They end up sixty miles south of Stanford, which is really only a freeway or two, and it's an accident. Sam had dreamed a dream of the coast, and he'd driven. He'd wanted the lights on the dock to bounce on black swell, and the fog to roll off the hills into the bay--to settle over the water like the quick cloudcover he'd trained himself to be fond of, long and longer ago.
Or not so long. When you're Sam, eternity is something of a misnomer, and if there's one thing he's not, it's nostalgic.
Here's the deal: A few months back they'd been in Sequim. There'd been clams making a froth of the muddy beach, and a heron, and a rare patch of sun. Sam remembers sitting on a rock at one point, and he remembers peace, and then he remembers the general, pervasive feeling of having wanted to leave. They're about six hundred miles south of Sequim now (which is still really only a freeway or two), but that's the assemblage he'd held in his mind as he drove them here. So it's not really a want, or a memory, or even a dream, as previously advertised; but it's a start, and Sam probably won't need to do better than that. Dean's not going to bother asking.
Maybe this is a thing that happens when you're raised by ghosts. Well, there are a lot of things that fall under that category, Sam amends. For instance, Sam has this distinct memory of being forced to learn how to juggle.
He'd been nine or ten, his father had dumped them with Vanessa again, Vanessa who'd lost her boy and who'd been more open to babysitting John Winchester's kids than sanity provided for. That year, Dean had discovered his life's calling: detention. At lunch, after school, and even on Saturdays. (What can I say, Sammy, they're kinda like pogs--you gotta have them all, he explains.)
Meanwhile, Sam had discovered that there were pits in his stomach that went deeper than hunger, and during their stay with Vanessa, he got well-acquainted with depths of them. Getting lunch just didn't balance the books the way it usually did.
Vanessa would come at noon, informing the office that Sammy had to come home now, there was important family business, and no, he could not stay for language arts part two, or math part two, or art. From what little they knew about the Winchesters, the school figured this was probably true. And they had students who'd miss full semesters during harvest season; they weren't too worried about a couple afternoons. So Sam would go home early, Dean--the betrayer, small Sam thought darkly--basking instead in the freedom of his detentions.
(These days, Sam's got a pretty good handle on why Dean, at the notoriously responsible age of fourteen, would have wanted to avoid the shadow of yet another someone who was already dead and therefore could not be matched. But hindsight isn't the universe's kindest gift.)
Vanessa would come at noon, and she and Sam would walk hand in hand, her fingers curling dry and calloused over his fat pink ones. They would eat small lunches of creamy macaroni and cheese and cinnamon applesauce, all in portions for someone smaller than Sam was, in memory of someone he had never been.
Then she'd ask him to dress in striped polyester, and she'd paint his face, and hand him a nose, and he'd clown the way her boy had, however long ago.
He remembers the pressure of her hands at his shoulders, the small of his back--posture--and the tickle of her thumb across his chin, her breath wet and warm on the crown of his head. He remembers learning how to trust his own hands, and the fiery spin of the silks as he mastered them.
My Benicito could have taught you a thing or two, Vanessa always told him. Your arc is lopsided.
That was it. Nothing happened.
There were lines you didn't cross with John Winchester's children; that was probably one of them. But then, there were plenty of lines that just didn't exist for John Winchester's children.
The worst Sam can say, though, is that he learned how to juggle. He can't imagine bothering.
Maybe this is a thing that happens when you're raised by ghosts: It's 2014 and it feels like every single Apocalypse is growing cold in its grave, yet here they still are. It's 2014 and Dean is human again and so Sam drives them to the coast.
Of the four times Sam gets nailed by the cops for driving over the limit (because of course he would; clearly he's the delinquent driver of the two of them, naturally, fuck), not one of the officers suspects how wrong things are right now. The fourth even wishes them a happy congratulations after Dean offers, unprompted, a detailed and oddly realistic account of the wedding he and Sam are driving to California to have.
Dean sweeps his lips so close to Sam's ear for a moment Sam thinks he's actually going to kiss him.
So please, officer, can you let us off easy? Dean asks. We're in love, and that matters, is gaudily implied. And there it is, that part of him--which Sam had almost forgotten--that classifies as downright coquettish.
Sam had almost forgotten.
I was just going to pay the ticket, Sam hisses between his teeth, after he'd numbed out of the shock of the jovial, grinning stranger suddenly riding shotgun with him. This stranger who'd spent all of Utah essentially catatonic. The officer is still blushing and waving at them from his patrol car, and Sam has this darkening sense that he's going to follow them all the way to the chapel they have not actually reserved.
Three strikes, little brother, says Dean. Don't want your license revoked, do you?
That'd be great, Sam responds, if he had a license, singular, and not twelve. If moving violations even ranked on the spectrum of what's on Sam's mind right now. And what the hell, Dean.
I figured you wouldn't mind the pretense, says Dean. Normalcy, and all.
The cop gets back on the road, and so does Sam.
Maybe this really is a thing that happens when you're raised by ghosts.
If Sam's brother has honed one ace-in-the-hole survival skill, it's not hunting things, or even saving people.
Sometimes Sam feels like Dean has on file everything he's ever said, or felt, or done, an assemblage cocked and loaded and set to deploy. He is an act to be conjured at will.
These days Dean doesn't ever seem to question that, either; it's like he thinks he can just roll into his life, pop a one-liner, solve a case, do his thing, and clock out. No questions asked (or answered). And while this assemblage of performative lies has been around since eternity--which either means a legacy ago, or closer to three days ago; again, it's difficult to say--Dean's skits have gotten shorter and the dead air hangs heavier and maybe he's finally as tired as he's always said he was because now the timing's shot all to hell. Dean's stopped matching up.
This is where the juggling comes in, why Sam can't get Vanessa out of his head, this stupid memory pulled out of an equally foggy, distant nowhere. Sam feels like he can turn around and Dean might be anything he's ever been, pulled at random out of a hat and in the end nothing but a little sleight of hand. Sam's going to need to juggle.
And here's a little secret: Sam is not afraid of darkness. He's been taught that of course he should be afraid of the dark but he's just not. He knows he should be, as he knows the darkness well. But Sam is not afraid of the dark.
Sam's here come whatever, and Sam will catch any vintage of Dean his brother throws at him.
If something drops, Sam just hopes it's real enough to break. That's all he asks. He just wants Dean to be real, and he wants Dean to be here. He's beginning to think he might be okay with pieces, or refractions; it's only the vanishing he cannot abide.
Sam is not afraid of the dark.
Maybe it's true; maybe Sam's driving a little crazy. But Dean's not stopping him.
(It's just a car.)
Maybe he's afraid of echoes: He has this idea that Dean's written his story and he's finished with it, even if it has no end. Dean's ready to just run his scripts and hit the same patterns, over and again.
Maybe he's afraid that Dean is not afraid of echoes.
Sam wants to tell him that their life was already a repetitive motion injury; it didn't need his help. Because Dean seems to think that this is what Sam wants--the pretense of normalcy.
Then there's a red light in the middle of nowhere. Sam stops.
And they're idling at this light, and Sam has to laugh a little at the ridiculousness of it all, because there's nothing here, there's no one watching. There's no reason to stop. He turns to Dean and Dean cracks a smile for him--for him, because it's a thing, like a gift, as in a thing that can be given, and not a part of Dean at all. Something flutters in Sam's chest anyway, like maybe he'd be satisfied with pretense after all. Or maybe it's because he knows Dean's story and he's ready, finally, to be content to just re-read and remember.
There's something stupid and frothily light about this moment, sitting at his lonely street light, and Sam feels it places he'd forgotten he had. For a moment, Sam feels whole.
The light turns green and Sam rolls forward. He has one more Nevada thought before they cross into California and it is this: He's not sure if what just happened was happiness, or only yearning for it.
Maybe he's afraid that he is not afraid of echoes.
Maybe this is a thing that happens when you realize you've been raised by ghosts: Sam needs reason.
Sam needs reason in a way that Dean doesn't, or doesn't anymore, or doesn't know he does. He's not sure anymore. But if Sam can find himself a reason for this trip, this coast, his image of the fog and the lights on the water and herons and rock, he thinks he'll be okay.
He'll work his way outward, and he will make it all okay.
This game plan is warm and inspiring, like if Sam can swing this, they might finally get somewhere.
They're parked at a Mexican restaurant off the highway, which at this point is really just a road. Dean, in another sudden fit of thespian vitality, has promised to return with tacos and tequila. There's a high moon and even though Sam probably can't see as many stars here as he might in Kansas, it's the first time it's occurred to him to look.
Then Dean comes back.
I think the locals have a jellyfish problem, he says.
Fetishes aren't problems, says Sam. Where are the tacos?
I think the locals are being turned into jellyfish, Dean clarifies.
And that's the end of it. That becomes their reason for being.
For being here.
For being. There's no more to it than that.
Sam's lungs cinch at the reduction.
Hello! We're new in town, and we heard you're missing some folks. Do you think perhaps they have been turned into jellyfish? Or is that stupid?
And can we borrow a boat?
This is definitely a thing that always happens when you're raised by ghosts: Sam admits that they should have done more research.
One, they should have done more research, and two, even if they hadn't, there maybe probably should have been a hospital involved. The Discovery Channel's doing a bit on Australia's most toxic and HBO's 11pm show is about American health care.
Right, that's a thing, says Dean. Well, sort of.
Dean's breath catches as he adjusts himself supine on the bed. The gray of his skin makes the motel sheets look white--at least, where he hasn't smeared mud all over them. He makes the sheets look white and the streaks of stinging red whipped around his arm and neck make the Mark seem old and dormant. He keeps flipping channels.
The towel around Sam's waist feels small and his hair still doesn't feel clean and his clothes smell like eggs and swamp. Because past participles are as ambitious as Sam can manage right now, Sam repeats: I said, we should have gone to a hospital.
I know you did, says Dean.
You don't look so good.
Okay, so where's the duffel?
Didn't say I had a problem with it--nice abs,man. There's gotta be a market out there for this. Shake your--
Dean, I'm serious. Where's the duffel?
Sam kicks the sticky cake of his mud-stiff jeans and his twisted shirt until they buttress the door. He figures there's enough slough salt in them to deter all the ghosts of Monterey County. His hair drips rivulets onto his shoulders and back, and he clutches his towel tighter around his waist.
Dean's rolled back around to the Discovery Channel. You're right, it is a fetish, he says, in belated acquiescence. Then: We didn't pack anything; stop looking--I mean, jesus, they're doing a whole marathon on jellyfish--I'm serious, Sam, you're being pathetic. Stop looking.
Okay, so clarification:
One, they should have done more research;
two, hospitals existed;
three, they should have packed the car before Sam drove them to the coast.
As a demon Dean had traveled light and run on empty. And as he's been consistently reminded, Sam only fixed one small part of that equation.
Sam shucks the topcover off his bed and drapes himself in synthetic wool. He's apparently not as good at juggling as he'd thought.
So dig deeper.
Throw me the laptop? Sam asks.
Dean's cycled back to HBO. Canned laughter. The laptop is lying open to Dean's left, and from what Sam can make out it's still open to the police bulletins from earlier: three disappearances in the Elkhorn Slough--seven if you include the sea lions, which Sam's decided they certainly are not.
Dean shakes his head. No.
One moment there's stillness, such stillness you'd be able to see the moon and the stars on the water but for the fog. Then there's a swell, and several expletives, and no stillness at all.
Dean hadn't been lying--the locals certainly did have a jellyfish problem. They're huge and moon-like and there are too many, far too many, this far up in the slough. Too much salt--which, Sam acknowledges mirthlessly, is usually not a problem he and Dean have.
Three people and four sea lions are missing and the slough's gone to shit, jellyfish abounding, which is all problematic in that is-this-our-kind-of-thing-or-actually-a-fish-and-wildlife-kind-of-thing sort of way. But as far as Sam's concerned, it's not really his problem until Dean falls in.
Or at least, that's the verb Sam's chosen.
The green hull of Dean's kayak rears up, pushed by some unlikely shift in weight, and Dean's in the slough and his kayak bobs weightlessly without him and the spray it kicks up spatters the surface just after Dean disappears entirely.
Sam doesn't wait for the usual suspenseful moment, breath bated, straining to see if his brother will resurface on his own. Verbs, after all, are slippery things. The ones Sam chooses for himself are FOREGO kayak and PADDLE-SMACK THE SHIT OUT OF some overgrown jellyfish.
The slough can't be more than four feet deep--it's how they know the three victims are gone, and not just drowned--so Sam rolls his kayak on purpose and clears the distance between his and Dean's with a marathon's worth of protracted, schlooping steps, strained and slow like in a dream. The jellyfish part like tissue paper, gluey bodies whipping around the blade of his paddle.
This all takes less time than Sam will spend in the motel later, imagining himself back through it.
He remembers kicking up against the heartening bulk of Dean's thigh, and sucking his lips in before dunking himself, hands groping for Dean's arm or his shirt or his head or whatever's the first thing Sam finds. He remembers heaving Dean up and him feeling very much like one of the jellyfish Sam had just destroyed--gluey, somehow. Well, first he comes up rigid and hacking--all good signs--and then goes gluey.
At this point there's nothing to see, except the bright wide moon, which Sam shatters every time he adjusts his footing in the sucking muck, in an attempt to keep himself and Dean both upright. Mostly what Sam hears is water and mud, too. But Dean makes a thin reedy noise, almost a whine, and Sam realizes his taking Dean's full weight, and Sam realizes that the last time he'd felt this, it had been Dean dying in his arms.
Even then, though, Dean hadn't made that noise. It's not really his style.
It's like whatever pain he was in had taken him by surprise.
If there's one thing Sam knows they should not find surprising, it's pain.
On their way out to the coast, sometimes Sam looks over to Dean and Dean will jolt, as if out of a dream--though Sam knows he wasn't asleep. Just before he turns back to the road, Sam catches that little hypnagogic tremor, and out of the corner of his eye he watches Dean's expression: Like he's woken up and he's expecting more. Like there's something more real out there, more his, than Sam and this car and they highway before them. Something he can almost remember, can almost become again.
Sam looks at Dean and there is yearning there.
Don't forget what you're in love with, Sam will never, on any planet, say to Dean tonight.
Don't you dare forget.
Sam caught a little on his wrist, though he doesn't realize it until he's in the shower and the the water sears the barbs into reactivity. It hurts like a bitch, and Sam clamps his jaw so fast he catches his cheek and his mouth fills with blood. He tries to concentrate on the taste. The brand on his wrist, once the mud sloughs off, is pussy and red. It hurts; but really, what doesn't. That's the price of their humanity.
--Sam's not sure when he started thinking that.
Later than you might imagine, he insists.
Throw me the laptop? Sam asks, a chorus of canned laughter behind him.
Dean shakes head no. He's in pain and he does not want to throw anything. He does not want to move.
Fever? Sam asks, though he's shivering in his wool blanket and starting to smell Dean's sweat over even the eggs and the mud. He surmises the answer is yes. There's a jagged break in time where Sam finds himself in the future, Dean boiling inside his skin and Sam not sure what he should do, since ice baths are out, washing the stings only makes it worse, he's not sure how to keep the fever down.
Then Sam remembers that wait, he's already done that this week. He's already done it and he should not have to ever again.
D'you think I'm gonna turn into a jellyfish? Dean asks. He says something about maybe that's why there weren't any bodies, maybe they were all those jellyfish now.
Sam's not sure if he's serious, and not sure if he should be taking the notion seriously. He probably should be; before all their angels and demons became par for the course, this was the line all their cases tended to follow. The most ridiculous position was generally the right one to be in. But it's not the first time tonight Dean's posited transformation, governing theme that it's become. Sam wants to banish it.
He ends up sitting next to Dean, back against the headboard and laptop warm against his knees. The wool blanket smears with mud and algae when Sam brushes close to Dean and slides his fingers down the side of his neck, ostensibly checking his pulse.
He wants to feel Dean in his hands.
For a moment Sam closes his eyes and imagines finishing what Dean started on the drive over, contorting his spine to kiss Dean's ear.
There's a series of muted pops, TV gunfire. Some shouting. Across the room on a tiny screen, a detective flashes his badge.
This guy's in fucking everything, mutters Dean. (Cop shows--they're still all the damn same, he continues.)
There's more to the genre than Law and Order, Sam argues halfheartedly. He lifts his hand away.
Oh, right, because there's also Homicide. Which this guy's also fucking in.
That first hour is the worst. Dean slips under shortly after offering his benediction of even informercials over cop shows. His head lolls against Sam's hip and Sam shivers.
A few minutes later he sputters awake. He asks if they've made it to the coast. And then some, Sam says.
i fucked up i fucked up i fucked up, Dean says, or insists, or blabbers. Sam's not really sure. Sam does not repeat and then some.
i fucked up i fucked up i fucked up, Dean croaks. He curls onto his side and digs his nails into Sam's thigh, mostly because it's there and not because it's Sam's.
Sam bends to kiss the crusty muck of Dean's hair, and imagines the heat of someone else's breath beating down on his own. He wishes Dean had been there then; he hopes Dean is here now.
For an hour, they rinse and repeat.
Sam remembers turning eighteen to the sound of Dean waffling about whether he was actually going to bother with the GED or not. Dad wasn't around. (And why should he be? His boys were grown-ass adults. Which Sam generously figures might account for the last decade, if not the one before it.)
You're right, it's not worth much, Sam agrees peevishly, because you can't do anything with a GED. But Dean's not stupid enough to trust his acquiescence.
Sam remembers thinking Dean had responded pretty classically--he'd been angry and recalcitrant. But then, suddenly, he'd come unspooled. Sam could see it in his eyes. It had been a janus type of situation Sam had not expected he'd ever have to deal with; Dean tended to be fairly consistent.
It had been so strange--for Dean to look so lost and confused like that, especially about something Sam did not think Dean care about all that much, and did not secretly care about, nor would he ever. Like he'd lost a shell or something.
Sam figures now it probably hadn't been about the GED.
Think I'm gonna puke, says Dean, though Sam's pretty sure he won't. If there is any dark to fear, it's probably this, but Sam's realized that Dean's in enough familiar pain to also feel familiar. This Dean, Sam knows, and recognizes, and understands. In the whorl of things Sam cannot contain or master, this Dean he knows and maybe loves. This is what he wants to hold and keep.
If Sam has just pathologized a new variant of Stockholm syndrome, he has no idea what city he should name it for.
Search The Web turns up several home remedies for alleviating the effects of jellyfish toxins, though all of them require Sam to have clothes, and be clothed when he goes out to buy them. And while there's nothing on the Web about monster jellyfish with the power to disappear people, he and Dean have mostly determined that Dean is not in any immediate danger. Karim Chowdhury and Lin Phuoc and Jeremy Alzate and four sea lions are gone, after all, and Dean is here.
So it's just pain they have to deal with--and if that's the case, why bother? Dean figures.
Yes, Sam agrees, before something in him raises objection. But, like pain, it quickly burrows deeper, and Sam says nothing. Why bother? rings in his funny bone.
Dean channel surfs.
As the buzz and the flash of the TV's jump-cuts crackle just beyond Sam's focus, he thinks: If they weren't real and they were on Fox, they'd have died a long time ago.
CBS, and at least Sam would have a laugh track for company.
If they were on the WB, all this would somehow still be charming. He wonders bitterly how many people believe that familial dysfunction can be cured by a montage set to last millennium's Top 40.
They're not any of those things, because they're not on TV, but sometimes Sam feels like they must be. Some days, he knows he wakes up acting. And he knows Dean never sleeps.
If they were HBO, Sam thinks after a while, they'd be fucking.
Sam holds tight to the tease of Dean's breath at his ear.
When a character in a comedy steps out of character, it's generally to step from one dimension into multiple--to gain depth, and by extension sympathy. Invariably it's a bonding experience, or at least a learning one. In a cop procedural, it's probably because it's Sweeps, and your normally level-headed detective needs some Emmy-worthy drama written into the script.
By Sam's estimation, he and Dean aren't much of a comedy--excepting the fact of the jellyfish, and the missing sea lions, and also the jellyfish--and Dean's vitriolic opinion of cop procedurals suggests that they're not one of those, either. (Or maybe it means they definitely are.)
But for the record: Sam thinks they have too many dimensions. Sam slips through time as though it has no hold on him; Dean pretends that it does not exist. And when Dean does things Sam cannot comprehend, it's not a learning experience. It's generally not even a contrived lie, though Sam's familiar with those, too.
It's just fucking terrifying. That's it, that's all of it. It's terrifying.
One day many years ago Sam turned eighteen and saw, he was losing his brother. He was losing his brother and he might not ever get him back. Then he got a letter from Stanford.
--You're probably not going to turn into a jellyfish, Sam says suddenly.
This rouses Dean somewhat; he'd been drowsy and quiet. What? he slurs.
The timeline wouldn't make sense, Sam assures him. I think you're fine, he doesn't add.
Dean slides him a feverishly skeptical glance. What? he repeats.
I mean, sure, there's precedent, Sam says. I know you're thinking about that one summer, where Dad dumped us at that lake house. And there was that whole problem with the tentacles--
What? Dean almost repeats again. There's the taste of it in the air, the insinuation of confusion. But ultimately he seems to accept that yes, that's definitely what he was thinking about.
But this is different, Sam insists.
Freaky aquatic thing X, freaky aquatic thing Y. What makes them so different? Dean asks.
We're different now, Sam answers reflexively. They're older now. But again: eternity, meet paradox. Time, meet memory. Sam's not sure if that holds, or if their difference matters. Even if he argues that Dean is different, and he is different, and the world is a few points warmer; the dollar is a little weaker; that Heaven's had its pupils blown and Hell's just old, distended and bitter, the space of difference between him and Dean is a familiar one.
Sam is not afraid of darkness and he is not surprised by pain. He knows loss like an earthquake, grinding and coming for him from a long way off. And he is losing his brother.
Okay, Sam says, which does not mean yes and does not mean all right and mostly just means forward, forward.
Exactly, says Dean. He seems strangely content.
Clearly, Sam missed something.
Once upon a time, Sam dreamed a dream of the coast. (Roosting herons, remember? Or maybe egrets, Sam's not sure. Not all of his insecurities are a matter of life or death.) He'd remembered the moon in the sky, and the stars. He'd been promised tacos and tequila.
Computer hot in his lap, Sam types in MOON JELLIES. But that's not what they are--not from what he can discern from the image results. He turns to their victims.
Karim Chowdhury was an aerospace engineer from Mountain View. --is, Sam self-corrects. Karim Chowdhury is an aerospace engineer from Mountain View.
Lin Phuoc had three boys; she'd taken them all to the Chabot Space & Science Center last weekend, and checked in on Facebook.
Jeremy Alzate had been arrested for exposing himself at a drive-in showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and had recently made bail.
Space, Sam figures. It's as good a lead as any. Moon jellies. Tides, maybe. Some kind of celestial alignment thing, or maybe a nixie. Definitely not aliens. But what would a nixie want with space freaks? And what were they all doing out on the slough?
Coincidence, Sam thinks. It's not about space buffs. Dean breaks pattern.
--or maybe he doesn't. But the sea lions surely do.
Sam's just making meaning out of chaos, and it's arbitrary.
But then, this tack's the only reason they've gotten even this far. It's never coincidence. The most ridiculous position is the one he should be taking. It's all about the power of his imagination.
Faith, Sam prays.
He doesn't mean to fall asleep. But in his dream he has Dean pulled close, worn flannel soft in his grip as he peels it from Dean's body. White skin peeks out as his shirt bunches against Sam; he's working at Sam's jeans, fingers woven through the belt loops. Dean tips him onto the bed, then joins him.
Sam breathes in the smell of his closeness.
When Sam starts awake, his cock is throbbing, and his fingers are indeed wrung around Dean's shirt. It's wet with slough, but in the blue shadows of the TV screen, Sam doesn't see, isn't thinking, and he assumes it's blood. He thinks, oh my god, I've killed him.
Maybe this is a thing that happens when you're raised by ghosts: You end up ruled by them.
Everything that's ever happened to them was only Azazel's fault, after all. Everyone else is innocent.
I almost turned you into an octopus once, Sam says, during a commercial break.
Hate to break it to you, but I don't think it was that kind of magic set, wizard-boy, Dean responds. His delivery is well-practiced.
When we thought you were going to Hell, Sam clarifies--though that makes it sound like Dean hadn't. Gone to Hell, that is. But damnation is meant to be a prison of forever and again--eternity. It's a strange concept for them.
Uh, says Dean.
Because octopuses can escape just about anything, Sam says, though he knows from the start that explaining a 4AM logic from years ago is a doomed venture. So then, even if octopuses do go to Hell, you'd be able to escape and buy me some time so I could--well, I mean. I didn't, so it doesn't matter.
Why not? Dean asks, which Sam does not expect.
Octopuses only live for one year anyway, says Sam, and alchemic zombies were immortal.
It's supposed to be funny, Sam's pretty sure, but it's hard to make a joke out of desperation, no matter how long past it is.
Of course, that's never stopped Dean; but he doesn't laugh now.
At least you fucking looked for something that time, Dean snarls.
There's so much bite to the outburst, Sam snaps to attention. He feels his nakedness acutely.
I'm going to try to rinse my clothes out, Sam announces, stiff.
He doesn't get far. The hot water's out, and punching at the mud cemented in his jeans makes his fingers ache and his stung wrist burn. He grips it tight so all the blood rushes away from it.
Dean seems to notice. Are you alright? he asks.
If he's planning to explain his earlier accusation, he hides his intentions well.
Sure, says Sam. Whatever.
Also, what's with the blanket? Dean asks.
Sam's brow furrows. Now it's his turn. What? he asks.
Maybe this is a thing that happens when you're trying to grow beyond your boyhood among ghosts:
The answer is still ghosts, and/or some variant thereof.
Dean's been effectively useless all night, though certainly no one had expected otherwise. He'd been too out of it to hold together any of the details Sam had doggedly put together, much less troubleshoot intelligently, and that was fine. He'd still seemed more present than he had in Utah, or back at the bunker, and that's all Sam figures he's allowed to hope for. If Dean seemed at all scattered, Sam acknowledged, or cryptic, well. Welcome to the last few years.
But this was starting to get weird.
So I was thinking nixies, Sam says, after he reminds Dean about the blanket. When you, uh, fell in...
did you see anything?
Dean shrugs. Whatever you saw, I guess.
But like, any fairy realm stuff? You can still see them, right?
Dean won't shift his gaze from the television. Um, he says. I think you're confusing me with a different lap dance.
Dean, look at me.
Sam feels like he should be checking Dean's pupils or making sure his fever isn't too high or something, but he wouldn't know what to look for and honestly, but for the mud Dean looks like business as usual. He looks like shit, but he at least looks better than he did before. Because damn it, Sam had been right and the jellyfish toxin had been nothing to worry about and they were going to wait it out and everything was going to be fine.
Dean grimaces like he's making to get up, and though Sam doubts he'd get all that far, he swings a leg over Dean's torso and straddles his ribs and pushes him back down. He just wants a closer look.
What Sam sees is this: He watches as the perplexity fades from Dean's features, replaced instead by devastation and then awe. There's a fineness to his expressions that Sam hasn't seen--convincingly, anyway--in years. And Sam certainly hasn't seen awe. Then love, which Sam is more accustomed to, but only marginally.
You're naked, Dean says finally.
I fucking know, Sam snaps. That's not what he'd been expecting. But Dean doesn't seem to notice his irritation.
I'm dreaming, Dean says.
(Dean's life after demonhood as a series of hypnagogic stutters, Sam thinks)
You're not asleep, damn it. (but I don't know what you are)
Dean runs his fingers down Sam's body, rubbing a little at his chest hair. Sam grimaces.
Then how'd you get out of the Cage? Dean asks.
Before Sam ascertains 100% what's going on, Dean falls all the way through his 2009. Sam reads in him first a sense of defeat that's far more intense than Sam had been inclined to remember. Then he's reminded how much of his own 2009, or his and Dean's, or whatever it was--the way Dean looked at him, like he could not be trusted, he could not be depended upon, he could not be Sam--he has no need to re-live. He probably would not survive re-living.
Either way, Dean is falling backwards. What this has to do with the moon, or space, or nixies, or if, indeed, it does, Sam can't hit the connection, or undo the problem. If memory is part of this, and living the way they do, and 2014 really just being fucked up is all a part of this--all of that is still only a part. That much Sam's certain of. It's memory, but also magic. Because they are not allowed to fall apart without it.
Certainty isn't as golden as Sam remembers.
Search The Web offers Sam only one word: TRANSDIFFERENTIATION.
He remembers being ten, and finding comfort in multisyllabic words. At the time, the word had been coulrophobia, though it means nothing to Sam now. Transdifferentiation, without an attendant plan of action, means less.
Maybe Sam is grateful that Dean's lifespan has secrets; for instance, those extra forty years.
Maybe Sam hopes that Dean remembers every single one.
He needs the time, and he is not afraid of the dark.
Sam uses those forty years trying to log back into the Internet for this shit motel. It keeps giving him a self-assigned IP, which is just about the most useless form of agency Sam can imagine right now. When he finally logs back on he feels a surge of accomplishment, though it's quickly tempered by the realization that it's only the Internet, and not an answer.
So far, Search The Web hasn't availed him much; and in retrospect, he's not sure why he thought it would, except that it always had before. Maybe that had all been Written, capital W. Maybe now the Word is gone and all their chains, all their safeties, have been lifted. Maybe Sam has finally been left to his own devices.
This is not a promising start.
Silver lining: Dean apparently doesn't remember a whole lot about Hell anymore.
Of course, the way this is going (and had been going even before the jellyfish, before Karim Chowdhury, Lin Phuoc, and Jeremy Alzate), that won't matter. Dean won't remember anything. And he'll be gone, too.
Sam works like an insect, frenetic and, he suspects, mostly pointless. His mind prisms, the way he'd discovered when he'd still been about ten and was learning to juggle. Part of him tries to put a method to a terminology and the other part tries to handle the fallout.
Because Dean had been slipping back through time years at a time and Sam hadn't even noticed--that's how fucked 2014 is.
Flipside: Dean had been slipping back through time years at a time and barely acted like it. Surely he'd been confused, maybe even concerned. And he hadn't said a word to Sam. This is not about Sam's blindness. This is not about Sam's failures.
You are an insect, an angel had told him once. Lucifer is nothing more than a firefly, and you are nothing. You and your brother are nothing.
Sam wonders if all this is written in the stars, too.
I'm tired, Dean says, somewhere at the periphery of Sam's attentions. Sam has no idea what year this is, as that's a pretty long-running affliction. But for a moment Sam had hopes they've sprung forward again, are rocketing towards the present again.
I'm just--I'm tired, man, Dean says again.
Me too, Sam admits quietly. He's not sure if Dean hears. He's not sure what he hopes.
Sam's hope might need a contingency plan.
Where are all your happy memories? Sam asks, mostly because he knows Dean will not remember he's asked.
Sam's certainly not given to nostalgia, but he's bet his life on the fact that there's been more to the last ten years than loss and pain, and now he's not so sure. Dean's always been better at cataloguing random detail--an infinite number of tailgate beers, warm pancakes, sheets that didn't smell like smoke or sex, good local radio.
Those were the kinds of things he treasured, and that Sam had relied on him to keep.
Where are they now? And what do they mean when they're old and far away, this random assemblage of still life and unfastened impressions?
What's their power?
Dean says something about Jess, and cautions Sam--he can't keep that all bottled up inside, and you know what's so important? saving people, and he's here for you, Sam, just say the word.
Sam either wants to cry or strangle him. So he puts his hands around Dean's throat, tilts Dean's head up, and plants a stale, dry kiss on his lips. Sam hasn't felt so unpracticed since probably their first, and he disengages prematurely.
It's Dean's body--still his body--and it is, or at least was, Dean. But it feels like a stranger. He is even more a stranger than the stranger he knows (he admits) Dean is (or was) today.
It's not the dark Sam's afraid of.
When Dean had slipped backwards through demonhood, or whatever he'd felt then, Sam hadn't noticed the difference.
He hadn't even noticed.
Sam looks Dean straight in the eyes. I'm losing you, he thinks. I have nothing to say to you, he realizes. This is not his brother. Maybe a different him and a different time, but not like this, not matched like this.
Dean smiles nervously, as if he's more perplexed by Sam's staring than the fact that, for instance, he's rutted with jellyfish barbs and covered in mud and they both are so much older. Nervousness looks strange on him now.
What's your problem? Dean asks. He turns the TV off, but the silence of the room shoots up around them like a thick moss and he turns it back on again. It's an old episode of Dr. Sexy--Sam knows because Dr. Sexy's hair is shorter; and he has bangs.
It must be nearly dawn, then. Dr. Sexy runs the earliest morning slot these days, when no one's watching. When no one, not even Dean, is watching.
Look, Dean says. If there's something Sam wants to say, just spit it out. And did he want to go to the beach?
(Dean's eyes flick to the motel stationery, the bedspreads and general decor. It seems beach-y. Sam can tell he wants to go outside, take stock of his surroundings. Dean has no idea where or why they are, and even this vintage of him won't let on. Not with Sammy.)
There are so many seasons of Dr. Sexy you're never going to get caught up on, Sam says finally. There's like twenty-three.
Dean laughs. Why? You gonna kill me? Besides, he knows for a fact there's only eleven.
Dean's pulling his jacket on and ignoring the fact that it's sopping wet and muddy.
If I thought it would help, Sam says. He's not quite sure what he means.
It really depends on the verb. Sometimes when he closes his eyes, it's dark and he's holding Dean's head below the water. Sometimes Dean does it himself. It's been a long time, and something about eternity feels appealing again.
No, Sam thinks.
Faith, Sam prays.
If you're going to survive the life you've lived with ghosts, you cannot be afraid of echoes.
Sam takes Dean's hand in his and holds fast.
Come with me to California, he says, not for the first time. Dean's familiar with the line, and Sam's familiar with his answer. He knows that all those years ago, he was asking Dean to juggle--his faith in Sam, in their father, in ghosts. What he's asking now should be easier.
Come with me, Sam says. It's not quite dawn, and not quite light, but Sam is not afraid of the dark.
Come with me.
Let's go down to the beach.