The cold wraps around his neck so tight and fast Sam almost forgets to breathe. Air crackles through his regulator in panicked bursts, however, and he uses the noise to focus on the task at hand: Don't die.
Scuba diving is not one of the hardest things Sam's tried his hand at; it's reassuringly rule-governed, in a way that Sam's always been good at tuning to autopilot. But it's been a while, and it's cold as hell, and Sam's pretty sure most dives don't involve ocean origin mythos or dubiously mannered killer whales.
He concentrates on controlling his descent; neutral buoyancy was a bitch. He lets a bit of air out of his BC. Sam's ears twinge under the extra pressure, and he works his jaw to relieve the pain. One step at a time.
The bay sits on a shelf that drops off sharply somewhat past Sealand's enclosure, and as Sam kicks farther away from shore, the temperature hits a new level of discomfort. Even with his dive light, the water is a reflective milky white, and globular masses hang from the eelgrass writhing below him. If he has any chance of catching up with Dean, he's going to have to listen for him. Dean might be as long as a house, but he'd have to be decked out like a ferris wheel for Sam to spot him out here.
It's unsettlingly noisy in the bay, given how blind Sam is. He proceeds with the expectation that with each kick, he'll find himself face to face with something faster and toothier than he is, and tries not to ruminate too vividly on the popping and crunching and clicking that pulses from indeterminate arenas above and around him.
The impressions Gadreel has left inside him curl into the teasing current like it's some kind of homecoming. Sam resists it at first, and then, tentatively, lets it guide him. If any angel has business in the sea, it's a fair bet that business intersects with Sam's own. Just historically speaking.
And so, at the periphery of his vision, where his mask cuts off his view of the murk, Gadreel's memories dance bright and molten. It's something bright. There's a reflexive quickening in his stomach, which Sam takes to mean that whatever it is, it's close--just not close enough. He flutter kicks with greater abandon. Dean or no Dean, Sam's only got so much air. He might as well spend it doing something.
Then Sam feels a tickling at his ankle. He draws his feet in and shines his light downward.
Sea lions--a group of them. It seems a little late for sea lions, Sam thinks. But they're booking it back the way Sam came, which sends him tumbling. Maybe they'd been distracted by something. Given the way the one below him keeps butting at his feet, Sam figures these particular ones weren't exactly MENSA material. Even cows weren't this dumb.
The sea lion examines Sam, nipping lightly at his body. When they come face to face with each other, its whiskers cast sharp shadows across its snout, arching up and away from the beam of Sam's dive light. Its face reminds Sam of the one selkie he'd ever hunted. (Dean hadn't been there then, either. Summer, the Gulf of Maine, 2008.)
Sam turns away from his new friend and back out to sea. If it ended five feet from him, he wouldn't know; it's all just murky white. He's not sure if this makes it feel vast or prison-like. But it's a mistake to ever believe you're alone in the ocean.
There's a screech and the sudden, terrible warmth of blood just below Sam's feet, where his sea lion had still been lurking. The sea lion spirals up past him and with a sick lurch Sam realizes he's probably in big fucking trouble.
Before he can kick away, Sam sees a black head and an enormous set of conical teeth rising up out of the deep like a luminous mirage. As the thing charges past him, milky belly to his face, he realizes it's Dean.
He should be glad it's Dean. But Dean's going after that sea lion like his life depends on it--a hunt elementally, primally important--and Sam can't tell if Dean means to be protective, hungry, or bored and experimental. And this, this is what he was afraid of.
When Dean loses, or tires, of his seal he slinks back around Sam. The proximity registers as familiar, and Sam relaxes slightly. He extends a tentative glove toward Dean's head.
Dean dips lower and lets Sam trail his hand all the way down Dean's side. He's rubbery and smooth, a sensation only broken by the crevasse of Castiel's handprint on him. This won't be so bad.
Then Sam feels a tug on his foot, and he's rushing downward through the water. It all happens morbidly quick.
Sam's ears pop, and Dean just drags him deeper. He's not gentle, they're not headed toward anything. It's all Sam can do to remember to breathe; his impulse, his very strong impulse as he gets sucked deeper, is to stop and conserve his air. But that will kill him more surely than Dean will.
Dean's going to kill him, Sam realizes.
He fights it. He can fight it. He manages to ditch the flipper and stall his descent, but too quickly Sam feels the hard smack of Dean's weight against his chest, barreling him backward.
And then Dean's gone. There's a pulse through the water when he dives deeper and away, and then nothing. Dean's just gone.
It's all so sharp and quick.
The ocean is white and empty again when Sam's vision shimmers back, away from its black and its pinpricks of red, blue and yellow. He's alone.
Sam hangs in the water, sucking in shallow, frenetic breaths--the best he can do to keep his ribs from screaming. Suspended, thoughtless, he ascertains that if he's mindful he can move without unbearable consequence. Next, he tries to steady his breathing.
His first thought is that he's not gonna alter course. If anything, it only proves how critical Sam's presence is, because Dean can't do this alone. He's not in control; he's not Dean. Dean would never hurt him.
He's never going to catch up with Dean now, especially not if he doesn't want to be found. And Gadreel's memories are dimming, too, overpowered by Sam's own fireworks--in his chest, his heart. If he were alone, Sam would keep going. But he and Dean both need to come out on the other end of this; Sam's gonna make sure of that.
If Dean comes back with the Blade, great. No Blade, and Sam's going to need to have a Plan B before Abaddon catches up with them. Regardless, what he needs most right now is more information, and Crowley has no excuse now to keep from ponying up. Until Dean gets back, it's not like time is of the essence.
Sam doubles back. He tells himself this is the smartest plan they've had all day, but it still feels pitifully half-assed.
Sam tries not to think about defeat. Whole failure. One way or another, Dean will come back.
He'll swim back.
As Sam kicks upward, time decompresses and protracts. The ascent is long and too well-suited to reflection. He wills himself to imagine nothing. To keep his mind blank. He can crash when he reaches the surface. He concentrates on skirting the pain.
At fifteen feet, Sam forces himself to stop, let his body catch up with the pressure shift like he'd been taught. His tears from that first shock of pain have steamed up his mask, but he doesn't bother to make any adjustments. He can't see for shit down here anyway.
When he closes his eyes, he swears he can feel Dean coming for him again.
Sam's graceless return to Sealand confirms his cracked rib theory several times over. Once out of the water, all Sam can really feel is cold and pain, and each seem to augment the other. Every shambling, block-like move he makes excites his ribs in aggressively vocal ways. The pain is more apparent without the even calm of the water pressure, and when he shakes the rain of his eyelashes even that minor torsion makes them wail.
"You look successful," Crowley notes dryly, without looking up from his phone.
"I don't-- I don't think he recognized me--" Sam chatters by way of explanation. He feels like he's going to be sick. Then he takes a deep, accidental breath and assures himself that under no circumstances is he going to allow himself to be sick. He unleashes a string of expletives.
"He didn't recognize me--"
Crowley doesn't seem all that surprised. "Right, well. Do recall we're searching for the First Blade. Perhaps you should get used to that."
Sam nearly condescends to kicking the duffel bag all the way back to the car, but he grits his way through the pain of heaving it onto his shoulder and, after ordering Crowley onto whale sentry duty, limps toward the parking lot.
He thinks of everything but dismal failure.
Once he's changed (in a clammy, sandy, haphazard sense), he dumps his scuba equipment onto a slightly musty shroud and buries it all at the back of the trunk.
Numbly, he thinks of everything but failure.
Mostly, he thinks, he's cold.
He climbs into the passenger side of the Impala and runs the heater. The vents blasts icy air at him.
He will not think of failure.
Sam misses the close, windbreaking fit of his wetsuit, and he wishes more than anything that he and Dean were at some skeevy motel, running out all the hot water in the complex; that Dean were here and hell, that they were hunting selkies, instead of whatever they were calling their present bullshit. He hugs his jacket closer to his body and tries to rub out the goosebumps crawling across his arms and shoulders.
His hair is dripping all down his back, but when he leans forward his ribs read him the riot act. He tries not to sneeze.
"Fuck, Dean," he hisses, when he tries to take a normal breath. Fucking... whale.
When he closes his eyes, there are double rows of teeth blinking back at him. And behind them, Dean--or the absence of him. Sam's not sure if these things are all that different anymore.
Gadreel's leftovers seem like lullabies, comparatively.
But when the pain recedes, Sam resolves to keep himself warm and busy. He stares dumbly at the dashboard for a moment, leaden and shocky. Then he picks a chore.
He spreads Dean's rain-soaked jacket across the steering wheel in the hopes that it might dry off some. It hangs heavy, so Sam takes it back and rummages through the pockets, and he doesn't think about failure.
Inner-right, Dad's journal. A collection of lint-encrusted paper clips which Sam can't decide were purposive or just fallen out of the journal, no longer marking places that no longer need to be marked. Knives in abundance. In the right-hand pocket, Dean's gun--obviously a new transfer, from waistband to pocket. Some receipts, now sodden; and tinged green by several grainy, half-dissolved pills. Sam recognizes them. And he's angry at them. And he's probably angry at Dean, too, but he's a little tapped out on surprise and betrayal at the moment. Dean can do whatever the hell he wants.
Sam wipes the lint and amphetamine grime off of Dean's phone. It's a little wet, but after a couple attempts the screen recognizes Sam's numb fingers and he swipes himself in. The newest messages are a stream of staccato one-word texts to Cas--variations on 'hey,' 'Cas,' and '4-10.'
Dean's inbox is empty, but if Sam weren't Sam, he probably wouldn't have responded, either; there just wasn't any information to respond to. And if Dean really wanted to get Cas's attention, surely there were more evocative ways of describing their situation. Maybe ones that involved the words "Crowley," "First Blade," or "whales," for instance. Sam rolls his eyes and keeps scrolling.
The timestamps spin backwards--they happen in clusters, gas station increments. A flurry in this morning's early AM, all before Sam's run. (All before Sam ran.) There are unanswered batches stretching days back, punctuated only by Dean's calls to Sam--Stillwater, and before that, Wisconsin. 'Yo,' they read.
'got yourea ears on.'
They're all so substanceless, undescriptive, un-urgent.
Except for the part where there are hundreds of them.
It makes Sam feel sick, like he's walked in on a stranger's private business. But that's not it, since they've made something careerish out of exactly that. He feels like he's walked in on his brother, naked. His skin is marked with meaningless scar after scar after sigil, but taken at volume they all mean please help me.
Sam thinks about everything but failure.
He thinks about everything but failure, and Dean's teeth. Dean's weight thrown against him and Dean's monstrosity and Dean's absence.
And you know what, fuck it. Sam swipes into Dean's phone again and starts a new message to Cas. But after a moment, all he does is punch in '4-10' and send. It's exhausting to think about having to put all this into a genre with a character limit. There's just no way. Instead, he pulls up a web browser and fiddles his way onto the security settings of Castiel's phone, turns on the GPS.
The browser spools, and finally the Impala's heat kicks in in earnest--warm relief.
Cas is in Van Nuys, California. That would have been nice to know.
Sam is altogether too familiar with Van Nuys, and what an angel might want with it. He remembers that warehouse, and Heaven adjacent or whatever pocket of universe the room inside was supposed to be; when you strike a deal with Heaven, you do it in Van Nuys. And Sam remembers with a vivid, searing panic what it had felt like when Michael bore down on them in that room, all wind and shattered glass and electrical short. The unrelenting peal of angels screaming. The look in Dean's eyes when they found Sam--pure apology.
But he'd turned that around, Sam amends quickly. Dean had turned that around. Maybe Cas is planning a deception, too. Maybe he's a prisoner. Maybe it's nothing at all, and Cas is in Los Angeles on another fruitless search, like so many leads they've run to their end and ground to nothing. It could be any number of things.
So he does not ask, Cas, what the hell are you doing in Van Nuys.
But now that he's thought it, he can't shake it--that look in Dean's eyes, just before Michael would have snapped him up; his teeth, just before he threw him down. If Sam thought he'd lost his brother in Van Nuys, he's not sure what they're living through now.
Under no circumstances should he be trusting Dean. It's downright stupid, at this point, to be trusting Dean. Whale or no whale, if the last thirty hours have told him anything, there's a thick, unyielding silence between them. Sam knows what Dean's willing to compromise to get what he wants, but that's about it; what Dean knows about Sam is even less. Yet Sam still can't to bring himself to ask, Dean, what are you doing? What the fuck do you think you're doing?
So here they are--or aren't.
They've been on the run from--or on the run toward; accounts differ--Abaddon all this time, but Sam feels like his brother's the one making waves. They're sticking their necks into the campaign for Hell and the worst part of it is having to share space with each other. And Sam is losing him.
When Sam thinks about that, he forgets to be angry. He forgets to hold his ground, and consult reason, and remember the big picture and its complex systems, its fractal interrelations, and all of that bullshit. All Sam can think about is his brother; his whole world funnels down to DeanDeanDean. It's a panic mode, an arresting state of total emergency. It's these moments when Sam probably understands Dean best. This is where Dean lives.
Sam feels like the only way to get away from that is to trust Dean. If the situation were reversed, to use their tell-all phrase, it's what Sam would want. The way this plays out, though, Sam's still trusting Dean like he's the same person he was a long time ago. Except there's a big difference between trusting someone to keep you safe, and telling yourself you trust someone because they're safe, they're fine, and you haven't let them down. When they needed you, you kept them from falling apart. You trust them because they trust you.
And then Sam's just angry again, because it's not his fault. Dean is not his fault. All the shit Dean's pulled with him is not his fault. (But shouldn't someone fix it? Shouldn't someone have fixed this? Shouldn't Sam be able to fix this?)
The cycle repeats.
So Sam steps over the rows of teeth in his head and tries to find somewhere else to run. The closest he gets to peace of mind is the illusion of it. He floats in Gadreel's sea and instead of picking up and moving on, Sam stays a while. Even if he can't see it for himself, Sam needs to know the sea. He needs to know what's out there.
The tides are strong, but down deep the current batters less. We all come from the deep.
There is something bright down there, mirror-surfaced. But if it's reflecting any light, it has to be coming from the other side.
A window, then. A gateway. Gadreel yearns.
But all of this feels like too much of an exoneration. Like if there's an upside to Gadreel's flotsam, then it must have been okay. Who needs the Queen of Hell to want you dead when you have 'okay.'
It'll do the job just fine.
Sam wheel-spins. Then he backtracks. And he disappears. Eventually, he's warm and asleep.
He dreams about Kevin. He dreams about Dean's teeth--two rows, predatory. Dean's mouth opening and the First Blade displaying on his tongue, like a dragon with a sword. He dreams about rain. He dreams about inland deserts, bright Heavenly light. Sam dreams about Amelia. The tick of a movie theater's massive screen. He dreams of rain, and of Dean's hands cupping just below his jaw, telling Sam to look at him, look at him, Sam. The angels are falling. He dreams of Dean's touch, and the touch, again, of rain. A sensate slippage. He dreams of a flood of light, not death, or a guide to elsewhere, but of an angel come to stay.
He wakes wheezing and sweating to the blip of Dean's phone, whining about low battery.
It's just past midnight, and Sam is still alone in the Impala. It's stuffy, and he's gone from frozen to overheated. So he takes back the keys and he throws Dean's phone on the dashboard, and struggles to get out of the car as painlessly as possible. If Cas wants to drop a line, he's too late.
Sam heads back to Sealand, and waits for Dean to come home.
As a base camp, Sealand's not great. Privacy really is its only selling point.
Otherwise, the arena is open in too many directions, and Sam can see the gloomy contours of ground level through the gaps in the bleachers. He hates it when the floor's not secure; it makes devil's traps a bitch. And the ambient noise is a thick, almost impenetrable chorus of rain plinking off the aluminum bleachers--still shiny and minus a few dents, unperturbed by the passage of time, the squalor of disuse--and the glug of the bay against, well, everything.
But at least it's as deserted as Crowley said. The electricity's all been powered down. There are no cameras. Most of the doors are locked tight. Though really, that's not a helpful security measure. Locked doors are a hindrance for Sam and a total non-object for anything that might want to come kill them. Sam completes his survey and turns to Crowley, who shrugs demurely, as though he's trying to deny his silent appraisal of Sam's actions.
Nothing to see here, Moose.
Whatever. Crowley wants to read paranoia into information-gathering, fine. That's his prerogative. But i
f there's going to be some kind of showdown--if they even make it that far--he might as well be ready. He feels like he's giving Sealand a janitorial sort of attention, anticipating more clean-up than show, but he might as well be ready.
Sam limps through the arena with flatline detachment. This isn't paranoia. He can feel the panic in him still, but he doesn't have the energy to exercise it. He doesn't have the will to throw himself back into fight mode. He stares out at the dark sea, vista twinkling with blinking buoys and night ships, all the rest checkered into sharp, geometrical cuts and fine gradations of black and purple, so unlike the ocean.
Eventually, he sets up shop in the bleachers. There's an overhang that blocks most of the rain, though it doesn't stop the wind from sending in a horizontal spray. Sam drops his backpack under the bleacher, until he sees that there's an observation grotto down below--more of a crawlspace, really, for kids--with a view of the enclosure. It's difficult to see anything, but Sam can just make out shades of blue in the black of the bay water and the sifting of silt and plaster and ocean flotsam, wavering on the other side of the glass like ghosts. It's not as pretty as the horizon. Forget Gadreel, and Cain, and Dean: He doesn't love the sea.
Once the sun rises, Sam should be able to see Dean coming from way out.
Sam's not sure how long he'll have to wait. Overnight? Days? Eternity? He hasn't yet let himself plan out what he'll do if Dean never shows; that would acquire suggesting, even theoretically, that Dean is really gone.
He remembers waiting for Dad like this, huddled on some stranger's stoop, or at the motel curb. He'd outgrown waiting far quicker than Dean had, but he still remembers. He remembers sharing one of Dad's left jackets and huddling together for maximum warmth, shoving four hands into one pocket--waiting like that until their calves cramped and their bums froze.
"I did try, you know--to tempt an actual whale." Like an apparition, Crowley's availed himself of the bleacher to Sam's right. "You should be aware that this was no one's Plan A."
Reflexively, Sam scoots to his left, and swears when he jostles his ribs. This was going to be fun.
When he does not receive a more eloquent response, Crowley continues, "It just happens that you and your brother are like the universe's Swiss Army Knife. If you can't find a whale who will listen, make one."
"You're an idiot." But he lets Crowley keep talking. He has information to glean.
"Eve spoke to a snake. You've always known who I am."
"What do you want with my brother?"
Crowley clicks his tongue. "Shockingly little. Or perhaps less shocking--I wouldn't hinge my conquests on a bloodline. It's bad business. I play the penny stocks. Patterns, tessellations, startup after startup after startup, ad nauseam."
Sam considers this. Crowley hadn't wanted the Apocalypse, after all; he'd wanted the planet. He hadn't wanted Alphas, per se--just their castles. And not God's power, but his Purgatory. His is a land grab; and if Crowley'd been around when the continents rose up out of the seas, he wouldn't have left them to the whims of plate tectonics. They'd have been piled up like poker chips.
"Abaddon's a Futurist, and your friend Metatron is embarrassingly Po-Mo. I need your brother to remind them what a story's really meant to be."
Except Crowley's never really struck Sam as all that traditional. Sam has seen his Hell, and to be honest, it hadn't been particularly imaginative. It didn't have the grandiosity of an Old Testament expanse, and seems to have been built on irony more than anything. What story was he trying to write? The eBible?
Sam pries. "And your story has a counterspell? That sounds anticlimactic."
"More of a suggestion, really. A blood spell."
"That's a pretty heavy suggestion."
"Well, I did model it off you. Fewer needles, though--I'm not a veterinarian." Crowley withdraws the scotch flask from Idaho instead of a syringe, and gestures toward Sam's body.
No trap--if Crowley wants to screw Sam over, he probably already has. Sam takes out a knife.
"A few waterings, metabolic biochemistry takes its course, and your brother's good as new. Like a human Chia Pet," Crowley assures him. "The real cetaceans, on the other hand, are all a-flutter; the waters are warming. They'll need a savior, too."
"Yeah, the waters are warming," Sam agrees noncommittally. He hands back the flask, his blood slicking the bottom of it.
"It means Hell's starting to boil over without its...despotic moderator. At which point you may need to do considerably more than seal the source."
"It's called global warming. Hell can't take credit for that."
"Honestly, Sam. How do you still believe your media up here? After all this? 'Freak meteor shower,' really?"
"It's global warming," Sam insists. He's not going to argue about this.
He tests Crowley again. "How'd you figure Victoria for the Blade? You wouldn't bring Abaddon down on yourself if the odds weren't good enough."
"Well, they wouldn't have named it for the Queen if it weren't already important, would they?"
Sam glowers at him.
Crowley gifts him with a deep, rib-heaving sigh. He swishes Sam's blood in his flask. "Do you flick a spinner every time you pick a means of monster-hunting? Demons have been at their work far longer than you boys; we know things. Cain was First. He's in all our blood."
"I thought Lilith was supposed to be the first. Not Cain."
"Lilith? Lilith was the first to be tempted. Cain was the first to concede."
Sam turns to face Crowley. That's a finer distinction than Sam has come to expect from Hell. But maybe it's all in the attitude: It's the difference between trading up and giving in.
"Your brother's made his choice. What about you?"
"There's no kingdom, Crowley. There are no kings. Don't romanticize this."
"The two of you are always so subtle, so correct me if I'm wrong, but I have an inkling that perhaps there's been some trouble in paradise? If you want control, Sam, that's nothing a crown wouldn't solve."
"Spare me the melodrama."
Crowley shrugs. "Imagine how easy your whole life would have been, with you and your brother seeing eye to eye on everything. Imagine how easy all the rest of this might be."
"Easy," Sam agrees. "Brief. Painful, and bloody."
"Right, because this version is so stable and delightful."
Sam's head snaps up. He hears Dean well before he sees him. And he remembers to descend the bleachers as sedately as possible, but it's too soon.
They have no timeframe, and certainly no way to approximate one, but this is too soon.
Sam rushes to the water's edge in a shambling jog, his thoughts somewhere beyond pain; he knows that whale song is supposed to be one of those languorous, soothing soundtracks that people love so much, but Dean's song isn't beautiful.
Dean whistles and pulses, frequencies tearing apart from one another in a splitting cacophony.
To Sam, it just sounds like screaming.
A dorsal fin leads up out of black water--Dean's dorsal fin, Sam amends--and Sam catches sight of Dean's smooth back amidst the chop he's stirring up. Then he's under again, and back up, and the water churns with his frenetic assault on the bay. (It just sounds like screaming, it sounds so much like screaming--) Dean tailspins like a missile, sideswiping the dock with his full body. Sam hears a crack.
"Dean--!" he tries, but he knows that's worthless. Even if Dean could hear him, who knows if it would matter. Instead, Dean thrashes in the water, twisting and rolling like the very best of the possessed.
And Sam can't handle it. He can't handle the screaming. "Turn him back," he demands, over the screaming and over the flush of water over the dock. When Crowley doesn't move, Sam shouts, "Crowley, get the fuck out there and turn him back!"
Crowley keeps a few feet behind Sam, and Sam can feel his assessing gaze at his back again. "Well, I imagine you don't want a rush job."
Dean whistles, and chirps, and screams.
He'd been so silent before.
Whatever comes next, they'll deal with it. After Dean isn't twelve tons of whale, they'll deal with it. Sam just needs his brother back; he'll deal with whatever's left when that time comes.
"I've heard dungeon stints do wonders for overambitious--in this case, hyperactive--monsters."
Dean scrapes along the side of the enclosure, a storm of plaster swirling caseous in his wake. He won't stop screaming.
"Crowley, turn him now!"
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