Early afternoon sunlight glinted jewel-like off the water. They stood near the lake’s edge, on a short beach fringed with colorful rocks smoothed by the perpetual movement of the waves. Small whitecaps crashed toward them, fizzling against the shore. On a clear day, Canada was allegedly visible across the twenty-mile bay, but Sam couldn’t see to the other side. Superior stretched endlessly, deep blue at the horizon.
“That’s no lake,” Dean said with a Jedi’s gravitas. “Thing’s frigging massive.”
“The Great Lakes are inland seas.” Cas stood at a distance, hands deep in the pockets of his dark wool overcoat, unflapped by the stiff breeze off the lake. “They contain twenty-one percent of the Earth’s fresh water.”
“No shit.” Dean threw a playful elbow into Sam’s side. “Are you sure there's a case here? This wasn’t an excuse to take a vacation?”
Sam braced against a gust of wind. It bit at his cheeks, so he turned his back into it and scanned the beach for the dog he heard barking. It sounded large, maybe a retriever, though there were no dogs visible. It must have echoed from down the shore.
“Trust me,” he said to Dean. “When I take a vacation, I’m leaving the suit at home. Not to mention the water’s freezing.”
“It’s as cold as thirty-eight degrees in places this time of the year,” Cas said. “You’d be lucky to survive an hour.”
The dog barked again, in time with gleeful shrieks from a family down the beach. Three children played a game of chicken, testing who could run farthest after the retreating waves before the next line advanced. Smiling parents took pictures a safe distance from the water. They must not have heard about the body local authorities recovered last week.
Cas knelt down to examine something dark along the shore. His appreciation for Earth was endearing, though time consuming. He’d probably carry a pocketful of rocks home to Lebanon. Dean would complain but get him a box to store them. Sam was surprised when Cas photographed the object instead of collecting it.
“Find something?” he asked.
“I think it’s the remains of something,” he said. “It appears marine.”
“Probably something a bird dropped.” Dean scratched his neck beneath the collar. “So we’re looking at six deaths over a three-month period. There’d better be something here, otherwise this was one hell of a hike for a shipwreck museum.”
“I liked the museum,” Cas sniffed.
“There were only two confirmed deaths on Lake Superior last year, and two the year before that,” Sam said. “There were nine in 2013, but they were spread across the year: snowmobile accidents, cliff diving. These have all happened within weeks of each other, most of them along this bay, though there was one farther west.”
“Might be an off year. Or a serial killer,” Dean said.
“There wasn’t much information available,” Sam said, “but what I found online said there were no marks on any of the bodies, no signs of foul play. We need to look at the most recent body. The rest are already buried but we should be able to access the coroner’s reports.”
“Did the sheriff call you back?” Dean said.
“She’s meeting us at a restaurant a couple miles inland.” Sam checked his watch; it was almost four o’clock. The motel manager had given him a strict one-hour check-in window. “And we need to get our room before we lose the reservation.”
“No problem,” Dean said. He helped Cas to his feet and kept hold of his hand long enough to run a thumb across Cas’s knuckles. He loudly cleared his throat and stepped away, turning his head as if to survey who might be watching them. “Me and Cas’ll head over that way, rendez-vous with the sheriff. We’ll drop you at the motel, let you check in. You look beat.”
“Sure. Sounds good,” Sam said, anticipating the guaranteed hot shower. Dean had initially protested Cas hunting with them. It had been their gig for so long that a third person would only interrupt their rhythm. But having Cas along meant they could divide responsibilities. His knowledge was unsurpassed, his insight keen, and Dean slept six hours a night, sometimes more, when Cas bunked with him. Happiness had always eluded Dean, so Sam didn’t mind occasionally falling asleep wearing headphones. He’d never seen his brother wake up smiling so often.
As if on cue, Dean ruffled Cas’s hair and headed toward the car. Sam, grinning, looked down and kicked a gray rock into the surf.
They left Sam at the office to check into the motel, a cluster of cabins on a wooded lot situated ten miles south of Whitefish Point in a town called Paradise. Castiel watched Sam’s reflection wave in the rearview mirror, and vanish when Dean turned onto the main road.
Castiel was quiet for a while, content to let Dean drive. He had a gentler way of handling the car. Sometimes Sam was too generous with the accelerator.
“Do you think Sam's alright?” Castiel asked. Dean cast him a sideways glance.
“Why wouldn't he be?”
“He overheard us last night.”
“He was asleep,” Dean dismissed. “That’s what has you worked up?”
“Yes,” Castiel sighed.
The trees grew thicker together, eclipsing the road the farther they drove inland. After a half mile, Dean pulled over to the secluded shoulder and shut off the car. He radiated a quiet need, almost shy when he slid across the front seat and drew Castiel to him, as if he still expected to be pushed away. He held Castiel’s face, something he only did when they were alone, and smoothed a thumb across his cheek when he leaned in to kiss him.
The pattern was familiar: a kiss to each corner of Castiel’s mouth and one to the center. Dean dragged Castiel’s lips between his teeth, but he licked away the pain. Castiel massaged Dean through his suit, encouraged by each hitch in his breath, the desperate noises that rose to a pleased groan. He thrust into Castiel’s hand.
“Missed you today,” he murmured. He untucked Castiel’s shirt and slid his hands over his bare skin.
“We were in the same car for eight hours.”
“You know what I mean.” Dean's kisses communicated his weariness from two days on the road, slow and lush. “Can’t believe we get our own room.”
“On the other side of a wall from your brother.”
“You’ll have to be quiet.”
“Historically, I haven’t had an issue with restraint,” Castiel reminded him.
“Guess that means you gotta keep a hand over my mouth.”
Castiel lurched forward and Dean, laughing, fell backwards and allowed Castiel to pin him against the seat. Castiel fumbled their zippers to take them both in hand, humbled to be allowed this intimacy. He licked into Dean’s mouth in time with the motion of his wrist and Dean ran his hands over Castiel’s shoulders and his arms, through his hair, underneath his shirt to scratch his back. Castiel drank his own name from Dean’s lips and he saw stars.
“Do you think Sam minds?” he asked when his heart had calmed down. He re-buttoned his collar and righted his tie, crumpled from Dean’s fist. His hair was mussed where Dean’s fingers had pulled it. He let it be.
“What, this? Nah, he’s cool about it,” Dean said. He tucked his shirt in and checked his reflection. “Did he say something?”
“He looks at me strangely sometimes.”
“Kid’s got a strange face.” Dean cast a smile across the front seat. “Cas...Sam loves you. You’re part of this family. If he's got any problem with this, it's not for the reason you think.”
“I'm concerned he feels that I took his brother.”
Dean sighed. “You and me, we got our thing. Sam and me, we’re brothers. They're not...you can't compare them.”
“I can appreciate that it must be strange to have me here.”
“I know I was a dick about it at first, but we both want you here,” Dean said firmly. He melted into the seat and rolled his head side to side. “Sam's been in relationships. He knows how it works.”
Castiel didn’t bother to keep the joy off his face. “I thought that word was off limits.”
Dean's neck and ears flushed a lovely pink. He angled his head away to hide a smile, but Castiel perceived it in the muttered “shut up” and the way Dean’s hand fit over his knee like a puzzle piece.
The cabin perched on a softly eroding cliff that overlooked the lake, a single-story building with dingy ivory siding and a sagging carport. A pair of Adirondack chairs stood a jog from the front door, angled toward one another, the way lovers might sit. Sam turned from them and unlocked the cabin.
The inside was what he'd expected from the website: spartan but clean, with walls covered in blonde wood panels that dated it from the eighties. Three mismatched wood chairs surrounded an oak table dulled at the center from being scrubbed so many times. The floral couch stuck out, likely a cast-off from someone’s home. No two wood surfaces in the room bore the same color stain, but it felt homey. Sam crossed the worn berber and deposited his bag in the larger bedroom—perk of being the first arrival. There were traditional hotels in the area, but for an extra $20 a night, he had his own space.
A former guest had left a container of Folgers behind, so Sam set a pot of coffee to brew and arranged his laptop and case notes on the coffee table. He sunk onto the ugly couch with a groan and let his head hang between his shoulders. Ugly but comfortable. Too bad they couldn’t get accommodations like this for all of their cases.
Cas messaged to say they were bringing home dinner but didn’t give an ETA. Since he had time to spare, he lingered in the shower, ducking down in order to wash his hair. Even tilted fully up, the spray only hit him at chest height, but the water pressure was strong and the water hot. It eased the kinks in his back and shoulders from the sixteen-hour drive to Michigan’s upper peninsula. The soap was a cheap off-brand that left his skin taut, so he moisturized since Dean wasn’t around to poke fun at him, and drank coffee with a towel around his waist.
Twenty minutes later, they still weren’t back, so Sam dressed in comfortable clothes and poured a second cup of coffee. He located social media accounts for each of the victims, looking for any useful details. Most people had no idea how much personal information was easily available online.
According to Facebook, the first victim, a 52-year-old woman from Sault Ste Marie, was married with two grown children. She worked at a title company. She’d posted photos from her grandson’s second birthday party and a series of bar selfies, the most recent taken two days before she died. The second victim was her junior by twenty years, also married, and had recently become an uncle. He held a beer in all of his Instagram photos. Number three was single but had been tagged drinking with the same person in multiple photographs. So it went. All six victims were employed, four of them locals, two tourists. And all of them had entered the frigid waters of Lake Superior and died, seemingly without struggle or reason.
The wind built outside, bending the trees and rattling the windows in their panes. It was only May, but if the spring storms were this miserable, he couldn't imagine suffering a winter here.
He jotted down details about each of the victims that might be useful and sent a quick hello to Eileen, then relaxed with the TV. He was doubled over laughing at a reenactment of demonic possession when Cas and Dean arrived, weighed down with grocery bags.
“Figured, since you said we've got a stove…” Dean sounded embarrassed that he’d spent the last hour food shopping. He put a gallon of milk in the fridge along with twin six-packs of lager and a carton of eggs. Cas opened a bag containing boxes of pasta and jars of pasta sauce, bread, and peanut butter.
“You know we’re only here for a week,” Sam said, spotting a box of just-add-water pancake mix. Dean ignored him and went into the bathroom.
“What did you find out?” Sam asked Cas.
“There were no unusual marks on the bodies, no signs of foul play.” Cas passed him a stack of photocopied coroner’s reports. “In all cases, toxicology was negative for drugs. Cause of death was ruled as drowning in one case, hypothermia in the other five.”
“Do you think it could be a cult?” Sam asked.
“Like an Extreme Polar Bear Club?” Dean called through the bathroom door.
“There was a mass suicide when Hale Bopp flew over—when was that, the late ‘90s?”
“They poisoned themselves,” Dean said. Sam heard the water running. “I don’t care how brainwashed I am, I’m not hiking into a freezing-ass lake and pulling a DiCaprio. Plus, these are spread out.”
“Fair point,” Sam said. He glanced to Cas. “Witches? It could be a spell like the one Rowena had on you.”
Dean rejoined them, looking thoughtful. He flopped down on the couch next to Cas. “Could be demons possessing someone long enough that their bodies fail, and they peace out before it's too late.”
“That's a sick joyride,” Sam said.
Dean shrugged. “When I was sporting a pair of black eyes, I would have found that hilarious.”
Sam paged through the first victim’s autopsy report. “There are plenty of substances that don't show up on a tox screen. It could be a secretion that allows for mind control.”
“You’re thinking siren?” Dean asked.
“Maybe. I mean, it fits. The cause of death is closer to the original myth than the last one we encountered.”
“When was that?” Cas asked.
“Couple years ago,” Dean grunted. “Dick hooked me with a flask.”
“How was the sheriff?” Sam asked. “Cooperative?”
“She seemed grateful for the help,” Cas said.
“We're not going to have a problem with her,” Dean said. “Everything is spread out up here, but she said there’s a bar not too far away. A couple of the vics were regulars.”
“Think it’s worth checking out?” Sam asked.
“Can’t hurt. Worst-case scenario, I drink a couple rounds with my two favorite guys. C’mon, Sammy. Get your monkey suit back on.”
The bar was called the Shipwreck and, true to its name, had a ramshackle exterior and overgrown landscape. Dean looked overjoyed when they pulled into the parking lot, mouth fixed in a wide grin. He parked on the edge of the gravel lot, away from the mesh of pickup trucks near the door.
“My kind of place,” Dean said. Their boots made pleasant crunching sounds as they navigated to the front door. The building had no exterior windows. It resembled the gentlemen’s club Castiel had accompanied Dean into on a case last month.
“Classy,” Dean added appreciatively before yanking open the front door.
There was a fair crowd for early evening, but they still secured a table against the longest wall, with a view of the musician: a young woman with dark red hair performing on an acoustic guitar. She reminded Castiel of Anna’s preferred vessel.
The walls were rough, dark wood hung with black and white renderings of nineteenth-century steamships and barges. Over the bar hung a battered ship’s wheel. In opposition to the aged appearance was a backlit sign on the wall that announced, in vibrant orange and pink lettering, that there was a $2 special tonight on domestic drafts.
“I’ve got the first round,” Dean said, leaving his coat over a chair. He sauntered up to the bar and waited with a hand on the edge, until the bartender--a handsome man with shoulder-length dark hair and a loose white shirt--noticed him.
They chatted while the bartender dispensed their beer into pint glasses. If Castiel had to guess, the man was the same age Jimmy had been when Castiel assumed him. Most people smiled when Dean spoke to them, but the bartender’s expression was pinched. Perhaps he was displeased that the FBI was in his bar. Some humans had an aversion to law enforcement.
Dean carried their beers to the table, held together in a triangle formation. Foam clung to the rims and spilled down the sides of each frosted glass. He set them down with a thunk.
“Don't everyone look at once, but does the bartender look familiar to you?” Dean asked. Sam glanced over his shoulder.
“An actor or something,” Dean said. “I can't put my finger on it.”
“Has he seen anything?” Sam asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. He was pretty clear he doesn’t want us bothering people in here, though.”
“The recent deaths likely haven’t been good for business,” Castiel said.
“I doubt much hurts you when you're the only bar in a twenty-mile radius,” Dean said. “How ‘bout we wait till the singer finishes. If she performs here often, she might have seen something.”
The singer had a pleasant voice. Humans might even call it angelic, which made Castiel chuckle, imagining how the picture frames and glassware in the bar would shatter if he were to sing in his real voice. Which of his brothers and sisters was responsible for the misconception? Maybe Gabriel.
He would have preferred to stay at the cabin, but Dean appeared to be enjoying himself, bobbing his head with the song’s tempo. He stole glances at the bartender and made the face he did when he was thinking—head tilted and eyes narrowed, lips slightly parted. Castiel had fallen in love with the fire in Dean's soul and his relentless drive to save people, but he could not deny that Dean was beautiful, endlessly so, and looking upon him filled Castiel with such exhilaration he often felt his body couldn’t contain it.
He lay a hand on Dean’s forearm, resting against the table, and squeezed once. Dean surprised him by covering Castiel’s hand with his own and patting it twice before glancing toward the bar. Sam politely focused on the performer and clapped after each song. She strummed the opening bars of an Elvis Presley tune and Dean whipped his head around.
“I got it,” he said, slapping the table.
Sam quirked an eyebrow. “You have what?”
“Who the bartender reminds me of.” He grinned. “John Stamos.”
“Uncle Jesse?” Sam said with a laugh. He pushed the hair from his face and turned around long enough to steal a glance. “From Full House?”
“Yeah, don't you think so?” Dean said.
“Maybe a little?” Sam looked unconvinced. His eyes flicked to Castiel and he smirked. “You’ve really got a thing for dark hair.”
“Shut up or I’ll tell everyone you had a thing for Kimmy Gibbler,” Dean muttered but nudged Castiel’s thigh and winked.
They drank two rounds waiting for the singer to finish. She wrapped the set with an acoustic version of a Led Zeppelin song, one Dean regularly denied performing in the shower, and he licked his lips. Castiel slipped his hand inside Dean’s jacket and subtly rubbed his back.
“Oh, I like her,” said Dean, although he leaned into Castiel’s hand.
“Good,” Sam said, pushing their empty glasses to the center of the table. “You can do her interview.”
The singer got a bottle of water from the bar and headed toward the door, presumably to take a break before she performed again. Dean intercepted her with a smile and flash of his badge. She stiffened. Her pale skin shone with perspiration and she clutched a moth-eaten fur coat in her fist, but she shook Dean’s hand and spoke with him for several minutes. He left her with a business card.
“What do you think?” Sam asked when Dean returned to the table. “Does she know anything?”
“Her name’s Jennie. She plays here during the week. Said two of the victims were scumbags who tried to solicit her for sex.”
“Lovely,” Sam said. “Did she see who they left with? They died at night. This was probably the last place they were seen.”
Castiel cleared his throat. “The bartender appears agitated. He keeps looking this way.”
“I’ll settle the tab and we can get outta here,” Dean said. “You two wanna wait outside with the car?”
“I’ll wait with you,” Castiel said, walking with him toward the register. Sam took the keys and went to warm up the engine. The bartender folded his arms, puffing out his chest, but he became cordial when Dean produced his wallet. He left Jennie a tip and kept a hand on Castiel’s back out the door.
They kissed delicately when they got into bed that night, fingers playing the contours of each other’s faces. Dean held him close and Castiel whispered praise into his mouth. He rocked lazily against Castiel’s body until he shook and went still. Watching him break was nearly as beautiful as listening to Dean pray.
He fell asleep draped across Castiel’s chest, both in need of a shower but too tired to move. Rain began to drum on the roof, sporadic pings that built to a steady, soothing rhythm that coaxed Castiel’s eyes closed.
The next morning, Cas sat in the living room with a book, a third of the way into a pot of coffee, when Sam woke up. He padded out to the living room in boxers and a t-shirt. Rain was coming down hard, running down the windows in rivulets. They’d be soaked getting in and out of the car for interviews. It was days like this Sam wished he had a dismal office job, maybe something in IT.
“Morning,” he said, settling in the arm chair. “Sleep okay?”
Cas looked up from the page. “I slept for a few hours. I find it enjoyable.”
“Is Dean still asleep?”
“Yes.” Cas slid a notepad across the coffee table, covered in his messy uppercase scrawl. Legible handwriting was one thing Metatron hadn't been able to transfer. “I wrote down everything I know about Great Lakes mythology. The bulk of it would have been passed down through oral tradition, but there were stories in the books I was given. I thought they might be useful.”
“This is great, thanks.”
Cas smiled and lowered his eyes to the book. He jotted occasional notes in the margins or chuckled quietly. Sam caught the title when Cas lay the book down and began making breakfast—Galapagos, a paperback copy Dean had owned for years, yellowed at the edges though the pages were still crisp. Dean never marked his books, never folded down the corner of a page to mark his place. It said a lot that he allowed Cas to write in them.
Dean got up in time for pancakes and low-fat turkey sausage—probably a compromise on Dean's part, considering the look he gave them, but he stopped grousing when Cas set a container of maple syrup in front of him.
“I didn’t see you put that in the basket,” he said.
“It’s locally made,” Cas said.
Dean enthusiastically unscrewed the cap. “I love you,” he told the bottle and flooded his plate. The first bite dribbled syrup down his chin. Cas sighed adoringly and handed him a napkin.
“Are we conducting interviews today?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Dean said through a full mouth. “What time is it?”
Sam checked his watch. “Almost eight.”
“Why’d you let me sleep so late?”
“Human beings cannot survive on four hours of sleep. Eat your breakfast,” Cas said. Dean made an effort to look irritated but obeyed.
Sam rotated his laptop so they could see the route he’d mapped.
“Since there’s a pretty big distance between some of these addresses and we’ve only got one car, I don’t think it’s possible to split up the interviews. I figure we’ll start with the one farthest away and work our way back here.”
“I gotta get a shower,” Dean said, stabbing a sausage link and biting off half. “Does this place have an iron?”
“I already ironed the suits,” Cas said nonchalantly, refocused on his book. “They’re in the closet.”
“You...” Dean aimed his fork tines at Cas and looked at him with such a lovesick expression that Sam was obligated to steal a picture for blackmail purposes. Dean flicked syrup into Sam’s hair in retaliation.
Dean rubbed his temples throughout breakfast and complained of a mild headache once they’d finished cleaning up the kitchenette. He blamed it on too much sleep and refused Castiel’s offer to block the pain.
“Next time, wake me up,” he grunted. “Sam, did you pack Advil?”
“In my bag on the bathroom counter.”
It would be twenty minutes before painkillers would provide relief, but a hot shower would help immediately and Castiel knew something else that could ease headaches. He allowed Dean a minute to himself before he drew the curtain aside and stepped in.
“Can I help you?” Dean asked, blinking into the shower spray. His body perked up at Castiel’s proximity.
“Move over.” Castiel put his hands on Dean’s waist and carefully rotated their positions, so the shower rained on Castiel’s head. He rubbed a dime of shampoo into his hair. It smelled like oranges. Lather slithered to his ankles.
“Why don’t you just mojo yourself clean?” Dean muttered, trailing his finger through the soapy runoff on Castiel’s chest.
“I prefer being naked with you.”
Dean snorted. He put his hands on Castiel’s hips and guided their bodies together. “You didn’t get enough of this last night?”
Castiel shook his head and kissed Dean against the discolored tile wall.
The first interview, with the second victim’s widow, was forty-five minutes away. Upon arrival, she offered them coffee in stark white mugs. They sat in a bright living room, which carried the unmistakable odor of a recent paint job. Price tags stuck off of throw pillows like weeds. The widow's skin was tanned, as though she’d just returned from vacation. She wore no rings on either hand and asked that they call her Elaine.
“We are so sorry for your loss,” Sam said with genuine empathy. He leaned forward in his chair, clasping his hands together on his knees. He kept his voice gentle. “I know this must be difficult, but we have a few questions about your husband's death.”
“I thought his death was ruled an accident,” she said carefully, looking between them.
“This is a routine follow-up,” Sam said. “Is there anything you can tell us about the night your husband died, something you might not have been comfortable telling the police?”
“What difference does it make now?”
“Just answer the question,” Dean said. Elaine’s face darkened. Castiel feared she might order them out of her house, but Dean met her gaze in intensity.
“Steven was a drunk.” Elaine swept her hair over one shoulder. “He drank so much two nights before he died that one of his friends drove him home. He couldn't walk into the house by himself. I went to work the next morning and when I came home, he was still in bed. I've never seen him so hungover. I was furious, so I went to my sister's house for the night. I didn't come home until the next morning, and that's when I got the call that he’d been found.”
“Did you see or hear anything out of the ordinary?” Castiel asked.
“What about odd smells?” Dean asked. “Like rotten eggs. Did you smell anything like that?”
“He never took out the garbage or helped around the house, if that's what you're asking.” She motioned behind her. “I never would’ve been able to keep it like this. Turns out he had a life insurance policy I didn’t know about. Thank god they didn’t rule his death a suicide or the bank would’ve foreclosed.”
“Did he say anything to you the last time you saw him?” Sam asked. “Places he’d been, people he was with?”
Elaine pealed with laughter. She fixed her eyes on Sam and spoke with prim indifference.
“The last time I saw my husband alive, I told him we were going to be late on the electric bill, and he told me to go fuck myself. Does that answer your question, agent?”
A safe distance from the front door, Dean muttered, “Steven sounds like a real winner. Looks like she’s doing okay, though.”
“She’s better off,” Sam agreed.
“I’m curious why she remained with him, if he was abusive,” Cas said.
“He probably wasn’t always like that,” Dean said, digging a knuckle into his temple. “Sometimes these things start out solid and they kinda…” He made an explosion noise with his lips. “You forget you’re not happy.”
Sam stilled, uncertain if Dean was confessing or merely postulating. Dean lifted his head sharply as if realizing the implication of his statement and zeroed in on Cas, who watched Dean with a calm curiosity.
“I’m not talking about us.” Dean’s words were gruff, but Cas touched his arm, gently, just above the bend of his elbow.
Sam turned away to allow them privacy. He heard the embrace in the brush of their coats.
He got into the car and pulled up the map, plotting their route from where they were parked. Cas and Dean joined him momentarily.
Dean slipped on a pair of sunglasses he fished from the glove box and adjusted the rear-view mirror so he could look at Sam.
Victim four, it happened, had been skimming money from the register at the gift shop where he worked nights and had a warrant out for unpaid child support. The first had a string of affairs behind her partner’s back, and the latest had failed to report a hit-and-run that left one person dead, one in ICU. Victims three and five weren’t from the area; Sam would attempt phone interviews later.
They met with the fourth victim’s twenty-two-year-old daughter in a diner close to the lake. She ordered a cup of potato soup and sat across from them in an inexpensive polyester suit. She adjusted her nametag. Michelle. It bore the name of a local bank—given her age, she was probably a teller. Thick makeup concealed a struggle with acne and lack of sleep.
“I don’t have long,” she said, crushing two packs of Saltines into her soup. “I’m on my lunch break.”
“We just have a couple questions,” Sam said.
“Fine,” she huffed and he rattled them off. Her answers were unremarkable: Her father had a history of petty crime; her mother had left him three years ago along with their youngest child, and Michelle had been the only person willing to take him in, giving up college in the process to pay their bills. Her mother hadn’t spoken to her in eighteen months.
“Is there anything else that you didn’t mention before?” Sam asked. “Anything that seemed strange? Something he might have been complaining about?”
“No,” she said. “Well, he said his ears were bothering him but I figured he was on something.”
It wasn’t much to go on, but Sam made a note. “Did that happen often?”
“I don’t remember the last time I saw him sober.”
“I’m sorry, I meant the ringing,” Sam said.
“Oh. Yeah, sometimes.” She checked her watch, dropped a couple dollars on the table, and slid out of the booth. “I have to get back.”
“Thank you for your time,” Dean said. She didn’t acknowledge him as she left.
“This is strange,” Cas said, claiming the unoccupied side of the booth. “It would seem that whatever is behind this has some sort of moral code.”
Dean tore his gaze from the dessert case. “It’s not one of you guys, is it?”
“It’s possible angels are behind this, but the method of killing isn’t right.”
“What do you mean?” Sam said.
“These murders are passive. Something is causing these people to act in a manner that results in their death, but it’s not killing them itself. It’s acting as a catalyst.”
“I still think a curse is most likely,” Sam said.
“I sensed nothing at any of the locations,” Cas said. “No hex bags, no strange energy.”
“Must not be in their houses or on the beach. Could be at work, their cars...” Dean trailed off to flag down a server.
“Wait, are we getting dinner?” Sam said. “It’s only four.”
“Nah, I’m making pasta when we get back,” Dean said. He gave the server an easy grin. “How you doin’, sweetheart? Can I get a dutch apple pie to go?”
The rain eased on the drive to the cabin, leaving the sky overcast and thick with clouds. They brought a six-pack outside. Dean dragged out a chair from the kitchen table and placed it between the two already situated at the property’s edge. He sat in that one, with Cas and Sam on either side. The neighboring houses stood at enough of a distance that Sam had the sense the three of them were insulated against the world.
Dean opened a beer and took his first sip staring at the lake.
“This sure beats a motel,” he said.
They drank in silence. Dean slouched with his legs dropped apart. Cas sat upright with a hand on Dean’s leg, running a thumb across his knee in a manner so effortless, Sam wasn’t certain Cas realized he was doing it. Directly overhead, the clouds were bright, but a line of dark sky advanced and the distant water was black. Waves chased each other toward shore.
At one point, Sam thought he glimpsed something in the water—a diving bird, perhaps, but it bobbed at a point too far away to definitively identify. The animal slipped beneath the surface and was gone. Shivering against the building wind, Sam zipped his jacket and set his empty bottle on the ground.
“Rain’s going to start any minute,” he said.
“We can head in,” Dean said. “I should get started on dinner.”
Sam planted his hands on his knees and stood up. “I’ll get the water going,” he said.
He found a large stock pot in a base cabinet and filled it three-quarters full. The water smelled rusty, like old pipes, but the sauce would mask the flavor. He’d take that over their usual fried fare. Even though Cas preferred burgers and had no biological need to eat, Dean bought healthier food with him around, such as the garden vegetable pasta sauce that Sam heated on the stove.
Rain began to ping against the windows and roof. Sam glanced to the door, sure they’d come in at any time, but it stayed closed. He peered out the window. Cas had put an arm around Dean’s back, and Dean’s head rested on Cas’s shoulder. Thunder clapped in the distance, echoing across the lake, but Cas only turned to kiss the top of Dean’s head, wet with rain. Sam took a picture through the glass and called them inside for dinner.
He’d overcooked the pasta. The noodles stuck together, but it tasted better than it did when he prepared it at home. Sam scarfed down a plate, but Dean twirled his pasta into nests and only ate a fourth of his serving before he pushed it away and mumbled that he needed to lie down.
“You okay?” Sam asked.
“It’s just allergies,” Dean dismissed. “Probably the carpet. I felt better outside but it’s a frigging monsoon.”
“I’ve got stuff in my bag,” Sam said and Cas simultaneously extended a hand with his index and middle fingers held together, but Dean had turned his back to them. He shut himself in the bedroom. Sam covered his unfinished plate and put it in the fridge. Cas regarded his hand as though it were diseased.
“You want to watch a movie?” Sam asked, hoping to distract him. He wouldn’t have blamed Cas for following Dean into the bedroom, or if he’d asked for time alone, but he took a seat on the couch and Sam was smugly gratified.
The Shipwreck had provided the only lead in the case so far, someone who’d seen a victim on their last night, so Sam asked about it specifically when he called the families of the second and fifth victims. They weren’t forthcoming with information but confirmed the bar was listed among credit card charges, alongside stops at gas stations and gift shops. Once he’d concluded his calls, he mentioned to Cas they should head back that way, since it was possible that’s where the killer chose its targets.
Murmuring emanated from the second bedroom. Cas had left the door open when he’d gone to check on Dean. Sam couldn't make out his words, but Dean's voice was soft, vulnerable in a way Sam had never heard. It reminded him of the way Jess would whimper and bury herself in the covers when she didn’t feel well. He'd seen Dean sick plenty of times on the road, but Dean was a mean patient who refused comfort or compassion. He regularly refused painkillers, though the older they got and the stiffer his joints after a hunt, Dean’s machismo had cracked. Sam had walked in on Cas massaging Dean’s neck and shoulders in their shared motel rooms on several occasions, and he’d spied a bag of epsom salts beneath the bathroom sink in the bunker.
The low timbre of Cas's voice and the rustle of sheets created an image of Cas tucking Dean into bed, the constipated scowl Dean probably wore. He’d tucked Sam in plenty of times growing up. It was about time he had someone to do the same for him. Whether he’d admit he liked it was another thing.
Sam turned up the volume on his laptop. Classical music seemed an appropriate choice to accompany the rain. If Dean got up now, they could be out the door in twenty minutes, but Cas came out shortly and shook his head.
“He’s going to sleep.” He gestured to the pie. “Should I put that in the fridge?”
“It’s fine on the counter,” Sam said, gathering his phone and badge. “He must really feel like hell. You ready to go?”
Cas straightened his tie. “Yes. I feel bad leaving him.”
“He’ll call if there’s a problem.”
The ride was quick and quiet with the radio off. Cas drove. He parked far from the door, as Dean had taught him, and they claimed the last two bar stools. The stage area was dark; a jukebox crooned an ‘80s rock ballad.
“Agents.” The bartender greeted them with a hard expression. “I was hoping I wouldn't see you back here.”
“We don't want to cause you any trouble,” Sam said. He folded his hands on the bar in a placating manner. “My partner didn’t get your name.”
“Ronan Bell. Your partner didn't say how long you fellas were going to be in town.”
“As long as we need to be,” Cas said smoothly and Sam felt a jolt of pride at how well his coaching had improved Cas’s confidence when they were undercover. “We have jurisdiction over certain areas of federal law.”
“I don’t understand why the FBI is interested in drownings.”
“We’re interested in serial murder,” Sam clarified.
That word changed the energy in the room like a crack of lightning. Ronan blinked rapidly.
“You think...you think someone’s killing them?”
“We’re exploring the possibility,” Cas said. “Can you account for your whereabouts last Tuesday night?”
“I was here.” Ronan tossed his head to shake the hair from his face, affording Sam a better look. He conceded that Ronan did look familiar. Not like the actor Dean had mentioned, but maybe someone they’d worked with. His eyes, gray as the lake in low light, flicked back and forth between Sam and Cas.
“I assume you have someone who can confirm that,” Sam said.
“I’m here every night. Ask anyone.”
“Surely you go home,” Cas said.
“I live out back.”
“Alone?” Sam asked.
“Mostly. Sometimes my sister sleeps on my couch. She’s kind of a drifter. Moves around a lot.”
Sam leaned forward, allowing his shoulders to relax. If he appeared calm, it might have a similar effect on Ronan. “Was your sister in town last Tuesday?”
“She’s been here a couple months.”
“We need to speak with her.”
Ronan’s nostrils flared. He rubbed his nose and shook his head. “I don’t know where she is right now.”
“When you hear from her, please have her give us a call.” Sam snapped a business card on the bar. Ronan hesitated before sliding it toward him with one finger.
“Of course,” he said. Someone coughed to get his attention and waved an empty pint glass. “I have to take care of my customers. If you’re staying, you need to order something. Bar policy.”
They got two craft ales and clinked the bottles against each other, drinking in silence for a couple songs. A pretty middle-aged woman sat down next to Cas when the stool opened up and engaged him in conversation. She angled her petite body toward him, crossing her legs and nodding when he spoke. Sam drank his beer, biting the inside of his cheeks to keep from laughing at Cas’s ignorance of such obvious flirtation. He was friendly but professional in his responses, like this was another interview. He even showed her his badge.
“Eight years,” Cas answered to her question about how long he’d been with the bureau.
“Can I buy you a drink?” She touched his hand; her fingers were stacked with silver rings and Sam felt a spike of jealousy on Dean’s behalf.
“I have a boyfriend,” Cas said, understanding her motive. He sounded disappointed. He pulled up into his shoulders and withdrew his hand.
“So?” the woman asked playfully.
“You should find another seat.”
She slid off her stool. “Jackass,” she hissed. She gave Sam a crude once-over and he watched the exaggerated sway of her hips as she walked away.
Cas scooted as far forward as possible, resting his elbows on the bar and folding his hands in front of him. He sat quietly for a minute, focused on the wall behind the bar, then checked his phone. No messages.
“So, you and Dean…” Sam nudged Cas in the ribs. “You’re putting labels on it now?”
“He called it a relationship this afternoon, so I figure I’m entitled.”
“I hope he comes around to the idea,” Sam said, chuckling. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my brother this happy. You’re good for each other. I’d like be able to call you my brother-in-law before I’m eighty.”
Cas’s smile reached his eyes, spilling into the creases around them.
“And I you,” he said, sounding deeply touched, “although a legal union would be difficult in our situation.”
“We’ll fake the certificate. We can have a ceremony and you two can take a long honeymoon, so I don’t have to listen to you have sex in the next bed.”
“I told Dean I was afraid you’d overheard that. I apologize.”
“Dean’s caught me in plenty of compromising positions before, believe me.” He grinned at Cas. “We’re on the road a lot. It’s not fair of me to expect you to leave that part of your lives at home. Just...keep it down. There’s stuff about my brother I don’t need to know.”
They stayed for two hours, observing nothing overtly strange in the behavior of the bar’s patrons, and spoke with a dozen people who agreed that Steven Parker was bad news but had no memory of who he left with. A woman confirmed that she’d seen the sixth victim the night he died, because she’d caught him harassing someone outside the bathroom and had him thrown out.
The performer Dean had spoken to the night before, Jennie, arrived just before ten. There wasn’t much to do back at the cabin, so they hung out until her set ended at forty after. She took her break at the bar, sitting beside a man with a green trucker’s hat and an uneven ginger beard. He was so drunk, he’d barely kept his eyes open when Sam talked to him, and that had been an hour ago. When they left, he was talking to Jennie, who was doing her best to ignore him in favor of Ronan.
“Maybe they are accidents,” Sam admitted a mile out from the cabin. He strained against a pair of approaching headlights that stabbed the windshield. The wipers were a metronome for the storm. “There was nothing at the scene, and nothing in any of the reports that supports the idea that a second person was present. Dean’ll be pissed that we drove all this way.”
They drove a quarter mile in silence apart from the thunder, and Sam wondered if Cas had even heard what he said when sudden brightness indicated Cas had taken out his phone. He studied a photograph, the object he’d found the first morning on the beach, pinching the screen to enlarge it.
“I trust your instincts,” he said.
Dean was asleep when they returned. Castiel sat up with Sam for twenty minutes, watching a late-night news broadcast, then undressed and got into bed. He fit himself against Dean’s back and wormed a hand over his side to rest over Dean’s heart, holding him tighter with each roll of thunder.
During the night, Dean became restless. He rolled onto his side and his back, throwing the covers off of them both before stumbling out of bed. The bathroom faucet switched on and ran for a few seconds, long enough for him to splash his face and neck, bring a palmful of water to his lips. Castiel heard him swallow and the muffled sound of a towel shaking open. Dean’s hairline was damp when he returned to bed and buried his face in Castiel’s neck.
“What’s the matter?” Castiel asked. Dean’s shoulder was cool where he touched it. He rubbed it to warm him up.
“Think I’m coming down with something. I feel like I got run over by a truck, and I’ve been hit by a truck before.”
“Please let me help.”
Lightning strobed through the room. Dean rocked his head, slowly, back and forth against Castiel’s skin.
“That’s cheating. Go back to sleep.”
“If you won’t allow me to heal you, at least let me do something.”
Sighing, Dean sat up so that Castiel could rub his temples. Castiel could lessen Dean’s pain, release the grace spooled in each fingertip and prevent Dean’s body from registering hurt, but he resisted. That wasn’t what Dean wanted. He applied pressure to a knot in Dean’s neck and the response was a soft, pleased noise—almost a cry. Dean dropped his chin toward his chest and Castiel massaged the tightness in his shoulders and back, checking his body for swollen lymph nodes. There were none. He scratched his fingernails over Dean’s scalp and kissed behind his ear, where his skin was softest. Dean felt for Castiel’s other hand and guided it between his legs.
“I thought you weren’t feeling well,” Castiel murmured, brushing his hand across Dean’s whisper-thin boxers.
Dean chuckled quietly. “Thought you wanted to help.”
Castiel pulled Dean back against his chest, so his head fell against Castiel’s shoulder, and wrapped a fist around him. He would never tire of reducing Dean to whimpers or the privilege of holding him. Outside the storm roared. Castiel whispered endearments against his cheek and Dean panted a beautiful, breathy staccato against the percussion of rain. Castiel gave into the urge to kiss him, craning his head so his lips met the corner of Dean’s mouth. Dean groaned, tensing in Castiel’s arms, and went still. The cabin trembled in the wind.
“I needed that,” Dean said. His eyes were closed. “Give me a minute and I’ll help you out.”
Castiel kissed his racing pulse. “You’ll be asleep in a minute.”
“Probably. You gonna be okay?”
“I survived for millennia without sex.”
“Promise I’ll make it real good next time.”
Castiel kissed Dean tenderly and got up to wash his hands, returning a minute later to find Dean standing with a hand against the rain-soaked window, halos of fog around each fingertip.
“Dean?” He kissed his bare shoulder and the curve of his neck, capturing Dean’s hand on the glass. Lightning split the darkness, stretching like a network of veins across the sky, and revealed the menacing clouds that loomed over the lake. It caught Dean’s fleeting smile.
“It’s one hell of a storm.”
Dean’s headache had worsened by morning. The thunder had stopped, but rain cascaded off of the roof. The lake reflected the gray sky. He took his coffee outside and sat in a kitchen chair beneath the eave, never taking his eyes off of the lake. Cas made toast and ate at the table with Sam, keeping watch on Dean through the window.
Dean was in no shape to travel, and since the weather report predicted the storm would only grow more intense as the day advanced, Sam planned on a day of research and reviewing case notes. He made a full pot of coffee and settled on the couch, encouraging Cas to join him.
“He’s stubborn. His suffering is unnecessary,” Cas said.
“Give him another day and he might change his mind. Did he sleep at all?”
“Three hours. He was restless.”
Sam’s phone lit up with Sheriff Reynolds’ name. They’d found another victim, on a beach about six miles away. Sighing, Sam did a mental check to determine which of his shirts was the cleanest and bid farewell to his lazy day on the couch.
Despite the migraine, Dean put on a suit and insisted on going with them to the scene. Cas said that he would drive. Irritation flickered over Dean’s face but he surrendered his keys and they made a run for the carport. Inside the car, he pecked Cas on the lips and turned the radio off. Sam climbed in the backseat without comment.
The body lay face-down beneath a black tarp, ten feet from the water line. The thick soles of his boots were visible. Members of the sheriff's department had sectioned off the area and guarded the perimeter, waving off curious onlookers huddling beneath their umbrellas. One man snapped pictures with his iPhone. Sam grimaced at the callous attitude toward death.
“We got the call a little less than an hour ago,” Sheriff Reynolds said. She was a striking woman in her late forties: black hair secured in a practical bun, dark skin, and tall—just an inch shorter than Cas. Sam didn’t feel like a giant speaking to her. Rain thumped off of her umbrella. She tilted it in order to look him in the eye and gestured toward the body with her chin. “The coroner’s on her way, but I’d bet this one is just like the others.”
“May I?” Sam asked.
She held her umbrella over the body to keep it dry as Sam lifted a corner of the tarp. The man’s face was ashen and bloated like a dead fish, fringed with a patchy reddish beard. Beside the body lay a trucker’s cap. The victim’s neck and exposed wrists were devoid of any markings, and his clothing hadn’t been torn—it didn’t appear foul play had been involved. Sam crouched to examine a thumb-sized bruise on the victim’s left temple. He took a photograph and replaced the tarp, glancing over his shoulder for Dean, so he could ask his opinion.
Dean stood at the water’s edge. He’d left Cas with their umbrella. He must’ve seen something, maybe a piece of evidence in the surf, because he took a step into the lake. It washed over his shoes and he took another. Another.
He didn’t bend down, didn’t retrieve anything from the rocks. The water rose to mid-calf, likely freezing, and Dean went still.
“Agent Rosewater?” Sam called calmly, not wanting to alarm the sheriff, but with enough concern in his voice to alert Cas, who was several yards away interviewing a deputy. It worked. Cas raised his head to squint in Dean’s direction. He excused himself and walked briskly to Dean’s side.
Sam stayed underneath the sheriff's umbrella and toyed with the knot on his tie to distract himself from the internal voice telling him something was wrong. He couldn’t risk drawing unnecessary attention to the way Dean was acting, lest someone question their cover and make a call to the Detroit office. He remarked on the victim’s bruise to the sheriff, showing her the image on his phone.
“I just can’t believe this.” She spoke quietly, confiding in him. Sam gave her a consoling smile and nodded, hoping she’d continue. “You hear about these things happening, but not where you live.”
“I know it’s difficult. That’s why we’re here to help.”
Cas strode into the lake. He put a hand on Dean’s lower back and guided him away from the water, holding an umbrella over both of them. Dean looked at his shoes, the wet pants clinging to his calves, and blinked sluggishly. He shook his head in response to a question and ducked away from Cas’s hand.
“Looks like your partner ruined his shoes,” Sheriff Reynolds said when Cas and Dean walked past, toward the staircase that led up to the road. Cas would likely escort Dean to the car and come back for Sam with the umbrella, but he could suffer the ride with wet hair. He’d make a run for it.
“He’s, uh, thorough,” Sam said, putting his phone in his pocket to keep it dry. He shook the sheriff’s hand. “When the coroner’s report is in, please give me a call. I’m going to check on my partner.”
“You want to explain what the hell that was about?” Sam asked as soon as he’d climbed into the car. Dean had taken off his overcoat and had the heat cranked to high. He held his hands over the vents and wouldn’t allow Castiel to touch him.
“Dean?” Sam said.
“I don’t know, alright?” Dean snapped.
He didn’t turn around. None of them spoke while Castiel drove back to the cabin, but the concern in Sam’s eyes matched the fear Castiel felt like lightning throughout his body.
Dean got out of the car with the engine still running and stormed inside, leaving them alone. He slammed the door behind him.
“Did he tell you anything?” Sam asked after a minute. The rain had flattened his hair. Castiel wondered if this was what books meant when they described someone as looking like a drowned rat.
“No,” he said.
“There was a green hat next to the victim an awful lot like the one that guy had on last night. You remember--the one who could barely speak when we interviewed him? He was talking to the singer when we left.”
Castiel took a moment to process what Sam was implying. “You think she’s involved,” he said.
“She talked to Dean, and Dean’s acting strange. We have to ask him about her.”
They sat together in the car for a beat, and on the count of three went inside.
In the main room, hopping on one leg, Dean attempted to peel the wet suit pants from his legs. Castiel gathered his water-logged shoes and put them in the bathtub to dry. He changed into dry clothes and had peanut butter sandwiches with Sam, waiting for Dean to finish showering and calm down.
Dean emerged a while later in sweatpants and bare feet. He took a beer from the refrigerator and held it against his forehead.
“It’s eleven in the morning,” Sam said.
“And I feel like shit. Can’t open my eyes.”
“It looked like your head felt better when we were at the scene,” Sam said. Dean sat at the table and caught his face in his palm.
“Yeah, I thought so too, but it’s twice as bad.”
“Do you think food would help? We haven’t touched that pie.”
“Not right now.”
Castiel leaned across the table. “Dean…”
“What? I’ll eat later.”
“The woman you spoke to at the bar...”
“What woman—the singer?”
“We saw her with the latest victim last night. We think she might be causing whatever this is,” Sam said. “You’re the only one of us that had a conversation with her. You might be under her influence.”
“When you spoke with her, were you tempted?” Castiel asked. A simple question, but Dean recoiled like he’d been slapped. He lifted his face from his hand and looked at Castiel with fury.
“You don’t trust me?”
His words were acidic. Castiel, realizing the way his question must’ve sounded, immediately reached for Dean’s hand.
“You've been under a siren's influence before,” he explained, brushing a thumb over his knuckles. “Is this anything like last time?”
“Last time, the siren was a cool guy I liked hanging out with who told me to ice my brother,” Dean said gruffly. “This is nothing like that.”
“Then what’s it like?” Sam asked.
“She didn’t come on to me, if that’s what you’re asking. Fact, she seemed pretty glad to get rid of me. She wasn't thrilled when she saw the badge.”
“It might be an act,” Sam said. “What about your head?”
“Feels like my brain’s gonna explode through my temples.”
“Why did you go in the water?”
Dean sniffed and pulled his hands into his lap as though self conscious, then got up and went to the window.
“I don’t know. I didn’t even notice my feet were wet ‘til Cas pulled me out.”
“You don’t remember going into the water?” Castiel asked.
“My head didn’t hurt so bad, the closer I got to it. I just kept walking. It didn’t feel cold. Didn’t feel like anything. Like I was sleepwalking.”
“You’re tired. Why don’t you go lie down,” Castiel said. “I’ll check on you in a while.”
Rather than argue, Dean shut himself in the bedroom. Sam looked at Castiel with a tight mouth.
“We’ve gotta find that singer, figure out what she is and what she did to him.”
“If it is a curse, it would take a powerful witch to perform one of this magnitude,” Castiel said.
“But it’s not impossible.”
“No. But I’ve searched the whole cabin and the car—there’s nothing physical causing his ailments. We would need leverage in order to convince her to reverse it.”
“And if she won’t, then what?” Sam sighed. “I think we have to restrain him. If the water’s got some sort of hold on him, we can’t leave him here alone.”
Castiel stared at the closed bedroom door. “I’ll see what we have in the trunk.”
Sam had a folding pocket mirror in his travel bag. He set it on the table along with a bronze dagger and the supplies Castiel had retrieved from the Impala, including a pair of handcuffs.
“Do you want me to do it?” Sam offered. “He’ll be pissed at me instead of you.”
“He’ll be mad either way,” Castiel said.
He knocked before he entered the bedroom. Dean was a statue in silhouette beside the window. He had the lights off, the comforter from the bed wrapped around him. The stripped bed stood out like a corpse. Castiel laid the handcuffs and empty vial on the nightstand and crossed to him slowly, clearing his throat to make his presence known. Dean had refused his touch earlier, but Castiel chanced putting a hand on his shoulder and waited. Minutes passed.
“I’m sorry,” Dean said finally.
Castiel accepted the apology by massaging Dean’s neck with his thumbs, working his fingers into his hair to rub his scalp. He stroked Dean’s temple, pushing the grace only as far as his skin, and asked, “Did you change your mind yet?”
“Nope.” Dean pulled away from him and lay down on the bed, facing the window.
“Dean…” Castiel sat on the edge, careful not to block his view. He curved a hand over Dean’s cheek, but Dean never took his eyes from the glass.
“No point dulling it. I’m the only clue we got.”
Castiel sighed. He carded his fingers through Dean’s hair, since it was what Dean would allow.
“Sam’s doing a background check on the singer. Unfortunately, she has a common name. If his theory is correct, we might need some of your blood. Can you give me your arm?”
“Why do you need it now?” Dean read into Castiel’s answering silence and struggled upright. “You’re not going without me.”
“If she does have a hold on you, she could try to turn you against us.”
“Or she could snag either one of you! How do you know you’re not under her influence now?”
“I am being reasonable! I’m not about to let my brother and my—you—fight this thing on your own.”
“In your state, you’re a liability,” Castiel said. “If Sam were the one affected, you would never put him in harm’s way.”
“Yeah, Sammy, not me.”
“I will not risk losing you.”
Dean slumped against the pillows. “What’s your plan?”
“If she’s a siren, her reflection will reveal her true nature. Sam’s trying to locate her address, but she doesn’t have a driver’s license, so we’re going to wait at the bar for her to arrive. She’s scheduled to perform tonight.”
“Alright. Place doesn’t have windows. If you gank her, do it in the parking lot. Fewer witnesses.” Dean blinked glassy eyes. “Do you have to kill her the old-fashioned way, or can you...”
He put his palm on Castiel’s forehead and mimed a grace killing.
“Yes, but I want Sam to be prepared in case something should happen to me.”
“Right. Yeah, that’s...that’s good.”
“I’ll keep him safe,” Castiel promised.
Sam knocked on the door. “Cas, you ready?”
“In a minute.”
“I’ll be in the car,” Sam called. They heard the front door open and close, the rumble of the Impala’s engine.
“Get outta here,” Dean said. “You call me as soon as you know something.”
“I need your blood,” Castiel reminded him, holding up the vial.
Dean gave up his arm, wincing when Castiel switched on the light. He hissed as the vial began to fill. Castiel stroked a finger over the incision to close it and kissed Dean’s forearm and his wrist and each of his fingertips.
He held out the handcuffs and Dean shrunk from him.
“What the hell?”
“Sam and I think it would be best,” Castiel explained, securing one cuff around the headboard.
“Oh, do you and Sam think that?” Dean spit out. “What do you think I’m going to do, fling myself into the lake?”
“I won’t take that risk.”
Castiel didn’t force Dean’s arm into the cuff, but he held it open and waited for Dean’s consent. His anger flickered. Castiel watched him struggle against the pain in his head. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot. They grew liquid the longer the light remained on, leaking wet trails down his face.
Castiel folded Dean into his chest and rocked gently. Dean tucked his face, damp with tears, into Castiel’s neck. He clung to him in a way that communicated his need for reassurance and Castiel kissed him, kissed his love into Dean’s cheek and his forehead and nose and the seam of Dean’s lips.
Dean relinquished his arm and Castiel secured him to the bed. “Your phone is on the nightstand. Call if you need anything.”
He didn’t say he was sorry. He wasn’t, not if it would save Dean’s life. Under his anger, Dean knew that. Castiel switched off the light and Dean turned toward the lake.
Sam checked the rear-view mirror even though no one had been behind them for the last mile. He had the wipers on full to keep up with the rain.
“I went over your notes about local legends while you were in with Dean,” he said. “One thing stuck out: The Storm Hag of Lake Erie. It was a demonic siren that was blamed for shifts in weather patterns that caused shipwrecks.”
“You think the legend has truth to it?” Cas asked.
“It’s been raining pretty much non-stop since we got here. I pulled up more information online. One of her nicknames was Jenny Greenteeth. She supposedly had long nails that contained a paralytic poison. That could explain why people don’t react to the cold.”
Cas nodded slowly but said, “Dean doesn’t have any scratches.”
Sam knew better than to ask if Cas was certain after yesterday’s morning shower antics; they’d used up all of the hot water. He had no doubt they’d given each other a thorough inspection.
“Maybe that part comes later,” he said, trying to shake the image of his brother and Cas naked. “The initial attraction could be due to her voice. Dean commented on it.”
Sam parked against the building, so it was only a couple steps to escape the rain. He was willing to risk a dent over being soggy for the evening. He ducked inside to check if Jennie had arrived. The microphone was set up in the corner, but the jukebox wailed. She wasn’t at the bar. He went back outside to wait with Cas.
It was dry under the eave, and despite the rain, the temperature was mild. They waited outside for her to arrive. Sam had the bronze dagger tucked into the waistband of his pants, the vial of Dean’s blood in his jacket pocket. If things went according to plan, Cas would take her out and he wouldn’t have to use either.
“It’ll take a while getting used to seeing you in that coat,” Sam said, motioning to the tailored black wool that fell to Cas’s knees. They’d bought it at a thrift shop, specifically for this trip. If Cas was going to be a hunter, Dean said he’d better dress like one. Cas hadn’t yet adjusted to a life in plaid. He wore the suit jacket less often, but Sam rarely saw him without a shirt and tie.
Cas examined the front of his coat with dispassion. “Dean says it’s less conspicuous.”
“What do you think?”
“The cut is nicer. I suppose I look official.”
“You don’t like it,” Sam laughed.
“I’d grown used to the other one.”
“You certainly wore it long enough.”
“I didn’t see a reason to change. I was able to maintain my appearance, and I suppose there was a part of me that believed it wasn’t necessary to assimilate because, eventually, I’d go home.”
Cas’s intonation disclosed his regret. Sam gently nudged his shoulder.
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re here. I don’t just mean on this case, Cas. I mean I’m glad you’re with us, that you’ve got a home with us.”
There was a shine to Cas’s eyes that hadn’t been there a moment ago. “That means a great deal to me.”
They fell into a comfortable silence. From inside the bar, a familiar base line throbbed, but Sam lost himself to the patter of rain and rested his head against the building’s rough siding. In the span of a half-hour, the puddles in the parking lot swelled, rising by inches. Their shoes would be soaked getting to the car, joining Dean’s to dry in the cabin’s bathroom.
At a quarter to ten, a late-’90s Taurus swung into the gravel lot and parked at an angle near the door. Rain hissed off of the hood. Jennie ran toward them with her fur coat held above her head.
“She drove,” Cas observed. “I thought she doesn’t have a driver’s license.”
“You don’t have a driver’s license.”
“I have Jimmy’s,” Cas said, and Sam wasn’t entirely sure that he was joking.
“I’ll talk to her,” he said under his breath. “Use the mirror once she’s distracted.”
Jennie stopped beside them under the eave. Her coat smelled musky, like a wet dog. Around her ears, the hair curled where it had gotten wet.
“Jennifer Williams?” Sam held out his badge. “I’m Agent Hoover and this is Agent Trout. We need to ask you some questions.”
She blinked water from her eyes. “I’ve got a set in ten minutes.”
“This won’t take that long,” said Cas. “We need to know your whereabouts last night.”
“I performed until midnight, stayed through last call. Went home.”
“Alone?” Sam asked.
“Do you recall speaking with this man last night?” Cas passed her a DMV photograph of the latest victim. Jennie glimpsed it and huffed.
“That guy? Yeah, I made the mistake of sitting next to him. He kept offering to buy me drinks even though I refused. Stayed through my second set and finally left.”
“Did you see if he left with anyone?”
“No. All I know is he wasn’t in the parking lot when I left. Hold my purse?”
She thrust it into Sam’s hands and gathered her hair into a knot. Seizing the opportunity he’d literally been handed, he fumbled the purse and let the contents spill onto the ground.
“I’m so sorry!” he lied, kneeling to examine them while he feigned putting them back. Typical purse contents: a wallet, cell phone, power cord, a protein bar, three colors of lip gloss. No hex bags, nothing out of the ordinary. Jennie hastily knelt and scooped the remaining items into her bag.
“I’ve been meaning to replace this thing,” she said with a defeated sigh, palming a white compact. “The latch is broken.”
Sam helped her to her feet, apologizing again for his clumsiness.
“I hope nothing’s ruined,” he said. She opened the compact and touched up underneath her eyes, where her mascara had run like spider legs.
“It’s all crap anyway,” she said.
The sideways rain forced them to stand with their backs against the building to avoid getting wet. Sam was able to view the compact over her shoulder. It contained a mirror three inches in diameter, large enough that Sam was able to catch her reflection before she snapped it closed: fair, freckled skin and wet hair. A human’s reflection. Sam glanced to Cas and shook his head. The dagger pressed uselessly into his hip.
“Did you need anything else, agents?” Jennie looked them both in the eye. “If not, I need to get inside.”
“No, that’s all for now,” Sam said, moving away from the building to allow Jennie to stay covered. Rain sprayed his right leg from ankle to knee. “Thank you for your time, Miss Williams. And, uh, break a leg.”
“Thanks.” She smiled and went inside.
“There goes the siren theory,” Sam said when it was just the two of them, in the privacy of the Impala. He’d moved the car to the edge of the lot, against a line of trees, and impatiently watched the temperature gauge, waiting for the needle to move before he turned on the heat.
“Are you certain you got a good look?” Cas asked.
“Positive. I’ll never forget that thing. It was like a walking corpse. Did you get anything from her?”
“Nothing,” Cas said.
“We’ll check her car. Keep a tail on her, see where she goes after this. Search her house.”
“What if it’s not her?”
Sam shook the hair back from his face. “Then we look for someone else with Dean’s symptoms, trace them to a common denominator. Maybe we have the species wrong.”
“No one we interviewed mentioned a migraine,” Cas said.
“No, but the last victim had a bruise on his temple, like he’d been rubbing it too hard. Look.” Sam showed Cas the photo on his phone of the body on the beach. “The first woman we interviewed said she’d never seen her husband so hungover, and the girl—the one we met with in the diner—her father had ringing in his ears.”
“You believe that’s why they drown themselves? Because the pain is intolerable?”
“It’s the best I’ve got,” Sam said.
The needle on the temperature gauge jumped and Sam gratefully turned on the heat. He crossed his arms to conserve his body heat and settled in the front seat. Cas composed a message to Dean, letting him know they’d be a while.
“How was he before we left?” Sam asked.
“Miserable enough to pick those cuffs?”
Cas received a one-letter reply to his text—“k.”
“He’s fine for now,” he said. “I’ll call him later. It probably hurt to use the keyboard.”
“Maybe he’ll get some sleep...” Sam broke off yawning.
“Why don’t you rest for a while,” Cas said. “I’ll check the car and take the first watch.”
The search of Jennie's car was quick and easy, because she hadn't locked the doors. Castiel checked the front and back seats, the glove compartment and the trunk, lifting the floor mats the way Dean and Sam had taught him, feeling the roof of the car for any strange bumps. There were no hidden compartments, no bags or bits of ingredients, and no residual signs of magic. The car was clean, and Castiel was convinced Jennie was not a witch.
People trickled in and out of the bar all evening. Few realized they were being watched by someone in the long, black car on the edge of the parking lot. Jennie took two breaks outside at 11:48pm and 1:06am, but she didn't look in Castiel's direction.
Shortly past 2am, which he understood to be last call, he observed an exodus out the front door. The last patron stumbled out of the bar and clambered into a banged-up Toyota. It coughed to life and lurched onto the road, its back tire catching on the curb before the car sped around a corner and squealed out of view. The bar’s exterior lights switched off.
Jennie’s car was where she had left it. Castiel hadn't observed her leave with any of the other patrons, so the only explanation was that Jennie was still inside, perhaps talking with the bartender. Dean had taught him that “closing time” didn't apply if you were in good with management.
To be safe, he woke Sam, who agreed that Jennie was probably having a drink while Ronan closed the bar, but after giving her a reasonable amount of time to leave, he got out to check. He returned soaked through, shaking his head.
“The lights are off,” he said, shutting the door. “There’s no one inside. Door’s locked. Are you sure she didn't come out the front?”
“Both times I saw her, she went back inside.”
“Dammit. She must have gone out another door.”
“What about her car?”
“I took down the license plate,” Sam said. “I’ll have the sheriff run a trace on it in the morning, find out who it’s registered to.”
“Unless you want to check out every beach in the area, we’re not going to find anything tonight. We might as well head back.”
The roads were empty, so they made it home within minutes. Castiel entered as quietly as possible and went straight to the bedroom.
“Dean?” he whispered, but it was immediately apparent that Dean was not in bed. The covers were thrown back, comforter twisted off the end of the mattress. The handcuffs swung abandoned from the headboard.
“Dean?” Castiel called at full voice, checking the bathroom before he allowed himself to panic—maybe he’d locked himself in there to avoid all light—but the bathroom was empty. So was Sam’s bedroom. Dean’s boots lay just inside the door.
“Dean’s not here,” he said to Sam, who’d just come inside. He grabbed a flashlight and they searched the carport and the perimeter of the house. Sam swept the light over the cars parked outside the adjacent cabin.
“Maybe he hot-wired something,” he said, but Castiel shook his head.
“He couldn’t drive in his state. He can barely open his eyes.”
The flashlight caught on a footprint in the mud, a bare human foot about Dean’s size. Castiel walked the direction it pointed, hoping for a trail. He spotted the second print three yards away emerging from a puddle and reconstructed Dean’s path toward the water.
Castiel and Sam skidded down the wet incline. Sam aimed the flashlight at the beach and it caught on Dean, motionless, several yards from the shore in waist-deep water. His arms hung at his sides, extruding from a thin t-shirt clinging to his skin. The rain had flattened the hair to his scalp and he was shivering.
“Dean!” Sam yelled.
Dean startled at Sam’s voice, pivoting toward them. Even in the moonlight and through driving rain, Castiel could see the agony on Dean’s face in the deep lines around his eyes and the tension in his forehead. He looked at Castiel, but there was a wildness to his expression, as though he didn’t quite recognize him.
“Keep talking to him. He responded to you,” Castiel called to Sam. He entered the water with his hands raised in a placating gesture, concerned that Dean might struggle or try to swim to deeper water. He did neither. He followed the sound of his brother’s voice and willingly fell against Castiel’s chest, going limp in his arms when Castiel lifted him out of the lake and carried him to shore.
“We need to get him warm,” Sam said, holding out a hand to help Castiel up the incline. He ran ahead of them and got the door open, fetching the blankets from their room and a stack of towels.
They stripped Dean of his soaked clothes and wrapped him in the blanket. Castiel laid him on the couch and put a hand on Dean’s forehead. He took rapid, shallow breaths and his lips were pale.
“Dean?” Sam said, kneeling beside his legs. His suit was ruined, skin clammy and pink with cold, but he focused entirely on his brother. Dean’s eyes fluttered open. He looked at Sam for several seconds without reaction, and his eyes slid closed. Sam shook Dean with a firm hand on his ankle.
“Dean? Hey. Hey, stay with us.”
Dean didn’t respond. Castiel warmed him with his grace, directing his energy into Dean’s skin through his palm. Contact wasn’t necessary to heal, but with Dean he couldn’t help but touch him. His life force flowed between them and Dean’s skin, buzzing with celestial energy, gradually warmed against Castiel’s hand. He opened his eyes.
“Do you know where you are?” Castiel asked. Dean convulsed and his teeth clacked next to Castiel’s ear when he bent to listen for a response.
“I know. I’m going to make it stop. You need to hold still.”
Healing a human body required little precision: mending tissue, replicating blood cells. With assistance, they did most of the work themselves. Interfering with physiology was more difficult. Castiel wound his grace around every synapse in an effort to block Dean’s pain at its source. It wouldn’t stop the pain indefinitely, but it would give him a reprieve. Castiel knew he’d been successful when Dean's face softened, blossoming into an expression almost blissful.
“I should’ve let you do that sooner.”
“Perhaps you won’t fight me next time,” Castiel said.
“You two play nicely,” Sam said. He sounded relieved. He patted Dean’s legs and stood up. “I’m getting a hot shower.”
“How long were you in the water?” Castiel asked, petting Dean’s hair once they were alone. It had begun to dry in the front
“I got no idea. I barely remember picking the handcuffs. Next thing I know, I’m staring at you two.”
“We’re not leaving you alone again. We shouldn’t have left you tonight.”
“I shouldn’t have questioned you and Sam. You had every right to lock me up.”
“How do you feel?”
“Cheated. Everyone knows the best way to treat hypothermia is full-body contact and I’m the only one naked.”
“I promise to indulge you later, but you need to eat while you feel well enough.”
Dean perked up. “We still got that pie?”
He’d made a significant dent in it, dropping crumbs on his lap and the sofa, when Sam joined them, showered and dressed, in the living room. Castiel made tea. Dean scoffed at being told to drink leaf juice, but he accepted the largest mug and conceded it wasn’t terrible. Castiel wrapped a dry blanket around his shoulders and wouldn’t hear a protest when he pulled Dean against his side in spite of Sam’s presence. He’d resigned himself to losing Dean—he supposed it was inevitable—but not today. He put an arm around Dean and nudged his temple repeatedly, pushing more grace into him to replenish what he’d left.
“There’s a possibility we’re focusing on the wrong person,” Sam said. “We need to eliminate everyone you’ve come into contact with since we got here.”
“Well, there’s the sheriff, but she said she only knew a couple of the vics,” Dean said. “Two were from out of town.”
“She’s got a fifteen-year record on the force. No reason to think she’s lying,” Sam said. “And I handled check-in. The proprietor seems like a shut-in, but he hasn’t come into contact with you, so I think we can rule him out.”
“Agreed,” Dean said.
“We can eliminate the victims’ families and co-workers as well,” Castiel said. “Even if they benefitted from the deaths, what point would there be to hurt the others?”
“Doesn’t add up,” Dean said. “Cas and me stopped for groceries the first night. I don’t remember talking to the clerk, but it’s possible everyone shopped there.”
“What about someone at the museum?” Castiel said. “We toured that the day we got in.”
“Yeah, but it’s a tourist attraction,” Dean said. “You really think locals went in there?”
“It didn’t come up in interviews,” Sam said, thumbing through his notes. “That bar is the only thing we know for certain they all had in common.”
“You two interviewed the patrons,” Dean said. “The only other person I talked to was the bartender.”
Sam appeared to consider that. “You know, he had contact with all of the victims and he handled all of our drinks—he could’ve slipped you something.”
“He told me he’s lived up here his whole life,” Dean said. “Why would he suddenly start killing people in his own backyard?”
“Because it’s in his nature?” Sam said. He began typing rapidly and tapped the trackpad several times. “It might not be new behavior. Maybe he was targeting vagrants before, people no one would miss.”
“You’re back on sirens again,” Dean scoffed. “Since when do they set up shop?”
“It’s not unheard of,” Castiel said. “In Greek legend, they lived on an island and caused shipwrecks. A bar isn’t dissimilar.”
“Except that it is,” Dean said.
“No, I think Cas has a point,” Sam said. Dean made a disapproving noise, but he continued. “It’s got a central location, guaranteed visitors, not to mention alcohol compromises logic—they wouldn’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late. And—” He spun the laptop around. “He only incorporated five years ago. He could’ve moved from somewhere else.”
“You said he resembled someone,” Castiel recalled, turning to meet Dean’s eye.
“That’s right, you said he looked like John Stamos!” Sam said. “Which was weird because he doesn’t, but I figured you were exhausted from the drive.”
“So?” Dean snapped.
“Didn’t you have a thing for him growing up? All those Full House reruns? You used to blame that on me, but I know you liked that show.”
“I think Stamos is Greek, too, or at least partly. Thing’s got a sense of humor.” He took a sip of tea and sat back. “Did you notice if there were any mirrors in the bar?”
Dean scrubbed a hand over the lower half of his face and turned to the window. His voice was hoarse. “I don’t remember any. The wall behind the bar was solid.”
“It would explain the frosted glasses, and there were no windows,” Sam recalled. “Less chance of people seeing a reflection that way.”
“Assuming we’re correct, why Dean?” Castiel said. “This thing is targeting abusers and thieves. He’s neither one.”
“Depends on your perspective,” Dean muttered. He winced and leaned forward, catching his face in both hands. “You said Jennie went into the bar but never came out. I think your prime suspect just became the latest victim. You guys up for a home visit?”
At first glance, Ronan's house appeared abandoned. Weeds grew along the front like bushes and climbed the brick chimney, which crumbled at its peak. Both windows along the drooping porch were boarded up.
“Are you sure he lives here?” Sam asked.
Dean leaned over the steering wheel, peering up at the second-story windows and peeling white paint. “That’s what he told me.”
“There’s a light on downstairs,” Cas said.
Dean reached in his coat and took out his various weapons, handing them to Sam. He laid them on the seat: the hunting knife Dean used so often he’d worn the handle smooth, the switchblade he kept in an inside pocket. Dean tossed his lighter beside them and absently rubbed his neck.
“It’s probably best if I’m not armed,” he said.
Sam nodded, but Cas took a different approach.
“We won’t let you hurt anyone,” he promised. Dean dipped his head, licking his lips in the way he did when he was gathering his thoughts. He was focused on a point on the seat between them that Sam couldn't see.
“You remember the talk we had, when I had the Mark? About what you’d do if I…”
Dean spoke to Cas in a slow, cryptic tone. He wasn't going to elaborate. Whatever their past conversation had been, Dean didn’t want Sam to know the details. But Cas obviously followed. He shifted nearer to Dean, until their noses were only an inch from brushing together.
“This is nothing like the Mark.”
“Same rule applies,” Dean said, still looking down. “Anything happens, you do your thing.”
“I won’t promise that.”
“Cas, don’t make me beg.”
Sam turned his focus to the spread of weapons beside him. He could guess from Cas's face what Dean was asking. He stuck Dean’s switchblade in his pocket with the lighter and polished the hunting knife with the edge of his shirt, buffing away Dean’s fingerprints. He left his undershirt untucked so the dagger was accessible. Bullets wouldn’t kill a siren, but they might delay one. He put extra rounds in his left jacket pocket and felt for the vial of blood. If it had been out of Dean’s body for too long, they had the source with them.
He addressed them without looking up. “You guys ready?”
Dean got out of the car first. They trudged through detritus and sodden weeds to the porch, which ran the length of the house. The rotting steps groaned under Sam’s weight and something scampered out from underneath them into the woods. He held tight to the railing in case the stairs gave way. The overhang leaked but he was happy for the temporary reprieve from the rain.
The porch was bald but for a three-legged chair stooped beneath a broken light fixture. Its floorboards were warped and splintered. Sam tripped on a popped nail, saved by Cas’s quick reflexes. He held onto his arm until he’d regained his balance.
Dean had already reached the front door. As soon as his knuckles touched it, the door creaked open, splitting Dean’s face with a rectangle of light. He glanced to Cas, then back over his shoulder, catching Sam's eye. He made the signal that meant they were going in. Sam followed with a gun raised over his shoulder.
From the condition of the exterior, Sam could not have predicted what the inside of the house would look like. The entryway, though narrow, contained a shallow wooden shelf that held a ceramic bowl of keys and two baskets of mail—a jumble of envelopes and catalogs. The floor was swept clean, covered in a patterned red carpet. A wool peacoat hung from a series of pegs above a padded bench, and beneath it, two pairs of men’s dress shoes and a lone high-heel.
“What the hell,” Dean whispered. “From the outside, this place looked like it was falling down.”
“I believe it’s an illusion,” Cas said.
They advanced through an archway to a living room. A long, gray couch was positioned underneath an oil painting of the sea. The adjacent wall was a gallery of artwork like that from the bar, pen and ink illustrations of various sailing vessels. On the coffee table lay a laptop. The indicator light flashed; Sam traced the power cord to an outlet beside a fireplace. Beside the laptop, ice cubes bobbed in a glass of amber liquor.
“Ronan,” Sam said. “I know you’re here.”
The siren’s laugh gave him away. Sam felt its pull, like the allure of a warm blanket, tugging him deeper into the house.
“Do you make a habit of entering people’s homes without invitation?”
Ronan stood in the doorway to what was presumably the kitchen. He’d tied back his hair and had on blue slippers. In his hands was a bowl of ice cream.
“I know it’s unhealthy, but I can’t get enough of this flavor. Please, make yourselves at home.”
Dean made a fist. “Where is she?”
Ronan took a seat on the couch, unbothered by Dean’s anger or the weapon Sam aimed at him. “I need additional information in order to answer that.”
“Jennie,” Sam said. “We know she was at the bar tonight.”
“I don’t know where she is,” Ronan said. “Swimming somewhere, most likely.”
“You sonofabitch!” Dean advanced but Cas held him back.
“That’s hardly biologically accurate,” Ronan said. His mouth twisted into a wry grin. “How’s your head? I’m shocked you’re still standing.”
“What did you do to him?” Cas demanded, stepping in front of Dean.
“I didn’t do anything,” Ronan said. He flapped a hand at the gallery wall of ships. “That racket? I gave it up twenty years ago. Draws too much attention.”
“Those wrecks were yours?” Sam said.
Ronan ate a large spoonful of ice cream and casually propped a foot on the coffee table. “I had help.”
“So you traded in sinking ships for serial murder?” Dean said.
“I became a business owner. People make exceptionally poor decisions when they drink. The pleasure’s small scale but consistent. And sometimes there’s a wreck in the parking lot.” Ronan grinned. Sam’s heart stuttered and he held onto the back of a chair to stop himself from moving closer.
“You’re sick,” Dean said.
“Am I any sicker than you? Hunters, you’re all the same. You have no problem wiping out entire families. You’d wipe out species, if you could.”
“We eliminate threats,” Sam said. “Evil.”
“It’s genocide. You would kill me because of what I am.”
“I got seven bodies and one hell of a headache that says I’m entitled to run you through,” Dean said.
“It won’t take care of your problem.”
Dean raised his chin. “Does from where I’m standing.”
Ronan set down his bowl and leaned over his knees, resting his elbows on each and steepling his fingers together. “If you do stab me with the dagger your brother is holding, or if you allow your friend to smite me, you’ll find no relief. The lake will take you anyway.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“If that’s your choice,” Ronan said.
He downed the contents of his glass and stood up. He walked around the table, placing himself within reach, and clasped his arms behind his back, waiting.
Sam frowned. Every species had an innate will to survive, and Ronan was giving himself over to death without a fight? No. This didn’t make sense. Dean must’ve drawn the same conclusion, because he looked at Sam incredulously. Cas brought a hand to Ronan’s forehead, but Sam immediately pushed it down.
“You’re protecting someone,” he accused, and he knew he was correct when Ronan flinched.
“I thought you wanted to kill me?”
“Where’s your sister?” Sam asked.
“You should kill me while you have the chance. I could overpower you,” Ronan purred, and his eyes in that moment belonged to Brady and Jess and Sarah. Sam squeezed his closed to clear the confusion and carefully slid out the dagger. He grabbed a fist of Ronan’s shirt and pushed the flat side of the blade against his throat, cutting off his air.
“I can make it hurt for a long time before you die,” Sam said. “Where is she?”
“I told you…” Ronan coughed. “...she’s probably swimming.”
“You said Jennie was swimming,” Dean said.
“Jennie’s your sister,” Sam realized. Ronan’s silence confirmed it. “Then you can understand how I feel seeing my brother suffer.”
He released Ronan’s shirt and shoved him backwards, watching with certain gratification as he stumbled and fell onto the couch.
“How can they be related?” Dean asked. “You said her reflection was normal.”
“My reflection is normal,” Ronan spat.
“Human,” Sam clarified.
“We’re not full blooded,” Ronan said. “Our mother was a selkie. Jennie got the bulk of it.”
“That’s her skin she carries with her,” Cas said. “The chunk of fur I found on the beach—that was hers.”
Ronan nodded. “She has the ability to transform. I have the mirror problem. It limits me to certain types of work, but she can go out. It’s allowed us to stay in one place longer. Up here people don’t ask too many questions.”
“What about the weather?” Sam asked.
“That propaganda again? It’s just a storm,” Ronan said darkly. “She’s no more in control of it than you are.”
“Why is she killing?”
“She’s doing what you do, ridding your species of evil, and you want to punish her for it.”
“She’s trying to kill me!” Dean yelled.
“She’s careful about who she chooses,” Ronan said. “She wouldn’t have picked you unless she sensed something dark.”
“He is a good man,” Cas insisted, but Ronan scoffed.
“My senses aren’t anywhere as keen as hers, and I can feel his soul is damaged. The people he’s killed. The guilt he walks around with.” Ronan shook his head. “I can feel what you are. How are you blind to that?”
Cas set his jaw.
“We won’t let you take him,” Sam said.
“Then kill me. She’ll know the moment I’m dead. He’ll throw himself in the lake long before she comes back here.”
“She’ll release him,” Cas said, “or I will hunt her down, and you will both join your kind in Purgatory if I have to drag you there myself.”
“It’s real nice,” Dean chimed in. “Cas and me spent a long vacation there a couple years ago, got pretty familiar with it. Not sure how many of you we left standing, though.”
Fear flitted across Ronan’s face for the first time, but he held his ground. “What are you offering?” he said.
“That depends on how fast you get in the car,” Sam said.
Ronan’s hold on Sam peaked, and like the retreating tide gave way and released him entirely. While he still appeared human, some of the beauty in his face had gone, but his eyes were the same gray.
“I’ll talk to her,” Ronan said. “I can’t make any promises.”
Sam took the wheel. Dean rode shotgun, and Cas sat with Ronan in the backseat, ready to render him unconscious at the first sign of a double cross. Ronan’s reflection was bald, a spotted seal-like gray. The closer they got to the water, the more of Cas’s grace drained from Dean. By the time Sam pulled over where Ronan indicated, Dean leaned over his legs and splayed a hand on the dash, muttering, “If you don’t kill this sonofabitch, Sammy, I will.”
He refused to let Cas touch him long enough to alleviate the pain completely; their priority was keeping Ronan in line. But Dean held onto Cas’s arm, and the contact between their skin must have been enough to sustain him, because he walked unaided. Sam held the blade at ready and Ronan led them through a densely wooded area a mile south of Whitefish Point that opened onto a patch of sand as narrow and rocky as the strip that ran in front of the cabins. The dune crumbled underfoot, and Sam had to throw his arms out to keep from falling backwards and sliding toward the water. The rain fell steadily.
They walked to the water’s edge and Sam produced the blade. “Call her,” he said, shaking the wet hair from his eyes. Ronan’s face was grim.
“Cover your ears,” he said, and Sam only just obeyed.
He startled at the cry from Ronan’s throat: a shrill pitch that could shatter glass. He pushed the heel of his palms against both ears, sealing out what noise he could. It rattled in his skull. The bronze dagger brushed his cheek.
Cas was unaffected, but Dean braced his head and dropped to his knees, crawling into the surf. Beneath the reflected moonlight, the water looked almost black. It sloshed around Dean’s wrists and over his calves and ankles. Cas ran after him, kneeling at Dean’s side and spread his coat across his back to keep him warm. Without warning, Ronan let out another wail and with his ears uncovered, Dean screamed. He fell forward so the waves skimmed the crown of his head and soaked his hair. Cas pulled him upright, but blood drooled from Dean’s right ear. Cas cradled Dean’s head against his shoulder, and the soft orange glow concentrated in his palms told Sam he was mending Dean’s ruptured eardrums.
A gust of rain swallowed the siren’s cry. Sam uncovered his ears and they waited.
Something solid offshore moved in the dark, blocking the starlight. It undulated with the waves and slipped underneath. Ronan walked several paces into the water, unaffected by the cold, and bent down. He spoke in a series of short yelps and growls to something at his feet. Sam caught the shape of its body in the moonlight, rounded like a seal’s but with a somewhat humanoid face, though its eyes were wide set, dark and wild, on either side of a flattened nose. No trace of Jennie’s red hair remained, probably hidden beneath the skin. She growled, sharp teeth glinting like stars.
“What are you saying?” Sam shouted over the wind, shielding his face from the rain with a crooked arm.
“I told her to let him go,” Ronan called back. “Her cognition is different when she’s like this. Sometimes I have trouble convincing her to turn back. It can be weeks. Months.”
Jennie made a series of irritated barks and Dean moaned.
“What is she doing to him?” Cas yelled, rocking Dean in the surf.
“It’s the water’s hold on her.” Jennie nipped at him, but Ronan lovingly stroked a hand over her head. “Selkies are beholden to the sea. For her, it’s this lake. She was born here. She’d die without it. She transfers that need to them, I don’t know how, but there’s no overpowering it.”
“And she watches them die?” Sam said.
“You can’t understand what it’s like for her: to have a selkie’s desire for freedom and a siren’s obsession with pleasure and death, trapped in one body. She’s fighting two natures. She will, her whole life.”
Ronan lowered himself fully into the water, so that he was eye level with her, and took Jennie’s face in his hands.
“I told her she needed to be careful,” he said. “I didn’t want to believe she was doing this.”
“So she can stop killing?” Sam asked.
“She did, for a long time. Decades. I believe she could again.” He resumed speaking to her in soft trills and yelps, repeating himself so many times that Sam began to hear patterns in what he said. He understood none of it, but Ronan’s affection for her was unmistakeable, as Sam’s had been for Dean when he’d tied him to a chair and driven the demon from him.
Sam was soaked through and Dean collapsed against Cas’s chest when it happened: she said Ronan’s name, in a strangely accented tongue but decipherable no less.
Dean gasped in relief and sat back on his heels, whatever hold she had on him broken. Cas’s coat slipped from his shoulders into the water. They fished it out and treaded to shore, leaning against each other on the beach. Sam rushed to Dean and pulled him into a hug, blindly reaching for Cas. He hugged him too. Cas squeezed Sam’s shoulder when they broke apart.
Jennie yelped three times. She lurched up to butt her head against Ronan’s, then disappeared with the tide.
Ronan remained in the water for several minutes, watching the place where she’d dived under. Sam tucked the dagger in his belt and gathered his coat tightly around him.
“I upheld my part,” Ronan said, meeting them on the sand.
“Thanks,” Dean grunted. He leaned against Cas, but his eyes were fully open, and the tension around his eyes was gone. Sam gestured toward the path they’d walked from the road. Cas and Dean went ahead of them.
“You want a ride back?” Sam asked Ronan, who looked at him sideways.
“You saved my brother,” Sam said. “But if she slips up again, I know a hunter who won’t be affected by her voice. She wouldn’t mind the trip up here.”
“Understood,” Ronan said.
By morning, Cas and Dean were up to their regular antics, and though they made an effort to keep the noise down, Sam heard muffled groans and the unmistakable sound of a headboard banging against the wall. The sun peeked out from a thin overlay of clouds, so he grabbed the book Cas had been reading and drank his coffee outside.
Cas joined him two chapters later, flushed and smiling. He wore one of Dean’s t-shirts and a faded pair of jeans torn at the knee. He curled his toes into the grass and folded his hands on his stomach.
“Dean’s in the shower,” he yawned. “I think he wants some time to himself.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. Just embarrassed.”
“That’s why I came outside,” Sam said. “Figured you two could use some privacy.”
“I meant about what happened to him, but thank you.”
“Why’s he embarrassed?”
“That he didn’t realize it was happening, I think.”
The lake washed steadily against the shoreline. The sound, which had been peaceful when they first arrived, left him cold. Every shadow, every wave that swelled an inch higher than its surround concealed a face. Cas didn’t appear to be bothered by it. He rolled up his jeans and let the sun warm his skin, relaxing in the chair.
“Do you think Ronan will be able to control her?” he asked.
“Honestly, I don’t know.”
Cas frowned. “Then why did you let them live?”
Sam shrugged. “Guess I want to believe it's possible to change what you are. Maybe she can stop. Have a normal life.”
“Is that what you want? A normal life?”
“I don’t know if it’s possible for me. What am I going to do, go back to law school? Not knowing what I do about what’s out there. I used to think I could do this for a couple years and walk away, but there’s no leaving this. Not for us.”
“There are other hunters,” Cas said. “People who will take up the burden.”
“Maybe,” Sam conceded. “You know, we met a couple hunters a while back who were retiring to New Mexico? They’d made a deal—”
Dean shouted from the front door, cutting him off: “If either of you want breakfast before we hit the road, get your asses in here.”
The door slammed shut.
“Guess I should start packing,” Sam admitted. The sun ducked behind a cloud and he took it as a sign to head in. They had sixteen hours in the car to look forward to. “Check-out is at ten.”
“I’ll walk the key over,” Cas said. “Are we going straight home?”
“We could head back through Wisconsin, drive down to Sioux Falls.”
“Dean said I have to try Jody’s chicken.”
“It’s good,” Sam laughed. “I’ll give her a call once we get on the road.”
Cas got up and stretched his arms in the manner of wings. The cloud cover shifted, letting sunlight spill down onto the lake through the cracks, and about a hundred feet offshore, something large and gray bobbed among the waves. It sent a chill through Sam’s entire body. One blink and it was gone, slipped beneath the surface, as though it had never been.
“What is it?” Cas asked, noting Sam’s sudden stiffness, how he’d rolled Dean’s book into a tube that he held in a fist. He’d probably imagined it, just a trick of the light, but Sam couldn’t get out of the chair fast enough.
“Nothing,” he said, hurrying after Cas up the gravel path, the lake squarely behind him. Barking echoed up the beach that might not belong to a dog. “I didn’t see anything.”