By the time they make it downstairs to the motel's microwave, ingredient-filled cup in hand, the savage energy of their offensive has dwindled somewhat, interrupted first by clothing, layer upon layer; then the mound of snow outside their door. Then the tribulation of the stairwell. Then Motel Guy's lunch, spinning in the microwave, cycle after cycle. It smells profane.
"If that's a defrosting rat, I'm gonna kill him," Sam mutters under his breath as they wait. Dean's hair, still wet when they'd departed and now defrosting, drips into his eyes.
"Hi," says Dean, when Motel Guy comes around to put his lunch through another cycle.
Motel Guy eyes them suspiciously.
"Oh, this is gonna go fantastic," says Sam.
On their way over here, Sam had walked Dean through the provenance of the spell--the Nietzsche, the skulls, all of the exclamation points. Sam's never tested this before, but he's willing to bet it's a fact: The spell's user was probably going to trip balls--this being, of course, the reason this kind of magic was traditionally practiced. And a trip you can find on Geocities is probably a bad trip.
Now they're about to test that theory in the motel lobby, because it'd be stupid to go back upstairs, after all the work it took to get down here; and they've agreed that Sam should acclimate to the spell before they barge into Mackie's room--just in case the spell goes south. It's just that this their contingency plan is stupid, too.
"I mean, who doesn't wait in line for the microwave before they go off and vanquish a murderous ball of invisible light?" Dean says.
Rime, Idaho doesn't give a fuck about exigency.
The microwave dings. They wait.
"This isn't gonna--take you anywhere, right?" Dean asks suddenly.
"What?" Sam replies. "I mean, no. I don't think so. I don't think serendipities have their own 'realm,' like other fae. They just sort of bumble around this one. Or I guess, this is theirs? Sort of like kami."
"Good," Dean says, and doesn't press the issue. But he won't stop jiggling his good leg, and Sam gets the impression Dean might be a touch apprehensive about all this. And the truth is, so is Sam; at the end of the day, Sam prefers it when he knows Dean could run to save him if he needed to. And when Dean is a teensy bit less medicated.
Not that Dean hasn't leveled out. He's got an infinitely better handle on himself than he did this time yesterday. But this is Sam's ass on the line, and he feels like there's an important difference between 100% and intelligently conversational.
"Can we make a deal, right now?" Sam asks. "Can we promise we won't do anything that involves… not being on Earth, or crossing dimensions, or--you know, breaking through to the other side. Whatever."
"Gold Earring gets a pass," Dean amends. "But yeah, I guess? That sounds doable."
Dean stares at the microwave. Then he shudders.
“Now I’m just thinking about those steam cleaning commercials. You know, where they do the fake microscope thing and all the germs and fleas and shit are building a mall in your carpet fibers? Do you think that's what this spell is gonna be like? 'Cause that's gross.”
Nothing with that description springs to mind, and Sam can't think of an ad that would have been less relevant to their lives. So much for hitting its target demographic.
“You don’t even have carpet,” Sam says. "You don't have a house."
By the time Motel Guy retrieves his TV dinner tray from the microwave, Sam is ready for a hot beverage of any stripe, magically vision-enhancing or not. But even with the bar set low, it's hard to get excited about this.
After all the time it took to get here, the brew is ready in no time at all, Motel Guy slurping his stroganoff-looking thing at the front desk, and Dean holding the cup out in front of him.
When Sam hesitates, Dean holds it closer to Sam's face.
“I mean, it’s probably like asbestos, or mercury. Like, don’t swallow a whole thermometer, and it'll be fine,” he says.
Sam’s pretty sure that in this analogy, hunting is tantamount to eating thermometers for breakfast, but--
"Not helpful," he says instead.
It's so hot he can't down the thing all at once, but perhaps that's a good thing. If he can work up to the full force of the spell, this might not be so bad.
But each time he brings it to his lips, he wishes harder that the thing in front of him wasn't Dean's heart.
It's faint at first, a trick of the light, but with every sip the impression deepens: Even beneath Dean's coat, his flannel, the tee he borrowed, Sam can see the gentle pulse of white, particulate light moving through his chest. With every breath, he exhales white motes. It's the reaper, Sam knows, its work printed on Dean's heart like any other signature--it's proof of ownership. It's a reminder magic is the only reason Dean's still here. How easily he might not have been.
There are other tags clinging to Dean's body, lesser and multi-colored, brushes from past hunts and probably the remnants of a lucky penny here and there. The motel lobby is much the same--tags wafting from the spackled ceiling like snow and heavy on the counters like so much dust. Dean's nightmare scenario, with the rug commercial, actually isn't inaccurate. Most of it is incidental--a reminder that there's always magic in the world, dormant or latent or insignificant. Not all of that magic is monstrous--most isn't--that is, right up until there's a glitch in the system and some guy named Mackie Sutherland ends up dead.
This dust moves and jitters, but all of it is old and dim, distant. It's old news. All except Dean's heart.
And Sam's hands.
Sam almost drops the cup when he realizes the glow. He'd been so morbidly transfixed by Dean's new nakedness he hadn't noticed his own.
His hands are red, veins like ropey lava. All the way up his forearms and probably--further, everywhere, he doesn't know, and then he's on the edge of panic--and then Dean's hands are on his shoulders, and Dean's mouth puffs white light into his field of vision.
"Hey, are you okay? How's it feel?" Dean asks.
"It's fine," Sam manages. It feels like someone pierced his stomach and he wishes Dean would get out of his face. Sam looks at Dean and feels cold dread, frozen fear. But the red in his veins--that's disgust. That's despair. Because maybe he's always suspected he was--wrong, somehow. Made wrong, or turned wrong. Destined wrong.
He wants to be surprised by this, confused, but maybe this makes too much sense. It was his nursery, after all. Jess was his girlfriend. And his visions had to come from somewhere. He is tainted, he is evil, and this is the damning proof.
Maybe that's not it at all, though. Maybe it's just the serendipity. He's its mark, after all. To get to his dreams and learn what serendipities it should bestow, maybe it needs to swim in his blood.
It's just the serendipity, and he's innocent.
The magic, signed blood-deep, has nothing to do with him. It's the serendipity.
"Are you sure?" Dean asks.
"It's fine," Sam repeats. He winces, keeps his eyes shut, but the light follows him into darkness and they swirl like chemical trails before him.
"I just feel--more hungover. And everything is fucking bright. Great combination, obviously."
"Awesome," says Dean. "Round two, then--I'm gonna join you. So we'll both--"
"No," Sam interrupts. He shoves his hands in his pockets and tries not to look down.
"I'm fine," Dean says. "What, you think I'm gonna crossfade? I don't like fighting things I can't see."
"Says the ghost hunter. No round two."
"Are you fine?" Dean asks again, breathes white. His heart beats synaesthetic white.
"I'm gonna need you to cover me," Sam answers. Which is true--it really is. But more importantly, Dean buys it. Sam knew he would. He tries not to think about the red in his veins.
"No loitering," Motel Guy barks from the front desk, craning his head around the corner to shoot them an assessing glare. "No funny business."
"Hi," Dean says to Motel Guy again.
"We're almost done. It's a blood sugar thing," Dean tells him. He nods vigorously as he pulls Sam toward the door. "You know," he says, "we're just going to head back to our room now. Uh, yeah. Don't mind us. It's all good. Yeah."
Every word shines like a warning and a reprimand. White white white.
To whom do you owe this life? His heart? Your brother, still here. What did it take to win him back?
Who are you, to have chased that wager? What are you made of?
What's inside you?
He's on the road because his girlfriend died. His mother, too; and he's supposed to be here because his vengeance is a tributary that joins John's river. He's supposed to be hunting a demon--hunting monsters and saving people. And he's here with his brother because--Sam's not sure what Dean's deal is. Because filial piety. Because it hasn't yet occurred to Dean he might want to find something better to do.
But Sam doesn't feel like a man on a mission; he's the condemned before a firing squad, guerilla-style. There are no neat lines and they don't take turns: Jess is a 200-grain point blank, center of mass. John is smaller, less important, but that one hits Sam's brain, shoots through white matter and drags eggshell skull down with it. Dean, of course, shatters on impact--shrapnel tearing and melted metal bits scattering through his lungs. Then there's the job, the shit motels and their empty stomachs and that feeling of oblivion, which is the river where they dump Sam's body, after they are done.
Sam needs a trajectory--grow up, get independent, get safe, fall in love, achieve success. Or even: Hunt, save, vanquish evil. Get even. He's supposed to be here because these are the things he needs. He needs--forward, he needs landmarks, he needs focus.
Then he's in Rime, Idaho, sliding so far off the page he can barely find the monster they stayed for. Hunting is apparently their entire purpose on this God-forsaken planet, bar none and before all, but they can't even scrape together the cash to stay alive and healthy. They can't have an argument without having twenty. They can't look each other in the eyes without seeing the ghosts of people dead or hiding. Sam's life slogs and crawls and sometimes skitters, but he makes no journeys. Just circles the drain. Loses pieces, bullet by bullet.
And the one time a path finally sings clear, it's dark, and red, and it's not for any hero at all.
On the way to Mackie's room, Dean asks him three more times if he's ready for this, which is approximately three too many.
"Just take this." Sam takes his video camera out of the duffel and hands it to Dean. "If ghosts can leave handprints, they can draw pictures. All this, it could still be a ghost after all."
"It's cold enough," Dean allows, though he takes no pains to disguise his obvious skepticism. It's definitely not a ghost.
Sam knows. They've finally found some cause and effect, if/then, X therefore Y. Sam just can't face that music anymore.
Sam tries not to make it obvious that he's averting his gaze. A few hours ago, Dean had been fucking naked, and Sam hadn't thought much of it. But now he can't look at proof of their history--wild with the indelible marks of everything that's happened, everything they've lived (or failed to), everything they absolutely can't outrun--without feeling sick to his stomach.
Not that Sam has much of a choice. Mackie's room resembles a jungle gym, phosphorescent nets piled up on the bed, hanging in the doorways, strewn on the floor. The serendipity's obviously been here, but there's so many traces Sam's not sure he can sift through it all. He's not sure which signature is hottest.
They're also not red. There isn't even any red on the ground, never mind recent dustings.
That's all Sam.
He can feel his lungs lose their patter and his breathing stutters, no matter how hard he tries to focus on the task at hand. He knows it's impossible; he can't unravel all this shit. Where first they had too few clues, now they have far too many. The thing's not even pinning its nets down anymore--just throwing them every which way, like splattering explosions of influence. It's a mess.
Then there's Sam.
And maybe it's just the spell. The spell is magic, right? So it should have a color. Sam drank it, and now it's in him. That's all.
But he knows that's actually not all; whatever this is, it's in him. It is him.
It put his mother on the ceiling, and then it took Jess, too. It took everything. The tag feels like an origin story. It opens its mouth and it smiles, sing-songs: You put them in the ground, Sam. You put your family on the road. And everything, everything that's ever happened, everything that's ever gone to shit for you, every bullet that's torn straight through your friends, your family--that's on you. And by the way, you fucked your dad before he ever fucked you.
Just look at your hands.
"Sam," Dean says urgently. His hand finds Sam's elbow, and Sam snaps back to center.
"Sorry," he says. "I'm just--"
The room spins.
"You're hyperventilating, is what you're doing. Sam--"
Dean's shining in front of him again.
"Stop breathing," Sam gasps. It's a strange request, and Sam owns that; but he can't watch reaper sweep in and out of Dean like that right now--he just can't. And he doesn't have the energy to explain.
Dean goes for it, though. He holds his breath until Sam's own evens out.
"What's the lay of the land?" Dean asks, but Sam doesn't answer. He can't stop thinking about what Dean might do if he could see what Sam could. If he could see what Sam was.
But maybe he wouldn't think anything of it at all; Sam's not sure he actually believes Sam's had any visions at all. He wouldn't see the mounting evidence. Sam can, though, and his is judgment enough.
"Five minutes and we're leaving," Dean tells him, after waiting out the silence. "You can't stay in here."
But, as has been the case this entire time, Mackie's not their biggest issue; not even this stupid serendipity is. It's Dean. It's Sam. Mostly, it's Sam. That kind of wrong doesn't just stay in its room.
Sam clears his throat. "I need to double-check something. Keep watch."
"Five minutes," Dean reminds him firmly. It's his tone of voice that comes with eagle scrutiny. Watchful and wary.
For him. Watchful for him, not of him, Sam reminds himself. But maybe that makes it worse.
"This tape would be worth way more money if you died on camera, though. Just a fundraising idea," Dean quips.
Sam ignores him, and crouches down to pull his laptop out of the duffel.
He knows before he boots it up that looking up aura divination is a rabbit hole, but part of him still wants to try. He imagines loading Search the Web and having it spit out the answer, no words minced or love lost:
You're a monster, Sam Winchester.
So when his throat first closes, he thinks it's just his body betraying him again. You're a monster, and we're going to end you like one. Then the Ethernet cord swings around his neck another time, and yanks him clear across the floor. It's instant.
He can't breathe. His surprise is voiceless. His head cracks against the wall and his nails scramble against the smooth plastic surface of the cord. Apparently the serendipity's back in town--and Nietzsche spell or no, it hadn't deigned to offer warning. The world lights up yellow-green all around him, bright like a mouthful of firecrackers, and Sam slips underwater just like Dean, long ago in the dark. Ice and deep, undisturbed silt. Water churning above him, stripping direction from the river.
He needs Dean's hands to find him, pull him out, but they don't come.
When he peels his eyes open, he sees nothing but the ceiling, now like yellowing forest canopy--light through the skin of jittering, sickly, translucent leaves.
And why had the demon left Jess up there? On the ceiling of all places. A mockery of Heaven, perhaps. Or just a place of smoke.
He'd assumed she'd died before she burned, but maybe she'd watched him flop into bed, content. Maybe there was already smoke in her lungs, a fire in her belly, and she suffocated slow.
He imagines Mackie surrounded by friends, and not the loner he'd assumed. Maybe Sara's a liar, and now she's alone, too. No husband, no kids--nothing of the zany fantasy Sam engineered.
Maybe they are all of them alone.
Dean too, in a minute or so. Dean especially. Dean at the bottom of a river, or of wet basement stairs.
The room around him has a current, and it rushes past him. He loses the feeling of his body, of having one at all. Then, for the second time this week, Dean comes at him knifepoint first.
The first time, the knife was panic-driven, disoriented. There was a bax'aan bearing down. This time, it's because Dean slams down on top of him.
Maybe the serendipity is after him, too; maybe it's just the fastest means Dean has at his disposal. He knocks the air from Sam's belly, but Sam's trachea surrenders no prisoners, and tears flush to his eyes because it feels like that air, particle by particle, must be ripping through his cells, perforating organs. He'd scream if he could. Dean screams for the both of them.
Suddenly, Sam wants to wrap his arms around his brother, tell him shit, shit I got you it's gonna be okay I got you I got you but Sam doesn't got him, Sam can't breathe.
Dean's fingers dig at the edge of the cable and into Sam's neck, but nothing gives. The knife's still out there somewhere, but Sam's lost track of it.
Then it's back. Dean can't beat the cord, so he starts sawing through it. Sam's throat hurts so bad it's hard to believe Dean's not just sawing through him, too. He can only imagine how much blood there'd be--surging and writhing and powerfully bright.
He tries to think about tiny pills. Dean and a knife and the palm of his hand.
Dean and a blade and precision.
When he wakes, it's to nothing but white. He thinks, in this order: Smoke. Housefire. Heaven. Snowdrift. Dean.
Dean breathing ragged in his face. His heart racing, the reaper's tag like a swirling hurricane in his chest.
Sam can breathe again. His head flushes with blood so quickly he can see the red haze rising up from his face, too close to the skin to hide from. It's not tempered by anything yellow-green. The serendipity is gone again, then. They missed it.
“Hey, look at me,” says Dean, because of course he would. Look at me. Look at me. The one thing Sam doesn’t want to do. He sees Dean and he sees death; he sees loss. He's dragging Dean out of that basement. Out of the river. Out of the next disaster, too late. He sees This is going to happen again and I can't survive this again. He's not surviving this time.
"I--" Sam croaks, soundlessly.
Sam feels like it’s all going to fall right out of him--his remorse and his guilt. His stupidity. Recklessness, maybe; selfishness definitely. Whatever evil thing he’s been incubating inside of him--visions last month; next week, Apocalypse. But mostly, the pain. If he looks at Dean now, Dean will see everything. And he’ll know. Every horrible thing Sam is, everything he’s done--all the things he hasn’t, refused to do, to see--will rise up and bleed, vitreous and obvious and unforgivable. He got Jess killed; he dreams monsters and they happen; he burns bright in the presence of the wicked truth. And Dean will know.
“Sammy--” says Dean. The word starts as an order and ends as a plea.
Sam raises his head to Dean looking intently up at him.
Dean has this knack for making it very obvious who he’s looking at--hey you, yeah you; you’re the only person in the world; and all 410% of my attention is on you, you, you--which probably works wonders during interrogations (and now that Sam’s thinking about it, also for one night stands), but which Sam absolutely hates. Being the subject of Dean’s scrutiny is already like jumping into a kiln, a suffocating heat that broils him from the inside out.
Now it's hell.
What Dean sees in Sam, though, summons no fire. After an eternal second or two, relief washes visibly over Dean’s face, wresting the tension from his jaw and the knit from his brow. You’re okay, he seems to say. You’re okay, Sam.
You’re gonna be okay.
Dean collapses against Sam then; he's shaking. The knife, still in hand, shivers in the far haze of Sam's vision, too close to his axillary artery for Sam to entirely trust Dean's grip. Dean's making it hard to breathe. But as Dean slides from him slowly, Sam misses Dean's warmth over his chest. Can't survive losing it.
Sam grabs for Dean, as though he were a blanket, and Dean's fingers brush scratchy over Sam's neck.
If Dean's close enough, Sam can't see the reminders of his being lost. The reaper's tags smother between them. The light dampens. The red in his veins never wanes, vicious and accusatory, but if he can focus on the feel of Dean in his hands, it all matters less.
Dean's touch, in a straight line down Sam's side. The hover of his fingers over fiery skin. The soles of Sam's feet tingle, and his face burns redder, and his jeans pinch at the crotch. Sam moans.
Dean cuts the sound off with a kiss. He's white white in Sam's eyes and then he's the skin of his lips. Gentle teeth. He's still breathing too hard. It's not exhilaration anymore, or panic, but pain. He still doesn't break the kiss.
Sam's heart leaps to the ceiling of his ribcage and feels the river of the room around him.
He grabs Dean's shirt (his shirt) and pulls.
In his dream, he and Jess are feeding the ducks.
They don't bite, she promises.