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On the Mountain

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Half a day out of Sagan, at the foot of the first big climb, with the mountain looming over them like a demon from the pastors' stories, Mary gets a good look at the new driver. She's so distracted by the way he meets her eyes and flashes her a grin--with dimples!--that when Frost swerves right to avoid a stone in the road, Mary nearly falls off, and has to grab for a handful of mane to keep her balance.

Frost snorts, and Mary sends *Carrots* in petty revenge. Frost hates carrots, and she kicks out a bit, jostling Mary, before settling into her gait again. Mary doesn't look back to see if the new driver is watching her, although there is *humor* in the ambient.

"Something wrong with that second truck back there?" asks Bobby in mid-afternoon, as they share a thermos of lukewarm coffee and the truck engines cool before the next steep grade. "You keep checking on it."

*Dimples* thinks Mary, and then locks that down before Frost picks up on it. She shrugs, drinks her coffee; when she glances up at Bobby, he's looked away, but his cheekbone is bunched up as if he's smiling.

She's known Bobby Singer near all her life, but he's still learning the trade--only four years ago, Bobby figured he was going to be a blacksmith like his da. Then, well, Rust happened, the stocky nighthorse showing up at the mining camp one summer night when Bobby was there and not taking "No" for an answer. And now here he is, riding with Mary while he tries to decide how to approach Janie Benson's father. Janie not being a rider, and that raising an entire host of problems Mary herself would just as soon avoid.

Which doesn't mean she's not interested. So when a pair of dimples appears at the edge of the firelight, while Bobby is out riding the camp perimeter, Mary smiles, tilting her head. "You're new on this route," she says, dipping her head a bit so she can see his eyes under the brim of his hat. He looks young, and friendlier than any of the other drivers.

"Ma'am," he says, nodding. "First time into the mountains. John Winchester," he adds, putting a hand out.

When she shakes it, it's large, the fingers broad and callused. "Mary Campbell," she replies. "That's Frost," she nods to the mare, half-asleep and indistinct in the darkness. "You from Sagan?"

He nods to Frost, which is more than most of the other drivers do, and then shakes his head. "I grew up in Ellison."

It's about a two-week ride to Ellison; Mary's never been there, down on the coastline where the nighthorses go out with the fishing boats and the snow melts after only a few days. Too many people, she thinks, but just says, "Ellison, huh. I'd miss the mountains."

"That's why I came," he says, and hunches down to poke a stick at her fire. The riders on escort aren't usually welcome at the drivers' camp--to be fair, it's the horses that aren't--so the riders set up their own camp within earshot, but closer to the wild.

Mary doesn't usually mind: she's had enough of townsfolk's ideas of what a woman should be doing, or worse, what some drivers think about women riders. But not all drivers are like that, she admits, as she drops on her heels next to Winchester. "You took this job for the mountains?"

"Always wanted to see them, and there was no shortage of mechanics in Ellison. Figured I'd come on out, see the country, maybe set myself up in one of them little villages up there." He tilts his chin sideways, west up the slope towards the unseen peak above them, hidden in the darkness.

Mary tilts the coffee pot to see how much is left, shrugs, and pours Winchester a cup. He takes it with a smile that makes his dimples deepen and Mary's breath catches. "It's dangerous country up there," she remarks after a moment. "Goblin-cats and bush-devils and lorrie-loos."

He squints at that, looking at her doubtfully. "But riders are safe, right?" As though it has to be safe, if she can ride that country. She knows what he sees: a thin, tall yellow-haired woman, young enough to be called "girl" by some who don't know any better, with a shiny patch on her jacket shoulder where her rifle-strap rubs, and a dark-grey hat pulled low over her ears.

Rufus Turner and Bill Harvelle got caught out in a storm last year; Rufus died with his horse, and Bill was lucky just to lose three toes. Caleb O'Brien got himself shot at by a hunter three weeks ago, damn fool mistook him for a spook-bear. Two winters back, Mary and Frost spent two weeks trapped in a shelter up past Zettel, and by the end of it they ate her boots: she rode back into camp barefoot, and if the weather hadn't broken she'd be there still. "Sometimes," she says, meeting Winchester's eyes soberly. "If you're careful, if you know what you're doing, have the right gear, watch the weather. But I wouldn't say it's ever safe up in the High Wild."

~

Winchester comes by twice more, always waiting until Mary is alone, until Bobby and Rust are walking the perimeter, guarding the camp against vermin. The second night he comes armed with questions about the High Wild, questions about where the storms blow in from and how she knows they're coming, questions about what bush-devil tastes like and can spook-bears really take you off a cliff. She pours him coffee and answers his questions and even when Frost is awake she can hardly pick up anything from the ambient. He's the most controlled townsman she's ever met.

The third time, they're a day and a half out from Lamarcke, and Winchester appears in the flickering firelight with a flask in his hand. The day's climb was hard, the snow deep and wet in the warming spring air, and more than once Mary took shovel in hand with Bobby and the drivers to clear the road. Her arms and shoulders ache, her feet are still wet from melting snow, and Frost is unsettled and nervous. Both riders caught a hint of *something* out in the woods as the sun was setting, but neither Frost nor Rust would give more than an impression of *big dark hard* out there.

Frost dances sideways as Winchester squats down by the fire and uncaps the flask. "Hell of a day," he says, and offers it to Mary. As though he is a comrade, a rider himself--but Mary remembers the feel of his shoulder against hers as they dug out Frank's rear wheels, and she takes the flask with a smile.

As she swallows--it's the good stuff, whiskey from Ellison, and she wonders if he's carried it all this way just to share it with her--Winchester takes his hat off and runs a hand through his hair. It's the first time she's seen him without his hat, and she lets herself watch him as she takes another swallow. There's a line on his forehead where his hat usually rests, the skin above that nearly as pale as her own. He's still young, only a little older than herself, she figures, but he has smile-lines next to his eyes, and broad shoulders, a man used to work. Mary's not sure if he's good-looking: she never spent enough time with other girls to learn how they decided that; but his smile, as he meets her eyes, hits something in her, makes her think of *blankets and darkness and skin*.

And she's forgotten Frost is awake, because that hits the ambient like a stone falling from the sky, and Mary feels her face go red. Frost snorts and spins, kicking a little. *Big dark sex* and *nighthorses mating* and Winchester's eyes widen.

*Calm water* Mary sends, desperately, but she can't take it back, and even as Frost settles, she picks up *amusement* from Winchester.

"Hard to keep anything hidden around them, I guess," he says, his eyes meeting hers, his dimples deepening.

Mary could stay embarrassed, but she's not some town girl in skirts and a hat with flowers. So she laughs, shaking her head. "No privacy, no." She hasn't ever slept with a townsman, just riders; townsmen don't understand. Except she's not sure, but she thinks this one might. He might be worth the risk, anyway. "Not even in your dreams."

"Dreams? They can do that?" He frowns, staring into the fire for a long moment, then looks back up at Mary.

"Sometimes," she admits. "You don't want a bad dream if your horse is unhappy or scared; it just makes things worse." Which is more than she's told a townsman about nighthorses since she was a child, she realizes; after a certain point, it's no longer fun to contradict the fearsome stories the preachers tell, about demons and sins of the world. She can't tell or show anyone how much she loves Frost, or how Frost gives her the world, free of walls and rules--either they know, or they don't.

"You're free," he says, just like that. Picking up on what she'd let slip into the ambient, and damn if he's not better at this than half the riders she knows. "You can go anywhere." *Two moons rising over a peak* he pictures, and Mary knows that image: it's the view from this same road, not far from Sagan.

Last fall, before the snow came, Mary and Frost went up and over Lewis Peak, climbing the ridge for two days, the wind shrieking past them knife-edged and bitter, until they reached the summit. From there, they could see past Lewis, into the wild beyond the Wild, into the land no human had ever entered. *Peak upon peak, green rivers running down valleys empty of roads or towns, mountains and hills and low country melting into blue distance*

As she shares what she saw, his eyes widen. He swallows and looks away, finally clears his throat and says roughly, "I'd like to see that one day."

"I'd like to show you." And it's true, she realizes: he would understand why she keeps going out, into the Wild, in a way that even Bobby doesn't. "In Lamarcke, we'll talk. I'm on the job now." She can wait. "Here." She hands him back the flask, and he takes a long drink.

After he swallows, he licks his lips and without looking around, leans forward and puts one hand on the back of her head. When they kiss, he's warm, and smells like snow and trees and mountains; when she opens her mouth to him he tastes like whiskey. The ambient carries a wave of *want* to her, dark and hot; Mary's eyes fly open to see Winchester's, so close to hers, both of his hands now wrapped around her head, knocking her hat onto the snow behind her.

Frost squeals. Oh, thinks Mary, before he lets her go, pulls his hat on with hands that aren't entirely steady, and spins around to return to the drivers' side of the campsite.

Oh.

~

"Heave!" A dozen men and women, riders and drivers, cluster around the truck and shove, while its rear wheels spin, coating them all in an unholy mix of mud and slush. But it works: with a groan, the truck climbs out of the ditch and back into the main road, and pulls thirty yards ahead before slowing to a stop. The engine grumbles, the noise oddly muffled in the damp air before the driver turns it off.

"Crap," says a voice behind her, and Mary turns to find Bobby on Rust, looking peeved in the dimming light of late afternoon. "Figured we'd be further along than this."

"What--" Mary starts to ask, but realizes she doesn't have to. The ambient is *twitchy*, something is *out there*, and Rust is *unhappy*. "Same thing as yesterday?"

Bobby takes his hat off, exposing a forehead that's already expanding rearward, although he's only a few years older than Mary, and slaps it against his knee. "Think so. How's Frost?"

Frost is *cheerful*, Mary realizes, not anxious the way Rust is. When Mary tries to get more information, all she picks up is *big dark*, but Frost *dances* and pirouettes, splashing in the cold puddles until Mary rolls her eyes.

"Damn," she says in realization. "It's a loose horse."

"Following the convoy," confirms Bobby.

Nighthorses breed up in the mountains, mostly, but they're smart, and they pass the word about the fascinating way human brains smell, and about the taste of cured meat. So periodically a young horse will decide to come down and hunt around until he finds himself a human of his very own. If a horse is following the convoy, it might be after one of the drivers, or maybe it's just curious. They can't tell, and in the meantime it's disturbing the nighthorses, and through the ambient, everyone else, as well.

Well, everyone but Frost, Mary notes. *Sex*, sends Frost, and Mary sighs. "I'll tell Frank," she says.

~

First shift isn't quiet, and the noise of the drivers on the final night of the convoy bounces off the steep valley walls around them. Tomorrow they have one last grade, up the muddy switchbacks to Patterson Summit, and then an easy push up the valley to Lamarcke, sitting pretty on the edge of the lake where the rafts of logs pile up every summer. Tomorrow night Mary will be in the riders' camp on the exposed side of town, with a hot bath for herself and a hot mash for Frost.

And maybe warm blankets, too, she thinks, and smiles as she passes the last of the trucks strung locked and silent along the road, and swings around back towards the camp.

The trees grow close to the road here, the drifts deep and not yet melted in the shade. Only one moon is up tonight, but it's bright enough to cast the world in blues and greys, the green of the trees and brush indiscernable. It's colder than it was this morning, the meltwater and slush refreezing into churned and solid ruts. Frost picks her way cautiously along, clawed feet clicking and clacking on the ice. As they pass the last truck, a shadow ahead of them shifts, and a figure moves into the moonlight.

*Mary* is in the ambient, and Mary stiffens. It's vanishingly rare that anyone who isn't a rider can use the ambient that well, that specifically. Frost hesitates under her and then approaches Winchester--John--delicately, snuffling at his face and twitching her ears at him.

He puts a hand up, and Frost lets him pet her, smoothing his hand down her nose once, twice, before she stamps impatiently. Mary slides off, keeping a hand on Frost's mane to steady herself on the icy ground. She slings her rifle back onto her shoulder. "You shouldn't be out here," she says. It's safer with the other people, near Bobby and Rust, inside the perimeter where the vermin won't approach the nighthorses.

"I got impatient," he says, but doesn't move. "I was dreaming, about the mountains, about you." She can't see his eyes under the rim of his hat, but she can see his mouth and the bristle on his jaw, wonders how that will feel against her breasts, whether his hands on her skin will be scratchy or just strong--and then realizes that Frost is passing all of that along, before he groans and reaches for her.

This kiss isn't soft or sweet, but hungry, demanding, and she matches it, pushing back against him, pulling his head down to meet hers. When he stops for breath, yanking his head up, panting, she forces him back one step, two, until he's up against the truck. It's still too dark to see his face, but she can hear his breathing, can *feel his want* in the ambient, shares it, feels *desire* running liquid in her veins. Chasing away the exhaustion and cold of the day, while Frost *wants* and *sex* is all she can think of.

Frost *wants* and so does Mary and she knows she's supposed to be in control, there's a loose horse out there, it's dangerous, but she doesn't care. She pulls off one glove and goes to work on the buttons of his jacket while she yanks the other glove off with her teeth. John has one hand inside her coat now, the other in her hair--her hat is on the ground somewhere, probably being trampled by Frost--and he's pulled her collar away to suckle on her neck.

Buttons are *in the way* and finally she has her hands on him, he's *hot, big, dark*, and his hands are on her breasts and oh, it feels *good*--

--manes are tossing, feet stamping, *thrusting* and sweating, balancing against the cold metal of the truck, the rifle slapping against Mary's back and the horses *pushing*, tails whipping; *mine mine mine* is in the ambient, and at last John groans and breaks against her, Mary thrusts against his thigh between hers, and he's got a hand anchoring her, giving her what she needs as she squirms, clenches and finally releases--

As they disentangle, panting, she staggers, clinging to his coat to keep her feet; she finds herself held up from behind by a warm body. *Frost*, she thinks, and lets go of John with one hand, turning to settle the nighthorse.

But it's not Frost. Mary freezes, hand in the air.

The biggest nighthorse she's ever seen stands in the snow before them, Frost next to him with her head across his withers, smug with possessive pride. *Mine mine mine* is in the ambient, and Mary blanches. That's not just John, or Frost.

She turns back to John, and he's staring at the nighthorses, his trousers still unbuttoned and his coat open to the cold air. "He's. I thought it was just dreams," he says finally, not moving from the support of the truck behind him.

"Oh," says Mary, belatedly, and watches the enormous black stud pace forward and nudge John, ungently, in the chest. He's a young horse, only three or four years old, but his feet are huge and there's a scar on one shoulder the length of Mary's hand.

*Mine* John lifts a hand, and this time his fingers go, instinctively, to the spot under the chin where all nighthorses require to be scratched. The horse rumbles, deep in his chest like an engine before a big climb, flicks his tail twice, and closes his eyes.

"What's his name?" asks Mary, quietly, although she doesn't need to. It's echoing in the ambient, so loud she's pretty sure they can hear it in Lamarcke. Sure as hell Bobby knows what's happened.

*Rock*, says the ambient. *John and Rock Rock and John*

*John and Mary and Frost and Rock*, sends Frost, and nibbles at Mary's hair.

"I hope," says Mary after a long time, which is mostly taken up by John stroking and smoothing his hands along Rock's coat, murmuring softly words she can't hear and knows she isn't meant to. "I hope you don't mind not being a mechanic?"

 

END