Rating: PG-13 / Teen and up
Word Count: 10.2k
Warnings: Brief implied Child Abuse, Language
Author Note: This is probably going to be a dead giveaway for who I am, but I’m going to go full speed ahead while the music swells like the Academy Awards. First, this fic took an entire village to write as I haven’t written anything SUPERNATURAL-related nor seen an episode of the show in five years before attempting the undertaking that is Summergen. First, infinite gratitude is offered to my betas tolakasa, blindswandive, and monicawoe, who not only caught SPAG errors and brainstormed suggestions and offered insight over the course of countless drafts, but also cheered and encouraged me to completion when I didn’t think I was going to ever finish this beast, let alone make my deadlines.
Thank you, also, to the rest of the 1st Draft Saloon Discord gang for writing sprints and offering expert details whenever I needed. Additional acknowledgements is also needed here: quickreaver for the location, wingstocarryon for a massive plot breakthrough, and alyndrafor an emergency last-minute beta and the title.
I’d like to offer an Edible Arrangement bouquet to quickreaver, kalliel, and dugindeep for being spectacular mods in organizing and running this massive event and their time in posting daily fic or art for a couple of months while fielding emails (numerous of which came from yours truly) and all the challenges that must come with such a large group of participants while also managing Real Life (TM). They also have my gratitude for generously giving me not one, but two extensions and forgiving me when I was still late.
Finally, bonus smishes to kalliel for such fabulous prompts…. I really hope this hits your high notes and pushes all the buttons even though this fic is probably not what you were expecting at all. It was an utter joy to write this for you. I ended up taking fragments of several prompts and tried to incorporate as many of them as I could. I definitely took your encouragement to play as loose with the prompts with reckless abandon. See the Author Note at the end of the fic for the full list of prompts to hunt down all the Easter Eggs within the fic.
Summary: The countdown alone is bad enough — Dean’s got thirteen days and change left — but throw in the fact that he’s hearing Hellhounds baying as it gets dark, can feel them bearing down on him and smell their rancid breath behind him…. Desperate for distraction and craving avoidance, he and Sam pursue leads in the hopes of a case, but Dean’s terror and dread attracts the stuff of lore and dreams become real.
“It’s important to remember your nightmares. You’re going to need them,” the Mare whispers as she straddles his shins through the coverlet. The twenty-something lying supine beneath her gasps, his breath gurgles in his throat. It’s a sound dangerously close to a death rattle and she smiles. He doesn’t move — he can’t, not with her grip on his mind as well as his shirt — as she moves further up the length of his body, pressing her weight onto his knees and thighs. She breathes in the stink of fear and dread that emanates from him. The seconds stretch longer into minutes as she bends forward, pushing her hands against his chest for balance. His arms and legs are pinioned along his sides, pressed hard against the mattress.
His brow furrows and he makes a soft sound of protest. Or maybe it’s distress — it’s hard to distinguish between the two sometimes.
She grunts in frustration.
He’s dreaming about the fucking funeral again. Funerals are tame; toothless, emasculated, compared to whatever came before or will follow them. She’s also already mined this one for everything it has, wrung it out dry — it’s not the first time he’d dreamt this. And the fact that he’s back to dreaming about the funeral means that all that’s left of him is the dregs.
She slides sideways into his dream, wrapping herself in black and taking on the semblance of a bereaved widow. She digs her fingers deeper into his subconscious, squeezes it like wet clay — He shouldn’t have died. It should’ve been you. She clutches a folded flag — a triangle of white stars on a blue field — tight to her chest and screams at his dream-self, “This is your fault!”
It’s the tripwire to the bomb in his head.
Ringing in his ears. Grit in his teeth. Sand and blood. Firefights and IEDs and twisted metal. Children in pieces. The guy in front of him sheared in half….
She opens her mouth over his and inhales. He chokes, air rattling as it catches. She inhales and inhales, sucking as though drawing up sludgy water through a too-small straw. Then there’s a release and he goes slack, head tilted back, glazed and unseeing eyes fixed at the ceiling behind her head, mouth wide open in a rictus of a scream.
The Mare sits back with a sharp huff, wiping the back of her hand against her mouth, sated. She looks down at the dead veteran under her. Shame, she thinks. It had been good while he’d lasted — Fallujah is a perennial favorite of hers and his underlying panic of having to go back had made it all the sweeter — but it was a shame it hadn’t lasted longer. People are fucking weak these days — a year or two of nightmares and they give up the ghost. Not like generations before, when it would take her decades to drain a person of their essence. Now there are medications that dull her senses and reflexes and leave her mouth tasting of aluminum for hours or even days afterwards, psychologists and support groups to process trauma and fear and dread into impotent facsimiles of their former potential.
Of course, there’s also the fact her metabolism increases as she gets older and stronger and becomes the stuff of ancient lore. These days, it takes more and more for her to stay rooted in the corporeal world. But people still dream, and as long as they have nightmares, she can feed.
And as long as she can feed, the world will never be rid of her.
The Mare slips off the bed and pads into the bathroom, where she twists the dial of the shower counterclockwise as far as it will go, making the water as hot as the tank allows, and steps into the spray. She rubs a green-tinted bar of Irish Spring soap over her breasts, belly, and a quick dip into her crotch before sliding down her legs. She washes the soles of her feet. When she’s clean, she steps out, not bothering to shut off the water, and dries herself with a scratchy, once-white towel.
Dropping the towel on the floor, she steps out of the bathroom. She picks up a gauzy, floral-print sundress from the stairs where she’d allowed it to fall when he’d pawed at her so desperately, and redresses while she walks through the house. She can still hear the water rushing through the pipes and pouring from the shower. By the door, she squeezes her feet into half-size-too-small Ugg boots, hopping on one foot and then the other as she wedges them over her insteps, and takes the camouflage Army jacket from the back of the solitary kitchen chair. It is too big on her, the name across the left breast isn’t hers, but she doesn’t care as she steps out into the early-spring night. She buries her hands in the deep pockets at her thighs as fat flakes drift from the sky to the concrete. They don’t stick.
A gas station receipt flutters into the footwell as Sam opens their father’s old journal. He reaches down, fishes it up from the floor. On one side there’s a barely-legible $66.60 itemizing a full tank worth of premium-grade gasoline, a giant bag of beef jerky, and an extra-large cup of coffee. On the other….
“They’re coordinates again, aren’t they?” Dean says with a quick glance at the paper. He turns his gaze back to the road with a scoff. “Sonuvabitch.” He smacks a palm against the edge of the steering wheel. “Fuck. Even dead, Dad still….”
“Yeah. Looks like it.” Sam places the scrap with their father’s handwriting back into the journal. It faces a page with the word NIGHTMARES scrawled along the top, taking up the width of the page. The MARE portion of the word is boxed off, underlined with several hard strokes. Beneath, there is a quick, spare drawing of a faceless figure with messy, dark hair in bold, angry presses of a black pen taking up much of the page. If Sam didn’t know better, he’d have thought it was a Stephen Gammell sketch from that traumatizing kid’s book Dean had stolen from a church yard sale for his seventh birthday.
“Maybe.” Sam closes the small binder, palm against the buttery leather, and returns it to its place in the glove compartment. “Could be nothing, though.”
Dean blows out a frustrated exhale. “C’mon, man. Are you going to be like this all fucking month?”
“No.” Sam’s voice is harsh and petulant.
Dean glowers. The car hits the edge of a pothole and there’s the quick jerk of a wheel to correct their course and the sound of skittering gravel. Dean curses.
“No,” Sam repeats, this time quieter. “It’s just that I don’t think we should be looking for cases when….”
When you’ve got that damn deal hanging over your head. When you only got three hundred and sixty five days instead of a decade for your soul. When you’re down to fifteen of those left. When we should be focusing on ways to break your deal so you get to see summer like everyone else.
“When what, Sam?” Dean’s voice is sharp, tight. “C’mon, man, this is what we do.” A beat. “Please?” The word is a whisper, spoken too high.
Sam exhales, thumps his head against the back of the seat. He stares at the fabric covering the ceiling for a long moment. He straightens, stretching out his shoulders and back as he sits up again. “All right. Lemme figure it out.” He opens the glove compartment, takes out the map, the journal, and a ruler.
“There are worse things here than ghosts,” the Mare whispers, tucking the worn, stale-smelling quilt more securely around the girl — she’s barely twelve, but is definitely no longer a child, no matter her size or calendar age — shivering on her lap. “But I can protect you from him.” She begins humming tunelessly, keeping her arms wrapped around the small body. Inside the girl’s mind, she is the monster that passes for her father, looming over-large and emanating sickness.
As much as the man evokes delicious fear, the girl’s dreams are limiting and constrained — the Mare can only work with memory and the concrete; she cannot pull from the imagination or the fantastical or what has not yet come to pass.
She twists the dream on itself, becomes the barrier between the child and danger — the girl’s fear is so potent, she doesn’t even have to stir a nightmare.
The girl leans into her shoulder, her head growing heavy. The attic crawlspace is hot and stifling, rank with the stench of the girl’s terror. The Mare licks her lips. Her feet sweat in her sheepskin-lined boots. She can feel herself becoming more solid and real — dread does that to her. The girl’s breathing grows slow and deep. Her face furrows and she twitches in her sleep, curling in rigidly and protectively on herself; on guard even in sleep.
The Mare keeps humming, stroking her fingers up-and-down along a blanket-covered arm. The girl’s fear is suffocating, constant, and the Mare lowers her lips to the girl’s forehead, a butterfly-light touch she clearly doesn’t feel, and inhales. She feels alive. She presses her fingers to the girl’s jaw, tilts it up, and bends her face closer, her hair swinging forward. It’s a dull brown now, bleeding darker from roots to ends with every breath she takes. “I can take you someplace far away where he’ll never hurt you again.” The girl sighs but doesn’t relax, her body still tense. The Mare brings her mouth to the girl’s parted lips and inhales. Unlike the war vet in Rochester last month, it’s too easy. It takes hardly any effort at all. The girl’s life slips silently and effortlessly, willingly, into her mouth and she swallows it down.
It is weak and feeble, barely a mouthful; but the fear is sharp and pungent and she feels herself take up space again.
She sets the girl, gray and still, down on the bare plywood floor. Her body will be discovered in less than a couple of hours; he knows where she hides. But he won’t ever be able to touch her again.
She crawls out and stands in the girl’s room. It’s young, at odds with the girl she’s gotten to know these past couple of weeks; dainty and pink like the inside of a seashell. She goes to the mirrored bureau, picks up a silver necklace from the open jewelry box with its perpetually slow-turning ballerina. The crucifix that dangles from it is small and delicate. The chain is too small to fit around her throat so, instead, she loops it twice around her wrist as a bracelet, and climbs out the window.
“Nothing?” Sam shuts off the meter in his hand and goes to Dean’s side, by the large bay window edged with frothy pink polka-dotted fabric. The bedroom is frilly, girlish. The walls are the pale color of pink cotton candy, while the simple, straight lines of the white-painted IKEA wooden furniture scream chaste innocence. She’d been a kid; would’ve been twelve in less than a week, found blue and dead in the attic crawlspace behind the closet. The coroner had ruled it asphyxiation.
“Zilch.” Dean purses his lips. He clearly doesn’t like this. “Not even a blip. No EMF. No cold spots. No nothing.”
“Me neither. Maybe we read it wrong and it’s not a case?” Sam keeps his voice quiet. The coordinates he’d found in the car had been a bust — best Sam can figure, it’d been a Black Dog and Dad must’ve taken care of it because there’d been nothing out of the ordinary beyond that rash of decapitated sheep five years ago, so they’d moved on to the next nearest thing they could find to a case. Making matters worse, this was the second suspicious death in a row they’d found that had gone cold. The first had been outside of Rochester — a guy between them in age who’d served a tour in Afghanistan and was due to be deployed to Iraq within the month. He’d died in his sleep right around the same time they’d hunted that Crocotta. Aneurysm.
“Again?” Dean is incredulous. “C’mon, Sam. Really?”
“It’s possibleI mean….” He sighs. “Look, we’re grasping at straws here. This is the second time we’ve wound up in Erie this month. Maybe we’re looking for things that just aren’t there.”
“Maybe.” Dean doesn’t sound convinced. “There’s a dead body, but no ghost.”
“Not everybody becomes a spirit,” Sam says. Instantaneously he regrets it.
Dean sighs, stares a hole through the floor. “Yeah. Well.” A pause. “We got anything else?”
Sam presses his lips together. He doesn’t like this. Dean’s not even trying anymore. He wishes he could convince his brother to just go to Bobby’s to turtle up until his deal comes due in a little over two weeks. Sam’s itching to get his hands on some of Bobby’s tomes; there might be something in one of the books, and he knows that Dean would appreciate the safety and security and sense of home of Bobby’s property. Maybe his brother would even be able to take out some of his pent-up terror and anger on a hollowed-out Thunderbird.
Even odds whether that’d be repair or demolition, Sam thinks. He looks up, sees his brother’s gone back to the opening cut into the false plywood of the closet back wall. “C’mon, Dean. Let’s get the hell out of here and see if we can find something else. Maybe another death.” Sam waits for a comeback: A death? That’s weak, Sam. People die every day. This is the second one you’ve found in a week and so far they’ve all been dry — no cold spots, no EMF, nothing weird or out of the ordinary. Give me something a bit more substantial to chew on here, decapitated cows, goats drained of all their blood. Something, man.
Instead, Dean jerks his chin toward Sam. “Yeah, okay. We can be past Cincinnati before it gets dark.” A pause. “Let’s go.” He claps Sam on the back. “Daylight’s wasting.”
Sam doesn’t correct him, even though it’s barely one in the afternoon and, this time of the year, the sun doesn’t set until nearly eight.
The Mare lets the woman drop to the pavement behind the dumpster and sighs. She’s burning through them too quickly these days and she’s still so, so hungry.
She tucks her hair behind her ear, glancing at the ends. Still white. Fuck. None of her marks are satiating her as they should. She needs existential dread, the kind of fear that comes from staring Death in the face. A true fight-flight-freeze paralyzing kind of terror that brings sweat-cold damp sheets and nerves strung out on too much coffee.
The closest she’d come was the vet in March.
The preacher’s daughter in Erie last week had been promising, but didn’t live up to her potential.
But now, this drug-addict in Monroe is already wearing off. Her fear of meeting her assailant in court next week isn’t enough sustenance. Once it might’ve tided her over for a few days, or even a week if she was desperate. These days, she’s lucky if it holds her for several hours.
She paws at the woman, comes up with a couple of wrinkled dollar bills, a one-year Narcotics Anonymous sobriety token, and a fingernail’s worth of fentanyl still wrapped in a pinch of tinfoil. She slips the gold-plated medallion into the pocket of her army jacket and leaves the rest where she found them.
Hands in her pockets, fingers toying with the ridged disk that is not quite a memento, but more than mere trophy, she walks out of the alleyway, turns left on the street and orients herself southwards towards Toledo. She’s got a long walk ahead of her.
Dean stays on Route 303 and heads west, blazing past Cleveland and trailing northward. Sam doesn’t say anything. It’s not like they have to be anywhere in particular and, besides, the drive seems to calm Dean. He almost smiles and he reaches over to turn up the music. The windows are open and there’s nothing but miles of smooth asphalt and hardly any traffic.
The breeze is cooler than Sam would like, but warmer than he expects, considering it’s barely mid-April, so he isn’t going to argue over something so banal. In a month, you won’t have this, a voice says in the back of his mind.
In Toledo, Dean stops in the parking lot of a motel that’s seen better days. He lets go of the steering wheel and doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, letting them hover, palms up as though in supplication. “I need a break,” he pauses, smears his hand over his mouth, jaw. “Get us a room.” His voice is flat and he doesn’t seem to notice Sam raising a suggestive eyebrow in response. He shuts off the car, rolls up the window so the damp from Maumee Bay doesn’t ruin the upholstery, and gets out. The door thuds behind him with a finality that doesn’t invite discussion.
Sam unfolds himself from the car. He doesn’t comment that they still have several hours of daylight left, or that they didn’t leave Slippery Rock for Erie until after nine that morning, despite turning in early the previous night, too. He opens the door to the backseat, shoulders his duffle and looks up in time to see Dean head toward downtown: the waterfront and the bars. He sighs, turns to their motel-of-the-night, staring up at the sign. Hi-Line, the neon tubing says in curvy retro font that was probably chic in its day but now just seems to scream how long this place has been falling apart. There’s a gaping opening where removable letters likely once went — announcing amenities like heated pools and air conditioning or color television and magic fingers beds. The low, white building has seen better days. Beyond it is a church.
He steps into the tiny office, as derelict and garish as he expected it to be, all fake-wood paneling walls and peeling linoleum countertops. The bored-looking teenage girl sitting behind the counter pops her bubble gum loudly and tucks a strand of obviously box-dyed black hair behind an ear that has at least a dozen piercings in a neat line along the curve of her cartilage and down to the lobe. More than one of them looks infected. She looks up from the clipboard where she’s tying together multicolored threads into an intricate pattern and blinks heavy-lidded gray eyes ringed with too much eyeliner at him. She chews her gum, blows another bubble that breaks open over her lips. The dark lipstick doesn’t smudge as she runs her tongue over them, catching all the stringy pink strands.
“Here for a room?” Her voice is flat, nasal. Sam suspects that her speech impediment is not because of her septum piercing. She turns without waiting for his answer, plucks a form and a key from the wall behind her. “Sign here.”
Sam scrawls an alias and hands over the fraudulent credit card. It must go through because the girl slides the card and a key back to him without making eye contact, engrossed in the macramé in front of her. “Room nine. Go out the door and take a left. It’ll be the building closest to the church, farthest door from the road.”
Sam finds the room without difficulty — the girl’s directions were straightforward, and there’s a helpful peeling vinyl number nine stuck crookedly to the door beneath the peephole. The key sticks but the handle turns. The room is clean, standard old motel fare— two queen-sized beds, a couple of bedside tables, a TV that looks as old as he is, a couple of low, wide upholstered chairs in an aqua-and-yellow plaid that should’ve gone out with the sixties. There’s a small chrome table under the window with matching chairs. Two walls are a faux-wood paneling veneer while the other two walls are papered in a loud, garish floral of mustard-yellow and mint-green.
It’s ugly, but not the worst, Sam thinks, setting down his duffel on the bed farthest from the door.
In Toledo, the Mare feeds for the second time that day; a museum executive worrying about writing a grant for the next exhibit for the Glass Pavilion. She normally wouldn’t go for something so trivial, so short-term, but she’s desperate.
White-collar fear doesn’t do anything for her hunger and need; she can still feel her own lack of solidity. She feels like vapor, insubstantial and not real. She doesn’t take up space, and when she brings her hand to the doorknob, it passes through the handle. She slides through the closed door, not taking anything of his; he wasn’t worth it.
She turns towards the waterfront and the bars.
A place like this — a decadent place that’s seen better days and is now barely hanging on by its fingernails, a place that made it big in the boom after the last World War and never recovered when the industry left for overseas — breeds desperation. Desperation breeds fear, and fear breeds dread. George Lucas and Star Wars had gotten it pretty damn close to the truth.
She’s in need of some real dread; not the brief temporary kind that comes from petty avoidance, but the lingering kind that emanates, rank and stinking, from the pores. She knows she could find what she needs if she looked — but she doesn’t have the time to earn trust, not like she had done with the girl in Erie. Bars, though…. Bars are always good; it was in one such dive she’d found the veteran. She slides her tongue over dry, chapped lips in remembrance of how sweet he’d tasted. He’d satisfied her for over a week.
Dean isn’t sure how long he walks — it’s long enough for the sky to dim into purple dusk. Finally, he stops wandering aimlessly and enters a bar. It’s small, run-down, old beer advertisements faded by the sun and wind tacked to peeling, splintering clapboard. He goes to the long counter, sits on one of the stools, and orders a shot of whiskey, straight.
It appears in front of him without question and he’s grateful. He reaches out and tosses it back. It hits the back of his mouth, burns down his throat in a scorch he barely feels. He breathes out, slow and trembling, as he sets the glass down on the sticky countertop. He’s grateful Sam didn’t ask questions, hadn’t followed. He doesn’t think he could explain how he’s already hearing the Hellhounds baying as it gets dark, can feel them bearing down on him and smell their rancid breath behind him. Every day, it seems, they get closer. The countdown alone is bad enough — he knows exactly how much time he’s got left; thirteen days and some change in hours — but this…. He shudders, orders another.
This early in the evening, the bar is nearly deserted; there’s the bartender, a couple of overweight guys, and a petite girl about his age leaning by the fire exit, drinking something bright and fruity-looking from a rounded, pear-shaped glass. She’s short, barely five feet tall by his estimate, pale, and dressed in an odd assortment of clothes that only make her look even tinier: a much too-large army jacket with all the patches picked off; a faded, stained summer dress; a pair of those boxy, overpriced, soft-looking boots.
She’s pretty enough — especially with her striking white-blonde, waist-length hair that is shampoo-ad straight, smooth, and sleek. A year ago, he’d might have thought about buying her a drink, strike up a conversation, maybe score a little more. But now the only company he wants is in the glass in his hand.
The Mare closes her lips around the plastic stirring straw of her daiquiri — cloyingly sweet to most human standards, but for her, sugar syrup has nothing on terror — and slurps the dregs of rum and ice. The straw scrapes against the bottom of her glass. She watches the guy at the end of the bar raise his finger, simultaneously pushing his glass toward the bartender as another shot of whiskey is immediately set before him. It’s his fifth.
She gets up and makes her way slowly toward him.
He’s handsome — clean-cut and solid with the stoic expression of someone who’s seen battle. Soldier, she decides. Navy SEALs or Special Ops. Maybe even Blackwater. The way he holds himself screams combat experience or, at the very least, military-grade training. He pounds back his shot, repeats the gesture. A sixth materializes in front of him.
“Why don’t you just order the whole bottle?” she asks, boosting herself onto the stool beside him. She’s pleased when his green eyes — sad, haunted — track up and down her form. “Might as well — it’d probably be cheaper at the rate you’re going, anyway.” She sets a wrinkled twenty on the bar. “It’s on me.” She smiles at him.
He picks up the shot glass, brings it to his full lips, and tilts his head back in one smooth movement. The amber liquid disappears into his mouth and she sees his Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. He sets the empty glass down on the sticky surface and flips it over.
The silence stretches between them.
He shakes his head as though to dislodge an annoying fly, presses one hand against the side of his temple, the heel of his hand digging into the flesh just above his ear. After a moment, he drops his hand and drags the glass across the countertop, making a five-pointed star with the damp.
She reaches over, draws a circle around his star with her finger. “Protection,” she says. “Smart.”
He startles, blinks at her in surprise, her comment catching him off-balance.
She gives him a moment. Then: “You got a name?”
He glances down, clears his throat. “Dean.” His voice is blunt, a deterrent.
She smiles at him even though he’s not looking. “I’m Mara,” she answers, even though she prefers anonymity — no names, no information, nothing that’d tie her to anyone or anything. She hasn’t survived over a century by making friends. But she senses that Dean needs that emotional connection; that beat of trust and acknowledgement between strangers. Mara is a name she’s used before — she has the Old Norse to thank for it — and it’s common enough that without a last name, she’s untraceable. It’s also Hebrew for bitter or sorrow, which is fitting considering what she both searches out and leaves in her wake. Besides, the despair is rolling off Dean in waves, suffocating and all consuming, a real piss-his-pants terror she hasn’t smelled in a long time. He’s not going to be around much longer.
She brushes her fingers against his forearm and he flinches. “It’s all right,” she whispers, slurring her words together slightly. “Let me.” She presses closer to his side, strokes his arm again.
“Don’t.” Dean pushes her back into her seat, firmly but gently rejecting her advances.
She pouts, pushing out her lower lip. “Don’t you want me?”
“No.” He laughs, but it’s hollow and bitter. It’s not a nice sound. “Sweetheart, it’s you who don’t want me.” He pauses. “See…. I’m dying.”
She pulls back, faking surprise. She’d guessed as much. Death always brings out the best kind of carnal terror, even in those who’ve resigned themselves to their fate. “Is it cancer? Or something like that?” She pitches her voice low, gentle and concerned.
The tenderness works.
“Something like that.”
She slides off her stool. “C’mon,” she says. “Let’s get outta here. No sense in wasting what time we’ve got left in here.”
Dean’s brow furrows. “But….” He blows out a hard, frustrated breath. “Look, Mara, you don’t want to get tangled up with me. Fuck. I wish I wasn’t messed up with me.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” she rushes her words together, trying to make him understand. She can’t let him get away, not when he smells so good. Not when she’s already growing stronger just by standing in his personal space — she can see her hands starting to pink and she hopes he’s too wasted to notice her transformation. “I don’t get mixed up in anything I don’t want to get into. Besides, we’ll both be gone tomorrow. I’m just looking for a way to pass a couple of hours.” When he doesn’t answer, she presses on. “Come on. Just come for a walk by the waterfront with me. It’s gorgeous this time of night — it’ll help take your mind off things. Promise.”
Dean is grateful that Mara doesn’t talk as they walk, letting him swig straight from the pilfered whiskey bottle from time to time. Although he supposes it’s not technically stealing since she’d paid for it. He’s almost falling-over drunk, but he doesn’t care. It’s not quite enough to silence the barking Hellhounds, but more than enough for the sound to blend with the rest of the dull city noise. He flinches and knows she doesn’t miss it when she touches her fingers to his wrist, slides her hand until it’s resting inside his cupped palm. Her hand is cold. He doesn’t let go. It grounds him that tiny bit. She stops, drops the now-empty bottle over the railing into the bay, and turns to face him.
Her expression is so earnest and nonjudgmental that in spite of the conditioning, and the echo of Dad’s voice that always tells him to keep every secret, he finds himself telling her about his deal, how he’s down to days, and is already hearing Hellhounds.
She listens until he’s finished, and doesn’t even suggest once that he’s lying or insane, or look at him with wide-eyed scared-bunny horror. Instead of turning tail and running from him, she rises onto her tiptoes to kiss him on the mouth. Dean bends, curling around her to accommodate for their height difference. She reaches up, cups the back of his head, digging her fingers into the short hair there, deepening their kiss. He opens his mouth, lets her entwine her tongue with his. Her mouth tastes of synthetic strawberry syrup and Goldfish crackers. It’s not a turn-off.
She stops, breaks the kiss, but keeps her face tilted up to his. Her hair looks darker in the glow of the streetlight — more blonde than white. She searches his eyes. They are a pale, watery blue, and he wonders if she’s albino. “It’s important to remember your nightmares. You’re going to need them.”
Just like that, what arousal and desire he’d managed to kindle leaves him as effectively as if he’d taken a dive into the bay. He tries for a smirk that he knows doesn’t stick. “I don’t know about that…. My nightmares are pretty dark.”
“All the better,” she says. “They’re what will help you survive.”
“Not if you’ve got a one-way ticket into Hellraiser territory,” he mumbles.
Her brow crinkles, a vertical crease puckering above her nose. “What—”
“Nothing,” he cuts her off. “Never mind.”
“Come with me. I can help,” she whispers, taking his face between her palms. “Let me,” a gentle brush of her lips against the underside of his jaw. “If only for tonight. You deserve one good night’s sleep.”
Dean somehow finds himself in her room; a tiny single in a generic chain hotel of the sort he and Sam would never dare check into — the sort that’d track credit cards and where their scams would never pass muster.
The sheets are folded back, crisp and white and smelling of detergent. He doesn’t need much encouragement to strip to t-shirt and boxers and slide between the covers. Instead of slotting up beside him like he’d expected her to, Mara sits at the head of the bed, props the pillow against her crisscrossed shins and invites his head to lie there. He can’t remember the last time he’d laid his head on the folded legs of a girl — maybe high school? It feels like something he’d have done back in high school, innocent and careless — but he has to admit to himself that it feels nice, especially when she settles her hands against his temples, and begins rubbing them. There’s a soothing slickness between their flesh that smells of lavender and Dean relaxes despite himself. The Hellhounds are finally quiet, granting him reprieve. For the moment, at least, he thinks. He closes his eyes and tumbles into sleep.
Mara keeps rubbing Dean’s temples, working in the essential oil. She can sense the moment when he slips into sleep. Bending over him, she brings her lips to the center of his forehead, her hair falling on either side of his face like a curtain. It’s platinum already.
There’s a kid, with shaggy dark hair and hazel eyes, tall and half-finished and gangly. His face is twisted in rage.
She kisses Dean’s forehead, down to his nose, and then settles her mouth against his. She inhales the tiniest bit, nudging the dream.
”Fuck you!” The door slams in dream-Dean’s face, shuts him out. Loud voices become louder — one older-sounding, the other young. Both of them yelling. Both of them furious. Neither of them backing down nor giving quarter. An argument. They always argue. They always fucking argue and they never fucking shut up, dream-Dean thinks as he slips his Walkman headphones over his ears, cranks up Metallica to ear-bleeding decibels. He can still hear them—
The anguish of this dream — memory — is deep and would’ve seemed unfathomable to most, but humans always underestimate themselves. She knows all too well how much a person can withstand. Homo sapiens wouldn’t have survived as a species if they couldn’t cope.
“You go out that door, don’t you ever come back!”
“Fuck you! Fuck. You. What makes you think I’d ever want to come back? I never want to fucking see you again!”
She slides into the dream — to submerge into it, to relish it, not manipulate it. Not this time. Manipulation is to wring out every last bit after the nightmare has played out in full and spent its emotion. Dean, though— Dean is one of those rarest of people, able to fake functionality, to charm anyone who crosses his path, yet never able to really bury or process his memories, carrying the rawness of them just beneath his skin and revisiting them in dreams, reliving the pain anew, as though there’d been no healing passage of time.
Back in the corporeal world, she kisses him tenderly on the lips, checks the ends of her hair—they are the golden color of honey. The dream spools and skips and she slips into the nightmare.
Dean is behind the wheel of a sleek, black car, hunched up in a leather jacket several sizes too large. The window is open and rain is pouring in. The shaggy-haired beanpole kid is standing outside at the side of the road….
“Shut up and get in the car, Sammy.” Dean’s voice is tired, flat and resigned.
“It’s Sam.” The kid’s voice is still angry, but there’s a waver there. He swipes at his wet face with the cuff of his jacket.
“Get in the fucking car already; you can’t swim to California and you don’t want to be all snotty for the hot chicks when you get there. Besides, the leather’s getting wet.” Dean’s voice is sharp, his body tense. “Get in,” he says again, softer this time. A plea.
She drinks in Dean’s desolation, can feel herself take up space, become solid. She’s more alive than she’s been in years. Dean is a treasure. One that she must care for and mine carefully. She can’t afford to use him up all at once. He’s a gourmet feast, meant to be taken in courses and savored, not gorged upon.
Rain pours down, making the pavement slick. Dean holds out a bus ticket to Sam, staring straight out of the streaming windshield. There’s a moment when the ticket hovers between them and there’s desperate hope in Dean’s reflection in the glass — he’s praying Sam won’t take it — but then Sam does. Wordlessly, he takes the slip of paper, opens the door, steps out into the wet, and slams the door behind him. Dean’s heart shatters.
She forces herself to break the connection. Dean’s face is twisted, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes. She kisses them away and his face smooths out.
“Rest well,” she tells him, easing her legs out from beneath him and crossing the room to the bathroom, tucking her mousy brown hair behind her ear. She must resist the temptation.
Thirteen days, he’d said.
In thirteen days, there won’t be anything left of Dean.
To Part 2