The sun has finally started to set, but Dean still feels like he's standing inside an oven. His t-shirt is damp at the armpits, and sweat is prickling the back of his neck. He can't breathe; the air is so scorched that it just dries his mouth and burns his lungs. Cas pauses up ahead, tugging at the flannel tied around his waist as he waits for Dean to catch up. His cheeks are flushed. Behind him, the sky is slowly losing its color.
They crest the next low rise together, their boots scraping against the rocky, uneven ground. When they reach the top, a river of loose gravel skitters down the other side of the slope. It stirs up a cloud of the thin, gritty dust that already covers Dean from head to toe. He can feel it behind his ears and inside his nose and underneath his fingernails. He's pretty sure there's some stuck between his teeth.
What's left of Oro Grande's cemetery fills the shallow basin below. It's in better condition than the other boneyards they've seen today, but not by much. Many of the markers are missing, and most of the survivors have either fallen or sunk into the ground. Thick tangles of creosote and sage are growing up between the graves. A rusty sign warns them that there are rattlesnakes in the area.
"Do you think he's here?" Cas asks.
Dean wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. "He's gotta be. I ─ we checked everywhere else."
This end of the Mojave doesn't have much in the way of locals. The few people Dean did find figured he's looking for a guy named Eugene Harrison. Harrison had owned a string of single-pump gas stations that thrived through the thirties and forties but tanked once Route 66 got hijacked by the new interstates. By the tail-end of '55 he was bankrupt; in early '56, he had an "accident" that paid his wife and kids enough insurance money to move on. When a ghost fitting his description started haunting the desolate stretch of I-15 between Victorville and Barstow, no one still living here was the least bit surprised.
They didn't really care, either. In fact, they didn't care so much that no one living here now even remembers where Harrison is buried. Everyone Dean asked just shrugged and said, "Dunno. Prob'ly local." Then they'd hinted that if Dean wanted to stay, he needed to buy something.
No leads meant wasting an entire day on a tombstone roll. He and Cas have searched every other body-drop along the Mother Road ─ first Amboy and Bagdad, then Ludlow and Newberry Springs and Daggett, and then Helendale, which Google Maps insists is really called Silver Lakes. So far, they haven't found a grave matching the obituary Cas dug up on someone's clunky family history website. It didn't mention a cemetery by name, only that Harrison had been "laid to rest at the north end of the field, under a good piece of unpolished stone."
Heading down the slope sparks another avalanche of gravel. The noise startles a crow hiding in the bushes; it skips ahead of Cas for a couple seconds, then spreads its wings and flaps off toward the frontage road.
Oro Grande's north side backs up against a bank of sage just straight enough to have been planted. At one point, it probably marked the property line. The bushes are overgrown now, chest-high and bristling with purple flowers that have braided themselves into the rusty fence running behind them. The heavy smell coming off them itches Dean's nose; he rubs it as he skirts the crooked row of graves in their shadow.
The first is ringed narrowly with rocks and speared by a rough, whitewashed cross. The second and third are just rectangles of bare dirt. The fourth is mounded with creosote chips; its marker is a thin, wooden plank that's carved with "Smythe, 1942" and warped by seventy-odd years of desert sunshine. The fifth is another whitewashed cross. Its nail has nearly rotted away, and it's leaning into the ground at a sharp angle.
"Over here," Cas says, pointing at the last grave in the row.
It's another mound of creosote chips, piled high enough that they almost cover the block of gray stone at the head. It's pretty weathered; Dean can't tell if it has an inscription.
He sighs and wipes his forehead again. "This better be him."
"We'll know when we see the body," Cas says. His jeans are dusty to the knees. "Harrison lost an arm in the first world war."
That's an opening for a Fugitive joke, but Dean's too hot and sweaty to find it. "Great. I hate surprise endings."
A train whistle whines in the distance. Cas crouches beside the stone and clears away a blanket of twigs and dead sage leaves. Dean just stares at him for a second ─ at the hair curling behind his ears, the sunburn blooming on the back of his neck. Sweat is beading at his temples.
Dean clears his throat. "Hey, you ─ watch out for snakes."
"A snake wouldn't bite me."
"You sure about that?"
Cas' mouth twitches. "Reasonably sure." He runs his hand over the stone ─ first top to bottom, then side to side. "If one did, it wouldn't hurt me."
Dean rolls his eyes. "Show off. You finding anything?"
"Yes. Harrison's initials."
"Yeah?" Dean just sees scratches and weathering, but then Cas traces a shape with his with his finger and ─ there. A thin, spidery EH. Dean blows out a breath and says, "Great. Let's get this fucker toasted."
By the time they get Harrison salted and burned and reburied, it's a little after nine. The sun is long gone, leaving behind a sky so dark it's almost black, but the last of the heat is still putting up a fight. Dean cranks up the Impala's air conditioner as soon as he climbs into the driver's seat. His t-shirt feels like it's glued to his body, and it makes wet, raspy sounds when it catches against the Impala's leather. Cas isn't doing much better; his hair is stuck to his forehead and the hollow of his throat is damp.
Sighing, Dean peels himself away from the seat and reaches back to open the cooler. Years of working with Sam have him grabbing two water bottles out of habit; he hands one to Cas before he realizes what he's doing. Cas takes it without a word. His thumb leaves a dirt smudge on the side of the cap. He drinks like he's actually thirsty ─ like he's humanly thirsty ─ tipping his head back and draining half of the bottle in two or three long swallows. Condensation drips over his wrist and spots the front of his t-shirt.
Dean watches him for a second. "You ─ uh. You doing okay?"
"Dean." Irritation edges Cas' voice. This isn't the first time Dean's asked since ─ well. Since. "I already told you, I've completely recovered from ─"
"Yeah, I know. That's ─ I mean, your mojo. Is it ─?"
Cas looks at him curiously. "It's fine. Why?"
"Nothing. It's just ─" Dean waves his hand "─ you know. You guys don't sweat. Or drink."
"No, we don't. I ─" Cas makes a soft, uncertain sound.
After a short pause, Cas says, "When I let Lucifer possess me, I assumed it would kill me. Or that he would be killed while he was... wearing me. I thought this body was lost to me. Now that I have it back, I thought ─ I thought I'd try really living in it."
Dean doesn't know what to say to that, so he just nods and chugs his water. Once it's gone, he tosses the bottle back into the cooler. Then he throws the Impala into gear and pulls away from the cemetery. He cracks his window a good two inches to keep their body heat from fogging up the windshield.
Their motel is in Victorville, which is the only thing that passes for civilization this far out in the boonies. Oro Grande is about ten miles north; the ride back takes them down the original Route 66. Dean's only traveled the Mojave leg once before ─ when he was twelve and Sam was eight. Their dad had been tracking a husband-and-wife werewolf duo hiding in the ghost town of Chambless. One afternoon, they stopped at Roy's because Sam had liked the blue and red sign. The owner chased them off at gunpoint; he hadn't appreciated John's dirty jeans and leather jacket.
The highway narrows on the outskirts of town. It needs to be resurfaced; the old pavement is bumpy enough to jerk the Impala's wheel, and it doesn't smooth out until they reach the bridge that spans the corpse of the Mojave River. Railroad tracks hug the shoulder to the east, perched on a gravel berm that cuts shadows across the northbound lane. Everything smells like road-dust and sage. They only pass one other car before hitting I-15 ─ a restored VW Minibus. Probably some LA college kids squeezing in one last Kerouac trip before school starts at the end of the month.
The Sleep-Tite is the first flop off the interstate ─ a squat, beige building that's crouched behind the off-ramp like it's embarrassed to be there. It has peeling paint and a sagging roof, and the yellow-orange sign reads MOT L or MOI L, depending on its mood. The parking in front of their room is taken, so Dean squeezes the Impala into the narrow spot beside the vending machines. Cigarette butts are scattered across the tarmac. The ice hopper gurgles and hums as Dean and Cas grab their gear from the trunk.
The room's air conditioner has been running all day; after spending sixteen hours in the desert heat, walking inside is like getting slapped in the face by a glacier. It feels so good that Dean just stands there and lets it wash over him. He ends up hogging the doorway long enough that Cas sighs and nudges him out of the way. The door closes with a click, and then Cas edges past him. His hand skims the small of Dean's back.
"Do you want the first shower?" he asks.
"No," Dean says, shaking his head. He does, but Cas dug more than his fair share of Harrison's grave. A long streak of dirt is smeared under his jaw. "You go ahead."
Dean grabs a beer from the fridge, then sinks into one of the ugly, naugahyde chairs so he can take off his boots. It's facing the boxy seventies boob tube wedged between the pressboard dresser and the door. Dean clicks the remote a few times, but nothing happens besides static and a flare of bone-white light that bleaches the color from the wood paneling. He pops the cap off his beer. It feels good going down, but it doesn't really kill the scorched, dusty taste that's been stuck in his mouth since they started this job.
The plumbing rattles and clanks behind the walls. Dean gives the remote a couple more clicks, but the TV just hisses out a tired, angry noise and shuts itself off. The screen flickers from gray to black. Sighing, Dean sets his beer on the floor and starts unlacing his boots. His hands are dirty, and bending over makes a dull ache bloom at the base of his spine. He sighs again. Up on the interstate, a semi blares its horn.
Cas comes out of the bathroom in flannel pants and no shirt. A soft cloud of steam follows him out. Beads of water dot his shoulders and chest, and Dean reaches for his beer so he doesn't get caught staring. When he dares to look up again, Cas is wearing an old AC/DC t-shirt, and he's humming quietly to himself as he pulls back his blanket and fluffs his pillow. He doesn't need to sleep, and when they're at the bunker he usually just knocks around the library until morning. But when they're on the road, he goes through the motions of calling it a day. Dean doesn't know why. Some nights he sits up and reads; other nights he watches TV, keeping the volume so low it's just a buzz in Dean's ears.
"Dean," he says quietly. "Get in the shower before you fall asleep there."
"Yeah," Dean says, yawning. He still has one boot on. "Yeah. I'm getting up right now."
In the morning, they stop off at the Valero across the street from the Sleep-Tite. It's still fairly dark outside; a sliver of gold-white light is just starting to wink along the horizon. Ten to six is earlier than Dean usually skips town, but a Purgatory dream had jolted him awake about five and he hadn't seen the point in trying to go back to sleep. His heart had been jackhammering in his chest, and Cas had been up anyway, repacking their gear into their bags and fully dressed except for his boots.
Leaving now will get them out of the Mojave before the sun peaks and puts everything on a slow boil. I-15 is a straight shot into Nevada; with traffic on their side, Dean figures they could roll into Las Vegas about nine. They could grab a room at one of the dumps downtown, then head back up to the strip for the breakfast buffet at Caesars. After that, they could hit the casino for a couple of hours. Dean's down to about three hundred in cash. He could use a real poker game ─ something with a bigger pot than fifty bucks and a gold watch.
Cas is already working on the Impala's gas cap. He pauses as Dean climbs out and points at the next pump. "You have to pull up. This credit card reader is out of order."
Dean waves that off. "I'll pay inside. I need some coffee. I ─ you want one?"
"I ─ yes." A smile tugs the corner of Cas' mouth. "Yes, I would."
The Valero's mini-mart is standard fare ─ pop music and fluorescent lights, a tile floor that needs mopping, a bank of cold cases humming softly against one wall. The narrow aisles are stocked with everything from beef jerky to air freshener to aspirin. Dean finds the coffee near the back; the pot is full and smells fresh. He pours two cups, then snags a cheese danish from a basket on the counter. The sign beside it reads, "Don't Forget To Fill Your Body's Fuel Tank."
At the register, a skinny kid with greasy hair mumbles, "Morning," around a mouthful of gum. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. Lemme get ─" Dean needs about twenty gallons, and California prices suck "─ lemme get fifty on pump three."
The kid swipes Dean's card. After a pause, the machine beeps three times. "It says it's declined. You want me to try it again?"
"Nah." Dean knew that one was thin, but he'd hoped he could give it another squeeze. He shrugs and hands the kid a different card. "Put it on this."
It takes longer this time, and the machine only beeps once ─ loudly. The kid's eyes widen. He shoots Dean a nervous glance and blurts, "Stolen. You ─ it says it's stolen."
Dean's worked out a script for this kind of thing over the years ─ sputter, act confused, maybe even a little annoyed ─ but the kid is really starting to look spooked. Sweat is beading on his forehead, and he's shifting his weight from foot to foot like he's itching to trip the alarm. Victorville is just small enough that it wouldn't take the police too long to respond. Calmly, Dean turns around and walks out the door.
"Get in the car," he tells Cas.
"Just get in the car."
The Impala dips and creaks as they scramble inside. Dean pulls away from the pump before Cas really has his door closed. He takes a right out of the Valero's driveway. I-15 feels too obvious, so he swings onto D Street and stays there, following it until it turns into Route 66.
As they pass the Greyhound station, Cas asks, "What happened?"
"My card got flagged."
"Oh. I could've ─"
"Yeah," Dean says quickly.
He knows Cas could've, because Cas has. About a month ago, a motel clerk in Pulaski mistook Sam for a local wanted for a convenience store robbery. The mugshot pinned to the wall hadn't looked anything like him, but she'd been hellbent on calling the cops. Then Cas bumped her hand while setting their room keys on the counter. After that, she'd been all smiles.
And that wasn't the first time. He also smoothed out a nosy funeral director in Mason City and a couple of guys in Duluth who wanted to kick Dean's ass after losing their shirts at pool. It's handy enough, but it doesn't feel right. He can't just lean on Cas' mojo every time he gets in a jam.
He taps his thumbs on the steering wheel. "It was fine. It wasn't a big deal."
Route 66 opens up on the outskirts of town; it curves north and slightly west through a drab stretch of desert that's all scrubby brush and bare sand. The sky is finally starting to bruise, washing everything a watery purple-blue. They drive through Oro Grande again, and then La Delta, a crossroads stop that only exists because of the ostrich farm flanking the western edge of the highway. After that, they pass the Bottle Tree Ranch. Dean's lived out of his car long enough that roadside shticks don't impress him anymore, but Cas had loved it when they stopped on their way into Victorville. He'd watched the colored glass reflect off the ground and called the human imagination "incredible."
The Impala's needle starts nudging E just as the highway swings east toward Helendale/Silver Lakes. Dean pulls into the first gas station he finds ─ a single pump outside a white, frame building that probably used to be someone's house. The red sign on the roof says, "Grocery," but the Pepsi machine beside the door makes Dean think there isn't much for sale inside. A battered ice freezer is blocking one of the windows; it wheezes tiredly as Dean and Cas climb out of the car.
"I've got it," Cas says.
"Since when do you have money?"
"Since Boulder City."
Boulder City had been a salt and burn so easy they got the whole thing buttoned up before dinner. They'd spent the rest of the night at a dive serving cheap wings and dollar beers, and Dean had wasted most of it chatting up the bartender. He'd struck out, but swinging a few times had saved him from watching Cas bend over the pool table again and again and again.
"You didn't tell me you hustled anyone."
"You didn't ask."
Dean whistles through his teeth. "Okay, Ritchie Rich. Get ─" they need a full tank now, and gas is an extra thirty cents a gallon here "─ get about sixty-five. And see if they've got any coffee."
Sam calls just as they're closing in on Barstow. Route 66 is wide open, making a slow decline and steadily pushing more east than north. They picked up some thick, muddy coffee back in Helendale, so Dean's already driving with one hand. He passes the cup to Cas, then gropes around on the seat until he finds his phone.
Once he's got it, he thumbs it unlocked and says, "Morning, Sunshine. How's your djinn?"
"Still alive," Sam complains.
"Bummer. How's Mom?"
"No. I mean ─"
"Dude. She's doing great." A car horn blares, fading in and out like it's passing by. Sam must be parked somewhere. "You've got to stop worrying so much. She can handle herself."
Dean knows that. It only took Mary one hunt to find her sea legs again; since then, everyone else has been scrambling to keep up. On their last job together, she saved Dean's ass twice and shortened a vamp with nothing but a piece of sheet metal. She's strong and quick and pretty much fearless. But this is a djinn, and djinns ─ Christ. Mary has been through a lot. The last thing she needs is a freaky dream genie poking at her wishes and regrets.
But Sam is out in north Texas, and that means he has a two-hour head start on being awake. Dean isn't going to win an argument with those odds, so he mumbles," Yeah," and tucks the phone against his shoulder. He gestures for his coffee, but Cas just blinks at him for a second. Then he huffs under his breath and points at the road. Dean sighs in Sam's ear. "Hey. You calling 'cause you got something, or...?"
"I've got something." An engine coughs to life on Sam's end of the line. "Are you still in California?"
"Yeah. We, uh ─ we're coming up on Barstow."
After a pause, Sam says, "Really? You two are going to Vegas without the rest of the class?"
"What? No." The sun is finally up; the glare slicing through the Impala's windshield is making Dean squint. "We aren't going to Vegas. It's just ─ you know. It's on the way home."
Sam snorts. "Yeah, well, home isn't the cards yet. Turn around and head for Cayucos."
"For ─ what ─?"
"Cayucos." Sam says it slower this time: KAY-YOU-KOSE. "It's a beach town north of San Luis Obispo. A woman named Marcy Wong got kidnapped last week."
"Okay. How's that us?"
"It's us because she was kidnapped by a monster. Witnesses describe a thin, blonde woman with... get this ─ a cow's tail and a hollow back covered in bark."
"Bark," Dean repeats. It's too fucking early for this. "Like ─ like a tree?"
"Yeah, like a tree."
"Huldra," Cas says.
"A what ─?" Dean does a double-take; he always forgets about the creeper hearing until the next time Cas surprises him with it. He also doesn't know what the hell Cas is talking about. "A huldra?"
Before Cas can answer, Sam says, "Yeah, that's what Mom's thinking ─ a huldra. I guess Samuel took one down back in the day."
"Does she know how he killed it?"
"No. She was just a kid. All she remembers is being freaked out by the hole in its back."
"All right. We're on it. You, um ─ you keep an eye on her, okay?"
Sam snorts again. Then he says, "Will do," and hangs up.
Dean drops his phone on the seat and glances at Cas. "You done drinking my coffee?"
"I wasn't drinking it." Cas' mouth twitches; he was definitely drinking it. "I was concerned about you crashing the car."
They're on the fringes of Barstow now. A handful of houses are hunched along the highway, separated by bare patches of dirt and sage and a few rusted-out cars. Route 66 has picked up an extra lane and the name Main Street, and its speed limit has dropped to forty-five. A sign warns them about a traffic signal up ahead. Dean taps the brakes and sips what's left of his coffee. It had been terrible before; now it's terrible and cold.
When Dean looks over again, Cas is typing something on his phone. His collar is rumpled. His jeans have a frayed spot right at the knee.
"You getting us directions?" Dean asks.
"Yes," Cas says. He splits a quick glance between Dean and the road before looking back at his phone. "You want Highway 58, west. We're two miles away."
They hit a red light where Route 66 crosses Lenwood Road. Since they're stopped, Dean leans across the seat to look at the map. All he sees is glare, so he grabs Cas' wrist and angles the phone away from the sun. Cas' skin is warm. His pulse thrums under Dean's thumb.
Cayucos is a five-hour drive ─ past the Air Force base and over the Tehachapi Mountains, then up a stretch of I-5 that's nothing but farmland and empty fields. Dean could use another cup of coffee. He isn't really hungry yet, but he will be about eight-thirty or nine. They'll be in Buttonwillow by then, and ─ no thanks. He's already been there twice; he doubts the third time will be the charm.
"Okay. We ─ let's grab some breakfast first."
"You didn't sleep well," Cas says.
They're about ten minutes south of Cayucos, pushing up a stretch of Highway 1 that ribbons between a line of rolling hills and the coast. The houses crawling up the hillsides are all beach bungalows with plank walls and peaked roofs and large, square windows that reflect the water. They're painted bold, California colors ─ turquoise, mustard yellow, brick red, sea-foam green. Across the highway, the Pacific Ocean churns against the shore. Seagulls dot the clear, cloudless sky.
Dean shrugs. "I got seven hours. That's a good night for me."
"You seemed restless."
"You ─ we talked about this. You ain't supposed to be watching me."
"Dean," Cas says quietly.
"Look, it's nothing. It ─ you know. It was just a nightmare."
He hasn't had a Purgatory dream in months, so he'd almost forgotten what it was like to wake up with the taste of blood and wood-rot in his mouth. They're usually just an unwanted refresher course; he sees his desperate search for Cas when he first got there, or Cas crouched by that river and washing his dirty hands, or the nights they spent listening for footsteps in the dark, or their last scramble up the cliff below the portal. But this one ─ this one had been different. It showed Dean flashes of shit that hadn't happened but could've ─ Dean finding Cas dead, Cas getting ripped apart by monsters while Dean watched, Cas getting chomped by that leviathan because Benny had been a half-second too slow.
Dean doesn't want to talk about it, so he says, "Hey. We're here." The highway has swung inland slightly, skirting grass-covered hills that haven't been built over yet. "Cayucos. What kind of name is that?"
Cas hums quietly, which means he knows the answer but doesn't want to make Dean feel dumb. He glances out the window, watching a pair of women jog along the shoulder. His fingers twitch against his thigh.
"Well?" Dean asks. He reaches over and nudges Cas' arm. "You gonna tell me?"
"It's the Spanish word for the canoes the Chumash and Tongva used for fishing."
"Huh." Fucking Californians. "All right. Let's find somewhere to crash."
Cayucos is a beach-bum resort town, the kind of place where everything looks quaint and shabby on the outside, but inside it's worth two or three stars. Money is even tighter than usual, so Dean takes his time driving down the main drag. They pass a bait-and-tackle and a couple of surf supply shops, then three or four stores hocking t-shirts and tchotchkes to tourists. After that they hit the restaurant strip ─ a burger joint, a crab shack, a salad buffet, a bakery. It ends with a taco stand called Los Gringos that promises "authentic" Mexican food.
The first motel they find is the Breakwater Inn. It's built to look like a Mississippi steamboat got beached on the sidewalk, and Cas vetoes it after looking it up on his phone. "Ninety dollars a night."
The Longshoreman and the Dolphin Motel both want eighty-five, and the Riptide Inn wants just under a hundred. Dean starts to worry that he'll have to turn around and try for something down in Morro Bay, but then he reaches the northernmost end of town. Ocean Avenue curves to the east, hooking past a flop called the Edgewater Motel. It's just a handful of squat cottages clustered at the top of the beach. Its white paint is gritty and cracked from years of sunshine and salt-air.
The office door jangles when they walk in. The woman at the counter is wearing a surf t-shirt and jeans, and her long hair is more gray than red. She looks up at them and smiles.
"Good afternoon, boys."
"Hi," Dean says, leaning his elbow on the counter. A dusty ceiling fan whooshes above his head. "How much for a double?"
"Well, it would be sixty."
Cas frowns. "Would be?"
"I've only got one room left, and it's ─" she winces slightly "─ it's a single. King bed." Her voice curls up at the end like a question, like she's hoping that will make it okay.
Dean hesitates. He ─ fuck.
"This is our last tourist weekend before school starts up again," she continues. She waves a fly away from her face, rattling the bead bracelets on her wrist. "Nearly everything in town is booked."
"A single will be fine," Cas says.
He pays her fifty in cash and takes the key. Then he catches Dean by the elbow and herds him back outside. The cement path leading to their room is scattered with beach sand and overgrown with weeds. Inside, the room is about what Dean had expected ─ drab carpet, a low ceiling, whitewashed walls. The bed is a California king, longer than average and hogging most of the floor space. The bathroom is tiny. Instead of a window, the kitchen has a narrow sliding-glass door that opens to the ocean.
"You sure about this?" Dean asks.
Cas shrugs as he lugs the cooler into the kitchen. "I don't need to sleep."
"So ─ you, uh. What're you gonna do? Sit up all night and watch TV?"
"Dean. It wouldn't be the first time."
That's true, but that was before ─ when Cas still wore a trenchcoat and a suit, when he disappeared for weeks and was still stuck working for Heaven half the time. That was before he moved into the bunker permanently. Before he knocked on Dean's door one morning and asked if he could come on their next hunt. Before he started showering and wearing pajamas and crawling into bed at night.
"We, um ─ " fuck, fuck, fuck "─ we can share it."
"I," Cas starts uncertainly. Something flickers behind his eyes ─ something Dean usually pretends not to see. "I wouldn't want to disturb you."
"Dude. It's a huge bed." Heat is crowding underneath Dean's jaw, so he grabs his bag and digs out his laptop. "C'mon. We gotta figure out how we're gonna find this chick."
Cas just looks at him for a second. Then he says, "Okay. Do you want a beer?"
"Yeah. That'd be great."
The only article about the kidnapping is a short blurb on CalCoastNews. It doesn't tell them much more than Sam had over the phone ─ just that Marcy Wong, 23, disappeared from the corner of Ocean Avenue and First Street some time Saturday afternoon. The only witness to the event ─ a friend named Diane ─ initially claimed that Marcy had been kidnapped. However, she gave a highly improbable description of the woman supposedly involved. She retracted those statements when interviewed again.
After that, the article insists that the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Office is pursuing all "credible" leads. It follows that up with two pictures of Marcy. The first is a full-length shot of her standing on the Cayucos pier. The second is a selfie taken at what looks like a fancy dinner; she's wearing heavier makeup and a lacy top, and the table behind her is set with China and wine glasses and a huge bouquet of flowers. Marcy's nose is pierced. Her dark hair is bobbed just below her ears.
Diane's last name isn't mentioned, but Dean figures it out after poking around Marcy's Facebook for a few minutes. Marcy only knows two Dianes. Diane Jenkins is in her late fifties and lives in Atascadero ─ probably a family member or the mother of a friend. Diane Munroe is Marcy's age, and one of her photo albums is just pictures of her and Marcy at different places around town. She's also posted several selfies from one of the crab shacks on the main drag. In all of them, she's dressed in what looks like a uniform ─ a white apron over a white tennis skirt and a flamingo-pink polo shirt.
Dean nudges Cas' foot. "Hey. You find anything yet?"
Sighing, Cas looks up from his phone. He's been digging through Marcy's Instagram account. "She goes hiking every Friday morning, and she likes to take pictures of food. What about you?"
Maybe." Dean angles the laptop toward Cas. "I think this is the chick who saw Marcy get snatched. You in the mood for some lunch?"
Cas smiles a little. "I could watch you eat."
Driving back up Ocean Avenue only takes a couple of minutes. Cameron's Seafood is on the west side of the street and has a rear patio that overlooks the water. It's built like a derelict boathouse; the plank walls are made from dark, splintered wood and the flat roof sags slightly in the middle. Fishing nets are strung across the windows, and a rusty anchor is propped beside the front door. Its neon sign is years past its last paint job.
They grab one of the sidewalk tables because that's the section Diane is working. The striped umbrella shading them from the sun casts a blobby, star-shaped shadow and spins with the breeze. Dean orders sweet potato fries and a crab-cake burger that he nearly swallows whole. Cas gets a small order of fish and chips and pushes it around his plate.
"So," Dean says, chewing. The fries are fantastic; he can't get them into his mouth fast enough. "Tell me about this monster."
"Huldra are Scandinavian forest creatures."
"Like a leshy?"
Cas shakes his head. "No. The leshy are gods in their own way. Men living and working in the woods once left offerings for huldras, but they mostly did it to stave off mischief. It wasn't a true form of worship."
"What do they look like?"
"They take the form of a beautiful woman. Usually tall and thin and blonde. Their eyes are the color of moss."
"Huh." Dean pops a few more fries into his mouth. "And they kidnap people?"
"Not exactly," Cas says, leaning his elbow on the table. It wobbles enough to make their silverware clatter. "They lure humans into the forest and try to coax them into marriage."
Dean considers that for a second. "So... kinda like land selkies?"
"Not quite." Cas takes a quick glance around, then pushes his uneaten fish onto Dean's plate. "Selkies are forced into human marriages if their seal-skins are stolen. Huldras purposely seek out human mates."
Dean reaches for the tartar sauce, making the table wobble again. "Why?"
"According to the legends, marrying a human makes them human. Or something close to it." The umbrella shifts, spilling sunlight across half of Cas' face. "They gain the strength of ten men, but they lose their tails. Their hollow backs fill in."
"What's the catch?" Dean asks, wiping his greasy fingers on a napkin. "There's always a catch."
"They also lose their beauty."
"Okay. That's ─ oh." Dean balls up the napkin and drops it on his plate. "Right. The guy bails once she stops being hot."
Cas nods. "Generally, yes."
Dean sighs and leans back in his chair. "Why do they bother, then? I mean, if they know it ain't gonna work out..."
"It's a quest for completion. For... normalcy." Cas tips his head to the side. In the sunlight, his eyes are incredibly blue. "The holes in their backs aren't just a disfigurement. Their chests are empty, like the inside of a rotten log, and it leaves them with a constant hunger. They want that space to be filled."
"And they just let the guy go?"
"Sometimes. Sometimes, they get consumed with rage instead." A woman in a straw hat walks a bulldog past their table. Cas waits until she's gone before continuing, "The legends disagree at this point. Some say they hunt for the man who scorned them. Others suggest they exact their revenge on the first man they find."
Before Dean can say anything, Diane comes over with the iced tea pitcher and the check. Cas hasn't touched his drink, so she sets the check on the table and asks, "Can I get you anything else?"
"Actually, yeah," Dean says, smiling. "If you got a break coming up, we wanna talk to you about Marcy."
Diane startles so badly that iced tea slops over the side of the pitcher. An angry heat flushes her cheeks. "Are you journalists?"
"No, we ain't journalists."
"Diane," Cas says calmly. His hand twitches, but she's just out of zapping range. "Our cousin disappeared last month. He was last seen with a woman fitting your description of Marcy's kidnapper."
"Yeah." Dean offers her another smile. "We're hoping you can tell us something that'll help us find him."
Diane hesitates for a second. Then she huffs and says, "Sorry. I just ─ I'm tired of it. This is the first shift I've worked all week. My manager said I was a distraction. Everyone in town keeps coming by to stare at the lunatic."
"You're not crazy," Cas says.
"So... you've seen it, too? With the ─" Diane waves her hand at her side like a swishing tail.
Dean nods. "Yeah."
"And the ─" She hooks her thumb over her shoulder and points at her back.
Diane heaves out a sigh. "God. I really thought I was losing it." She sets the pitcher on the table and wipes her hands on her apron. "So last Saturday, Marcy came by here about two. We were supposed to go down to the beach after I got off. But I still had a table hanging around, and I didn't want to lose the tip, you know?"
A motorcycle tears down Ocean Avenue, its engine running high. Once the noise passes, Denise adds, "She said she needed something from the pharmacy, so I told her if she wanted to go ahead, I'd meet her at two-thirty. It's right over there." She points at a long, brown building that's across the street and half a block south. "When I got outside, she was with that woman. They were out on the corner."
"And you'd never seen her before?" Dean asks.
"No," Diane says, shaking her head. "And it was weird... like, they were standing really close. And the woman, she touched Marcy's face like ─" She lifts her hand and flutters her fingers in the air. "I mean, I didn't think Marcy even liked girls that way."
Cas narrows his eyes. "Maybe she just hadn't told you."
"Maybe." Diane shrugs. "But we've been friends since kindergarten, you know? She could've said something."
A seagull hops onto the table and takes a peck at Dean's plate. Dean shoos it away and asks, "So, what happened after that?"
"She grabbed Marcy's arm, and they started walking up First Street. That's when I saw the tail and stuff. I just ─ God. I can't believe that kind of thing is really real."
"Yeah," Dean says, reaching for the check. "Me neither."
It's a lot cooler in Cayucos than it had been out in the desert, but it's still hot enough that just the idea of hiking during the day makes Dean break out into a sweat. He takes a nap until five, then pops into Los Gringos and grabs an "authentic" burrito for dinner. After that, he and Cas drive up Highway 41 to find the trail that loops around Whale Rock Reservoir. The entry point is closed for the night, so Dean stashes the Impala at a turnout just east of the gate. Since it's an emergency parking zone, he writes, "engine dead, towing tomorrow," on the back of a receipt and pins it under one of the wipers.
The trail begins at the bottom of a low hill. In the drab light of dusk, the yellow grass is almost colorless, and the shrubs climbing the rise look like shadows, more brown-black than green. A weathered sign asks them not to litter and reminds them that mountain lions and wild pigs live in the area. The path narrows sharply about fifty feet in, so they walk single-file ─ Cas in front, and Dean lagging a few steps behind. Rocks and twigs crunch under their boots. The air tastes salty and damp.
They skirt the hilltop for about three hundred yards before curving down toward the reservoir. This side of the slope is steeper; Dean takes it sideways, but he still shuffle-skids most of the way down, kicking up enough dirt and noise that he spooks a deer and sends it crashing into the underbrush. At the bottom of the hill, the trail forks in three directions. Cas pauses there for a moment, then leads Dean onto the branch that swings around the reservoir's southern shore.
They trudge up and down another hill. The trail hooks into a copse of trees, then pushes through to a flat, rocky clearing. It narrows again on the next trip up, letting the shrubs crowd in close enough to scratch Dean's jeans. His legs start to ache. The tree-cover grows denser as they move further from the highway and closer to the reservoir. Dean can hear the water lapping against the rocks.
At the two-mile marker, his lungs are burning and his collar is sweat-stuck to the back of his neck. He stops and asks, "Cas, you sure about this?"
Cas frowns at Dean over his shoulder. "Yes, I'm sure."
Dean wheezes out a noise. "C'mon. I'm gonna need at least seventy-five. Fifty ain't worth walking uphill in the snow both ways."
Cas turns around. Crickets are whining in the bushes behind him. "I ─ I have a theory."
"Great." Dean slumps against a tree and tries to catch his breath. "Hit me."
"This morning, I viewed all of Marcy's hiking photos," Cas says, walking toward Dean. His heel catches a rock and sends it skittering down the path. "She's hiked all around the reservoir, but about three months ago, she started using this trail exclusively."
"About two months ago, she started tagging her hiking photos with 'love.'" Cas pauses and spreads his hands. "Huldras typically aren't kidnappers. They lure their targets into the woods through... flirtation."
"So, you think they've been... what ─? Monster courting?"
"I like it," Dean says, wiping his sweaty face on his sleeve. "I like it a lot. But it doesn't explain why she nabbed Marcy outside the pharmacy."
"I have a theory about that, too. I ─" An owl hoots overhead. Cas glances up at the trees, then looks back at Dean. "The Wednesday before she disappeared, Marcy posted a photo of her foot wrapped in a bandage. She twisted her ankle at kickboxing class."
It takes Dean a second. "You ─ she missed their date. She missed their date, and the huldra got antsy."
"Yes." Cas pauses again. After giving Dean a long, narrow look, he huffs and lifts his hand. "You're tired. Let me ─"
"No," Dean says quickly. He leans away, snagging his hair on a loose piece of bark. "I'm all right."
"I'm all right."
An angry twitch tugs at Cas' mouth. "Why must you be so stubborn about everything? Why are you so afraid to take what's being offered?"
"It's not ─ I'm." Dean isn't afraid; he's fucking terrified. "I just ─ you shouldn't waste it on stupid shit."
Cas huffs out a noise. "It's not waste. Not when it's you."
That ─ fuck. Dean clears his throat and mumbles, "Yeah, okay. You ─ okay."
Cas reaches for Dean slowly. His fingers skim the hollow of Dean's throat; his knuckles brush the bolt of Dean's jaw. Then his hand slides up to Dean's cheek, and a chilly-bright wave of grace sweeps through Dean from head to toe. Dean grits his teeth so he doesn't break and whine just because of how good it feels. Letting Cas this close is always too much. So is having a piece of Cas inside him.
A hint of blue-white light sparks behind Cas' eyes. "Better?"
"Yeah." Dean takes a breath, and then another. Then he tips his head away from Cas' hand ─ from the thumb not really stroking his cheek. "So, what's the plan? We just gonna wander around all night and hope we bump into them?"
Cas drops his hand but doesn't step back ─ still too close. "No. While you were napping, I searched online for any structures near the reservoir that aren't part of the waterworks. There's an old church at the end of this trail."
"A church?" Dean asks, glancing around. "Out here?"
Cas nods. "It was used until 1961. Then the reservoir was built, and the road leading to it was closed to the public. It was abandoned, but no one ever bothered to tear it down."
Dean rubs his hand over his face. "Okay, okay. Wait. How do we know they're still here? I mean ─ this ain't exactly a real forest. If I'm the huldra, I'm heading for Yosemite. Or I'm going north and building a treehouse in a giant redwood."
"We don't know if they're still here," Cas says. He has a leaf stuck in his hair. "But if they are, this is the most logical place. Marcy's injured. She's human, so she'd need shelter. This is the shortest trail around the reservoir, and there's a structure at the end of it."
Dean sighs. He's taken worse stabs in the dark. "Yeah, all right. How far?"
"Half a mile," Cas says, pointing.
Dean squints down the trail but doesn't see anything. The light is failing, and the trees are clustered together and casting heavy shadows. Just as Dean is turning away, Cas comes up behind him and points again. He stretches his arm over Dean's shoulder. His other hand bumps Dean's waist.
Dean still doesn't see anything. He just breathes Cas in and says, "Yeah. You ─ yeah."
The sun drops out of sight just as they're heading down the slope that leads to the church. The last bit of color drains out of the sky, leaving it dull and gray until it touches the dusty, purplish line fading along the horizon. The trail ends at a small clearing overrun with weeds and brush. A lazy wind is shifting through the trees, just strong enough to tug Dean's collar. Clouds are pushing in from the coast. The blanket of dead leaves on the ground is almost ankle-deep.
The church is in the middle of the clearing. Clumps of wildflowers are growing all around it. It's probably about a hundred years-old; the whitewash is yellowed and peeling, and a handful of boards are missing or split. The hinges on the rear shutter have nearly rusted through. Patches of dry-rot are chewing the walls where they meet the foundation. Otherwise, it's in pretty decent condition. The frame is still solid, and the tiny steeple spearing through the roof is still standing up straight.
A foghorn groans in the distance. Dean gestures Cas to the right and takes the left. He moves slowly, nudging his feet through the humus so he doesn't step on any rocks or twigs. The leaves barely rustle, but he still grits his teeth at how much noise he's making. Anxiety gnaws at his gut. Their plan is for Cas to smite the huldra ─ they couldn't find any lore on how to kill one ─ but Dean hates watching Cas get that close to a monster, even one that wouldn't be able to hurt him.
Faint slivers of light are winking between the gaps in the boards. The shutter on this side is slightly crooked. Dean pauses to look in the window, holding his breath so he isn't heard through the fist-sized hole in the pane. The pews have been pushed against the walls, and an old leather couch is sitting in front of the altar. Marcy and the huldra are curled up together under a red and yellow saddle blanket. They're speaking to each other, too softly for Dean to hear. The light is coming from a pair of hurricane lamps on the floor.
Cas is waiting for Dean out front. Dean pauses again and glances around. Under their feet, what's left of a gravel path is peeking up through the weeds. It leads to three steps made from railroad ties stuck in the dirt and a set of double doors that belong on a barn. The doors don't move or creak when Dean touches them; they're probably barred from the inside. Before he can think of a plan, Cas blasts them into splinters and walks inside.
"Jesus Christ," Dean says.
Marcy hops off the couch and snaps, "Who the hell are you?"
Instead of answering, Cas takes a couple more steps forward. Marcy's eyes widen. She leans into a kickboxing stance, wincing a little as she puts weight on her bad leg.
The huldra says, "They're hunters, Marcy." Her voice is slow and sweet and smooth ─ something that almost hints at an accent. "They've come to kill me."
The huldra gets to her feet. Her white dress falls just below her knees, too short to hide the tail twitching between her legs. She's beautiful ─ incredibly beautiful ─ but in a way that's unsettling, obviously inhuman. Her blonde hair is too glossy, and her eyes are too wide and green and bright. Her features are too fine, like they've been drawn with a razor-sharp pen ─ high-set cheekbones and a short, upturned nose and a jaw that curves into a narrow point. Looking at her makes Dean's blood rush in his ears, but it also makes something itch behind his teeth.
"Marcy," she says softly. "I told you this would happen. I never should've gone into town."
Cas glances over his shoulder. "Dean, take Marcy outside."
"No! You ─ just leave us alone." Marcy's voice wobbles, but she shoots Cas a look that's edged like a knife. "We aren't hurting anyone. She isn't hurting anyone."
A mouse scurries out of a pile of moldy hymnals. Dean steps around it and asks, "You know what she is, right? She ain't human."
"I don't care," Marcy insists. An angry heat flushes her cheeks. "I really don't. And I ─ I'm serious. She hasn't hurt anyone. She hasn't hurt me."
"She lured you here," Cas says.
"No," Marcy says, shaking her head. "No, she didn't. I wanted to come. I've been chasing her for weeks ─ for months."
"No, listen. I hiked down here in ─ I don't know... June? I don't know why. I usually don't, 'cause the church ─" Marcy glances around "─ the church kinda freaks me out. But I saw her, and I came back. I came back every week. I got her to talk to me, and to take walks with me, and I ─ it's not what you're thinking. She didn't trick me."
The huldra catches Marcy's arm, pulling her close. She strokes a hand through Marcy's hair and kisses the corner of her mouth. "It's better this way."
"No. I'm not leaving you."
"We will never be what you want," the huldra says. She touches Marcy's face ─ her temple, her cheek, her jaw. "If we don't marry, we can never leave this place. Your friends, your family ─ they would be horrified by what I am. If we do marry, I will change, and you will be horrified by what I am."
Marcy blinks up at the ceiling for a second. Then she wipes her eyes and says, "No, I won't. I've told you that."
"I love you," the huldra says sadly. "If I thought it was possible, I would make a life with you."
"I love you, too. And I want that. Us ─ together."
A weird, vibrating pressure fills the air. The huldra gasps and clutches at her throat. She doubles over, her shoulders hunching until Dean can see the bark bristling at her back. A violent shudder wracks her body. She gasps again, then staggers forward. Her foot bumps one of the hurricane lamps.
"What ─?" Marcy looks at Cas. "What are you doing to her?"
"Nothing," Cas says.
A mulchy smell crowds into Dean's nose ─ cold dirt and wet, rotting leaves. He grabs Cas' shoulder. "Cas?"
Screaming, the huldra sinks to her knees. Another shudder whips through her. Her tail beats against the floor. A sharp, cracking sound rips through the air, like a dead branch snapping off a tree. The huldra curls in on herself. She screams again and covers her face.
"Cas? What's going on?"
Something tugs at Cas' mouth. "She transformed."
"She ─ what─?" Dean's throat feels tight. Marcy crouches beside the huldra and gently touches her hair. "You ─ you said they gotta get married for that."
The huldra's shoulders are shaking ─ crying. She's crying. Her tail is gone, and the hole in her back has closed. Her hair is slightly duller. Marcy leans into her, resting their foreheads together. She whispers something, the takes the huldra by the wrist and tugs her hands away from her face.
Dean doesn't know what to expect ─ he's seen plenty of ugly over the years; wendigos and rougarous, rawhides rotting under their bandages and ghouls with blood smeared around their mouths, his own demon-face in the mirror, horns and fangs and black, black eyes ─ but the huldra just looks human.
Marcy slides her hand down the huldra's arm. She whispers to her again, then carefully helps her stand. They stare at each other for a moment. Then Marcy catches the huldra's face in both hands and kisses her.
Cas tugs Dean's sleeve. "We should go."
They startle another mouse on the way to the door. It darts out from under one of the pews and scuttles down the steps. Outside, the sky is dark. The moon is less than a scrap and hidden behind the trees. The temperature has taken a nosedive; Dean shivers as he fumbles his flashlight out of his belt. It flickers a little, so he gives it a shake before following Cas around the church.
When they reach the foot of the trail, he asks, "What happened back there? Some kinda weird fluke? They got sappy in a church with an angel staring at them, and that's good enough for a monster marriage?"
After a pause, Cas says, "The angel and the church probably helped. But they ─ they wanted it. I think that was good enough."
"That ─ that's it. They just... wanted it."
Cas glances back at the church. "Yes. At its most basic, that's all marriage is ─ two people who want to share a life."
Dean's throat feels tight again. Cas still has a leaf in his hair, so Dean brushes it away and says, "C'mon. It's a long walk to the car."
About a mile from the motel, Dean starts to have second thoughts. Unease digs under his skin, making him drum his fingers on the steering wheel as he drives. He hits a red light where Highway 41 meets Highway 1, and a stop sign at the corner of Birch Street and Cayucos Drive. Both times, he almost turns the car around.
John began teaching Dean to hunt when he was six. Over the years, Dean learned how to be stealthy, how to be quick, how to ignore being cold or tired or hungry or wet. He learned how to fight with his fists, and how to fire a gun. How to stab a monster in the heart. How to take off its head with one swing. He learned the difference between gold and silver and copper and bronze. When to use plain iron buckshot, and when to use consecrated rounds. He learned how to draw a pentagram. The prayer used to make holy water. The basic Latin needed to exorcise a demon.
It hadn't been easy. There'd always been something else ─ a new weapon, a new spell, a new legend, a new threat. The only real constant in Dean's life had been John's first rule:
Finish the fucking job. Kill the monster, and make sure it stays dead.
Outside their room, Dean fumbles the key. His fingers are clumsy and stiff from both jitters and the cold. He jams it in the lock upside-down, then yanks it back and drops it on the dusty, macrame welcome mat.
Cas crouches and picks it up. He pauses there, resting his arm on his knee and looking up at Dean. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm just ─" Dean sighs and scrubs at his hair. His hunter brain is still mumbling kill, kill, kill. "You sure we did the right thing?"
Cas pauses again. The sodium light buzzing on the wall washes his face bone-white. He has dirt on his nose, and he needs a shave. After a moment, he palms Dean's hip and uses it to pull himself up. He fits the key in the lock. The door creaks open an inch, but they both just stand there.
"I think so," Cas says finally. "Marcy isn't in danger. She never was. You hunt to help people ─ killing the huldra only would've hurt her."
"Yeah, but now she's got ─ what'd the legend say? The strength of ten men?" Dean blows out a breath. "That's ─ she could do a lotta hurt with that kinda power."
"So could I," Cas points out.
Dean looks away. He ─ fuck. He clears his throat and says, "'Cause it's you."
"Dean," Cas says softly. "You ─"
"Just ─ c'mon." Dean pushes the door open. "It's cold as fuck out here."
A horn honks up on the highway. Cas stares at Dean for a second, then huffs under his breath and walks inside. Dean comes in right behind him, and the first thing he sees is the bed. It's been a long and crazy night; between the five-mile hike and the huldra, he'd forgotten all about it. Now it feels like the only thing in the room.
Cas heads straight for the bathroom. Dean has dibs on the shower, but he doesn't bother pointing it out. Instead, he shrugs out of his sweaty flannel and kicks off his boots. Then he shuffles into the kitchen for a beer. He flips through the motel's handful of channels ─ local news, Telemundo, a public access show on sustainable fisheries, a shitty movie on HBO. He settles on the back-half of a Golden Girls episode. His legs are restless, so he watches it while pacing in front of the TV.
Eventually, the plumbing rattles and clanks. Cas walks out in a flannel pants and no shirt, just like the night before. Dean drains the rest of his beer. His hand shakes as he sets the bottle on the counter.
He takes his time in the shower. He scrubs off all the dust from the hunt, then just stands under the spray until the water starts to run cold. When he finally climbs out, he wastes a few more minutes drying off. He pulls on a pair of boxer-briefs. He leaves his t-shirt laying on the floor.
Cas is already in the bed, his back facing the bathroom. Dean's gut lurches; he hesitates in the doorway. Then he tells himself to stop being a coward and take what's being offered. He's always known things were headed this way. He just figured getting dragged under would be cleaner and easier than jumping in feet-first.
"Dean," Cas says, looking at Dean over his shoulder. "If you ─"
"I told you, it's fine." Dean walks around the bed. "You ─ it's fine."
Dean flips off the lamp. The room doesn't go dark; the bluish glow from the vacancy sign is nudging through the gap in the curtains, and it lets Dean see the slope of Cas' shoulder and the line of his jaw. The bed squeaks as Dean crawls under the blankets. He blinks at the ceiling long enough to catch his breath. Then he rolls over and touches Cas' waist.
"Don't," Dean says. If they start talking about it, he'll lose his nerve, and then he'll have to go sleep in the car. "Just ─ I. Just let me."
Dean runs his hand up Cas' side and palms the curve of Cas' ribs. Cas put his shirt on while Dean was in the shower, but Dean can still feel the heat of his skin. He can feel Cas breathe ─ in and out, in and out. Closing his eyes, he leans in and noses at Cas' jaw. He presses a kiss there ─ once, twice. Then he tips his head up and kisses Cas' mouth.
Their noses bump. Dean tips his head a little more, and then their lips slide together just right. Cas makes a low, soft noise. He strokes his hand up Dean's arm, pausing where Dean's scar used to be before cupping the side of Dean's neck and brushing his fingers down to the hollow of Dean's throat. Dean shivers. He curls his fingers into Cas' hair and tugs. His thumb skims the dip behind Cas' ear.
They stay like that for awhile ─ just kissing, barely touching. But then Cas' mouth falls open around a moan; Dean slips his tongue inside, and everything turns hot and deep and wet. The bed squeaks again. Dean fists his hand in Cas' shirt and pulls him closer. Cas rubs his thumb over Dean's nipple, teasing it until Dean is gasping, heat pooling in his gut as more and more blood rushes to his dick.
"Cas, fuck," Dean hisses. He can't catch his breath. "You ─ c'mere, Jesus."
He tugs on Cas' shirt again, then tucks his hand underneath it and touches the fever-hot skin at the base of Cas' spine. Cas shifts on top of him, pushing him back into the pillows. The headboard thunks against the wall. The flare from the vacancy sign shows Dean the wreck he's made of Cas' hair, and the dark look in Cas' eyes. Cas opens up a little more every day ─ smiling wider, laughing at Dean's dumb jokes, fidgeting when he's bored, relaxing when he sits ─ but seeing him like this is something else. It's ─ fuck. Arousal beats under Dean's skin like a drum.
"Dean, Dean." Cas' voice is rough. His hand flexes in the sheets. "I ─ what do you want?"
Dean doesn't know how to answer that. He hasn't been with many guys, and none of them had been like this. He'd worked with his dad and lived on the road, so it had been rushed and dirty and quick. In a bathroom stall, or out in the alley behind the bar. Once or twice in his car.
"I ─ just touch me."
Cas sits up on his knees and pulls his shirt over his head. He's gorgeous ─ all muscle and strong lines. He skims his fingers down the side of Dean's face and runs his knuckles along the edge of Dean's jaw. He pauses at Dean's throat for a moment, then drags a slow touch all the way down to Dean's navel. Dean squirms slightly ─ a little ticklish and a lot self-conscious ─ but Cas just holds his hand there. Then he slides it back up and draws Dean into a kiss.
It's sloppier now; all tongue and teeth. Dean digs his nails into Cas' shoulders and Cas knots his fingers in Dean's hair. Cas' dick is pushing into Dean's hip, so Dean ruts up against it, smiling into Cas' neck when Cas shivers and murmurs his name. They rock like that together; the headboard smacks against the wall again, and the sheet tangles around Dean's leg. He kicks it away and runs his foot down Cas' shin. Cas tucks his arm under Dean's back and presses in close. He rolls his hips until Dean is moaning, desperate from his precome-wet boxer briefs dragging against his skin.
Dean tugs Cas' pants down to his thighs, then shoves his hand into his boxer-briefs and pulls out his dick. They rock together like that a few times ─ bare. The sweat-slick heat is incredible; Dean tips his head back and whines out a noise that catches in his throat. He arches up and up and up ─ trying to get closer, trying to get more. Cas murmurs Dean's name again, and Dean slips a hand between them, biting a kiss into Cas' throat as Cas grinds against his palm.
"You wanna know what I want?" he asks, his lips moving against Cas' jaw. "I want you come on me."
"Dean," Cas says faintly.
"All over me. I want ─ Christ." Dean closes his eyes for a second; he's teetering on the edge just thinking about it. "Cas, you ─ fuck. So hot. C'mon."
He wraps his hand around Cas' dick and strokes, sliding it up to rub his thumb over the head and then dragging it back down. Cas chokes out a noise and clutches at Dean's shoulder. A shudder runs through him, and then he starts thrusting into him, his back arching and his thighs shaking, panting gorgeous, filthy noises into the hollow of Dean's throat. His knee slips on the sheets. He leans up a little, then thrusts harder, again and again and again. His eyes flash angel-bright, and then he ─ fuck. He's coming.
The first pulse stripes Dean's belly. Then Cas jerks forward, chasing Dean's hand, and the next couple hit Dean in the center of the chest, hot and thick. Arousal jolts through Dean like lightning. His dick twitches; he moans and wrings his free hand at Cas' hip.
Cas heaves out a breath and sits up on his knees. He just stares at Dean for a moment, studying the mess he made. Shame crawls into Dean's throat ─ God, he can't believe he asked Cas to do that, practically fucking begged for it ─ but then Cas smiles at him, soft. He touches two fingers to the come splattered near Dean's nipple. Then he drags his hand through it and wraps it around Dean's dick.
He jacks Dean hard and quick. The sound of it is obscene ─ a thick, wet, skin-slap that just digs at the heat coiling tighter and tighter in Dean's gut. His toes curl, and his mouth falls open. He fists his hands in the sheets and fucks up into it, needy and desperate ─ so close, so close.
"You're beautiful like this," Cas says.
Warmth flutters under Dean's ribs. He closes his eyes and lets out a thin, weak noise.
"You can't imagine how often I've thought of this." Cas' thumb rubs over the head of Dean's dick, teasing right over his slit. "Kissing you, touching you, loving you."
It hits Dean like a sucker-punch. He shakes through it, his dick pulsing as everything under his skin sparks and rushes and thrums. It's too good, too much. When it finally ends, he slumps back into the pillows and tries to remember how to breathe.
Cas slides over and stretches out at Dean's side. Dean's covered in sweat and come; he should get back in the shower, or at least grab a towel. But before he can move, Cas touches Dean's hip. He wraps his arm around Dean's waist and pulls Dean against his chest. Dean hides his face in Cas' neck and closes his eyes.
Dean wakes up alone. His face is buried in his pillow and his arm is hanging off the side of the bed. He blinks at the nightstand for a few seconds, then leans up on his elbow and glances around. Cas isn't in the room, and his side of the bed is cold. It's six fifty-seven. The alarm is set for seven, so Dean kicks the blankets away and sits up.
He pats his chest. It's clean; Cas must've zapped off the sweat and come after Dean passed out. The last thing Dean remembers is Cas stroking his back and nosing at his hair. His face heats just from thinking about it; he'd sighed out Cas' name and curled into Cas' warmth. Cas probably watched him sleep all night, but now he's gone. A restless feeling slithers around in Dean's gut. He's ─ he doesn't know.
A car pulls out of the motel's parking lot, its brakes squealing. Dean scratches his jaw and grabs his phone off the nightstand. Just as he starts pecking out Cas' number, Cas walks in through the sliding-glass door in the kitchen. It shrieks as he closes it behind him. He's wearing a gray henley and the black jeans Dean hates because they hug his thighs.
"Ain't you an early bird," Dean says.
"I packed up the gear. I thought you'd want to... get a move on."
The linoleum whines under Cas' feet. "So we can reach Las Vegas before Sam finds us another case."
Dean huffs. Vegas had sounded great when it was just over the state line, but now it's a seven-hour haul. And it wouldn't even be a good seven hours. Cas would want to stop for lunch at that stupid train McDonalds in Bakersfield, and he'd waste about forty-five minutes in the gift shop, looking at shot glasses and fridge magnets and ugly t-shirts. That would put them in Tehachapi during the hottest part of the day, and they'd hit Victorville just in time for evening traffic.
"There's coffee," Cas offers.
"Yeah?" Dean asks, glancing around again. Two Gas & Sip cups are sitting on the counter. Cas hadn't been holding them when he walked in. "Wait... if you ─ where were you just now?"
Cas grabs the coffees and heads over to the bed. "On my way back from the Gas & Sip, I noticed some activity down the street." He hands a coffee to Dean, then brushes his fingers through Dean's hair. Dean jerks a little, caught between leaning into it and pulling away. "I wanted to see what it was."
Cas turns on the TV. It buzzes quietly as it warms up. Once the static clears, he clicks over to the local news. A reporter in a green peacoat is broadcasting live from the pier. She has curly brown hair and a Cindy Crawford mole. The ticker at the bottom says Marisol Torres ─ Channel 7 Action News.
"...sources close to the investigation have now confirmed that the woman taken to a Morro Bay urgent care facility just hours ago was in fact Marcy Wong. Wong was last seen eight days ago outside the old Cayucos pharmacy. Many in town believed Wong had been the victim of a kidnapping, but Action News has learned that she became lost while hiking near Whale Rock Reservoir. Early this morning, a sheriff's deputy found Wong walking down Santa Ysabel Drive with an unidentified woman. Wong claims the woman helped her..."
"All right," Dean mutters, rubbing his hand over his face. "Time to hit the road."
Cas nods. "I'll get us checked out."
It takes Dean about ten minutes to get dressed. He spends most of that coaxing his feet into his boots; they haven't forgiven him for last night's five-mile hike. He gets outside just as Cas as walking back from the office. The Impala dips and creaks as they climb inside. Dean turns left out of the driveway and cuts straight across to Highway 1. He fiddles with the radio until he finds a classic rock station ─ Hair of the Dog, Midnight Rider, Too Much Time on My Hands. His stomach growls, but he leans on the gas. He wants to get away from Cayucos and its unfinished job more than he wants to eat.
Morro Bay is out; instead of heading down the coast, Dean swings east on Highway 41. The coffee Cas bought is standard Gas & Sip stuff ─ bitter but drinkable. Dean nurses it as they skirt Whale Rock Reservoir and curve up through Los Padres National Forest. The sun is climbing fast, but the trees are tall enough to block out the worst of the glare. Cas stretches out in his seat, humming along with the music and tapping his fingers on his knee. Dean white-knuckles the wheel and keeps his eyes on the road.
They hit Atascadero just in time for the breakfast rush. The Biggerson's on El Camino Real is packed with people on their way to church, so Dean pulls into the diner across the street. It's a boxcar job with a gravel lot and dusty blinds hanging in the windows. A hand-painted sign beside the door is advertising a four-dollar pancake special. The only open booth is down at the far end, right across from the fryer. The faded blue vinyl whines when Dean sits. He asks for a coffee, then frowns at the menu and breathes in the smell of grease.
He orders pork chops and eggs and biscuits and gravy, and he gulps it down like he's starving ─ "Like you've been in prison," Sam used to say, before they went to prison and it stopped being funny. A sticky spot on the table keeps tugging Dean's sleeve. Across from him, Cas is picking at a waffle and finishing a crossword someone left behind. His henley is unbuttoned; the open collar frames the hollow of his throat.
Their feet bump. At the counter, two truckers complain about some construction on US 101 ─ the hammer lane is closed between Paso Robles and San Miguel. The cook rings his bell, then slams two plates into the service window. Dean licks gravy off his finger. His pork chops are a little dry, so he slathers them in steak sauce and saws them into chunks with his knife.
Cas pours more syrup on his waffle. Their feet bump again; Dean jerks and drops his silverware. It clatters against his plate with a sound like buckshot hitting concrete.
Cas just looks at him. "Dean, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm just ─ it's nothing."
"Dean." Cas' voice is low and soft. The booth is bleeding stuffing from a crack near his shoulder. "You ─"
"It's nothing." Dean says it too loud; one of the truckers gives him a sideways glance. He picks at a groove in the table until the guy turns back around. "I just ─ I don't know how to do this."
The cook rings his bell again. Cas tips his head to the side and asks, "Do what?"
"You know what," Dean blurts. Christ, his face is on fire. "You ─ we, uh. I ─ fuck."
"Dean." Cas pauses for a second and fiddles with his napkin. Then he sighs under his breath. "What is it you think I want from you?"
A knot is burning in Dean's throat. He tries to drown it with a mouthful of coffee, but that only makes it worse. "You ─ I don't know."
Cas pauses again. The sunlight streaming through the window stripes the side of his face. "Honestly, most of what I want, I already have. I already live with you and hunt with you. I watch TV with you. I help you cook dinner when we're home. I heal you when you're hurt or sick. You've invited me into your life in more ways than I think you realize.
"But I ─ I would also like to kiss you when you wake up in the morning. I'd like to hold your hand when you drive." Cas leans closer and taps his thumb on the rim of his coffee cup. "I'd like to see you like you were last night. I wasn't lying when I said you were beautiful. You ─"
"Jesus," Dean hisses, pushing his plate away. His chest aches, and his dick is starting to perk up. He has to clear his throat just to speak again. "Yeah, okay."
"Yes. I ─ I want that." Dean's also so terrified that he wants to crawl under the table and hide, but ─ fuck it. Two people who want to share a life. "I want it."
Cas smiles and signals for the check.
They make a fuel stop at the Texaco crouched beside the interchange with US 101. It's barely nine o'clock, but the sun is already high and hot. Dean pulls up behind and old Ford pickup with rust spots on the tailgate and a chocolate lab in the bed. Cas gets out to pump the gas, and Dean ducks into the mini-mart. Inside, he gets hit with a blast of air conditioning so cold it makes him shiver. He grabs some stuff for the road ─ beef jerky, gummy bears, peanuts, a bottle of Mountain Dew ─ and pays for it with his dwindling cash.
On his way out, he stops and looks at Cas. He's leaning against the Impala's rear with his legs crossed at the ankles and his hands resting on the trunk. The hem of his henley is twisted up in the back, flashing a strip of skin above his belt. He smiles at Dean, then glances up and around as the outdoor speakers wake up with a feedback screech. Once the noise clears, they blurt out an ad for two-for-two hotdogs. Cas' boots are dusty, and his hair is curling behind his ears. Dean wants to kiss him everywhere ─ his cheek and his jaw, his mouth, the side of his neck and the hollow of his throat.
A semi blares its horn up on the highway. The northbound lane is sluggish ─ probably backed up from that road work those truckers at the diner had been talking about. Everything smells like rubber and exhaust. Dean walks back to the Impala so he can dump the stuff he bought. Sweat prickles the back of his neck as he trudges across the tarmac. A Fritos bag skitters ahead of him for a second, then circles his feet and darts off toward the pickup.
Cas moves into the shade cast by the pump island's corrugated awning. He runs his hand through his hair and pushes his sleeves up a little more. Dean has to squeeze by him to get to the car. He doesn't touch him as he passes, but he wants to. His hand flexes at his side.
Cas smiles at him again. Dean's face flushes; he clears his throat and tosses his snacks on his seat. He needs to figure out how they're getting home. It would be fastest to go back through the Mojave and cut cross-country from Barstow, but he ─ he doesn't know. He's kind of tempted to turn south.
They could spend the night in Los Angeles, then head east through Arizona and New Mexico. The badlands are a nice drive, and they could stop by Jesse and Cesar's place before swinging up into north Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle. They've got a cabin just outside Las Cruces ─ two rooms and a loft on a sandy plot of land Cesar keeps trying to turn into a vegetable garden. About a month ago, they ganked a chupacabra that kept busting into their chicken coop. Other than that, they're still retired. Jesse works construction; Cesar is taking business administration classes at New Mexico State.
Dean calls Sam. Sam lets it ring five times; when he finally picks up, Dean asks, "How's your djinn?"
"Dead," Sam says flatly. "How do you feel about Reno?"
Dean sighs; Reno feels like a headache. It's a straight shot up through the center of the San Joaquin Valley ─ nothing but farms from Coalinga to Modesto, nothing but dust from Modesto to Stockton ─ then over the Sierras on a nasty, narrow stretch of I-80.
"About twenty minutes west, there's a town called Cold Springs. They're having a problem ─ an us kinda problem." Sam's voice sounds windblown and thin; he must be on the road. "I was thinking... maybe we could knock this one out together and then take a few days off."
"Yeah. I ─" The dog in the pickup starts barking. Dean plugs his other ear and walks toward a pair of pay phones gathering dust behind the mini-mart. The concrete trashcan lurking beside them reeks of stale beer. Cigarette butts are scattered all over the asphalt. "Yeah. That sounds good. Where are you?"
"Arizona. Just east of Flagstaff."
"Okay." Pausing, Dean tries to map the distances out in his head. "You gotta be... what─? About three hours behind us?"
Sam snorts. "The way Mom drives? We'll probably beat you there."
"There's nothing wrong with the way I drive," Mary insists.
"Busted," Dean sing-songs.
Sam snorts again, then says, "Bye," and hangs up.
A light wind picks up, but instead of cooling things down it just pushes the trashcan's beer stench in Dean's direction. He pockets his phone and walks back to the Impala. The pickup with the dog has been replaced by an older guy with a bad comb-over and a Corvette the color of traffic cones. A minivan pulls in, creaking and swaying as it bounces over the driveway bells. Cas is waiting for him in the passenger seat. He has the window down, and his arm is resting on the door.
As Dean climbs in, he asks, "What did Sam say?"
Dean winces a little. "He found us another gig. I ─ sorry. You probably wanna get back home."
They've been on the road now for almost five weeks. They picked up a vampire thing in Pine Bluff while Sam and Mary were already out; on their way back, Cas read a newspaper article about desecrated graves in Fargo, so Dean stayed on I-29. Killing those ghouls took longer than it should've, then Sam called from Ohio with two back-to-back gigs ─ first a rougarou in Pueblo, then a shapeshifter Kingman. Kingman is near the California line, and the Route 66 ghost had been on Dean's bucket list for years; after they got the shapeshifter wrapped up, Dean headed for the Mojave instead of driving back to Kansas.
"Dean." Cas touches his arm, light and quick. "I'm happy wherever you are."
Dean's face heats again. He scratches the back of his neck and says, "The, uh ─ the job's up in Reno. They're meeting us out there so we can get it buttoned up fast. Then we ─ we're gonna take a breather."
"What kind of breather?"
"Um. The ─ the kind where we don't get outta bed for a week."
Cas' mouth twitches. "Sounds perfect."
Dean swings out of the Texaco and pulls onto US 101. The northbound lane is still sluggish, lurching along at about twenty-five miles an hour. They immediately gets boxed in by semis; the Swift tractor in front of them is belching out black clouds of exhaust. Dean fiddles with the radio until he hits a station playing Radar Love. He taps the beat on his thigh for a few seconds, but then Cas reaches over and laces their fingers together.
They roll into Cold Springs just after four. It's not much more than a flyspeck cut into the mountains that overlook Reno and Sparks. It's mostly residential; trailer parks fill the west side of town and frame homes are spread across the east. The main drag is a parkway that starts and ends at US 395 and makes a lazy loop around a dry lake-bed called White Lake. Dean cruises it from end to end in under ten minutes. The only motel in town is a flop called The Hitching Post. Cas pays for two rooms ─ one single and one double. A sharp wind whips at them as they lug their crap inside.
The room is a squat, brown cabin working an Old West theme ─ a cow skull hanging on the wall, a horse blanket draped over the couch, a potted prickly pear sitting on the kitchen counter. A braided rug the color of sand covers most of the scuffs and grooves in the hardwood floor. The bed is a king, and it only squeaks a little when Dean sits on it. It looks like a great place to spend a week naked. Or most of a week. If Dean doesn't find a poker game soon, they're going to have to push the Impala home.
Cas starts laying their gear out on the dresser. As he's moving stuff between bags, he asks, "What do you think we'll need?"
"No idea," Dean says, shrugging. "Sam didn't say much ─ just that it's a freaky chunk of highway."
"Probably. Shotguns and crowbars, I guess. And a coupla flashlights."
"We're low on salt rounds," Cas complains, walking over to the bed. He curls his hand at the back of Dean's neck and strokes his thumb behind Dean's ear. "I'll make more tonight."
Dean says, "Okay," and pulls Cas into his lap.
He kisses Cas' jaw a couple of times, then noses underneath Cas' chin. Cas smells like motel soap and warm skin. When he sighs and tips his head, Dean kisses down to the hollow of his throat. Cas sighs again and wraps his arms around Dean's shoulders. Dean pulls Cas closer by the hips and works his way back up to Cas' mouth.
They kiss for a couple of minutes. And then a couple more minutes, and a couple more minutes ─ until they're both flushed and half-hard and breathless. Cas nips at Dean's lip and shifts in Dean's lap. Dean skims his fingers over Cas' fly ─ he could jack Cas off just like this, holding him close, watching him pant and moan and roll his hips ─ but Cas hooks his hand in Dean's collar and leans away. His mouth is red and wet.
"Dean," he says quietly. "We have to meet your brother."
"C'mon. They ain't up here yet. We got at least an hour."
Sighing, Dean says, "All right, all right," and pats Cas' thigh. "Get off me."
The coordinates Sam sent him lead to a two-mile stretch of blacktop just south of town. It's a frontage road that shadows US 395 as it ribbons between White Lake and the northern edge of Nevada State Park. A roadblock has been set up, so Dean drives into the park and stashes the Impala on a fire access track that's overgrown with brush. The wind has picked up, and the sun is sinking fast. Dean grabs his jacket before following Cas into the trees.
They bump into the road at the bottom of a shallow slope, and they follow it from about fifty yards inside the park, just in case there's maintenance crew nosing around. The trees and shrubs aren't really thick enough to make good cover, but they're better than nothing. A crow circles them for a moment, then caws a couple of times and wheels off to the north. US 395 is a dull hum in the distance, full of people heading home after a weekend of losing all their money.
"You see anything?" Dean asks.
"Yes." Cas points up ahead. "This way."
He walks for another hundred yards, then turns and heads out into the open. Dean follows him out and stops dead.
The road looks like it's been ripped apart by giant hands. The blacktop is buckled in spots and yawning open in others. Just across from where they're standing, a large slab is tilting down into what's left of the soft shoulder. Heavy clouds of steam or smoke are rising up from the cracks.
"Holy shit," Dean says again. There's a thick, mineral smell in the air ─ not sulfur, but close enough to make his teeth itch. "Are we sure this wasn't some kinda earthquake?"
"Yeah, there was an earthquake," Sam says, stepping out of the trees. Mary is right behind him. "According to the locals, the ground shook so much it cleared their bookshelves and knocked their pictures off the walls. But the U.S Geological Survey has no reports of seismic activity in the area."
"So whatever did all this ─" Dean waves his hand "─ didn't set off any of their machines?"
"Okay," Dean says, glancing around. The crow is back; it's perched on the guard-rail and bobbing its head. "What's all this smoke? Gas leak?"
Mary shakes her head. "There aren't any gas mains in the area. The hunting cabins around here either use propane or run on a generator."
"What ─" Sam wrinkles his nose. "What's that smell?"
"It's basalt," Cas says. He edges closer to the road and crouches beside one of the cracks. "A fire is burning down there. The asphalt is starting to break down."
Dean sighs under his breath. "Okay, fire. What're we thinking? Besides demons ─ that one's free."
"A phoenix?" Sam offers.
"No, thanks. Try again, and this time gimme something we don't need a gun we ain't got to kill."
"I can kill a phoenix," Cas points out.
"Show off," Dean says. He sighs again and looks at Mary. "Mom?"
Brakes squeal up on the highway. Mary says, "It could be an ifrit." She has a bruise on her cheek; Dean's going to have to talk to Sam about what 'keep an eye on her' means. "They prefer to live underground, and a lot of the lore connects them to fire."
"Okay. Ifrit's good. I'm thinking dragon, but ─ shit." Dean sighs again. "We lost that fancy dragon-slaying sword."
Cas hums quietly. "I can kill a dragon."
"Seriously?" Dean wants to kiss the smirk right off his mouth. "Now you're just bragging."
Sam waves a cloud of smoke out of his face. "We need to find a way down there, so we can see what's going on. The county offices in Reno should have some utility plans or city planning maps." He pauses like he's waiting for volunteers. Then he asks, "Who's coming with me?"
"Take Cas," Dean says. That means losing Cas for the rest of the night, but Cas loves doing that kind of shit. "You know how he gets about maps. Mom and I can start digging into the lore. You ─ wait. It's Sunday. The county seat ain't gonna be open on Sunday."
Sam shrugs. "I was thinking of breaking in."
"Okay," Dean says, whistling through his teeth. "If you need us, Mom and I will be back at the motel, not committing a misdemeanor."
"It's a government office. Pretty sure that's a felony."
Mary hugs Sam goodbye and passes him the keys to the '71 Riviera she stole on a werewolf gig in Alpharetta. After that, she hugs Cas. Then she squeezes Dean's arm and asks, "Where are you parked, honey?"
"Just up there," Dean says, pointing. As she walks away, he ducks his head at Cas and says, "So..."
"I ─ um. I guess I'll see you back at the motel."
"Yes," Cas says, leaning in just enough to breathe out against Dean's jaw. "You will."