That's the text message that wakes Sam up.
He opens his inbox and finds a text he must have sent at some point in the night. It's about ducks and how funny he thinks they are. Apparently. But he knows immediately it was meant for Jess. It's the kind of random they reserved for each other.
You idiot, he thinks to himself, and types, lol sorry wrong #. He doesn't laugh out loud.
The stranger on the other end does not reply.
Weird twilights like this make Sam feel really fucking pathetic. He can't imagine this is what normal people do; never mind normal people, it's not even what he feels like he does. Waking up to his morning bout of borderline weepiness about ducks just isn't how Sam envisions himself. Yet here he is.
Dean stirs beside him, but it's only to wrestle with their pill bottle, then smack his lips as he swallows. Then Dean's still again.
Sam tries to go back to sleep, too--to dream better. They've gotten more sleep in the last two days than they have in the last two weeks; and if this is their last motel room, they might as well use the shit out of it.
But the next time he wakes, it's still dark and it's too cold to pretend this bed is comfortable.
"Dean," Sam tries.
It's suffocating, feeling alone like this. But even if Dean were awake, he's not sure how much it would matter. Talking to Dean--about anything that matters--isn't easy. And if Sam can't think about Jess without remembering she died, he can't think about Dean without thinking that he might. What if--what if!--Sam loses him? What if Dean lets himself get lost, because Sam didn't hold on tight enough? How can Sam hold on tightest?
Get Dean to hold him back, obviously. Would Dean need a reason? Did Sam have any to give?
You're my brother. Don't leave me.
Please don't leave me.
Sam sends another text message.
It's to Jerry, whom Sam hasn't spoken to since probably last summer--their paths hadn't crossed all last semester, and neither of them had thought much of it up until Jess died. He's Sam's Roy, Sam figures. Or his Mackie. This obscurity makes its way to Sam's fingertips as reckless bravery, and before he can second-guess himself he tells Jerry, random dude-from-PHIL-340 Jerry, im so fucked up abou my brother righ now
Then, hasty damage control: its sam W btw, if you don't remember
from zupancics class
And it must still be pathetic o'clock, because Sam stares at his phone, waiting for an answer.
Still, he jumps when his phone chimes.
[text 1 of 3] sam!!!!!! i know who you are u choad im so sorry about jess and about ur brother i saw on the news thats fucking batshit im [text 2 of 3] so sorry like i u dont deserve all this shit listen im biking to campus rn 9AM CHEM MMIDTERM WTF [text 3 of 3] but if ur back n the bay lets hang k?? just talk no wild keggers promise sry that was a joke also im so sorry :(
It takes Sam a moment to decipher all this, not least because he'd forgotten yet again about Dean's other-other death. After he, you know, assaulted and nearly killed Little Becky. Dean Winchester's in no one's graces back in California. And honestly, now Sam's fucking mad about that, too. Or he would be, but he checks his watch and it's 10AM and it's too late in the day for more pity parties. That's not who Sam is.
"Dean," Sam says, knocking his elbow lightly between Dean's scapulae. "Dean, Mackie Sutherland awaits."
He jabs harder.
"Dean, it's 10AM."
"Don't touch me," Dean responds.
Sam resolves to pry himself from the covers. It's too cold for this shit. When he's dressed and rinsed he digs through the empty food containers, damp with oil and moisture, and locates a pocket pie.
"I'm going to eat this without you," he calls loudly. When this elicits nothing, Sam lets the motel room door slam loud behind him and ventures forth in search of the motel's continental breakfast, heretofore apocryphal. He's rewarded a grudging "Good morning" from Motel Guy and some pastries for his trouble. Smashed flat in their individual industrial bags, they're still a significant step up from the pocket pie.
To kill time, he plays a game with himself, sliding a pastry into his jacket every time the Motel Guy wanders out of sight. While not immediately boring, the novelty fades quickly; the stakes of the game had seemed infinitely higher when he'd been eighteen at Stanford, and still had some self-respect. Sam leaves the table with the morning still young.
Dean's still sleep when Sam returns--though after Sam spends another three hours on fruitless research and a full load of laundry, waiting for Dean to carpe diem, Sam's beginning to think 'unconscious' is more apt.
Every so often, he checks to make sure Dean's still breathing. During one of these checks, Sam finds Dean staring glassy-eyed back at him.
"Good morning," says Sam. "It's 2PM."
"Fuck off," croaks Dean, and his eyelids sink.
"You'll feel better if you eat something," Sam says. "I brought you some fresh stuff--well, sort of."
But Sam's already lost him.
And that's the thing with Dean: He'll go, and he'll go, and he'll go at something, long past any designated breaking point, until he's maybe seven-eighths of the way to some impossible goal. And then he'll drop the ball, down eight flights of stairs and into a vat of dry ice. And he'll shatter right along with it.
One day, this is going to get him killed.
Sam's first impulse is to panic, just because of that stupid errant fucking thought, but he doesn't rise to it. There's a decent chance Dean's fine this time; he'll sleep this off and find his head and they'll pitch back toward their usual grind--so long as Sam stays out of the deep end, too. But there's this tiny percentage at the back of Sam's mind that whispers, Maybe not. Maybe not this time. He knows it's not a matter of if, but when.
It's not that Sam could point to anything in particular. Nothing tellable--not that Sam has anyone to tell. If Sam couldn't summon John to Dean's deathbed, Sam's certainly not going to try to report anything less. It's not like Dean's got a gun to his chin, and he hasn't tried to jump off more bridges than usual, and he hasn't exactly found his calling shooting up heroin in the street. But sometimes they're together, and Dean just has this incredible knack for making small things terrifying. He's just goddamn lucky the monster downstairs has the patience of a saint. It hasn't decided to just claw down their door and be done with it. Sam knows it'd win if it tried.
Dean's wadded paper ball is still under the bed.
It doesn't even feel like they're on a job right now. Clearly, Dean can't actually manage one; and even though Sam's been working, ostensibly this whole time, his real attentions have been everywhere but.
Sam can't keep his mind from whatif-ing. What if he were still at school, and Dean had come out here alone. What if Sam had said no. What if nothing had happened to Jess, and he were still at school, and Dean had come out here alone. Say Dean checked himself into the room for a week, loaded up on food and hoped to hell everything would sort itself out. How many times had he done that in the past? How many times would that work, before the strategy tapped itself out and left Dean for dead?
Not that Sam's done much to help, except to help Dean run through his credit twice as fast. He's done fuck all to get Dean better, and there doesn't seem to be anything more he can do. Sam's basically useless.
No, that's not entirely true. If Sam weren't around for this, Dean would have drowned in that river. He'd be rotting under the hooves of a bog cow, a fester under the ice.
And Sam-at-school never would have known what happened to him.
If Sam loses Dean, it probably won't be to any grand gesture--a heart attack would be too obvious, and a monster too literal. Instead it'll be a smorgasbord, thin fractures accruing.
Sam has the shades drawn, so the only light's the mellow bumble of their bedside table lamp. He supposes it's meant to be sensual, or at least homey, but all it does is deepen the shadows under Dean's eyes, the gnarl of scab and clotted blood just above his ear, from the river.
Sam resists the urge to wipe the unwashed grime from the creases of Dean's neck.
"Dean, I can't lose you."
Sam throws the rest of the afternoon into the same wasteful vortex of nothing he'd begun that morning. And truly, that's 70% of hunting. Painstaking research and nothing to show for it. Hunting is the skill with which you swallow down disappointment after disappointment, like swords. After his thousandth dead end, he pulls out Sara's photo again.
Sam will never admit this aloud, but hunting is easier when there are families at stake. Parents and their children, young stupid lovers--loving, lovely people. Part of Sam needs Sara to know where Mackie's gone, just in case she cares. Another part just needs to know she does. He needs Mackie to feel worth saving. Or avenging, at this point.
He thinks of Sara, and keeps working.
The sun's setting behind the drawn shades, red light slatting over Sam's laptop screen, before he finds anything worth bookmarking. It's a clarity spell, which he'd only stumbled upon after mindlessly link-hopping from one whackadoo crystal-smudging-sage-burning-gem-priest
"Hey. I actually found something." Sam jogs Dean's shoulder. "You haven't slipped into a coma or anything, right?"
Dean mumbles something that sounds like 'hell no,' which is reassuring, but he won't be roused.
"Fine. I'll just solve this entire case by myself, then."
Sam keeps scrolling. The spell is supposed to be like blacklight for magical influence. The website's idea is, You throw a bunch of pins on the ground, and then use the spell to divine their meaning. Low-grade spellwork--the kind that gets you just enough of a reading to excite the novice, but not enough to actually be useful.
"Did you give it a shot, Mackie?" Sam ask the cold air.
He's heard of hunters start from pins and work up to seeing the actual, magical threads attached--or hunters who'd watched the fae themselves weave nets of fate and cast them over crowds of people, like unsuspecting schools of fish.
But if that's what Mackie was going for, and if it's really a fate-weaving fae they're after, they weren't supposed to be malevolent, and Sam's not sure he's ever heard of it getting anything killed. They're called serendipities, for God's sake: They gave people the spring in their step, or led them to pennies on the ground, or kept dress shirts white. Even if Mackie's death were an accident, Sam's pretty sure serendipities didn't usually try to get you off. They're just wrinkles of energy, really--collections of photons on the furthest end of ultraviolet.
Still, if that was Mackie's lead, the glimmer Sam did/didn't see could make sense. If Sam's grasping at straws, at least there are straws.
Grabbing John's journal out of the duffel, Sam flips through it until he finds the page he's looking for. Seattle, 1987--a scrap pulled from a U.S. census, demography turned into a sunburst by a dozen different lines radiating out towards a dozen different descriptions of monsters. In the margins: LONGSHOREMEN. FISHING. LEAVES NO TRACES. LOOK UP JAPAN / CAME WITH IMMIGRANTS. MANY SALMON. CASE CLOSED.
Closed, but not elucidated. Sam resists the urge to rip the page out.
All the fishing stuff tracked with his fishnet fae theory, in any case. A Japanese spirit might have felt right at home, granted the fishermen a couple extra salmon. Obviously John hadn't killed or sealed it, or he would have written that part down. Maybe Sam's dealing with Version 2.0: Murder Edition. Maybe Japanese fishing spirits weren't built for rural Idaho.
A few more web searches gives Sam a full and vibrant history of Idaho's Japanese population (World War II, Japanese internment, forced relocation) and a less full, less vibrant index of the Japanese spirit world. The best page he can find just says, "Like many Japanese spirits, they rely on the energy of human dreams. They can weave beautiful things."
But maybe that's vibrant enough. Rime, Idaho isn't a good place for dreams. Perhaps this lonely, displaced spirit has forgotten how to make beautiful things.
"This makes sense," he assures himself. "Totally."
No it doesn't. What, is this glowing ball supposed to be vengeful? Disillusioned? Did glowing balls have agency? Could they glitch? Was it really just not equipped to handle Rime's dreams? This whole process reminds him of writing Gen. Ed. take-home finals, at 3AM, using someone else's notes.
But if 70% of hunting is fielding useless information, 29% is using what you have to build a wild yet practicable theory--based mostly on far-out conjecture, dim recollection, and liberal bootstrapping. The remaining 1% is having the balls to give it a shot.
Or maybe it's just a ghost, after all.
Sam needs Dean to idea-bounce with. Barring that, he needs more information. He needs to be able to see what he's up against. That much, he figures, he can get.
He turns back to the webpage that described the pins spell. He clicks through several dozen more links until he finds what he's looking for--that is, what would have been Mackie's next move, if he'd lived that long.
Bedazzled with a half-dozen blinking, pixelated skulls and crossbones, the next spell description reads, "FOR THOSE WHO DESIRE TO FIND THE FAE, NOT JUST CONFIRM THEM. BUT REMEMBER: LOOK INTO THE ABYSS AND THE ABYSS LOOKS INTO YOU!!!! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!!!"
Sam rolls his eyes. He didn't get through three years of college without developing a "fuck you" reflex where bullcrap Nietzsche quotes were concerned. This spell might be professional-grade (six skulls!), but it's not exactly black magic. No blood pacts, no summoning, no transubstantiation.
A quick glance at the ingredients reveals it's an exceptionally simple spell, to boot--the kind that read less like a 6-star recipe more than it does a guest editorial at the back of a health magazine. That is, it was less about the ingredients than the general symbolism of them--substitutions welcome. Whatever's "in your practice." Sam could probably pull the spell together with nothing but their duffel and the microwave downstairs. He could probably do it right now.
Sam glances at the back of Dean's head, then back to his laptop.
He puts on his coat and his boots, and he heads downstairs.
He's standing in front of the microwave with his spell in hand before he pours water into an empty cup and heats that instead. He dumps a packet of instant coffee into the cup and pockets the spellwork.
Because he and Dean are supposed to be in this together.