Interstate 1 cut a serpentine ribbon into the West Coast, a scenic slither of pavement below cool sky and above the undulating horizon of ocean. Slipping like a black rat down a snake’s throat, the ’67 Impala hugged the highway, low to the road and moving too fast. Nature of the beast: it could move no other way. Not under the command of this particular driver.
Dean Winchester was never more relaxed than when behind the wheel of his baby. Not even in sleep, because sleep meant dreaming and dreaming meant his brain did dumb shit like rehash memories he’d rather not. Memories of Dad. Dad’s murmured deathbed demands. Death, in general. God dammit, yesterday was gone, done, spun out. Now if only his sub-conscious would get the memo.
Dean drummed fingers on the steering wheel and watched the scenery blow by at a reckless roll. The windows were down and yesterday’s music keened from the tape deck. He could use a frosty beer but apart from that, Dean was at one with the world. Well, half of one.
He cut a glance to the guy riding shotgun. His baby brother. The other half of his one. The half that refused haircuts and had the nerve to get taller and pulled the best bitchfaces in response to his jokes because, hell, Dean was just that hilarious.
Sammy had his arm out the window, palm flattened, air-surfing. His hair danced riotously, eyes narrowed because he didn’t bother with sunglasses if he wasn’t driving. Dean was, and had consequentially liberated the last Quick Stop of a pair of silver-framed aviators, the kind with slick mirrored lenses. The kind you saw on Highway Patrol.
Sam had shrugged nonchalantly when Dean offered to steal a second pair and Sam declined. “Light eyes tend to be more photosensitive.”
“Why do you even know that?” Feh, purely rhetorical. Sam was probably just futzing about the petty theft; some days he played at being an upstanding, law-abiding citizen. As if. Dean harbored no such qualms and didn’t see why Sam bothered, except that it was the exact opposite of whatever Dean wanted. Or what Dad would’ve wanted. Likely the latter.
The air was crisp, despite California’s famous sunshine. It bit sharp through the car, pulling at clothing and flinging fast food wrappers out the windows like shedding skin. It kept Dean’s senses bright, nose and earlobes tingling, lips dry and tasting of salt.
How could Sam be in a stone funk? This? This was a little piece of alright.
But Sam’d been visibly hostile in his customary passive-aggressive fashion as soon as the Impala had hit the Cali border. Lips set in a stubborn line, jaw slightly forward, long fingers fiddling in agitation on knees pressed against the dash for lack of better leg room, it was like sitting in a box with a wet cat and Dean didn’t care for cats, let alone wet ones. Sam had glowered harder when Dean had tried to assuage the tension with a mixtape of obscure cock-rock classics and banter about who was the hotter make-believe babe, Velma or Daphne. Daphne was the obvious choice because hello, redhead, right? And the short skirt, legs that went on for miles. But Velma had the “geek chic” thing going and I bet she’s a tiger in bed and –
“Dean, God, really? Shut. Up.” Said with a dour hiss of breath.
Dean had glared at Sam sidelong, rolled his eyes, but bit back a mean reply. So much for small talk. Looked like he was going to be picking the tunes and shutting his cakehole, in the interest of familial peace. Dean had been fairly certain he knew the source of Sam’s angst anyway. Stanford. Jess. ‘Normal’ life, abandoned, though in truth it had never stood a ghost of a sliver of a shred of a chance. A year and a half later, and Sam was still a raw wound where his college disaster was concerned.
Dean housed such consternation about Sam’s quest for normalcy that when it had all fallen apart like a carefully spun spider web in a thunderstorm, there was bittersweet relief. Might’ve been selfish to feel Sam belonged to him, owed him for the years of lost childhood and indoctrinated self-sacrifice, because frankly, none of it had been Sam’s doing. Not a minute of it. And Jess, well yeah, she was admittedly a rare find and hardly deserved to be consumed in flames on the ceiling of some cheap student apartment. But see, the universe watched. And if you were paying attention, you picked up on the gems it was dropping and ran with them as far as your determination could propel you. Dean didn’t know if there was some big master plan — in fact, he sincerely doubted it — but you seized the day. The hour. The second. That’s what you had. All you had. And right now, the universe had given Sam back. You didn’t ask why, you just said “thank you very much, ma’am” and greedily carried on.
Visible even through the late-afternoon sun, through the road-dirtied windshield, the moon was a phantom satellite frozen in endless glacial blue. Robert Plant’s plaintive wail lamented how he’d “spent his days with a woman unkind who smoked his stuff and drank his wine.” Dean wanted to know that woman. And she would wear glacial blue eyes to sync up with the sky because this was California and unkind women deserved no fidelity and they were easily fooled by their own unkindness and Dean needed to get his rocks off. He was mildly surprised by his own high spirits, excepting a niggle of worry about Sylvie. Who did not, for the record, have blue eyes.
Now that Sam’s ire had ebbed to low-grade white noise, Dean entertained the thought of conversation again. They were going to have to talk about the job sooner rather than later.
By his estimation, they sat an hour out of San Francisco, maybe two. Dean possessed a near-flawless sense of direction but big cities took patience and concentration to navigate without putting his head through the dashboard in frustration. “As the crow flies” just didn’t exist in a city of any real size, especially one as socked in as San Francisco. It wasn’t that Dean disliked cities, per se, but they presented particular snafus when it came to the old salt n’ burn gig. Nothing could be done in secret; there were always civilian eyes to consider. Too many cops and cameras and do-gooders and fucknuts getting underfoot. Not to mention the simple act of safely parking the Impala caused Dean heart palpitations. Okay, maybe cities did annoy Dean. A tad. They wouldn’t get any serious work discussion accomplished once wheels hit the tangle of those steep urban streets.
And this particular job couldn’t be relegated to any other hunter. This one was personal. Sam had every right to detest an entire state based on a fistful of miserable memories, but even he wouldn’t have refused this. He was, however, determined to emit a generous stink of sulk the entire way there. Thankfully, the windows were down to air out the car.
Both brothers knew Sylvie…Dean, more Biblically than Sam. The summer right before Sam’s mutiny to college, Sylvie breezed through Singer’s Salvage Yard, a protégé of Bobby’s. Hunters came and went; it was their lot. They got into the life for myriad reasons, each as particular as the hunters themselves. Sometimes peculiar, always tragic. This wasn’t hunting for sport. Some days you could fool yourself into thinking it was, but to do so for more than five minutes meant somebody, not something, was in big trouble. As soon as you saw your own blood or the ichorous junk leaking from God-knows-what, and lived the whipsaw terror induced by a creature that should never have been, a primordial fear as deeply ingrained in the reptilian brain as instinct itself, you knew this wasn’t merely hunting. This was species survival.
Sylvie almost made it hunting. She was a hip little slip of a girl, clearly too cool for either Winchester but that made Dean aim all the more sharply to get into her pants by way of her good graces and his irrefutable charms. She had more in common with Sam, talked classic literature, existentialism and alt-indie bands with him, ad nauseum, boring Dean to mindless oblivion. But it was Dean who had rocked her world in the back seat of the Impala. Sam had insisted, with no small amount of snarkiness, that Sylvie was just slumming. Dean fancied she succumbed to his feral allure.
Either way, she was the wild-child female counterpoint to all the Winchester macho posturing. Had even dragged a smile from Dad now and again. Sylvie had made that summer bearable, or at least the chunk of July she’d wasted at Bobby’s.
Dean never did find out how she got into The Life. He was jonesin’ to ask, but the avenue of conversation never opened. And really, why spoil a perfectly good superficial relationship-with-benefits by hauling baggage into the scenario? It was enough that they didn’t have to tap-dance around supernatural subject matter; he even learned a thing or two about selkies from Sylvie. She was his sweet spot in an otherwise shitty summer. Dean already knew Sam was leaving for Stanford by that point; Dad did not, and it had promised to get ugly. Well, that was one promise kept, brilliantly.
“So. Who’s hotter: Fred or Shaggy?” Dean slid a grin Sam’s way, canting his chin and edging sunglasses down his nose, casually assessing his brother’s temper.
Sam refused to turn his head but Dean caught sight of dimple through all that stupid hair. Yeah, the emo fog was lifting. About stinkin’ time. There was only so much pouting Dean could stomach. Such a goddamn waste of energy, valid reason or no.
“Right,” Dean continued, “I know you’re all about Freddie. You like ‘em buff and blonde-”
“Hey, I’m not judging.”
“At least I don’t moan for Shaggy in my sleep. You couldn’t handle Fred. Too much cartoon man for you.”
“Sammy! I’m offended.” Dean thumbed his sunglasses back in place and slapped the steering wheel. “Guess we’ll have to talk about something else before I cry.”
By way of sheepish apology, Sam stared at his knees for a moment. Neither of them was good with “I’m sorry.” Just wasn’t in the genes. But Dean knew Sam was thinking it.
“So what’d Bobby say?” Sam finally turned in his seat and tried to stretch his legs, joints popping in protest.
“Two days ago he got a call from Sylvie. Apparently, she’s landed herself into a big steamin’ heap of headache with a coven in San Francisco.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious. Yeah, that’s the working theory. Jesus, I hate witches. They take baths in the ashes of orphaned babies, I swear.”
“Duly noted. And?”
“And Bobby said she sounded like someone was after her. I mean right on her heels. She set up camp at a joint called The Red Victorian Inn. We should start there. Google it, Nerdly.”
Sam started an objection to the nickname but gave up almost immediately. Dean saw it out of the corner of his eye and grinned.
Fishing his Moto Q from a pocket, Sam began tapping buttons. The phone looked like a pack of gum in his big mitt. “Has he heard from her since?”
Off-hand catching the front of his wind-crazy hair, Sam skimmed the fruits of the internet, nodding. “Sweet, it’s in the Haight –”
“What? Hippydippy Land?” Dean curled a lip. “Groovy. I don’t do wheatgrass, just so’s you know. I’ll leave all the granola and patchouli to you.”
“I thought you didn’t judge?”
“Hey, there’s more to Haight-Ashbury than the Summer of Love, Dean. Which, I woulda thought, you’d be all over like white on rice.”
“I like my girls shaved and bathed thanks.”
Sam snorted. “Again with the judging. Anyway, yeah, Charles Manson had a house in the neighborhood, once upon a time. Got to be bad psychic juice hanging around that place. Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, of course...” He paused, skimming the microscopic screen. “Dude. North Beach. We have to go to North Beach.”
Dean’s brows hoisted over the sunglasses. “Because why?”
“What, really? North Beach. The Beat Poets? Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Hungry I?”
Now it was Dean’s turn to mouth empty air like a beached trout. And Sam was doing all the grinning.
“I’ll take you to The City Lights Bookstore. We’ll buy a copy of “Howl”. You’ll thank me.”
Dean watched Sam for a good few minutes, caught somewhere between annoyance and relief. Yeah, he’d heard of Ginsberg and “Howl”; Dean didn’t live in a total cultural wasteland. But so what? It was far more important to let Sam think he could show his big brother something awesome. Blow his mind. Do normal for a change, if prowling musty bookstores in search of dirty words was normal. Dean felt something tiny and warm squirm where his heart sat.
“You got it, Sammy. Whatever you say.”