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A Fish Out of Water

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Hunting, as a profession—though it was more of a calling, really, Dean thought—certainly helped to promote a strong stomach and a very dulled sense of smell. There was nothing wrong with Dean’s nose, he’d just learned to breathe through scents much worse than most folk could probably imagine, from blood to bile to bodies.

But this place…this place smelled wrong.

The makeshift waiting room was damp and drippy, a whiff of mold and mildew marinating with something purely rotten hung low in the dark space. It was a good thing that Dean had come here and not Sam. Sam was back at the motel, preparing the rest of the spell that would break the curse on the kid they’d found while hunting a rogue shaman. A good thing, in Dean’s opinion—he was pretty sure the smell would have clung to all that hair. 

Even the air in the tiny waiting area made Dean feel like he was going to catch something from it, hanging thick and soupy in the weak, yellowish light. Never mind catching something from the people here.

“If you don’t wanna wait, I can fix you up with another—”

“No,” Dean said. No qualifier, no polite manners. Just ‘no’. The spell needed one specific ingredient. If these were the depths to which Dean had to sink in order to get it…well, here he was.

“Suit yourself, Sir .” 

The “sir” was as sarcastic as could be, likely in reference to the faux FBI suit that Dean was still wearing from his and Sam’s house calls earlier. He hadn’t really thought to change—he wasn’t here to charm anyone or pick up the locals. He was here to do whatever it took, but certainly not here for what the guy behind the counter assumed he was here for.

His name was Earl, and he had a wispy comb-over and one unpleasantly dirty-looking fake eye that had peered fractionally to the left the whole time “Robert Plant” had checked in at the desk. Earl had shown no surprise at the name. Dean was certain he was used to fake names.

Dean leaned back into his stained plastic chair, crossing his ankles out in front of himself, putting out an air of relaxation .

He was far from relaxed. When Sam had found this place, they’d talked (Winchester for ‘argued’) for thirty minutes over whether they should just burn it to the ground.

Sam said that it wasn’t fair, that it wasn’t the workers’ fault that they were here. Most of them were no better than slaves. They didn’t make a choice to be here—either they were brought here against their will, or life somehow made the choice for them.

Dean had to admit Sam was right. No one would ever choose this place.

From the outside, Brock Pleasure Ranch looked like just another Nevada brothel. Legal, certified, full of bouncing curls and fake smiles and a stereotypical amount of daddy issues. That part of the business was none of Dean’s—he had no problem with that. But this, this was the back entrance. Dean had yet to see a single smile or curl here.

Just dirt, heaviness, and air that somehow smelled of sorrow.

It was making Dean itch to burn it down, still.

“Come with me,” Earl called.

Dean stood and followed the short, limping man through a filthy beaded curtain into the back. Dean wondered where the guy had got the limp—wondered if it was one of the workers. Hoped that it was.

They passed into a narrow corridor that had been painted a bright pink—once upon a time, a lifetime of grime ago. Now it was faded and peeling. The bottom of the wall was half a dozen shades darker than the top and splattered with black grime. Overhead, the lights blinked. The smell was stronger.

“You’ve signed the waiver,” Earl was saying. “We don’t take any responsibility for anything, y’hear me—bites, scrapes, disease. Anything they do to you, you’re on your own.”

“And what about anything I do to them?” Dean asked. Usually, when he was on a case like this, he’d have been peppering someone like Earl with questions. But he didn’t care for this place and he didn’t care for Earl. He knew what he was here for, and it was waiting in lucky room number thirteen.

Something howled as they passed closed door number two.

Earl shrugged. “Don’t care what you do to them, either. Just don’t kill ‘em. They heal fast, for the most part.”

Dean tried to suppress a shudder.

This might be an underground creature brothel, but Dean was already certain there was only one monster here.

Door number nine rattled as they passed. Despite his big, bad hunter status, Dean jumped to the side instinctively, recoiling from the noise and unexpected motion.

Earl just kept walking as if it was totally normal. “Werewolf,” he said casually. “Very frisky, that one, despite the sedation.”

Dean felt sick.

Finally, outside door number thirteen, Earl stopped. The corridor was especially damp here, a puddle beneath the door frame splashing gently against the bare concrete as Earl stepped through it. He slipped a heavy, old-fashioned key into the door. The key was engraved with a symbol that Dean had thought was just a fancier, tilted number thirteen—but the more he looked at it, the more he realized it wasn’t. It was a letter in some unknown language, Dean was sure.

The door clicked as it was unlocked but didn’t budge; it was heavy, even if rotting and covered in a sheen of mossy damp.

“You get thirty minutes,” Earl said. “Have fun.”

Eyes ahead, Dean pushed the door open.

 

 

 

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Could anyone actually “have fun” in this room? Dean’s nose was adjusting, but this room smelled damper than the rest of the building put together…and salty.

It wasn’t dark inside, it was oppressively pitch. Dean could immediately sense that it wasn’t the darkness of covered windows—there simply weren’t any widows, not even a crack. It was a cold, concrete square.

Dean froze as the door slammed behind him. He heard dripping sounds, but that was it.

Then there was a splash—a whoosh like someone raising themselves up out of a bubble bath after relaxing and reading in the warmth.

Dean had a feeling the true picture was much less clean and sweet than that.

“There’s a light switch to your left,” a deep voice rumbled. It sounded…sleepy. Drugged. “Sorry. I try to rest between visits.”

Reaching out, Dean ran his hand along the slimy wall. Just the touch of it against his palm made him desperately want a shower. Or one of those bubble baths, where he could scrub. His fingers found the plastic plate on the wall and flipped on the light.

For a moment it was too bright—the bulb was uncovered, dangling from a short grey wire, and Dean blinked thrice before he could see clearly. Beneath the bulb was a bed, surprisingly clean-looking compared to everything else he’d seen in this place. The sheets were unwrinkled—freshly changed, apparently—and black, which was disconcerting. All the better for hiding stains. There were four cut-off posts at the corners of the bed with loops for chains. The sight of them took away any softness the fresh sheets brought to mind.

Another splash.

Finally, Dean dared to look over to the other wall, to the darker side of the room. He knew what he’d find there, but even so, he was unprepared.

There was a massive bathtub. It was supposed to look ornate, Dean was sure, but really it just looked tacky and dirty, like everything else. The tub had metal feet lifting it from the floor and an old-fashioned faucet to match. Beneath it, Dean could see a clogged-looking drain amidst a greasy puddle.

In the bathtub was a man.

A man! Why had Dean assumed that the creature would be female, all this time? Bias from the mythology, most likely. This male specimen was—to Dean’s eyes—ten times more beautiful than any of the pictures he’d seen in books. Blonde women with impressive breasts were great, but whoever put together all the lore that he and Sam had slogged through seemed to think mermaids only came in one variety.

Dean was pleased to see that wasn’t the case. (Not that he had anything against blonde hair…or boobs.)

Dark, voluminous hair that had the slightest curl to it crowned a handsome face with impressive cheekbones and soft, pouty lips. His eyes—fuck.

They were the blue of the ocean.

Not the dark, crappy, dingy ocean of floating trash and fishing boats that Dean had visited with Bobby once when he was eleven and Sam was seven. This was a vivid blue, tropical and bright and gorgeous; entirely unearthly.

Dean’s gaze slid from the creature’s eyes to its wide, strong shoulders, and he felt his lips part a fraction in amazement. As he watched, little spined fins—very aerodynamic, or whatever the water equivalent was, Dean supposed—jutted from behind the creature’s shoulders, fanning outward. He almost looked like he was puffing up in displeasure, but after a moment they flattened back down once more. A smattering of gleaming, darkly iridescent scales capped his shoulders like glimmering pauldrons. Dean could see the beauty of the scales even in the unflattering white light.

A few seconds too late, Dean realized he was staring. The creature didn’t say anything of it—likely, Dean thought grimly, he was used to much worse. He simply returned Dean’s gaze with a grumpy look and hooked one elbow over the edge of the tub.

The mermaid—assuming that was really what he was—dropped his eyebrows further as Dean stayed where he was, studying him wordlessly. Then, with another whoosh that sent water all over the grimy floor, a huge tail rose from the water and flopped over the rim of the bathtub.

 

 

 

A picture of Castiel in his bathtub, tail hung over the edge

 

Dean gasped, inadvertently filling his lungs with salty dampness.

He couldn’t help himself—it was a freaking tail, Jesus, and it was utterly gorgeous. Deep blue like the darkest parts of the sea, it would have been easy to mistake the scaling along the length of it for black. When the huge tail swished and twitched in the light, though, it was blue, blue, blue. The flare of the large monofin at the end of the tail held Dean’s attention the longest—the color was similar, but it had a translucent quality that was fascinating. If Dean looked hard, he could see the grime of the bathtub beyond it.

Yeah, definitely a mermaid. Or merman, he supposed.

Dean’s thoughts were whirling but he needed to say something. The creature had spoken, had told him to turn on the light—so he obviously spoke English. That helped, Dean decided. He should explain why he was here.

“Don’t you dry out?” Dean found himself asking instead, pointing vaguely at the bed.

The merman’s head tilted slightly, his oceanic eyes regarding Dean with a hazy distance that Dean suspected was due to the sedation Earl had mentioned earlier. There was no other thing Dean could think of that would keep all the monsters here under control.

“That’s why you only get thirty minutes,” the creature replied.

“Ahh,” Dean said. “Well, I—I’m not here for that.”

In return, Dean got a raised eyebrow and a puzzled frown before the mer replied, “There’s only one thing people come here for.”

His tone was flat and emotionless. Something inside of Dean broke a little to hear it.

Dean had nothing against prostitution. What people did with their own bodies, as long as it was willing, was absolutely none of his business. But even moments into their acquaintance, Dean could tell that the merman had zero desire to be here.

“I know what people come here for, okay? But not me. I—” Dean started to say, but he was cut off by another splash as the creature’s muscled, impressive arms bent and pushed down, and he hauled himself over the edge of the grungy bathtub and onto the floor. He had thin, shiny webbing that stretched between each of his fingers.

A wave of water came with him, flooding the already overwhelmed drain. The water swept across the floor like it was glad for freedom—a word that should barely be whispered in this place—and lapped at the toes of Dean’s dress shoes.

With bulging biceps and a wiggling motion, the creature pulled himself across the concrete toward the bed. When he reached it, he grabbed onto the mattress and hoisted himself up without even looking at Dean, and rolled onto his back.

“Get on with it, whatever it is you want,” he said. His voice sounded like the crash of tumultuous tides against a cliffside, deep and rattling with gravel. Dean thought he could listen to that voice for hours.

Dean should have been nervous, but as he gulped and lowered himself to the edge of the mattress, all that filled him was a deep sadness. This was wrong, wrong, wrong.

“I’m really not here for that,” Dean said softly. “I swear.”

Another puzzled, disbelieving look.

“What’s your name?”

The merman blinked, a small jolt of shock running behind his blue eyes. Clearly, not a frequent question. Dean waited him out, determined to have an answer.

“Castiel.”

Dean swallowed back the urge to tell him that his name was as beautiful as he was. Wouldn’t want to give the guy the wrong impression. “I’m Dean,” he went with, instead.

Castiel inclined his head and murmured, “Alright, Dean. Clock’s ticking.” He reached across and wrapped thick fingers around the sleeve of Dean’s jacket, tugging suggestively with his pointed talons.

Dean pulled his arm back determinedly. “I mean it. I’m not here to have sex with you.”

Castiel stilled, seeming lost.

“I’m a hunter,” Dean began.

Wrong move. Castiel immediately recoiled, hauling himself back across the wide, sturdy bed toward the headboard. His tail thrashed wildly, smacking into Dean’s side hard enough to bruise deep. The merman opened his mouth, and Dean knew that if he let out the note he was forming, Dean’s eardrums would never recover.

Frantically, Dean dove forward and slapped a hand across his mouth. “No!” he bellowed frantically. “I am not here to hurt you, damn it!”

Beneath Dean’s hand, Castiel’s skin was unexpectedly warm and soft. Their eyes locked, and Dean’s body was pressing Castiel’s firm, bare chest down into the mattress—though surely not in quite the way he was used to.

Sensing movement against his shirt as Castiel panted in anger and fear, Dean looked down and realized that he had a line of gills down each side of his ribs, between the bones. They were bizarre-looking, yet fascinating. All of Castiel was fascinating, Dean admitted to himself, in a way that was so alien it was beautiful.

He’s a monster, just a creature, not human, Dean reminded himself. It already felt like a lie.

After a few seconds, the panic in Castiel subsided, the storms that had plagued the seas in his eyes retreating as his shoulders slowly slumped.

“Then what?” he asked, his words muffled as his lips shifted across Dean’s palm.

Slowly, Dean dropped his hand from Castiel’s mouth. He pulled back and bared both his palms to Castiel, settling back onto the edge of the mattress, holding his hands up in a gesture of truce.

“There’s a little boy,” Dean began to explain quietly, “in a town a couple of hours from here. He was cursed by a shaman because he thought the kid was going to expose some of the evil shit he’d been doing.”

Silently, Castiel’s head leaned to the left as he listened.

“He’s only six years old. He’s innocent. My brother and me, we killed the shaman that was holding him captive and we just want to help him.”

“You want some of my scales,” Castiel said, nodding slowly. “For a spell to purify him and drive the curse away.”

“Yeah.” Dean let out a puff of air, shrugging. “Wasn’t even sure you were real, so…don’t really know what to offer you in return, or anything.”

Castiel’s brow creased heartbreakingly. “In return? Most of the people who come here would just take them, if that’s what they desired. Some have, after taking everything else they wanted.”

As he spoke, Castiel shifted on the black sheet. His tail made an almost metallic shush-ing noise as his scales glided across the cotton, and the light reflecting on them from above made the iridescence and bluish color even more noticeable. Castiel lifted his left hip and angled it toward Dean a fraction. Dean could see bare spots in places, patches where scales had been ripped out and had yet to regrow.

Dean felt unbearably cold. “I’m not here to take anything from you that you don’t want to give, Castiel,” he said carefully. “I need those scales and you’re the only way I can get them, but I am not like those other people. I promise.”

“So you say,” responded Castiel.

The salty air in the room was stale and unpleasant. Dean became very aware of it filling his lungs with dampness as the two of them sat and looked at each other. Castiel was pushed up on his elbows, his tail cascading down the bed, and Dean sat on the mattress next to his hip, his feet on the floor.

Dean hadn’t come here to have anything to do with him, but he was curious. No, more than curious—he needed to know.

“How did you get here?” he asked quietly.

Castiel’s aqua gaze dipped away from Dean and turned, unseeing, in the direction of the bathtub. “I was captured. Bounty hunters found me and my brothers in Cascadia Basin, about four hundred of your ‘miles’ south of Vancouver Island. They ripped me from my family—I fought, but I failed. It’s a disgrace, a dishonor. It shames me more than what your kind do to me. I’ve grown used to that.”

“Grown used to it?” Dean asked in a whisper.

“I’ve been here for many years. I learned quickly that those matings didn’t mean anything to me, they were merely a function of my imprisonment. A transaction. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Complying is more efficient than attempting to resist.”

Dean’s stomach churned like a rolling sea. “That’s horrible.”

Castiel turned back to look at Dean then, his eyes catching Dean’s and holding intensely. “Yes. It is. But you won’t do anything about it. You’re just like them.”

“I’m not!” Dean protested, angry even though he knew he had no right to be. He wasn’t the person here who should be furious.

Their shared gaze held for a moment longer. Then Castiel brought one hand up to his shoulder, looking away only for a moment as he swiped one long, pointed finger over the curve of it. With an uncomfortable-looking digging motion, Castiel wiggled his claw-like nail and three of his gleaming, beautiful scales lifted from his skin.

Dean couldn’t help but grimace at the sound of them being torn from Castiel, slowly, one by one. Slllltttcccchhht , they went, ending in a wet crunch that made Dean’s shoulders bunch up. It didn’t sound right, not a bit. If he didn’t need the scales to save the kid, he’d have immediately grabbed at the merman and begged him to stop.

Castiel looked at them in his palm, rolling them once over the creases of his skin before he reached forward, holding them out to Dean. “Take these and go, then. If that’s truly all you want from me.”

“You’re giving them to me?”

“My body doesn’t belong to me anymore, Dean. You paid money for it. So, by that measure, they were already yours.”

The statement sent Dean’s body into revolt, and it was all he could do not to throw the scales back at the beautiful, sad merman. It was such a horrid concept, having your autonomy stripped away to the point where…where…

He’s just a monster. Dean knew that was the logic here, but he also knew he didn’t believe it for a second. Sam was right. Castiel hadn’t chosen to be here—and even if he had, he wasn’t a monster to begin with.

There was something happening here, some kind of pull, some kind of connection that Dean wouldn’t—or couldn’t—have with a creature that didn’t have at least some kind of humanity in him.

“I—” Dean didn’t know what to say, so he gave up as soon as he started.

“Goodbye, Dean.” Castiel sounded so defeated that Dean couldn’t answer.

 

 

 

A picture of Castiel passing Dean a couple of scales and saying, 'Goodbye, Dean.'

 

As soon as the door closed behind Dean’s back, all the horror and guilt and disgust crashed over him like a wave. This place did deserve to burn.

His back to the slimy door, Dean let the feelings swish around inside him for a minute, giving the emotions their due. Then he straightened up and pushed them down, deep, deep, deeper, until they were buried under cold calculation.

Looking straight ahead as he walked, Dean cautiously counted every step through the vile, shabby, pink corridor. He memorized every carefully measured stride, forming a plan as he moved away from Castiel’s door and to the front, where Earl was waiting.

Luckily, they had several gas cans already in the car.