stealing a couple things from each and leaving the rest for Sam and Dean to clean up. It would just be awesome if either of them knew why.
“Looks that way,” Sam agreed, and followed him into the lockup, peering around in the crappy lighting. “We better take a look, see what they stole this time.”
“Sure.” Dean poked at an empty box on the nearest shelf, then pulled a face as he dislodged a broken jar that had once held some foul-smelling purple ichor. He hadn’t gotten any on him, but he rubbed his hands on his jeans just in case. Yeah, he’d bet money that had come from some witch’s lair.
Behind him, Sam opened boxes and pored over labels, frowning to himself, occasionally pausing to take a picture of something on his phone. And any other time, Dean would’ve laughed his ass off at this nerdy crap, but right now he could only be grateful. Sam focused on something real, not casting frightened glances at something only he could see—that was a win. Sam not getting on his case about the whole Amy thing, that was another.
Dean shook himself. He’d gone after Amy, and then he’d tried not to think about it too much. Tried not to think about how Benny had said, I ain’t sayin’ I never screwed up; about how he might’ve hesitated if it had been Benny on the wrong side of a hunt. Benny was long gone, and as far as Sam knew, he was just some dude who’d helped Dean out once upon a time. Not a vampire, and not—well, whatever else Benny had been to him. Almost been.
Anyway, Dean had more important fish to fry right now. He frowned to himself, thinking back over the previous thefts.
They’d taken a key from the last locker. Dean didn’t know what door it had belonged to, and Dad hadn’t left any clues, but the box that held it had been covered in Icelandic runes. A stone with a sigil on it and the label, Open Sesame Spell. From the one before that, they’d swiped a map with a bunch of devil’s gates marked on it. A book with some creepy version of Alice in Wonderland that had made everyone that read it think they were falling down the rabbit hole—Dean remembered Dad telling him about that one.
It was all stuff that had to do with doors, portals; ways of getting in and out of other realms. And this locker—
Dean’s heartbeat quickened a little as he crouched and found the box he’d used to lock away the mirror, after Dad had cut out and left him alone to deal with the witch’s junk collection. He flipped the catches on the box and tried to keep breathing.
It was coming up on nine years since he’d seen Benny, and hell, he oughta be used to losing friends by now. Only his throat still closed up every time he remembered Cas walking out into the middle of that lake, his face veined with Leviathan black. He felt that stab of guilt, still too fresh, every time he thought about Lisa and Ben’s blank faces in that hospital room—and the old ache of it when he thought about kissing Jo goodbye with Hellhounds baying outside the door. You never got used to it.
Dean swallowed hard and opened the lid.
The mirror was gone. He’d been kind of expecting it, but his heart sank anyway.
Something caught his eye, then. A little box on the next shelf. He’d used it for the feather the King had given him, and when he lifted off the lid, the silvery glint of it greeted him. The Leviathan hadn’t known to take it along with the mirror. Dean guessed that was something.
He slipped the small box into his pocket and turned back to Sam. “Any ideas?”
Sam nodded. “Same as before.” He pointed at an empty box. “I remember what was in this one. It was a spell to open a devil’s gate. Dad took it from a witch in Ohio.”
Dean nodded. “Yeah I remember that. We know if it works?”
“Nope. Dad shot the witch before he ever got around to using it.” Sam sighed. “What do you think all this is about? The Leviathan already got out of Purgatory. I can’t figure out how this relates to all the other crap they’re doing.”
Dean shook his head. “Yeah, me neither. Maybe there are more of them in Purgatory than Cas—more than got out?”
Sam frowned. “I guess it’s possible? But I dunno, man. We just don’t have enough to go on here.” He didn’t say, I wish we could ask Cas, but he was probably thinking it. Dean could’ve pretended he wasn’t thinking it, too, but even he wasn’t that good at lying to himself.
Dean’s phone rang, interrupting the thought. Fucking thankfully. He mashed the answer button a little harder than necessary. “Hey, Bobby. What’s up?”
“Got a case,” Bobby told him, without preamble. “Wharton State Forest. Meet you there.”
Dean blinked himself groggily awake, out of a dream where he’d been standing on one side of the mirror, watching Benny on the other. When he’d reached out to try to touch Benny’s hand, all he’d felt was glass.
Crap. Seeing the mirror gone from that storage locker had really gotten to him.
He groaned, rubbing at his temple. Last thing he remembered, he’d been stuffing Turducken in his face in the Biggerson’s in town, and now he was on the backseat of one of Bobby’s old junkers feeling like he had the worst hangover of his life. Plus the inside of his mouth tasted like donkey ass. He grimaced and sat up.
“Glad you could join us,” Sam said, one corner of his mouth twitching up in a smile. There was a little too much relief in it, though, and Dean bristled under the skin at the thought that they’d been talking about him, worrying about him while he slept. Sam shouldn’t be worrying about anybody else right now.
“What’s going on?” Dean asked him, scowling out the window. They were outside some kind of a warehouse, nothing much happening around it. “How long was I out?”
“Couple hours,” Bobby informed him, from the passenger seat. “And in case you were wondering, yeah, you did puke.”
“Awesome.” Dean rubbed at his eyes. He felt sweaty and gross from sleeping in his clothes—and yet somehow, for a moment as he woke up, he’d almost expected to find himself curled up on the forest floor beyond the mirror, Benny’s coat pulled up over him and Benny’s steady presence close by, keeping watch while he slept.
He shook himself, shook away the remnants of dream that clung to his mind like cobwebs. He didn’t need to keep thinking about that now. The storage locker thefts were on the back burner, and Benny—
Well, Benny was something he let himself think about occasionally, late at night, when Sam was pretending to sleep. Benny was a never-could’ve-been, and losing the mirror didn’t change that; not really. There was nothing he could do about it now.
“Crap,” Sam said, then. “Edgar.”
Dean peered out the window. A car had pulled up outside the warehouse while he was daydreaming, and Edgar was dragging somebody out the trunk. “Sonofabitch,” Dean breathed out.
At the same time, he felt something. Not something new, he didn’t think, but something his sleepy brain was only just picking up on. A faint cool tingle, close to his skin. Bobby was staring out at the warehouse, asking what the hell was going on here, but Dean only half heard him, groping around in the pockets of his jacket.
“Dean?” Sam, still sounding kind of worried. “You sure the turducken’s worn off?”
Dean nodded distractedly as his hand finally closed around the feather. Yeah, that was definitely what was doing the tingling. He probably ought to mention it.
Or maybe it was just his imagination—a holdover from his dream, or a side-effect of the lobotomy sandwich. He scowled and looked back out the window. “I got no clue what’s happening here,” he said. “Guess we hang around and watch a little longer?”
“Guess so,” agreed Bobby, and Sam made a noise of assent, leaning down to reach for something under the seat.
He came up with a flask and held it out to Dean. “Coffee?”
A few hours, a fucking excruciating conversation with Bobby, and a surprise show from Dick Roman later, Dean was gritty-eyed and wired, but the feather was still tingling in his pocket.
He still hadn’t mentioned it to Sam.
His legs were cramping from sitting still, and he was getting antsy from all this waiting around doing nothing. He groaned and cracked open the car door. Bobby was still up on the rooftop, doing surveillance, and he hadn’t said anything about any Leviathan headed in their direction. Nobody had left the warehouse—or whatever this place really was—in a couple hours.
Sam shot Dean a questioning look, and he shrugged. “Gotta stretch my legs,” he said, wincing for emphasis as he climbed out the car.
Plus, maybe getting out for a couple minutes on his own would help Dean clear his head. Maybe it was the damn feather, or the break-ins at Dad’s storage lockers, but his mind kept drifting to Benny and the Folk in a way it hadn’t done in years. Those old pangs of guilt when he thought about Benny fit in just fine with the new ones he got when he thought about Sam and his hallucinations and knew that he couldn’t do anything to fix them.
But, “You know,” said Sam, “that actually sounds like a good idea,” and he opened his own door and got out, too, stuffing his cellphone in his pocket.
Dean shrugged, and walked.
As he got closer to the warehouse, though, he felt the tingle again. Stronger, this time. And it was almost—yeah, like the feather was pulling him toward the building.
He stopped, frowning, and this time he pulled it out of his pocket. It was shining—not just reflecting the streetlights around them, but glowing from within. Brighter than it had back in the storage locker. Brighter than it had in years—since Dean had left the world of the Folk.
“Dean?” Sam was peering over his shoulder, eyes fixed on the feather like he thought it was about to bite him. “What’s that?”
“It’s—” Dean trailed off as it tugged at him again, urgent now, like an animal tugging at its leash. Or like something wanting to go home. He found his feet moving without his say-so, pulled irresistibly toward the warehouse.
“Dean. C’mon. You’re starting to freak me out here.”
“The mirror,” he explained. Or tried to, anyway, because Sam just looked at him like he was talking gibberish. “From the storage locker. The stuff they’ve been taking—it’s here.”
Sam’s eyes went wide. “How do you know?”
“This thing?” Dean held up the feather. “Remember how I told you about that witch case me and Dad worked, with the freaky-ass mirror in the attic?”
Sam nodded. “Yeah, right. You met some guy who’d been trapped on the other side for years and he helped you get out.”
Dean swallowed. “That’s right. Benny.” He paused, breathed in deep. “This is—like a key, I guess. It opened the mirror last time, let me get outta there. Now—well, you touch it.”
Gingerly, Sam reached out a hand, grimacing as he did so. He pulled it back almost as soon as his fingers brushed the feather, his eyebrows shooting up. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that’s definitely some kind of mojo.”
Dean nodded. It was good that Sam could feel it too. Meant he wasn’t crazy.
Didn’t explain why he suddenly felt like he’d given away something private.
“We better call Bobby,” Sam was saying, and Dean nodded, the tingle of the feather running up his arm.
He could almost imagine that if he closed his eyes, he’d see the mirror changing its form in front of his face—Benny looking back at him, like the eight years since they’d seen each other were just the blink of an eye—
“Looks like we’re headed round back of the warehouse,” Sam was saying, cellphone to his ear. “Dean might have something.”
‘Bout time I got down from here anyway, came Bobby’s muffled reply. Been hearing some interesting things, but it’s only a matter of time before I get made. I’ll see you there.
A moment later there were footsteps, and Bobby joined them. They’d rounded the side of the warehouse now, and they were coming up on a narrow side door. No chance it was unlocked, Dean guessed, but the feather pulled him along toward it anyway.
Bobby peered at him, eyes narrowing as they caught the feather in his hand. Which was seriously glowing now, like Dean’s own little freaky Folk flashlight. “What you got there, Dean?”
Sam opened his mouth, apparently about to butt in with a retort, and then they heard more footsteps, and Edgar was standing at the corner of the building, blocking their way back to the car.
Well, that was just awesome.
Edgar shook his head, mock-disappointed. “You Winchesters just don’t know when you’re not wanted, do you?”
“What do we do?” That was Sam. Dean didn’t have an answer, but the only way they could go was toward the door, and the feather kept tugging at him, so he went. Sam and Bobby followed, backing carefully away from Edgar.
Who gave a sigh. “It’s locked. Obviously.”
Dean tried it anyway, because it wasn’t like he had anything to lose.
It resisted for a second—and then the feather brushed against it, and the lock gave way beneath his hand. From the look on Edgar’s face, that hadn’t been supposed to happen.
Still, no time to dwell on it. They ducked inside, Sam slamming the door shut and sliding the bolt back into place once they were through.
No time to rest, either, though. Dean heard more footsteps, somewhere off to their left.
The feather tugged again, and Dean followed it. “Down here.”
It let them into a narrow corridor, then to a door marked with a big red AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY sign on it. That one opened easily at a touch from the feather, too.
Dean stepped inside—and then stopped, abruptly enough that Sam and Bobby almost barreled into the back of him.
The room was a lab, clean and white and windowless, the lights dimmed. There were probably a dozen rooms like this in here.
But on the opposite wall hung the mirror. And the gilt frame around the outside moved like living fire, and through it, Dean could see rock walls studded with lights like fireflies.
“The hell is that?” said Bobby.
“Long story.” Dean’s voice came out hoarse, and suddenly he found that his hands were shaking.
Behind them, the door rattled as somebody pounded on it. A muffled voice demanded, “You’re supposed to have the key!” and another replied, “I’m looking, I’m looking.”
Any minute now they were gonna have company, and not the fun kind. Dean glanced from the mirror to the door and back again, then nodded to himself. The Folk had been tricky little assholes, but between them and the Leviathan, Dean sure as hell knew which one he’d choose.
“Through here,” he said, and crossed to the mirror.
Sam trailed after him, glancing warily at the door, but Bobby crossed his arms. “Not until you boys tell me what’s goin’ on here.”
“Like I said, long story. You wanna hang round here and end up Leviathan chow, be my guest, but we ain’t got time for Show and Tell right now.” Dean rubbed at his forehead. “Just trust me on this one?”
His voice came out a little more pleading than he’d meant it to. It seemed to work, though, because Bobby gave a sigh and joined them in front of the mirror.
Dean lifted the feather, touched it to the place where the glass had once been. The air shimmered around them, and then they were standing in the palace of the Fairy King.
Yeah—even after eight years, Dean would’ve known those high stone walls and twinkly lights anywhere. He glanced up and down the corridor, but hell if he could tell where in the palace they were. Wasn’t exactly like he’d had much opportunity to explore the place last time, after all.
Behind them, the mirror was inert again, reflecting their own faces back at them instead of the creepy-ass lab.
Bobby frowned at it, held up a hand as if to poke at the glass, then stopped short.
“That’s good,” Dean told him. “Means the Leviathan can’t get through. For now, anyway.” He was just gonna have to hope that the mirror had active itself because he had the feather, and not because the black goo brigade had figured out a way to make it work. Now, though, the feather was inert in his hand, and it didn’t light up when he waved it in the direction of the mirror. That was another problem, but Dean guessed he’d worry about it later.
“Yeah,” agreed Bobby. “That’s good. Be better if I knew where in the hell we actually were.”
Dean drew in a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “Don’t laugh.”
“Do I look like I find this funny?”
“You remember back before Dad went missing, me and him worked this case with a witch? And I found this mirror in her attic?”
“I remember,” Bobby said. “The portal you hopped through?”
Dean nodded and gestured at it. “Well, that was it. Leviathans swiped it from one of Dad’s lock-ups, plus a bunch of other stuff.”
“You telling me we’re in fairyland right now?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s about right.”
Dean was half expecting a snort of incredulity, or for Bobby to tell him to pull the other one, despite the evidence of their eyes. Instead, though, Bobby looked thoughtful. “Didn’t hear much before you two called me over, but I caught a couple interesting things. The Leviathan back there were talkin’ about some kinda programme. Sounds like they’ve been using those Frankenstein sandwiches you like so much to drug people.”
Dean made a face. “Can we not talk about the sandwich?”
Bobby rolled his eyes. “My point is, they got ambition. The ‘enslaving humanity’ kind of ambition.”
“But maybe taking over one world won’t be enough for them,” Sam said, eyebrows shooting up. “Maybe they’re already looking for a door through to the next one.”
“Explains all the crap they stole from Dad’s lock-ups,” Dean agreed.
“So we got an even bigger problem on our hands than we thought,” Bobby pointed out. “And we still don’t know how to stop ‘em.”
“So I guess we’re still screwed.”
Bobby glared at him, and for a moment Dean was convinced he was gonna get another earful about sounding too defeatist, or whatever. He’d had about enough of that for one day.
“What have we here?” The voice that interrupted them was high and lilting, singsong with delight but with a low susurration beneath it, like the rustling of leaves.
Dean had never been so relieved to see one of the Folk before.
Only there wasn’t just one: there were half a dozen of them, crowding into the corridor and surrounding the three of them.
“Intruders,” another said. “In the King’s palace. He’s going to be so angry!”
“Or so happy.”
Bobby met his eyes. “I take it these ain’t Tinkerbell.”
“You got that right,” Dean said. The years had blurred the memories a little, until the creepy parts faded into the background and the good parts with Benny stayed clear. Not to mention, he’d had run-ins with plenty of bigger supernatural nasties in the meantime. But looking at the Folk, remembering the gathering in the woods where they’d all pressed in around him with their grabby hands, and their King with his cold, cold eyes, Dean still felt a little roil of unease in his gut.
“So,” said Sam. “What do we do now?”
Dean gave a shrug, and looked levelly at the nearest of the Folk. “Uh… take us to your leader?”
The throne room was crowded with Folk, bright with twinkling lights, the King sitting high on his throne at the front of the room. Behind him, Dean heard Sam’s sharp intake of breath, and Bobby’s muttered, “This day just keeps getting better.”
Dean was only half-listening; couldn’t look away from the platform where the throne stood. Perched on the back of it was a raven. It cocked its head when Dean looked at it, like it recognized him.
Bran. That feathery little traitor.
Dean’s glare only lasted a second, because beside the throne stood Benny.
There was something pale and shiny around his neck—like a necklace, only Benny had never seemed like the kind of guy to go in for jewelry. More like a collar, Dean guessed, with a sick feeling.
Benny didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t even turn to look at him. His eyes were blank, and there wasn’t even a trace of expression on his face.
Dean’s heart sank.
“Back again so soon?” The King sat forward on his throne, clapping his hands together. “And you brought friends.”
Dean swallowed. “Uh, yeah. Though, gotta say, we didn’t come visiting on purpose.”
The King smiled, and nudged Benny with his elbow. “Now, that’s a shame, isn’t it? That human you’re so fond of didn’t come to see you after all.”
Benny blinked a couple times, slow, like he was surfacing out of sleep, and Dean felt something flutter in his stomach as those eyes found him. “Dean?” Benny said, slow and muzzy.
Dean opened his mouth to reply, but before he could get the words out, Benny gave a little shake of his head, eyes losing focus.
“Dreamin’ again,” he murmured to himself, and lapsed back into silence.
“What the hell did you do to him?” It was out before Dean’s brain could catch up with his mouth and remind him that pissing off the King might be a bad idea. He realized his hands were in fists and forced them to unclench. Then he realized they were shaking.
The King tilted his head. “I didn’t do anything,” he said, with a little smirk.
Dean heard Sam shift uncomfortably beside him. Maybe those creepy mannerisms reminded him of somebody.
Well, that was another good reason they needed to find a way out of here sooner rather than later. But not until Dean knew what had happened to Benny.
“But being this close to the center of my power?” the King went on. “It affects everybody. Even vampires.”
Dean turned his head. “I’ll explain later, Sammy.” It came out sounding like a plea—and maybe he looked pretty desperate, too, because Sam crossed his arms and nodded, his mouth an unhappy line.
“It better be a good one,” Bobby put in.
Dean just nodded and faced the King again, because he didn’t have time to freak out about anything else right now. “Let him go.”
The King eyed him over steepled fingers. “Are you sure that’s what you want to bargain for?”
Honestly, in that moment, Dean might just have said yes. But next to him, Sam spoke up, holding himself and his voice steady with obvious effort. “No,” he said. “Not just that, anyway. We need safe passage out of here. There must be other doors, right? There are monsters—really bad guys—chasing us on the other side of that mirror, and they’ve been trying to get in here. We have a common enemy.” Sam lifted his chin. “So if you let us out of here someplace else, we can stop them.”
“So,” the King said, voice silkily quiet. “I’m to let all three of you go free, and your vampire—” Dean winced as he said it. “—for nothing but the promise of your help with some story you’ve just told me?”
Sam looked down, shoulders slumping. “We don’t have anything to pay with. But the Leviathan are real.”
The King waved a hand. “What makes you think my people can’t deal with them ourselves?”
He was toying with them, eyes twinkling. Like they were just an exciting new kind of entertainment, something he could play with for a couple minutes and then toss in the trash.
What was it Benny had said about the Folk? They liked games. Riddles. Okay, so Benny had also warned him not to try playing the Folk at their own games, but right now it wasn’t like they had many other options. Stuck in Fairyland for good, or ending up as Dick Roman’s lunch? Yeah, Dean would take trusting his poker face any day.
“How about a game?” he said.
The King turned to look at him again—but this time, there was a flicker of interest there. He lifted an eyebrow. “A game?”
“’S what I said. Poker, chess, strip Monopoly, pick your poison. I win, you let Benny go and give us safe passage outta here.”
“Dean!” Sam scowled at him. Okay, he probably would’ve been pretty pissed, too, if Sam had jumped into something like this without asking him, but it wasn’t like they had much choice here. He shrugged back.
“What? We can’t stay here. You stick around for long enough, you turn into one of them.” He nodded at the assembled Folk. “Plus we gotta get back on that whole Leviathan-taking-over-the-world thing.”
Sam didn’t exactly look pleased, but he didn’t keep arguing. Not that it would’ve done much good if he did. Dean had said it now, and the King didn’t seem like the kind of guy to let him go back on his word.
The King seemed to think for a moment, then nodded. “How about a bet?” he said. His voice was light, but it pretty clearly wasn’t a suggestion. Then he glanced back up at Benny. “I’ll tell you what. If you can break the thrall and get him to go with you willingly, I’ll let you all go free.”
Dean nodded. “And if not?”
“If not—” The King pointed at Benny. “—I’ll still let your two friends go free. I’m generous like that. But he dies, and you take his place right here.”
Dean only hesitated a second. “Fine.”
“Then we have a deal.”
“So, what, do we do this now?”
“No.” The King smiled. “Tomorrow morning. At dawn.”
“Seriously, Dean. Have you lost your mind?”
“Sam’s right, boy. What were you thinking back there?”
The room the Folk had led them to was nicer than most of the motels Dean had ever stayed in. Furniture covered with mossy-green velvet; twinkling lights; flowers blooming in the corners. Plus a table with an earthenware bottle full of the Folk’s wine. One whiff of its sweet, too-strong smell and Dean was back there in the forest with Benny at his side, urging him toward the path while the Folk clung to him with their talons. He hadn’t had to warn Sam or Bobby away from drinking it: they were both on edge here, expecting dangers everywhere. Or maybe they were just both more sensible than Dean had ever been.
Right now, they were both on his case, looking at him like he’d sprouted an extra head.
Hell, maybe he wasn’t exactly in his right mind at the moment. He couldn’t blink without seeing Benny’s blank expression in his mind’s eye, without feeling the ache of it somewhere beneath his ribs.
He pushed it down and crossed his arms. “I was thinking, we can’t all stay here forever, and somebody’s gotta take care of those assholes back in the real world. Look, I know I’m the weak link here, okay? I screw up here, you guys still get to walk, and you figure things out without worrying about me.”
Bobby crossed his arms. “Did you listen to a word I said earlier, boy?”
Dean shot a look a back at him. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
“Listen,” Sam said, “Dean. Okay, so you’re playing the odds here. I get that. But why take the risk? Why not go back to the King and ask if he’ll let you go without a fight? I know Benny helped you out once, but he’s a vampire. Are we even gonna talk about that?”
“No. And he didn’t just help me out.” Dean scrubbed a hand down his face. “He was my friend. He was—” He paused. This probably wasn’t a good time for confession time, but hell, there probably never would be. “He was more’n that. You were gone, and half the time Dad was gone too, and Benny gave a crap about me.”
“Dean, if this is about—”
“This is about Benny. He gave a crap, and he stuck his neck out to save me, and look where it got him. Least I can do is do the same for him.” Dean closed his eyes, then opened them again. “Just let me do this.”
“Dean, you don’t even know where to start with breaking the spell. You’re asking us to let you get yourself killed!”
“Yeah, well maybe if you unbunch your panties and let’s think this through instead of fighting about it—”
A tap at the chamber door cut Dean off mid-sentence. He frowned, but went to open it, honestly kind of grateful for the distraction.
“Be careful,” Bobby warned him. “Can’t trust those sons of bitches.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “Yeah, thanks for the heads-up,” he said, but reached for his gun anyway. The fact that he still had it probably meant it couldn’t hurt the Folk, but having it in his hand made him feel a little calmer.
When he opened the door, though, there was nobody there. He frowned and stuck his head out, peering down the empty corridor.
That was when Bran landed on his shoulder.
“Sonofa—” He caught himself and closed the door, turning to glare at the bird. It just held on, talons poking through his jacket. “What do you want?”
Bran inclined its head in his direction—and for a second, Dean could’ve sworn he felt something radiating off of the bird. A feeling. Almost like—like it was sorry.
“Dean?” Sam was looking at him like he’d gone crazy. Again. “Are you… talking to that bird?”
“I dunno if it’s exactly a bird,” Dean said, blinking. “And, uh, kind of?”
“What’s it carrying?” Bobby was frowning at Bran, and then it flapped its way down off of Dean’s shoulder and deposited something on the table.
It was a folded-up scrap of paper—or parchment, or something. Dean didn’t think too hard about what it might be made of, just unfolded it and laid it out on the table. The script was swirly and old-fashioned, like something out of one of Bobby’s books, and Dean had to lean in close to decipher it. Then he blinked and looked up.
“I got no clue what this says. Half of it ain’t even in English.”
Bobby stepped up to the table and peered down at the paper. “Scots dialect,” he said. “I know this. The Ballad of Tam Lin.”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that,” Sam cut in. “It’s about fairies, right?”
“Right. Young girl falls for a fairy knight, but he’s about to be sacrificed by the Fairy Queen. So she sneaks out to the woods and pulls him off his horse before the Queen can gank him. The fairies try all kinds of tricks—turn him into a snake, a lion, a burning coal—but this girl, she holds on. And in the end, the Queen has to admit she’s won. She breaks the spell, gives the girl back her man, and they all live happily ever after.” Bobby paused. “Except the Queen. She ain’t exactly happy, but she can’t go back on her word.”
“Instructions.” Dean didn’t realize he’d said it aloud until Sam turned to look at him.
“Say that again?”
“Instructions.” Dean reached for the paper. “For breaking the spell. This is how I do it.” He blinked and looked at Bran. “You screwed Benny, last time I was here. This is your way of trying to make it up to him, right?”
The bird cocked its head, and it looked kind of like agreement.
“So that’s all you have to do?” Sam asked. “Hold on?”
Snakes, burning coals. Didn’t sound like much fun. But holding on was what Dean had been doing his whole damn life. For Benny, he could do it a little longer.
He woke early.
For a second, Dean didn’t know where he was. Maybe it was something about the smell of the place, or the feel of the mossy fabric under his cheek, or maybe he’d just been dreaming about Benny again—but for a second, between dreaming and waking, he felt sure he was back out in the forest, with Benny shaking him awake after a night spent crashed out under the trees.
Then he realized he wasn’t there at all. He was in the King’s castle, Bran nudging at his face with the top of its head.
Dawn. He had to find Benny by dawn. He sat up, heart racing.
Beside him, Sam stirred sleepily. “What time is it?” he mumbled, pushing himself upright, and then his eyes opened fully as he looked around the room. “Huh. So this wasn’t all a dream.”
Dean shook his head. “Real as you and me.” He got to his feet. “And if we’re gonna have any chance of getting outta here, I need to go find Benny.”
“Well, you ain’t doing it alone, kid.” Bobby was on his feet, too, grimacing as he stretched and something cracked in his back. “We’re coming with you.”
The corridor outside was deserted, which was pretty weird. Dean had been expecting crowds of Folk everywhere again, giggling and looking at him like he was a circus attraction. But there was nobody there, just a faint cool breeze and the smell of fresh air.
Sam turned toward it, frowning. “I guess we go this way?”
The breeze smelled like the forest, cool and green. It was a hell of a lot more inviting than the idea of being stuck in the King’s palace, anyway.
“I guess so,” Dean said, and followed. Bran came, too, flapping up past their heads and away down the corridor.
There was nobody outside, either. No guard at the little wooden door they found at the end of the corridor, and no lights or voices in the wood. The light there was gray, very early morning. Not dawn, but almost there. The path into the woods unrolled ahead of them.
It was dumb, but the sight of it made Dean’s heart skip a little. Felt almost like he could turn the corner and find Benny there smiling at him, watching him with those bright blue eyes the same way he had eight years ago. He straightened up as he walked, quickened his pace.
A couple minutes’ walking later, Dean felt the noises of the wood quiet around them. The birds, the breeze—it all went quiet. Even Bran came to rest on a branch and was still.
Dean held up a hand. “I think you guys better stay back,” he said, turning his head to face Bobby and Sam.
“We said we’re coming with you,” Sam pointed out.
“I ain’t going far. But you two better be ready to run for the mirror if this all goes south.”
Dean cast a pleading look back over his shoulder. “Just wait, okay? I’ll be fine.”
He hoped he sounded more certain of that than he felt. Sam probably wasn’t gonna listen. Bobby either. They at least hung back long enough to let Dean round the curve in the path ahead of them, though, and he figured that was the best he could hope for.
Then he forgot to think anything at all, because standing in front of him was Benny.
For a second, Dean couldn’t help the grin that broke over his face. Only for a second, though. Then he realized Benny’s face still wore the same blank expression as yesterday, and Benny’s eyes passed over him without a flicker of recognition.
He snapped his fingers in front of Benny’s face. That got him a brief flash of awareness, but it was gone as fast as it had sparked.
The idea of just… holding onto somebody who didn’t know who he was felt weird as hell. Wasn’t as if there was anything else for it, though.
“Well,” Dean muttered to himself, “here goes nothing,” and he reached out and took Benny’s hand.
At first, nothing happened. Benny blinked, looked vaguely down at their joined hands, and then vaguely up again without meeting Dean’s eyes.
Dean groaned. “C’mon, man,” he said. “It’s me. You remember me, right? Showed up in your hut uninvited and shot at you. Got you stuck in this craphole. Ringing any bells?”
Another blink, and for a second, Dean was so damn sure Benny was starting to recognize him.
Then Benny was gone, and Dean was standing in the woods holding hands with Dick freaking Roman.
Every instinct in his body told him to run, drop Roman’s hand like it was a poisonous snake. He had to fight the jolt of adrenaline to hold on, his heart thudding fast in his chest. This is a trick, he reminded himself. Those little assholes are playing games with your head again. It’s Benny.
“Dean Winchester! So nice to finally meet you.” Roman turned that shit-eating TV grin on him. “And so nice of you to take part in our little experiment, too. Tell you what, without your brother and your pal back there to save you, you’d have been the perfect test subject.”
Dean shrugged and forced a smile. “Hey, if liking to eat is a crime, you can throw me in jail.”
“Mm. Not just that, though, is it, Dean?” Roman smirked at him. “Trust me, I know hunger. But you? You liked the oblivion.”
“Whatever gets me a good night’s sleep. Gotta take what I can get in this life. Killing assholes like you is a full-time job, you know.”
Roman ignored that. “You liked not having to think for yourself. After all, you’ve never been very good at that, have you, Dean?”
How the hell was it every dumb monster had time in its day to psychoanalyze him? Worse: how the hell was it that they were usually freaking right?
Shame tugged at him; almost made him let go.
No. Benny. He screwed up his courage.
“You know what?” Dean said. “That’s where you’re wrong. See, I spent my whole life with my Dad telling me a human was a human and a monster was a monster, and one of ‘em was evil and the other wasn’t my problem. But then I met this guy. This vampire, actually. And he treated me more human than half the people I ever met, and then he saved my ass and ended up stuck here because of me. And sure, I could turn around and back out of the deal, try to run away from here. Pretty sure my brother and my friend over there would think it was the right thing to do. But I ain’t gonna, because I made up my own mind, and my mind says screw you.”
Roman shrugged. “Inspiring speech,” he said. “I do enjoy a little dinner conversation.” A smirking pause. “And by that I mean conversation with my dinner.”
Dean felt the change a second before he saw it, Roman’s face splitting into a dripping black maw. It smelled like Hell, literally—all foul breath and rotting flesh. He was gonna puke.
No. He was gonna stay here. Hold on.
He covered his mouth with the back of his free hand and glowered at Roman. “You ever heard of a thing called mouthwash?” he managed, and then his nerve failed and he squeezed his eyes shut as the gaping, toothy mouth closed over him.
And then it was gone, and Benny was standing in front of him again. It was almost like a little color had come back into Benny’s skin, the collar around his neck shining a little less brightly. He glanced vaguely around the forest.
“Benny!” Dean raised his voice, using his free hand to shake Benny’s shoulder. “Listen to me. It’s the King—the King of the Folk. He’s got you under some kinda mojo, but you gotta snap out of it, okay? ‘S the only way you’re ever gonna get out of here.”
“The King of the Folk,” Benny repeated, in that same slow, dreamy voice he’d used yesterday. “Yeah, I think I remember that.”
“So tell him to go screw himself. You can do it, man.”
Benny blinked again. Against everything sensible in his brain, Dean felt a flicker of hope. Maybe he was actually getting somewhere with this.
Benny’s expression changed, then. It sharpened, grew cold, the whites of his eyes turning bloodshot. “I remember something else, too,” he said, and opened his mouth around a cluster of fangs.
All those old fears, the ones he’d struggled to hang onto after he and Benny actually started talking—they started up at top volume in Dean’s head. Dumbass, they told him. Stupid kid. Trusting a vamp because he was the only one who’d give you the time of day. Pathetic.
They still sounded like Dad.
Mentally, Dean told them to shut up. This was still an illusion. Just a trick the Folk were playing on him.
“Benny,” he said again. “This ain’t you. You know that.” He didn’t mean for his voice to rise, to come out sounding strained and desperate, but it did.
Benny lifted an eyebrow. “Pretty sure it is, brother.” The word sounded mocking in his mouth, but Dean couldn’t find it in him to say, Don’t call me that.
“You don’t gotta do this,” he tried, instead.
“But maybe I want to.”
“You don’t, though, right? I mean, you remember me.” Dean forced a smile. “We’re friends.”
“Are we?” Benny’s eyes hardened. “Far as I remember, friends don’t leave friends stuck in hellholes like this.”
Dean’s stomach twisted a little. “I had to get back to—”
“Your family. Right. And that ain’t me, brother. So no, we ain’t friends. All you are to me is food.”
Dean swallowed hard. “I don’t believe you.”
Benny shrugged. “Suit yourself. Suits me.” And he opened his mouth wide, and leaned in toward Dean with fangs bared.
Dean held on. Then the illusion was gone, and Benny was himself again. He still looked kinda vague, kind of out of it—but he met Dean’s eyes. Dean’s heart thudded painfully fast in his chest.
“Hey,” he said. “Benny. You hearing me?”
“Yeah,” Benny said, slowly. “I hear ya. What’s going on?” He looked around in confusion, and Dean reached up to cup the side of Benny’s face, turning it back to him.
He’d forgotten how Benny wasn’t cold to the touch. How blue his eyes were this close up.
“I just told you,” he said. “The King. You gotta break through the spell for me, okay? Can you do that?”
Benny frowned a little. “Sure, I can try, but—how?”
“Just—keep doing what you’re doing, I guess. Listen to me. Stay with me, okay?”
“Yeah, but why would you want him to?”
Dean blinked, suddenly standing to face to face with himself.
Or a version of himself, anyway. The Dean looking back at him was a couple years older, unshaven, and carrying this great big freaky-ass knife. It was made out of bone, Dean thought, and—yeah, those were teeth. Looked like something out of a Dungeons and Dragons fantasy.
The other Dean blinked, then, and his eyes were black as oil.
Dean froze. “What the fuck are you?”
“Well, judging by what I’m looking at, I’m one handsome devil.” The other Dean grinned when he didn’t reply. “You’re supposed to say ‘Right back at you.’”
“I’m gonna stick with ‘What the fuck are you?’”
“You’re no fun,” said the other Dean, but then he shrugged. “But fine, fine. I’m you. I’m what you get for trying to save these ungrateful assholes.”
“Met a lot of ungrateful assholes in my time. You’re gonna have to narrow it down for me.”
The other Dean rolled his eyes. “You know exactly what I mean. The ones you care about.”
“Yeah, I ain’t getting the connection.”
“Doesn’t really matter how it happens,” the other Dean said. “Maybe you sell your soul again—though we both gotta admit, pretty soiled goods by now. Or maybe you get in a fight with Sam and go on some suicide mission, or maybe it’s a curse, or angels, or demons, or those man-eating asshats you’re fighting right now. Point is, you always do it for family. Your brother, your dead angel friend, your undead boyfriend—doesn’t really matter. You try to save them and you end up damned. I say end it now. Walk away.” The other Dean’s smile was cold—cold as the imaginary Benny’s had been, cold as the King’s.
Thing was, Dean knew that coldness. It had been there in Hell. It was still there every time he shut off his fears and his doubts and made a dumb joke and decapitated a monster instead of fixing whatever was on his mind. The illusion wasn’t exactly lying.
But even if it had sworn on the Bible and not burst into flames, Dean couldn’t have listened to it.
“You’re one sorry-ass last-ditch effort,” he told it. “Have you even met me?”
The other Dean shrugged. “I’ve been you. But hey. Now I get to kill you. I’ll take that for a consolation prize.” He raised the freaky-ass bone knife and plunged it into Dean’s gut.
Dean felt it, a white-hot blank like any injury that might kill you. The blade caught, twisted. Dean’s knees crumpled underneath him. He tasted blood—registered, somewhere underneath the pain, that he was still holding on—heard a crack somewhere above him, over the rushing in his ears—blackness rose up around him—
And then he was lying on the forest floor with Benny crouching over him, shaking his shoulder and saying, “Dean. Dean! Come back to me, brother.”
Dean blinked and looked down. The front of his shirt was clean, the skin underneath unmarked. He was in one piece. And Benny was looking at him with recognition in his eyes.
The collar was gone from around his neck. It lay in two pieces on the forest floor, split apart like it had been hit with a lump hammer.
Dean exhaled, slow and shuddery. “Benny,” he got out. “About freaking time.”
Benny grinned at him. “Thought I told you to get outta here and not come back.”
The impulse grabbed hold of Dean before he could stop it. He leaned up and pressed his lips to Benny’s. It only lasted a moment, soft and chaste, but Benny’s surprised breath against his lips, and the way he finally kissed back? Yeah, Dean was gonna be remembering those for a long time.
“Yeah, well,” he managed, once he’d gotten his breath back. “Dumb’s my middle name.”
Benny just looked at him. “Thank you,” he said, softly.
There was the sound of a throat being cleared above them. Dean looked up and found Bobby and Sam standing over them, hanging back just far enough to look awkward as hell.
Dean rubbed at the back of his neck. “So, uh. I guess I should introduce you guys.”
The King’s face was freaking awesome. Dean was kind of disappointed his cell battery had run out, because he really needed a commemorative photo just to prove that that level of pissiness was possible.
He was apparently an asshole of his word, though, because he handed out four identical shiny feather-things, just like the one he’d given to Dean last time around. Then he turned to his guards, scowling. “Get them out of here,” he said. “Take them to one of the other portals.”
“Not so fast.”
Dean blinked at the sound of Benny’s voice. They were standing shoulder to shoulder—not exactly touching, but close enough they could if they wanted to. If he was honest, he hadn’t wanted to move from Benny’s side since he came around in the forest, afraid it would all turn out to be another trick.
At his look, Benny leaned in toward him just a little, bumping their shoulders together. It was probably supposed to be reassuring. It kind of worked.
“Now, from what Dean here tells me, it’s been more’n fifty years since your people tricked me into here. You’ve had near enough a lifetime from me. Seems only fair that I get somethin’ back.”
The King made a face like he’d just found shit on his shoe—but then one of the other Folk whispered something in his ear, and he turned back to face them. He still looked pissed as hell, but he nodded, and said, “Our laws say that is so. What do you want?”
“A black feather.”
Dean frowned, but before he had the chance to ask what one of those was, the King nodded. “A feather of banishment. For what purpose?”
Benny lifted his chin. “Dean says they got some problems out there with creatures from another realm getting ideas about expandin’ their territory. Sounds like those creatures got designs on this place, too. I send ‘em back home, we all win.”
The King inclined his head. “It’s fair. Bran?”
Once more, there was a sound of wings, and Bran landed on Benny’s shoulder. It stretched its wings, shook them—and a single black feather fell from the underside, coming to rest in Benny’s palm.
Bran lingered a moment longer, rubbing its head against Benny’s cheek. Then it took off, and came to rest on the back of the throne.
Dean reached out to touch the feather with a fingertip. It tingled a little, the power in it dark and alive, and he pulled his hand back. “So,” he said. “How’s this work?”
“Kinda the opposite of permissions,” Benny said. “One of ‘em opens doors between worlds. The other sends anything out of its realm back where it oughta be. Just a few words, at least so I’m told.”
“So this could take care of our Leviathan problem once and for all?”
“Worth a try, ain’t it?”
Dean knew better than to hope. But with Benny at his side, for the first time in eight years, it was hard not to.
“We ready?” Dean glanced over his shoulder, and Sam gave him a firm nod.
“As we’ll ever be,” Bobby confirmed.
Dean took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said, and held out the silver feather the King had given him. “Here goes nothing.”
He touched it to the surface of the mirror, and the air shimmered and changed around the four of them.
The scene in the lab was chaos. Leviathan everywhere, arguing, moving furniture, occasionally throwing it. It took a couple seconds before any of them seemed to notice that the mirror had reactivated, or that there were four intruders standing in the middle of their lab.
Of course—of freaking course—it was Roman who noticed first, grinning widely. “How kind of you boys to deliver,” he said, taking a stride toward them.
Bobby snorted. “Do we look like pizza to you?”
Roman smirked. “I don’t like pizza.”
Benny held up the feather, then, and Roman stopped, giving it an incredulous look.
“What’s your play?” he said. “You’re going to tickle us to death?”
“Not if you paid us,” Dean said. “You know there are websites for that kinda thing, right?”
Whatever snarky-ass retort Roman had been about to come up with was cut off by Benny’s voice. The incantation was short, in some language Dean didn’t know. He was pretty sure Benny didn’t, either, but he spoke the words carefully and clearly.
A wind began to whip up as he did so, and Roman stood frozen in the middle of the lab. He actually looked kinda surprised. Which, Dean had to admit, was pretty awesome.
“What—” Roman started to say, over the noise of the wind, but he was cut off as it sent a glass beaker flying and hit him over the head. Shards flew. Paper flapped. Furniture went tumbling across the lab.
And then there was a blinding flash of light, and it was over.
Dean covered his eyes with his hands. A couple seconds later, Benny was reaching for his hand, saying, “You can look now,” and the four of them were standing in the middle of an empty lab.
“Huh.” Dean breathed out, turning around to get a look at the devastation. Yeah, cleanup was gonna be a bitch.
“Huh,” Sam echoed. “They’re really gone?”
Bobby frowned, pushing at a piece of debris with the toe of his boot. “Looks that way.”
“So,” said Benny. “What now?”
Yeah, of course there was gonna be a what now. They were gonna have to figure out how to keep a vegetarian vampire in fresh Type O. Dean was gonna have to have that conversation with Sam—who didn’t exactly look as happy as the occasion demanded right now—sometime soon, and it was probably going to suck. Bobby was probably gonna give him another lecture at some point. But with the Leviathan out of the picture, the next thing on Dean’s to-do list was definitely ‘go rescue the Impala’.
Benny leaned in close to him, then. “You gave me myself back,” he said, quiet enough that only Dean would hear it. “I figure I owe you. So I could stick around, help out? If you want me.”
Dean reached for his hand again. Their fingers laced together easily, and he held on tight. “Damn right you’re gonna stick around,” he said, and Benny’s answering smile was soft and warm.
They turned, and walked away from the mirror.