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16 July 2010 @ 09:34 pm
The True Story of the New World III  


Part One Part Two

Dean drove until the road blurred in front of his eyes. His fingers ached from gripping the steering wheel too tightly and his ears couldn’t really hear the local radio for the AC/DC tracks running on loop in his head. The sky was black and empty by the time he pulled off of Route 30 somewhere in the untold depths of Arkansas.

It was easy enough to get a room and the sallow faced clerk hadn’t given him a second look, hadn’t asked if he wanted two queens or a king. The silence of the empty room was louder than Angus Young howling out of the Impala’s speakers. There was no one to demand first shower or a turn at the laptop or the cleanest bed.

Dean had been alone before. He was on the far side forty. He had spent his share of nights in empty rooms, but this felt like it had when Dad sent him on the wild goose chase to New Orleans after the voodoo queen. This was a time that Dean was supposed to be alone. It was a punishment and it was a time to think about his sins and his faults and what he could have done better, what he could have done right.

After tossing in the rough motel sheets for a few sleepless hours, Dean gave up the night as lost. The few times he had drifted into the grey space between sleeping and waking, he’d only been haunted by Sam’s horrified, broken face and his own voice, echoing out of the years, shouting at Sam to stay gone, Dad’s voice saying that Sam should be put down like a dog. It wasn’t a good night for sleep.

He managed to turn on the bedside lamp without smashing anything and did his best to ignore the cheap clock flashing the ungodly hour at him. It wasn’t like he wanted to be awake, but it was better than the half-assed nightmares. The dull half-dead bulb made the plain motel room dim and dingy yellow, but Dean was used to it. He rolled over, the pattern sheet falling to his waist, and stared at the empty bed pushed against the far wall.

It wasn’t totally empty. His night duffel lay on the bed, spilling over onto the ugly polyester comforter. He could see his copy of Nobody’s Death, dog eared and ten or twenty years away from the land fill, resting innocently among his half-clean shirts. Sam’s broken face and demand to be dropped at the nearest Greyhound station flitted across his mind. Dean couldn’t imagine what in that book put Sam into such a self righteous snit.

Dean easily reached across the narrow gap between the beds, as he had so many times when Sam was still having visions from Azazel and nightmares of Jess before that, and grabbed the book in his right hand. It was heavy and solid in his hand. He pushed himself up against the plastic headboard of the bed and began to read. Dawn would come soon enough.

*

And then Aker took him outside while Ray slept, sleeping away his wounds and the raw pain that threatened to swallow his mind. Walking the roads with Aker always made Sal feel as though he were on some broken movie set where the leading man was both Clarence Oddbody and T R Devlin. When the winds were low and it was the darkest hour of the night, when neither he nor Aker slept, he imagined that he could see Aker's four huge, inhuman wings, black against the ink dark sky. When they walked the plains roads at dawn and the silence sang in Sal’s ears like a chorus of screaming souls, Sal knew he could see that Aker was right, no matter what Ray said, he was an angel.

"I have seen you," Aker said, his voice as flat and unspeakably ancient as flat plains and the hard road that Ray loved so well.

"I broke," Sal admitted, as they climbed the shallow steel steps into the florescent light of the all night diner. He inhaled deeply, smelling the sharp, frightening scent of the angelic man next to him and of the old bacon grease and burned coffee. If it weren't for Aker by his side instead of Ray, it might have just been home. "I will break before I return to Heaven, won't I?"

"I do not know," Aker admitted, putting his hat on the formica table between them and motioning a tired looking waiter for coffees. "Ray was stronger than most and Luke was even stronger than him. You do take after your father, even more than your brother, but I do not know. I have never experienced the unholy fires nor the pain the fallen inflict. It only took the honor of Host to break me. You knew that, though."

There was a long period of hollow silence after the waiter brought them their coffee with shaking hands. Aker merely sniffed at the burned coffee the way a practiced connoisseur will sniff a fine Cuban cigar before proceeding to smoke it. Aker insisted that, as one of the Fallen Host, he had no need for food or drink, no need for stimulants or depressants.

Sal toyed with his white mug, unsure of how the stale caffeine would affect his already ravaged system. Ray had told him to be careful, his dark eyes broken with the pain he felt for what Sal was doing to himself. It hurt Sal to know what he was doing to Ray, but he couldn’t help himself. He took hurried, rash sips of the hot coffee, knowing it was preferable to staring at Aker across the table. Aker would speak when he wanted and the strange man, with his stony, unnaturally emotionless face, always won their lonely, late night staring contests, no matter how strung out Sal was.

“I did not mean your unfortunate weakness,” Aker said eventually, in the same even tone he used to discuss their rebellion against Heaven and whether or not they should stop for waffles. “I was speaking of what you do not do. It occupies your thoughts at night. It was a distraction when I would commune with my brothers in arms.”

Sal looked up sharply from the nearly empty ceramic mug. Aker looked as calm and complacent as a still pool of arctic water, but Sal’s heart was beating a rhythm to burst his chest and it had nothing to do with the powerful drugs still swirling through his system. He could not speak; he could not think.

“The way you gaze at Ray speaks enough for the Host to understand,” Aker explained. Sal thought that if Aker were human, if he was a normal person like the other people populating the sad small town diner, he would fidget. Maybe if Aker was just another drifter or cheating husband kicked out of the house by an angry wife, he would toy with his hat on the table or add too much sugar to his coffee. But Aker was not any of those things, so he merely stared at Sal with steely, inhuman eyes. “But Ray does not share in your needs.”

“No.” Sal stared at the dark dregs of coffee in his mug, wondering if he could read his fortune in it. When Beth had still been alive, before he found her broken body in their bed, she sometimes read their tea leaves in the afternoon, predicting a long, happy life with many children. She never saw the man who would steal her away from Sal or the poison that would run through her lover’s veins. “Ray doesn’t.”

Aker did not look away from Sal, not like everyone else did when they realised his true thoughts. There were days that Sal couldn’t bring himself to look at a mirror. He knew he was wrong, unnatural. Even if Ray thought there was some kind of good in him, believed that Sal could be saved and could be the boy he was when they were kids, Sal knew better. Sal knew that whatever was wrong with him was in his bones, in his soul, in the beating of his heart. He couldn’t stop it any more than he could stop his need for the poison Abbie once spoon fed him.

“Ray does not share that feeling with anyone,” Aker continued, his voice low and dry as the winds out of Death Valley. “He mourns and kills and fights. He has devotion. He would give up his life for you and for me. But he does not need like others need.”

He paused and Sal stared at his dry, cracked lips, wondering what angels needed. Did angels desire the same way that he did? When Aker became one of the Fallen Host, he had not lost his otherworldly presence nor his infinite grace and lack of humanity. But Sal suddenly needed to know: did Aker now feel the same things he did? Did Aker ache with the same burning need for life that he could never share with Ray?

“I know that need.” Aker’s words were like weights dropped into a small pond, powerful but incomprehensible in their magnitude. He reached across the table suddenly and gripped Sal’s wrist in a hand like a vice. “I share in your needs. I cannot help but feel what you feel. Desire what you desire.”

*

Dean’s eyes widened a bit as he continued reading about exactly what Sal and Aker got up to behind the diner that night. He’d done that before, usually with a busty waitress or willing trucker, but the idea of Sam and Castiel was more than a little mind boggling. He had always assumed that their friendship had been a friendship between choirboys, exchanging tips on avoiding temptation and prayer.

He should have known better, Dean thought as he lay back against the ancient flattened motel pillows. Castiel had as good as told him that his needs were Jimmy’s needs. Jimmy’s desires were his desires, that he sometimes didn’t know where Castiel-the-angel ended and Jimmy-the-man began. And he’d seen Sam’s reaction when they’d met Jimmy-the-man, when Castiel had gone MIA. It only made sense that Sam would jump at the hot half-angel who wanted his ass.

And they’d both needed someone who was more together, more stable than Dean had been. Dean was man enough to admit that. It made almost too much sense, Sam and Castiel together, in a way that made Dean unhappy in a way that felt like an old wound. He hadn’t seen it then; he’d been too consumed by the Apocalypse and by the fact that he never should have left Hell, but he could put the pieces together now.

Cracking open the book again, Dean wondered if he wanted to keep reading. He liked having Sam’s books to keep him company on the road, especially when Sam was off living his life on his own. It wasn’t as good as Sam, but it was better than anything else. Reading Sam’s words at night, reading about their lives, was better than being just another American drifter without a home and without a family.

But maybe this was why Sam didn’t want Dean reading his books, as popular as they were. He’d been quietly building his own life for years. He didn’t need Dean the way Dean needed him, not any more than Sal needed his broken wreck of a brother dragging him through an empty life on the road. Even when they still thought Lucifer was going to wear him to prom and the world would end, Sam had Castiel and plans and a life about which Dean had known nothing.

Feeling worse - and more alone than when he’d pulled into the shitty motel parking lot off Rt 30 at midnight and had to check in through the bullet proof glass booth in the lobby - Dean tossed the book back onto the empty bed, missing his bag by a country mile. He didn’t need to read about his brother’s meaningful relationships, about his fruitful life, not in the middle of the night in a broken down motel somewhere on Rte 80 in the empty fields of the South. Dean fell asleep that night with the light on.

*

It wasn’t until he was laid up in Cheyenne, waiting on “vintage” parts for his girl that he touched Nobody’s Death again. Dean had thought about it, of course. His last hunt had dragged him from Arvada to Medicine Bow. It had been messy, bloody, and full of dead civilians, as if Dean needed another reason to hate werewolves. And Montana, Dean really hated Montana. It was nearly as bad as werewolves, except Montana had never fucked Sam and then died all over him, coating Sam in dangerous Montana blood and leaving Dean to pick up the broken pieces of Sam afterward. Dean hated California even more than Montana. Dean didn’t go to California anymore. There were enough hunters in the west to take care of it for him.

“I told you, man, the parts won’t get here until this afternoon,” the mechanic at the garage told him, clearly tired of Dean hanging out at the garage and scaring away customers with his broken arm and three-week beard. Dean knew he had been driving the kid nuts, but it burned him to know that the Impala was in need of parts. Even if Sam left him, Dean couldn’t abandon the Impala.

“Go.” The kid - Kris according to the name tag - made a frustrated motion at Dean. “You aren’t from around here. Go see the fucking cowboy museum or visit a buffalo farm. I have your number and I’ll call you when your car is ready.”

Dean really hated Montana. It was full of things like skinwalkers and werewolves and Wendigos and all those things that wanted to eat your flesh even more than they wanted to kill you. He just wanted to take his girl and ride south with Plant and Hetfield to keep them company. He could drive south until they hit the mother road and he and the Impala could take a nice vacation. He didn’t want to see any damned cowboy museum.

All too predictably, he ended up couched in a corner booth at a little sandwich shop on the corner of two streets that looked like they could have been in Kansas or Ohio or maybe even Nevada. It was nothing special, nothing that he hadn’t seen before or wouldn’t see again. For all Dean knew or cared, he’d been to Maria’s Roast Beef every time he’d passed through Cheyenne since the first time Dad hunted a splinter cat across Wyoming and Montana back when Sam was learning to walk.

He wanted to work on his girl himself. She was his - by birth right and by the simple fact that she knew him best of all. It got him somewhere in the gut that he couldn’t - and it wasn’t even the damned werewolf that broke his arm. It was simple stupidity and drinking too much too close to some assholes in Casper who didn’t like his face in that did his arm in.

“Here you go, sir,” the waitress said, handing him his plate. Dean was too tired to wince at the sir. Sir was Dad and Bobby and sometimes even Pastor Jim, if he got real mad. Dean wasn’t sir to anyone, certainly not a pretty waitress who had been chatting up the young guys at the counter. Dean couldn’t think of himself as being on this side of forty, not in his own head. And even if he was, he was just a drifter, just an old man without a home.

Without really thinking about it, he reached for Sam’s book. Nobody’s Death was cool and heavy in his hand. It didn’t look like a book that could change his life. Dean knew that he just looked like another drifter - or maybe just a regular, civilian hunter; it was the right season for it - with just another second hand book to pass the time while he healed. He didn’t look like a man changing his life. He didn’t look like he belonged in the life of Samuel Wesson. Maybe he didn’t.





The Impala took Dean through the Rockies and then back over the Mississippi - twice, heading east in La Crosse, Wisconsin while chasing an underwater panther going after kids and over Route 49 into Helena, Arkansas, looking for an elusive hoodoo man who just did not want to be found. Her ride was as familiar as his Colt 1911 and more reliable than even he was.

She was Dean’s home and his constant companion. There were a couple of times, out in the reaches of the Mojave and deep in the bayou, that the Impala’s backseat was his bed and his breakfast table, just like when he and Sam had been kids. Except for that one time in Cheyenne, he fixed her up himself and worked on her with his own two hands. He built her and he would take care of her until some monster, an Ifrit or a Black Dog or a stray bullet, took him out for good.

Without Sam there, the Impala’s passenger seat filled with stuff, same as it had those years that Sam had been in California and Dad had sent him on the road alone. At first it was mostly skin magazines and old bottles of Pepsi and half empty bags of chips, but soon enough that gave way to his spare blankets, his duffel bag of clothes, and the old box of tapes perched precariously on top of it all, like some bizarre classic rock king-of-the mountain game.

But no matter how far he drove or how fast, whether he was stuck on a stake out in Michigan chasing a skinwalker or baking in the Georgia heat on his way after a poltergeist, Sam’s books, somehow, always made it to the top of the heap. Dean would reach for Houses of the Holy or If You Want Blood You’ve Got It and his hand would come back gripping Nobody’s Death or Life In Winter. Normally, he dropped them back into the duffel and played with the radio until he found a station he liked. The wail of guitars would make him forget, for a little while, about it all.

But, when he was hunting the Wampus Cat up in the Smoky Mountains, wrapped in three layers of flannel, Dad’s old leather jacket, and the moth eaten blanket he stole from a Motel 6 when he was 10, he read Nobody’s Death again. His fingers shook - but it was with the cold of the mountain air, not because he was nervous, Sam never made him nervous - as he flipped through the pages, reading again and again about how Sal loved Ray. He read, long after his coffee went cold, about Aker screwing Sal, long and hard, against a tool shed in Missouri and Sal returning the favor in New Mexico. He read about his broken self in Ray and about how both Sal and Aker loved Ray.

In the dark of the shelter on the Appalachian trail, chasing after an honest to god Thunderbird, he read about Sal hating himself for the drugs he took and about Aker walking the blacktop at night. He read about Ray screaming in his sleep and Sal making sure, by persuasion and by force, that no one ever said anything. He read about about Aker gazing at Ray in the long days in the car, full of worry and love. He read about how Sal would sit vigil over his brother in rat’s nest motel rooms, drugged and caffeinated and full of love and devotion. He read what had broken him back in Cheyenne.

Dean wondered, silently, how he fucked up this badly. No one answered. No one could answer. Dean cocked his Colt and left the Impala behind, safe on the edge of the road. There were still monsters to kill.

*

Sometimes Dean thought he just really hated himself. It would explain so much about his life if it were as simple as that. Castiel had suggested it more than once and Dean knew that Sam had psychoanalyzed him from the passenger seat of the Impala, if only in the safety of his own head. It was as good an explanation as any for why he was holed up on the edge of Yosemite National Park researching Sam Wesson instead of the missing kids and dead animals between Vernal and Jensen.

Sam was doing the rounds of the talk shows, even did a double feature with Stephen King on Ellen. Ellen wasn’t as good as Oprah, but Dean didn’t mind watching it on his tiny laptop screen. King looked like something Dean would hunt, but Sam looked amazing. He looked happy and proud. He mixed lies with truth, talking about his inspiration for the books after going on a “brief road trip with a couple friends” and about how much he missed his parents.

Ellen ripped him a new one for mixing homosexuality and incest, but Dean didn’t care. Without him, Sam was happy. Sam had his new life out there in the world of civilians. He would get his wife and picket fence and the Labrador puppy and maybe even the two point five kids. Dean would drift across the country over the broken asphalt highways, but Sam would be happy.

Dean wondered why it hurt so badly that Sam was so happy.

*

Too many months after dropping Sam in an anonymous Greyhound station in Nashville, one all too similar to the one in St Ignatious where Dean left him when he was 19, Dean blew into Jensen from the west, from the dark hills and mountains of Colorado. The dust of too many lone hunts was heavy on the Impala’s wheels and Sam’s books were stowed deep in Dean’s bags. Jensen would be just another dusty old town that Dean would save and leave.

It was what he did best, for everyone but the Impala and Sam. When he was a teenager, Dean got used to the idea of being a love ‘em and leave ‘em type. He learned not to let it bother him more than it had to and got on with his life. Towns were the same as the men and women in his life. He could learn to love a city or town in a single night - but then he and the Impala would leave with dawn.

The colored hills of the Utah desert didn’t reveal anything and Dean knew that he wouldn’t learn anything but about the effects of too much sun if he stayed in the Impala. It was easy enough to park her off to the side of one of the National Monument lots, close enough to the other cars not to be suspicious but far enough away to be safe. After that, it was a question of wearing the right clothes and carrying enough water to go exploring for the day.

Dean was just getting the lay of the land outside the town, still well within the confines of the park, when someone shouted at him from across the gaping valley. He’d already been in the sun too long, after spending so much time in the mountains and woods of the Rockies and the east, so Dean just found a quiet piece of shade under an outstretched rock. He could drink some of his water out of the canteen Sam bought outside Fresno back in 2012 and waited.

The water tasted metallic and hot, like Dean hadn’t filled it back in Jensen, but he also knew better than to care. The heat of the day could kill him, if he wasn’t careful, and it would be just as unpleasant as if he died at the hands of something he hunted. He could wait out whoever followed him from the monument and if it was unpleasant or whatever pulled kids from their beds, Dean had his Colt loaded with silver bullets and a blessed obsidian knife tucked under his shirt.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Pete, I was ready to shoot you.”

Dean cracked open an eye against the heady glare of the afternoon sun and stared at the large man standing over him. “Aaron?” He grinned, tiredly and in a way that didn’t reach his eyes. “I was about to haul ass out of here and see if I could find a room over in Vernal. I didn’t think I’d be seeing you until at least tomorrow.”

Aaron offered Dean a hand and pulled him to his feet. “I don’t know what you’re doing out here alone, Pete. We’re a bit jumpy about strangers coming in and out of the desert alone at the moment; wouldn’t be safe to just leave you here.”

“I heard,” Dean told him, swaying a bit in the heat. “It’s why I’m here. We’ve got to keep it safe, you know.”

Aaron eyed him up and down for a moment before coming to a clear decision. “Come on. Why don’t you show me where you’ve parked that sweet ride of yours? I’ll give you a drive into town and you can show me where you and Davy are staying this time. I can call the chief, we can grab Davy, and the three of us can compare notes.”

Dean and Aaron made their slow way over the colored rock and dirt, back to the marked trails of the park, and, eventually, the shimmering asphalt parking lot of Dinosaur National Monument. Dean was still woozy from the sun and heat and tension of a lone hunt, but he didn’t let Aaron drive his baby. Since Sam left for good - since Dean drove Sam away somehow - no one else had driven her.

Even when Sam was still with him, still his back up and right hand and second gun, the Impala had still been Dean’s. She was his ride, the beauty of a car he had told his father to buy all those years before he had even been born. Occasionally, Sam had slipped behind the wheel, when Dean was drunk or hurt or when he wanted to see that bright look in Sam’s eyes again, and drove his girl like the lady they both knew she was. But no one else drove her, not ever. And hitting the same town again wouldn’t change that.

Dean knew Jensen - and Vernal, Jensen’s looming older brother of a town, by extension - from way back. He’d first found Jensen, nestled sweetly at the Colorado border, when Dad was hunting bugbears in Maine and sent Dean to Utah on one of his first solo hunts. Sam had still been studying pre-law and living with a hot blond girl who was miles out of his league.

Vernal had been having a real problem at the time with some of the older folks completely losing it, just going postal on their neighbors and then, all too often, killing themselves when they saw what they had done. Dean had run into a bit of trouble at the time, running between the law and the worried citizens. His baby faced looks - hell, he’d only been 24 - hadn’t helped at all. He had figured that Vernal - and Jensen by extension - would be just another town he could learn to love and then leave in the night.

He’d passed through Jensen a few times since burning the old warlock’s bones while Sam had still been in college. He’d met Aaron, the deputy who covered Jensen and the monument, back on that first case. He’d lost a couple relatives to the damned old warlock and bought Dean’s phony FBI story hook, line, and sinker. When Dean passed through again, avoiding Rt 80 and the undead livestock no hunter could put to rest, he’d introduced Sam as his rookie partner, no questions asked.

A few years after the end of the world, they’d passed through Jensen on their way up to Green River and stopped off for a couple days. They’d needed to wait out the lunar cycle anyway and it was safer to do it in a small town where everyone thought they were FBI. Sam had laughed at him then, when he saw the police and the barman and all the people Dean knew in that deserted corner of Utah.

Dean hadn’t laughed. He knew they’d leave and make it to Green River in time for the new moon. He knew that one day, in a year or ten years, he’d come into Jensen or Vernal or be just across the border and someone would realise it was all lies. And the bastard who talked about the fury of scorned women had clearly never encountered cops who learned you weren’t really a Fed.

“Where’s Davy?” Aaron finally asked, pulling Dean out of the depths of his own head.

“Not here.” Dean savagely turned the Impala into the parking lot of the motel. “He decided he didn’t like the kind of jobs I get and transferred. He’s doing the main rodeo now.”

When Dean started to make his way toward the motel office, Aaron stopped him with a hand. “You’re dehydrated. Go. Get some water. I can talk to Molly. Just make sure you don’t collapse.”

The bar-cum-diner was quiet, waiting for the regulars to get out of work. It was blessedly cool and dark, a welcome change from spending the day speeding over hazy black top in the Impala - vintage original, no air - and hiking up through the desert. The man behind the bar gave Dean the hairy eyeball when he asked for water instead of a whiskey. Dean ignored him and instead focused on not gulping down the icy ambrosia.

“So are you bringing any good news with you?” Aaron asked when he arrived, taking a stool next to Dean at the bar. “No Davy, nothing special going on around here. Just come back for old time’s sake?”

“Do I ever?” Dean replied, putting his empty water glass back on the sticky bar. “I’ve just got missing persons reports and animal mutilations sending me here. My boss has me up to my eyeballs in the goddamned paper work. I can’t call that a good thing.”

Aaron winced and signaled the barman for a whiskey. “I figured you were here over the mutilations. It seems like the sort of X Files thing the FBI likes to toss your way. I don’t know about missing persons, though. Chief hasn’t said much to us, if we’ve got any.”

“Billy Black, his grandmother reported him gone from her house in Jensen nine months ago. Lee Ann Johnson and Carey Flanagan. They never came home from school six months ago. Around the same time, Susanna Aritza goes missing. She goes out to walk the family dog and the dog comes home without little Susanna. Three months ago, Lissy Deluero simply vanishes from her bed. Her parents tuck her in, she goes to sleep. The next morning, she’s gone.” Dean took a deep breath. “I hate to say it, Aaron, but you’ve got a real problem here. There’s a pattern and I’ve just got to see what it fits.”

“No, you’ve just been getting your news a bit slow back in Washington or wherever you’re out of,” Aaron told him slowly. “Billy ran away to try to find his mom. Ms. Mills had a devil of a custody battle with her daughter over Billy and Billy never quite got over it. They picked him up for hitchhiking half way to Arizona.”

Dean raised a single eyebrow in suspicion and signaled for another glass of water.

“As for Lee Ann and Carey, they ran away to California together. They’re up in some town on the coast. Lee Ann’s been sending postcards and letters to her brothers and according to Stephen, she’ll be getting married soon. He’s hoping he’ll have enough money to get out there for it. He figures even if their dad isn’t there, he could give her away.”

With his water in one hand, Dean stared at Aaron, leveling him with a long hard look. “Why don’t I believe you? Maybe Lee Ann and Carey really are in California, maybe not, but Lissy and Susanna and Billy are gone. And with the way you’re talking, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next kid’s already missing by now. I haven’t seen any record of Billy coming home again and you didn’t even bother explaining away those poor girls.”

Aaron didn’t say anything for a long time. The little town bar was quiet and Dean could hear the tired whir of the overhead fans and clink of balls and cues in back. The barman wiped down the sticky bar with a dirty rag and eyed the barely legal kids in the back with a practiced eye.

Dean knew something was wrong. He could feel it in the hairs on the back of his neck and in the way that no one in the bar was quite looking at him. He couldn’t say what was wrong, exactly, but a lifetime of hunting told him that these people were scared, scared of something they didn’t understand. If he could get them to talk, he might be able to save them, if they were lucky.

“I got you a room at the Sage,” Aaron said eventually, his voice low and even. “It might be better to debrief you there. And if you want to get out of town after that, I won’t blame you. We’ll handle it. We have been. No one would hold it against you.”

Dean followed Aaron out of the cool, dark bar and into the hot street. The sun was still sickeningly hot and bright. Dean realised with a start that he didn’t see any kids or hear them. Almost no one was out, except for a couple of adults hurrying from one place to the next. School would have let out while he was still in the desert, but he couldn’t even hear the shriek of kids playing in a yard or side street. Something was very wrong in Jensen.

“You want to leave,” Aaron said, closing the door to motel room 9 behind him with a heavy hand. “You want to leave us behind and forget about us. We haven’t seen you in years anyway. Go back and join up with Davy again.”

“Wrong,” Dean told him. He dumped his bag on the bed, hearing the guns and knives and ammo jostle among his Goodwill shirts and second- and third-hand jackets and lore books. He turned and faced the cop. “You need me here and you’re going to tell me what the hell is going on.”

“You know what’s happening, Pete. Kids are disappearing, maybe more often than we hear about up at the station in Vernal. Pets and an adult or two are gone, too. We’ve found a couple mutilated animals out in the desert, mostly desert foxes and pets, but it’s not pretty. The week before Lee Ann and Carey took off for California, Lee Ann found the Ackers’ dog in her yard, its head about six feet or so from the body.”

Dean grimaced. He’d found Lee Ann’s file online and she was still just a kid as far as he was concerned. The picture he found online was from the yearbook and she’d still been in her cheerleading outfit, grinning at the camera without a care in the world. Susanna had still been in grade school, with her dark braids bright with beads. “You think it scared her off?”

“We figure. It’d be enough to scare any of us and it looks like she already had plans to run off with Carey after graduation. But it wasn’t a lie. They just ran away and they’re old enough that we aren’t doing anything like that.”

“Vernal is big enough for people to get lost, for cases to fall through the cracks in the system,” Dean said slowly, thinking out loud. “But not Jensen and whatever is going on in Jensen, it’s got all of you on edge and on the wrong side of spooked. So what is it?”

Aaron spread his hands wide. “You know I’m from Jensen, born and raised. I love that town, but God only knows what’s wrong with us now. I won’t ever forget you saving Gran back when I was still a kid, but I don’t think this is anything the FBI can help us with.”

Dean refrained from rolling his eyes at the officer. Usually, the FBI cover was the hardest cover to keep and the one they had been consciously using less and less over the year. It was entirely possible that the Vernal Police Department was just too stupid for their own good, but Dean honestly thought that it was possible the FBI never passed through that forgotten corner of Utah to blow his cover.

“Chief’s going to want me back soon,” Aaron said, brushing his hands on the knees of his uniform pants. “If you’re staying, watch yourself. Whatever is out there, it doesn’t mind too much that you’re a man and not a boy. Don’t take any more solo hikes up in the park, okay? Plenty of people around here are ready to take the law into their own hands to protect the kids. I wouldn’t want to see you get shot.”

Dean watched Aaron leave, the muscles in his back tight, but his gait as smooth and fluid as it ever was. He’d never called Aaron his friend. In passing, to Sam mostly, Aaron was a pleasant lay and to the other citizens of Jensen and Vernal, he was an important ally in the FBI’s ongoing battle against crime. Still, it didn’t make him happy, thinking that Aaron didn’t trust him with whatever was haunting the little desert town.

He waited in the motel, drinking cool tap water and swallowing tasteless protein bars, until night fell. The motel was full of the typical noises of televisions and fucking and gambling and pizza delivery, but they were the noises Dean knew as well as the purr of the Impala’s engine. They couldn’t bother him. What bothered him was the idea of going out into the Utah desert, armed only with a Colt 1911 and an old obsidian knife from Bobby, when he didn’t know what the hell he was hunting.

He had a list. It was written on a scrap of paper from a motel back in Iowa, the Blue Star Motor Lodge. It was a list of names of the kids who had gone missing, the kids who were probably dead by now, the kids Dean couldn’t save. He didn’t care what Aaron had to say. That list would not get any longer.

*

When it was full dark, Dean slid his Colt into its narrow shoulder holster, tucked extra blessed ammunition into his hip pack, and made sure his obsidian knife wouldn’t stab him or snap if he took a tumble down the side of a canyon. He made sure his FBI ID card, fresh made in Iowa City but with the same name he’d been using in Vernal for almost fifteen years, was one of the only cards in his wallet. Then the wallet went into his pocket, next to the pair of silver Zippo lighters and a couple of spare packets of salt he lifted off a McDonald’s in Kentucky.

Then he walked out of the dimly lit concrete courtyard of the motel and past the edges of the city, into the desert night. Dean walked northwest, along old Bushcreek Road for a while, until he hit the open desert. Then he went due west, away from the rising moon and toward the epicenter of the animal mutilations. He thought of Castiel as he walked, remembering the old bastard with a bit of fondness.

Dean couldn’t remember what year it was that Castiel left them, left them for the second time and last time, but he knew that Sam would. Sam, who held and kissed Castiel in the backseat of Dean’s baby, Sam, who had made love to and fucked angels and demons across America and then wrote books about it, he would know the date and time that Castiel had walked into the Nevada desert and never came back. Dean just remembered what it was like to have him around, to wake up in the middle of the night and see his brother and the angel sitting at the plastic table in the motel room, having some kind of heated discussion. Sam remembered details; Dean just remembered.

Dean remembered that it was somewhere on Rte 80 and that it had been ungodly hot. The Impala had blown a tire and when Dean had been down in the hot dirt, changing it out and making sure nothing else was wrong, Castiel had simply walked away. By the time Dean was on his feet again, Sam had been sitting on the side of the road, watching a figure walking deeper into the desert, toward a whole pile of nothing until he hit Las Vegas.

Sam had only said that Castiel was gone and they needed to get moving if they wanted to get to that hunt in Reno. Now, too many years and countless hunts later, Dean wished he’d asked what the hell was going on. He wanted to know why Castiel had just walked away and never come back. Now, he wondered why Sam was so complacent about his lover just walking away from them forever. He had a hundred questions, for both Sam and Castiel. But it was too late for that, too late for a lot of things.

Dean never noticed when everything went black. It was like being sucked into a sudden riptide, going from the dark noise of the desert night to black silence for an eternity. It didn’t hurt. It didn’t feel like anything at all. It felt like nothing and it felt like forever.

Part Four