When they reached Utah Dean pulled over and stripped off his jacket and lay on the hot hood of the car with two bottles of beer, trying to spell out his name in the stars. 'The Battle of Evermore' unspooled from the tape player. He untwisted a bottle and set it aside for Sam. "Tell me there's a way to kill this thing Sammy."
Sam scooted onto the hood beside Dean and took a long swallow of his beer. “I think there is. The guy writes all cryptic, nothing like Chuck. From what I gather, there’s a spell.”
He rubbed his eyes, sore from hours of reading, and let his knee fall casually against Dean’s, still starved for warmth and comfort, though he could barely admit it to himself. “There’s an incantation, if I can figure out how to pronounce it.”
Dean listened to the engine settle, their breath coiling into the chill night air. Unconsciously wiping the ghost of Sam's blood on his jeans, he wanted to hide and drink himself numb, which meant they were getting close. He could feel the gap in his memory now, as present and unknowable as an empty room to which he had no key, shadow hands reaching through the door to pull him in.
"This spell, is it in that language? Is it--" Dean laughed, taking Sam's hand as the joke washed up in his own fear, "Is it safe?"
Sam squeezed Dean’s hand, grateful for the touch. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I’m reading the books and it’s in there, and as far as I can tell I’m still me, right?”
He turned to face Dean, saw the dim light glinting in his wide eyes. “Did you hear any of it? You had the earplugs in, but I don’t know if I was speaking it when they came out.”
"Yeah but I didn't understand anything, not on your level. You think I should? I mean," said Dean, wetting his lip, "You think it might help us remember?"
Sam began to pull away, but Dean held fast, curiosity coupled with his deep-seated fear of being psychically compromised. "Not, you know, a lot, just a word. Any one word you can remember. It's like..."
Dean turned on his side. "It's like in the Batman comics, when Joker poisoned all the bath products. The poison won't kill you if you just use the soap, it's when you use the soap AND the shaving cream AND the hair tonic, the combination of these things is what kills you."
Sam snorted quietly. “And you say I’m a nerd. But anyway… “ He trailed off, thinking of the record and all the words he did remember. And the music... that had been what started it all, that dreadful cold hook in his gut pulling him down into it. Maybe that was the soap, the words were the shaving cream.
He took a deep breath and looked into Dean’s face, the warm colors leached away by the starlight, rendering him in blues and whites and blacks. His lips were dark, pressed into a thin line.
Dean had good instincts. Even when Sam didn’t trust them, Dean had good instincts. “We can try that. I remember quite a lot of it. Maybe I’ll just, say a few words?”
"Start with one. A little one. Actually, hold on, let's put some guardrails on this," Dean said, leaping up and running around to the trunk and returning with a motley crew of tools, "Grab a blanket and the flashlights."
Spread out on the ground, Dean scribbled something on two pads of paper, one for each of them, and set down an airhorn hooked up to a timer in the center. He sat down and gestured for Sam to the same. "This," he said, pointing to the airhorn, "Will sound off every sixty seconds. When that happens we will take a pencil," he said, tossing Sam said pencil, "And read this."
Sam scanned the paper. The same phrase had been listed ten times, reading, "You are under mind control. Scream obscenities, check off this line, then skip to the next line."
Sam nodded, recognizing this from years ago, something that John had put in place when they’d been using a spell from dubious sources. He nodded again, looking around at the blanket where Dean had spread the first-aid kit, a rolled-up sheaf of knives, salt, a camping lantern, and various other implements. Dean flicked on the lamp and it was a relief to see his face washed in warm color again now that they were going to do this, and less like the underwater blue of the starlight.
“Ready?” Sam asked. With Dean’s nod, he took a deep breath, locked eyes with Dean, and uttered a word that tasted alien and foul and brackish in his mouth.
The word uncurled in Dean's mind, traveling down his spine and setting taproots into the earth, down below the continental shelf where the Dreamer slept. It had a secret to tell him. The desert air thickened and became seawater, washing over his head, threatening to choke him. When he could no longer hold his breath, he inhaled...and smelled perfume. Carpeting. The sweaty desperation of slot machine levers.
The airhorn blared. Looking at the paper, Dean shouted a stream of curse words and made a little x. The seawater receded. He flexed his fingers experimentally. "I'm remembering something. How are you doing?"
It took Sam a moment to answer, to shake off the pressure and the salt-taste in his mouth, to clear the abhorrent words from his memory. He shook his head to clear it and swayed, putting a hand out to steady himself.
“I’m… a lot better than last time,” he said, giving a half-hearted laugh. “But I’m not remembering anything, just… seeing things. The same things. Underwater.” He blew out a breath. “We should try again."
The next word was more dense, an equation packed inside it the way 'pi' stretched into infinity, but the word was a key, bisecting dimensions in an angular geometry that changed shape whenever Dean looked at the numbers too hard. The pi symbol became a red door with a velvet rope across it. If he could just study the word a little longer....
The airhorn blared. More cursing, another x. Sam wasn't looking too hot, and Dean took his hand. "You wanna take a break?"
Sam twined their fingers together and squeezed. “No, I think I’m getting closer. I had a flash of… something, the desert heat, a jagged skyline. I think I’m remembering something finally, and I don’t want to stop.”
He grasped Dean’s other hand, looked into Dean’s eyes, and spoke.
The word solidified in Dean's mind, slotting into place, and when he reached out for the red door he heard music on the other side. A familiar song filtered through seawater. A walkie-talkie crackled on his shoulder, Sam telling him to pull back, and when he looked down he saw he was wearing army-issue riot armor.
When they came to they were on their backs in the fetal position, hands clasped, a warm trickle of blood running over Dean's lip. He swiped his face. "Did you hear that? I don't think that was church music."
Sam gasped, focusing on the light smear of blood left in the corner of Dean’s mouth to ground him. He wanted to reach out and swipe it away, but Sam left touching on Dean’s terms, no matter how much he might want to sometimes. The clutch of their hands together was enough.
Images still flickered through his mind, leaving him breathless. It was a strange transposition of memory over memory: 2006, being trapped in a closet while Dean was about to be killed by a psycho in the room upstairs, and at the same time he was back-to-back with Dean, shooting down a mob of weak-chinned, pale-eyed men; teaching the other special kids in Cold Oaks how to dispel ghosts, and at the same time, riding through hot, dry Nevada and seeing Las Vegas shimmer on the horizon like a mirage.
Fighting with Jake. Crouching in the corner of a bombed-out luxury hotel.
“I heard it,” he said, breathless. “It wasn’t the church music, but it sounded familiar, I just, I can’t place it.”
He reluctantly untangled their fingers and sat up, massaging the bridge of his nose. “I’m starting to remember things. It’s making my head hurt. You?”
The lamp was on its side, the blanket tangled beneath them. Sam picked up a pad of paper and frowned. “Hey, we crossed out four more of these.”
Dean shivered. The desert got so cold so quickly. "Do me a favor. Write the next word in the dust so I can see it. So we can say it together."
Sam did so, an English transliteration that clicked on the end of his tongue. Dean memorized it, and coming to some decision he dialed the airhorn alarm to ten minutes and lay back down beside Sam on the blanket. "This next part, we may be in for a long time," said Dean, pulling out his pocketknife, "And I need to know we got each other's backs."
In a perfect world they'd have a third person to bridge the psychic link, but blood bonds made for a dirty close second. Cutting a line across his right palm, Dean took Sam's palm and made as small a cut as possible, blood seeping through the cracks of their fingers as they clasped hands. Anchored to each other. Dean's free hand cupped the back of Sam's head until their foreheads touched. "On three."
The tide rolled over them. Something glittered at the surface, and swimming up to it the water became a darkened theater and the light a lounge singer beneath stage lights, sequined suit and slicked-back hair and hands raised as his eyes rolled white in their sockets. All of the chairs were covered in webbing. They stank like sour milk.
Dean looked over at Sam, wearing identical riot gear with a gun that must have weighed thirty pounds and a mounted headset that blocked outside noise. A spindly limb emerged from the webbing of the nearest chair.
Without hesitation, Sam shot the creature as soon as its torso cleared the chair. It exploded in a rain of iridescent green viscera that reeked of dead fish. The singer didn’t pause for a second, his voice drifting in and out of tune.
More of the creatures staggered toward them, their heads an abhorrent blend of human and fish, their bodies frail and white and scaled. Sam and Dean hadn’t had time to find lore on them, but they’d found that a high-caliber bullet to the vitals killed them just as dead as any human. They went down in twitching piles, their fluids spreading and seeping into the rich carpeting.
A few more advanced on them from around a corner, and Sam made a stiff hand gesture that splattered them against the wall.
“Let’s go,” Sam said, and they jogged forward, through a door that took them into a service corridor, fluorescent lights flickering. The walls were slick, and Sam nearly slipped in a clutch of fish eggs.
“Basement,” Sam said, nodding to the sign at the end of the hallway. He hefted his gun.
They walked past offices and an employee break room, where a poster of President Palin reading DRILL BABY DRILL was pinned to the corkboard, her eyes and teeth blacked out. Dean scanned the news articles pinned around it, the promise of cheap oil in the Pacific, the mysterious offshore drilling rig explosion, the White House declaring a state of emergency when the entire bottom third of California broke off during an earthquake and sank into the ocean.
A broken padlock lay beside the basement door. The ground shuddered and the building powered down until the generators coughed to life and the hallway was reduced to shadows. Dean looked up at Sam, silhouetted against the red emergency lights, face freckled with blood. Giving him the all-clear, Sam kicked in the door and lunged forward with Dean taking up the rear.
"Are they dead?"
The room was a jungle of plastic tubing. Casino employees lined the floor on make-shift mattresses, IVs running from each of their arms into a collective blood bank that whirred far up in the rafters. They whispered a name in unison, eyes alight with ecstasy as something burrowed under their skin. The entire ceiling, as long as a football field and twice as wide, was covered in webbing.
Dean swallowed. "What now?"
Sam surveyed the hundreds of parasite-infected bodies. "There can't be anyone left," he said, his voice devoid of hope, something that he'd not felt for days. "We burn it down, just like we did the others."
They lined the basement and hallways of the first floor with gasoline, putting a mercy-bullet through the lounge-singer's head on the way out. Sam let Dean do the honors of tossing the match, and they stood outside just long enough to watch the smoke begin to pour from broken windows.
The once-grand skyline of Vegas was now in ruins, buildings crumbling and sinking into the earth. The western horizon was a heavy purple with storm clouds that had been coming their way for the last day, storm clouds which had turned the remaining residents of California into gibbering messes intent on moving east, on taking more humans with them into madness.
There was nothing left of Las Vegas but fish-men and parasites.
"Is it worth it to check any more hotels?" Sam asked, because he had to ask, the stink of gasoline and smoke and burning flesh in his nose, the weight of all those hundreds, those thousands of empty, burnt bodies in his chest.
When Dean shook his head after a long pause and made no move to call it in, Sam took a deep breath and thumbed on his radio.
"Vegas is lost," he said to whoever was listening on the other side.
Their Hummer was trashed, but Dean coaxed the engine to life, watching a fish man climb the outside of a bank and bust a window and pull a worker out and drop her to the hungry mob below. Dean hoped the fall killed her first. They had other towns on their list that night, and they let Vegas dwindle in the rearview mirror as stealth bombers rocketed over them, skyscrapers swaying drunkenly under the first round of fire.
Dean radioed in. "Base command, where's next on the evacuation list?"
Crackle. "Negative, we have a helicopter waiting, you and Sam are to report to Fort Cloud."
The map of a military research compound near Gerlach, Nevada sprang to their minds. Dean looked at Sam, brow furrowed. "What do they want with us there?"
The airhorn blared. It had dropped below freezing in the intervening time, and Dean sucked in a long shuddering breath. "That happened. All those people. The city..."
Scooting everything off the blanket with his boot, Dean yanked it over them both and burrowed a cold nose into Sam's neck. He wouldn't be able to stay in the car tonight. It was important that he see any threat coming from a long way off.
When he'd stopped shivering, Dean let himself process. It was that or puke up his dinner. "Okay. Monsters aside. Who would go to so much effort, changing the maps, the history books, the international mindwipe, to hide this?" he said, pale in the moonlight, "And who would have that kind of power?"
Sam lay deep in thought, but not so deep that he didn’t feel the shock of Dean’s long body pressed against his. The last time they’d lain like this, Dean had been the taller of them. Dean’s temple was freezing where it pressed against Sam’s cheek, and his chest and thighs were warm against Sam’s. He draped an arm around Dean to pull him closer, to share more warmth.
Who would have that kind of power? And who would go to this much effort? His mind still reeled from the revelation of the memory, clearer now than the ones that were apparently implanted. Or perhaps real, but in a reality that was not their own. Dean’s closeness made it easier to deal with the weight of all the bodies they’d burned, all the people that had died on their call.
“Could the government have the resources to pull it off?” Sam asked, halfway to himself. “But it would have to be a joint effort between every government, and I don’t think they’re organized enough to do something on this scale.”
He paused, shivering, while Dean burrowed deeper into his neck. “Maybe whatever happened, it wiped our memories. Maybe this is some kind of djinn situation.” The thought was repulsive and hopeless.
Dean's fingers pressed into Sam's shoulder. As much as he loved having his own room in the Bunker, the sound of his brother breathing was often the only thing that settled him during jobs like this.
Dean thought about that year after John's death a lot. Missed it. Out from under his father's shadow, ignorant of bigger players at large, the easy camaraderie between him and Sam.
Dean wasn't willing to admit how much of a relief the vision had been, to know the horror was no fault of his own and they'd only been doing their jobs. To know that even in his worst nightmare Sam had been fighting alongside him, strong, confident, before death and deals and distrust had sprung up between them, and he clung to this version of their lives as much as he did to present-day Sam.
Dean squeezed his eyes shut, trying to retain the details as if from a dream. "I remember where Fort Cloud is now. Not what's inside, but, there's an abandoned mining town a day west of here, if you didn't know what to look for," he said, an overgrown tunnel entrance looming in his memory, "You'd never know it was there. You think maybe their records survived the blast radius the same way the Men of Letters did?"
“It seems like anything’s possible right now,” Sam said. “If they’re constructed half as well as the Bunker, I wouldn’t doubt that something survived, anyway.”
"We'll head out...in a few hours," said Dean sleepily, relaxing against Sam now that the pressing danger had past, "How's your neck?"
“Hurts,” Sam said, “But not too much. It’s okay.” He felt how the tension melted out of Dean, and he wondered how it would be between them now, had that terrifying past continued on into the present. If they’d still be close, if they’d even still be alive. But they were alive now, despite everything real and imagined, and they were nestled up close together against the night, and Sam felt a rush of warmth for Dean.
All they’d been through. And there was even more, now, and he didn’t doubt that more nightmarish memories would surface. Dean would do anything for him, and Sam found the last layer of resentment over Gadreel peel away to reveal final forgiveness. Whatever Dean did, he did it for them both---he always had.
Sam yawned and pressed his cheek against Dean’s temple, face turning inward so that the corner of his lips barely brushed Dean’s skin, all that he thought Dean would be comfortable with. I forgive you, he wanted to say.
Instead, he murmured, “Lets get some sleep.”