“You look like shit,” Sam says when Dean staggers out of the bathroom — he’s pale and haggard, swaying on his feet.
“Shut up, Sam,” Dean cuts him off without heat and stumbles to his bed, still fully-clothed. He’s asleep by the time he’s horizontal.
Sam blows out a frustrated breath. He knows Dean had been out all night, had slipped into their room — marked by the do not disturb placard Sam had hung on the handle— during the early hours of the morning. Dean still smells like a distillery, and Sam can’t blame him. He pulls the crusty coverlet from under his brother, unties and eases the Timberlands off Dean’s feet, and throws the rough aqua-blue velour blanket over Dean’s prone form. He sees Dean’s right hand slip under the pillow, the flex of his forearm as his hand curls around the knife he keeps there.
Sam frowns at Dean shifting restlessly in his sleep. There’s something not quite right about his brother’s quality of sleep. Dean’s a light sleeper — always has been — restless and never sinking deep enough, always staying hypervigilant and on guard. But this — falling asleep so instantaneously, his face furrowing up with pain — isn’t typical. Then again, neither is going to Hell in two weeks. Sam picks up the ice bucket. He might as well go get takeout and the treat of a real Coke, not a ripoff brand, for when Dean wakes, grumpy and hungover, ready to head west or south in pursuit of his next distraction.
Dean sleeps all day and into the late evening, when he wakes enough to piss and devour half of the burrito Sam had bought him from the Mexican stand several blocks away. His eyes are heavy and his movements are sluggish. Exhaustion slams into him so hard that he immediately goes back to bed when he’s finished eating. He finally pulls off his jeans and flannel shirt before crawling beneath the covers, dragging them up over his head, snarling out a “fuck off” when Sam opens his mouth to speak.
He’s asleep again within moments.
There is fire. Hot orange-red-yellow flames that scorch his face and hands, making his skin feel tight like sunburn. The air is hot and thick and hard to breathe. Mommy is nowhere to be seen. He wants Mommy.
“Take your brother outside as fast as you can!” Daddy is angry as he shoves Sammy at him. “Don’t look back! Now go!”
He can barely walk, afraid to drop his brother — he’s not allowed to carry Sammy down the stairs— Sammy’s almost too big— and then they’re in the yard and he’s staring up at the windows —
The windows explode.
He’s got Sammy in his arms and Sammy is screaming. Dean’s not crying. He’s not sure what he’s looking at. The house is on fire. There are firefighters. Sammy’s screaming and screaming and screaming and there’s only Daddy. Mommy never comes.
Sam bites at his thumbnail, watching his brother. Maybe it’s some kind of bug, he tries telling himself, but he doesn’t believe it. This smacks of a case. The burrito he’d eaten earlier turns sour in his stomach. Almost simultaneously, the curtain framing the window that faces the parking lot stirs, sways, as though an unseen hand had pushed it aside. Sam watches as a mist, thin and insubstantial, curls into the room, sliding across the kitchenette table pushed up under the window, knocking off tiny plastic containers of salsa and guacamole and sour cream and the empty Styrofoam boxes. It slides along the thick carpet, over the bedframe, and settles on Dean.
Dean stiffens, goes rigid. His eyes, still half-lidded, flicker side-to-side, and a low gurgle strangles in his throat.
The vapor turns solid, taking the form of a slim, waifish female. Her hair is white-blonde and her skin is pale. She suckles at Dean’s lower lip. Sam watches in horror as the woman becomes more solid, less gray, soaking up color from the room. She is wearing a mismatch of clothing; a pair of those Ugg boots that Jess once coveted but never got around to buying, a summer dress, and a heavy canvas army jacket that is several sizes too large. He catches a glimpse of a silver chain dangling from her wrist, but can’t make out the bent charm.
Dean is still making that awful sound from beneath her and he hasn’t moved.
“Hey!” Sam calls out.
The woman pulls her face from Dean’s and he makes a breathless croak that sounds like Mara but could just as easily be Momma. Dean gasps as the connection is broken, limbs heaving in a way that reminds Sam of his brother choking on that respirator back in the hospital, almost two years ago.
“Wait. Your. Turn,” she snarls. She’s flushed and pink from exertion and the roots of her hair have deepened to dirty-blond, fading into white ends. Then she’s off Dean, on the table, and out the window in a blur of light, color, and vapor.
Sam turns to Dean. “What the fuck was that?”
Dean’s sitting up and is panting too hard to answer.
Mara paces in her room, tearing off her clothes. She’s sweating, shaking, and clawing at her arms like a heroin addict in withdrawal — heaven knows she’s consumed enough of them to know what they feel like. Her skin itches, and it hurts.
Dean was supposed to have been alone! There had been the brother in both nightmares, but they had clearly been years ago. How could the brother still be here? The first dream had the feel of finality. It’d reeked of ending and death. And Dean’s behavior last night…. People only reached that level of terror when they had no one left, had no one with whom to share their burden. Those with attachments and social support could, as a general rule, process dying and fear better. There’s a reason she deliberately seeks out loners. Not only did there tend to be no one looking for them, but also, as a result of their isolation, their emotions were amplified. Dean had all the hallmarks of being a loner, of having no one left in his corner, of being alone and at the end of his rope….
And now, because of the brother, her cover is blown. She’d been stupid. Sloppy. She can’t afford to make mistakes like this.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
But Dean had tasted so delicious. Even now, despite the aborted dream, she can still taste the residue of his fear, can feel how strong it’s making her. She needs him.
The brother, though…. The brother had been afraid, too. Not quite as powerful as Dean, but close. It’d been different — tangier, sharper, more feral — but full of possibility nevertheless. It makes heat pool within her.
An idea begins to form. Perhaps she could take them both. It’d satiate her need for a long, long time. And both of them have trauma and terror in spades. They reeked of it.
She smiles to herself.
Two for the price of one.
Mara. Her name is Mara. Dean’s voice echoes in Sam’s mind. I met her at the bar.
Of course he did.
Dean had gotten up after the figure left, muttered what few details he knew or remembered while he pissed, drank some of the Coke, and tumbled back into his bed, claiming exhaustion.
Sam looks over at Dean — his brother is asleep again, this time fitfully; his face creased with lines of worry that deepen in response to his dreams. He doesn’t wake, not even when Sam experimentally slams a drawer.
Sam frowns. This is a case. Granted, it’s not what he’d hoped to find, but it’s a case nonetheless. All Dean has done for the past forty-eight hours is sleep, with the exception of rising to piss and maybe eat. That girl — whoever or whatever she was — had done something to him.
Her name is Mara, the words repeat. There’s something familiar about the word. Had he heard it before? Read it? He glances over at Dean, who mutters something unintelligible in his sleep, and goes to his duffel, where he unearths their father’s journal.
He flips open the book, scanning pages, and then he sees it — the familiar NIGHTMARES scrawled along the top, taking up the width of the page, with the MARE portion of the word boxed off, underlined with several hard strokes. This time, he notices a word penciled in his father’s rushed chicken-scratch at the bottom of the page, below the freaky drawing: silver.
“Fuck,” he breathes. He scrawls out a quick note to Dean on the motel notepad in the off-chance his brother wakes alone — Library – be back soon — and rushes out the door.
She’s more cautious when she enters the room this time, taking the time to check first — but this time Dean’s alone. His brother isn’t in the room, lying in wait or lurking out of sight — the sleek black car she’d noticed last time, the one from Dean’s dream, is gone from the parking lot. This time, she shouldn’t be disturbed. Or at the very least, she should have some warning.
Already, Dean’s mind is beginning to respond to the smell of the lavender oil she’d rubbed into her hands before coming here, the thick dreamless blackness of exhaustion starting to twist. “It’s important to remember your nightmares,” she whispers. Men. So easy to condition. To manipulate. “You’re going to need them.”
A nightmare swirls into life. For once, it doesn’t involve the brother.
Dean stands on a wooden stage in a large white tent of the sort used for religious revival meetings. He’s dressed in jeans and a slightly too-large, soft-looking zip-front hoodie. He’s small-looking, younger than his current age, his hair limp and mussed as though he hadn’t taken the time to style it. He doesn’t look well. His hand goes to his chest, rubs it absently. The rows and rows and rows of folding chairs before him are empty. There’s the sound of cloth against cloth and slowly a line of figures walk single-file toward him. They’re all kinds of people — men, women, black, white, Hispanic, children, teenagers. And all of them dressed in everything from hospital gowns to their best clothes to tattered jeans and t-shirts….
“Why you? Why not me?” they chant softly. “Why you? Why not me?” Their steps are slow and measured, their footfalls against the dry dirt underscoring their low intonation. “Why you? Why not me?” The words run together as they climb up the steps to the stage and draw close. “Why you? Why not me?” they say as one, gathering into a tight circle around him, a couple of rows deep, pressing in closer, like a noose tightening, and fall silent. The quiet is a ringing deafness, and it almost sounds like the tinnitus that was the hallmark of that Reaper that time…. She can taste the memory as it flits through him, and then she knows as soon as he recognizes who these people are — they’re the ghosts of Sue-Ann Le Grange’s victims.
Their numbers swell, filling the stage and spilling off into the shadows and filling the seats. It’s standing room only — all the ones he couldn’t save.
A sharp pain catches Dean in the chest, making him gasp and clutch at his breast. The last time he’d felt pain like this, he was….
One of them breaks ranks and steps into the circle until he’s toe-to-toe with Dean. A rubber cap is stretched tight over his scalp and he’s only wearing a Speedo. Water drips down his face and torso and he smells of chlorine. A gaping black hole starts at his left breast and spreads. “My heart should still be beating!” he screams, jabbing a finger at the darkness in the middle of his chest and spraying spittle on Dean’s face.
“It wasn’t me!” Dean shouts back, his heart pounding loudly, echoing in the tent for all to hear. It skips a beat or two, making him wince, before evening out again. “I didn’t have anything to do with it! I didn’t fucking ask for this!”
“You should be dead instead of me!”
“I know!” Dean screams. “I fucking know that! I fucking know better than anyone else that what’s dead should stay dead!”
“Then why didn’t you let things be?” The voice is female and familiar, but before he can place it, the beating amplifies and grows erratic. He gasps, drops to his knees, gasping for air, mouth opening and closing like a fish on land as though there isn’t enough oxygen in the air, hands pressing against his chest.
“Dean,” the voice comes back, this time accompanied by a hand settling on his back. His heart slows and he can breathe again. The hand withdraws. He looks up, doesn’t rise to his feet.
He’s staring at a living corpse, frail emaciated body draped in a far-too-large hospital gown.
It’s Layla. He suddenly knows it’s Layla, even though she’s a skeleton in skin, gray and sick and the way she must have looked at the end — and there had to have been an end because there’d been nothing to save her. Not once he and Sam shattered that altar and sprung the reaper. She’d said as much the last time he saw her. She’s looking at him — sad and kind and condemning— mostly condemning.
He opens his mouth—
She’s suddenly jerked from her feast — the shout was enough to startle her from the manipulation but not so much so that she lets Dean’s mind slip completely free from her grasp. As it is, she merely allows the nightmare to fade. She can spark another one when this distraction is dealt with if necessary, but knowing Dean, she probably won’t have to. He’s more than capable of spinning one to rival her finest creations on his own.
The brother — Sam, she remembers from Dean’s dreams, the one who left, the baby — bursts into the room, startling her where she’s crouched over Dean’s body. Despite his size, he’s clearly younger than her victim. She sniffs, can smell the stink of fear on him. He’s afraid — not for himself but for her victim, his brother. Excellent.
“You’re a Mare,” he says, several printouts falling from his hand to the floor. She catches a glimpse of an article with NIGHTMARE as a header.
“Congratulations,” she says archly, “you’re literate.”
“Get away from my brother!”
“He’s mine. He gave himself to me.” A pause. “And I thought I told you to wait your turn. Your own nightmares will begin soon enough.” She turns back to Dean, strokes his cheek as she pitches her voice low and soothing. “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”
Dean’s face crumples with unease.
She bends, not breaking her gaze from the brother’s paralyzed, horrified stare, creamy-brown hair spilling over her shoulder like melted milk chocolate as she fits her mouth over Dean’s, and suckles.
Dean drifts, Mara’s weight warm and heavy on him. He feels her kiss his mouth, her fingers caressing his jaw. Let me take care of you, he hears her whisper. It’s important to remember your nightmares. You’re going to need them. It’s a soothing refrain at this point, something he can latch onto as he slips into sleep like the security blanket he must’ve once had, the one that probably went up in flames along with his mom. His dreams twist from fields and Wendigos to a cabin in the woods.
Outside, Hellhounds yap and yelp.
His father is there, larger than life, taking up far more space than necessary. He starts talking, his voice underscored by the howling: Mad? I’m proud of you. You know, Sam and I, we can get pretty obsessed….
The words make Dean’s flesh crawl. This is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. His father circles closer to him. His eyes flicker a sickly yellow and something tears into him, turns him inside out. Dean screams the way he hadn’t that night.
The demon is still talking in Dad’s voice, the words sliding in between his ribs deeper than whatever had cut his flesh: If you can’t save him, you’re going to have to kill him — it’s the only way you’ll be able to protect Sam. You watch out for this family — you always have and you’ll do what needs to be done, in the end; you’ll have to. It’s not over yet; it’s only just beginning….
Blood pours down his chest, making his black t-shirt glisten, soaks into his denim button-down. He’s terrified. His body is racked with pain. He wants to run, scream, something, but he’s pinned to the wall like a butterfly behind glass and all he can do is gasp sobbing breaths.
Water splashes over them, as cold and wet and ineffective as the holy water Sam threw on Dad earlier and there’s the heady stench of a sage smudge-stick.
“What the hell,” Dad mutters — and then the Yellow-Eyed Demon is leaning in close. There’s the smell of lavender and suddenly he knows that it’s Mara, knows that she’s been twisting up the memory somehow. And the terror snaps. Dean hasn’t been afraid of monsters since he was old enough to aim a gun at one. He grins, showing his teeth.
“This ain’t my first rodeo, sister.”
She didn’t expect this, never dreamed she’d encounter a Hunter, much less two of them working in tandem.
It hadn’t occurred to her that someone would recognize her and fight back, despite the snares of the dreams. Dean’s still stumbling through his nightmare, lost in the night when his father became the thing he both hunted and feared — and stared at him with amber-yellow eyes that glowed from familiar sockets. He should be helpless. He should be fucking fetal.
“No, I won’t!” dream-Dean shouts and shoves at her— at his demonically possessed father— at the figure he’s facing. The coppery stench of his blood is almost as thick as the stink of his fear. “I won’t kill Sam, but I will kill you!”
Water splashes onto them and the smell of pot — or a sage smudge-stick — permeates the dream-cabin. She reflexively jerks. No one knows or manipulates the boundaries of real and dream better than she does, and that was most definitely real.
A quivering smirk that doesn’t reach dream-Dean’s eyes plays at lips slick with blood and tears. “This isn’t real.” He spits a clotty globule into her face.
She has to keep the dream going. She shakes off whatever is happening outside. She can’t lose Dean, not when he’s feeding her so well, but if his brother is trying to wake him up—
She reaches up, wipes the blood from her cheek. “Only humans say dreams aren’t real.” She cradles dream-Dean’s cheek, reaching deep into his mind and digs. She smiles as she drags up another soaking-wet black night, an African-American man with a knife, Sam staggering in the mud like a marionette with its strings cut…. Dean is instantly hamstrung, his fight buried under enough terror to feed a hundred of her kind.
Now for the brother.
He’s still standing there, a stump of smoking smudge-stick in one hand, a silver flask in the other, waiting to see if the water had some effect. It must have been infused with some kind of blessing or spell, but such things have no effect on her kind.
Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids. That was from the girl in Erie. Her father had said that to her the one and only time she dared to fight back. She’d never tried again. The punishment hadn’t been worth it.
She shoves him — Sam — blindly with one hand as he rushes at her. He goes flying into the paneling, head cracking against the wall, and drops into a crumpled heap on the floor.
She turns back, inhales harder, and Dean chokes. He’s paling, turning gray and she’s so close. A little more and you’ll be mine, she thinks. She closes her hand around the small brass charm — it looks like a face of some kind — dangling against his sweat-damp shirt, twisting the leather cord in her fingers, ready to snatch it from his body at the moment of death, to flee before Sam comes to. Shame she couldn’t milk him longer. She breathes in, and Dean gurgles, his body stiff and unresponsive.
She senses movement, sees the glimmer of light off metal.
Sam peels himself off the floor, his head and shoulder throbbing. He presses one hand against the wall and stays there, riding out the buzzing in his ears. The Mare had thrown him hard — she’s much stronger than he’d ever expected her to be. Especially considering she’d done it one-handedly while still straddling Dean, her other hand on Dean’s chest, fisting in Dean’s soft t-shirt, her face inches from his, her long, smooth, nearly-black hair pooling around their heads.
She arches her back with the force of her inhale.
Dean’s gagging. His breath rattling in his throat, the flesh around his lips turning blue. His body is locked and still on the bed. The Mare visibly strains to inhale, to suck Dean’s life from his mouth.
From the looks of it, Dean’s putting up a hell of a fight from the way his paralyzed body tenses and cords, limbs going rigid, eyes furiously flickering back-and-forth under closed lids. But it’s clear that his brother isn’t going to hold out much longer.
Sam scrambles, sticks his hand into one of the duffels and comes up with a knife. Silver. Perfect.
Dean’s body is slack, his skin gray and lathered with sweat.
The Mare is completely focused on Dean, bringing her mouth closer to his.
The knife plunges deep into the Mare’s back, above the kidney.
She howls, releasing Dean, twisting around to scrabble at Sam. She gets purchase, closes her fingers around Sam’s neck. She’s starting to squeeze, thumbs pressing up into his trachea, when Sam finds the knife, pulls it out and thrusts it back into her, twisting it. She screams, lets go of Sam, and falls from the bed.
She’s colorless mist and vapor before she hits the ground.
Panting, Sam turns to his brother still on the bed. Dean is curled on his side; coughing up a lung, color returning to his face, and relief floods Sam. Dean is alive. He meets Dean’s eyes, rubbing at his throat. “You okay?”
“So, how did you figure it out?” Dean looks out into the middle distance, half sitting on the hood of the Impala. There’s nothing to see except the road and the church. He still looks exhausted; he’s pale, drawn, and the flesh under his eyes is puffy and bruised-looking.
“You mean, how did I know it was her?” Sam rasps hoarsely. It still hurts to talk. He turns down the corners of his mouth thoughtfully. “It was easy once I figured out the etymology — mere, mare, nightmare… they all have the same root.” A pause. “Not to mention, she wasn’t exactly making a secret of it. She was on top of you sucking your breath from your lungs.” He hesitates. “Dad was onto something with the Mare lore — I wouldn’t have figured it out half as quickly without the journal.” A beat. “Did you know the word nightmare has roots in the Old English word mære, which is the word for incubus—”
“You’re a fucking geek.” Dean stands, straightens. “Etymology? Really?” He still doesn’t meet Sam’s gaze.
“Saved your ass, though.” Sam clamps his lips tightly shut. He waits for Dean’s quip.
Instead, Dean opens the driver’s side door. “Get in. It’s thirteen hours to Sioux Falls and daylight’s wasting.” He meets Sam’s eyes over the roof of the car; there’s a raw, terrified, desperation in his brother’s eyes: I’m counting on you to figure this one out.
Sam swallows, clenches his jaw, and nods. “Let’s go.” He opens the passenger door. I’ve got your back. I’m going to save you.
They both slide into the car, simultaneously shutting the doors, and the engine roars to life.
“Yeah.” I know. You always do.
Author Note, Part II: My prompts were as follows:
- There are worse things here than ghosts. https://ic.pics.livejournal.com/kalliel/5853280/207374/207374_900.jpg
- and https://ic.pics.livejournal.com/kalliel/5853280/207683/207683_900.jpg
- “They're coordinates again, aren't they.” https://ic.pics.livejournal.com/kalliel/5853280/207135/207135_900.jpg
- Everywhere, signs of the divine grotesque keep popping up. They'll never make it to the Grand Canyon at this rate. https://ic.pics.livejournal.com/kalliel/5853280/206827/206827_900.jpg
- It's important to remember your nightmares. You're going to need them. https://ic.pics.livejournal.com/kalliel/5853280/145845/145845_original.png
- Gimme something inspired by the artistic aesthetic of the summergen banner! https://i.imgur.com/CANamIH.jpg