Word Count: 2750
Warnings: [click here for warnings]blood, mentions of animal sacrifice
Summary: The Darkness lifts, and Dean is missing. Sam POV.
The air here is clean in the mornings. Time stretches out to the horizon, shatters against the bloom of a sun that's blood-red most days, now. It's November, storm season, and for a long while he'd thought the stories were exaggerated. A lake is a lake; he grew up on lakes, and typhoons don't trouble Michigan.
But he's been here a year now. More than a year? Long enough, anyway. He's seen his tiny island grow and stretch with ice formations, seen the seagulls roost and lay eggs and leave again. Seen the heat of the summer warm the water to a balmy fifty degrees.
Sometimes he sees Dean drowning. It's a trick of the light, he knows, his mind's own spiteful prank. But when the waves swell and the air turns to mist and he wanders, restless, to the edge of his rock, when the distortion of distance and bending light fuses with memory's perfect clarity, he sees Dean's face shimmering underwater, hears him scream for breath and Sam and he can't tell whether he's water or air, whether he's drowning his brother or saving him.
It was Dean who taught him to swim. He doesn't know who taught Dean, can't imagine his father in swimtrunks, much less guiding a child in the water. Dean learned somewhere, though, well enough to drag Sam out to the motel pool that summer after he'd turned six and show him, step by step, how to brave his face underwater, to kick his little legs, to breathe in quick, rhythmic spurts. Sam's always been an awkward swimmer, less, maybe, after he finally grew into himself. But Dean—Dean's beautiful in the water, capable and fearless as he is anywhere else. Drowning doesn't suit him.
The world changed in a moment, and he barely remembers it. It haunts him in the earliest hours of the night, scenes like film slides clicking past too quickly for him to decipher. Interpretable only in context of the next: guilt lost to hope, hope lost to dread. A primeval fear so rooted in his bones that he knows it immediately. It's nothing like facing extinction, like watching Dean die. He's being unravelled, unmade by the unrelenting wrath of Creation.
Time is unreliable in the dark. When he closes his eyes memories swarm in farcical patterns, and he sees Death rebuilt with the removal of his scythe, sees the beacon of Rowena's spell brand a curse onto his brother's skin. There are only three constants: terror that explodes in a great rush of wind, the careen of a car that Dean loves more than himself, blood that screams like demons in his veins.
He must have passed out afterward. He remembers only waking to a neck stiff from sleeping crammed against the upside-down roof of the car, to eyes gritty with dust and something new, something him-and-not-him. Pain and too much sunlight, and Dean gone.
It was easy, for awhile, to focus on that.
In 1917 the L.C. Waldo ran aground on Gull Rock. Twenty-four people huddled in the ship's split hull for three days of the worst storm in Great Lakes' history. Locals call it "The White Hurricane," and he's researched it extensively.
The trivia fascinates him. He knows the captain's name - J.W. Donaldson in some online texts, John Wesley Duddleson in others. An erstwhile blacksmith, an American pioneer, a volunteer soldier who marched with Sherman. All of those things before manning the lake, before marring a spotless thirty-three year record with his first lost ship.
The storm claimed thirty-eight ships, and of them all, the Waldo was the only one spared casualties.
The perfect might-have-been.
It's a distraction to know these things, but he can't help it. There's so little left.
By mid-morning the sky has gone grey, heavy with moisture gathering for tonight's storm. He figures he's got a few hours of calm left. The seagulls have long since migrated south, and he misses them. These winter hours are too quiet, no sound but the slosh of the water and his own creaky voice.
He digs his boots in the mud left by the previous storm's upswell, watches the prints fill up with water. Paces the length of the island, loops back. It's fifty paces in the summer, thirty now that the water has risen. Not enough to keep him in shape, but he's worn down already. He only needs the strength for one more day.
Did you look for me, Sam?
There are waypoints, Rowena tells him. Fragile little things, she says, stroking his face, like the down on a wee babe's cheek. Her caress sickens him; he's had centuries-old skin touch his too many times for comfort, but there's not much he can do about it. She's basically God, now.
Or so he thinks, anyway. He's not sure, hasn't wasted much time sorting out the logistics of unleashing Creation on an already created world.
His knowledge is a spiderweb of lies and hidden motives, of memories filtered through decades of hellfire. He scuttles in his own head like it's someone else's home, upends the dust of ancient, crumbled moments, fragments of angelic dread. Uncovers what's essential.
Three constants, three certainties:
1. Cas and Crowley are dead or, at the very least, unsummonable. He's not stupid; seeking them out was his first move after scouring the area for clues, after checking into the first motel in the phonebook with anemic hope that Dean might just show up. No one ever answered his calls.
2. Death is a liar. A newly disembodied liar, or maybe a dead one. He's less certain there. When his memory runs in straight lines, he can see the gleam in Death's eye, the same look John used to get when he'd pick up Azazel's trail. Hope for revenge, maybe, or for release. Death wanted Dean to complete Cain's curse.
3. Dean is gone.
Nightmares blend with reality here. That's no new thing for him, but the quality is different now. These dreams are staticky around the edges, especially when it storms, other worlds bleeding through the laugh-track in his mind. It's Death's voice in the Darkness: that low, triumphant rumble as he snatches Dean away. One final play, just like he promised.
He tunes it out as he slices, shallow, down the meat of his thigh. Blood drips into the bowl, hot and thick, and he imagines, as he always does, that he can smell the demon on it. Careful brushstrokes to refresh the sigils, this night and every night before, three hundred sixty-four times already. This is the last.
He binds his leg, sits down to wait. Night will fall soon.
Dean's forgiveness is a tangled thing. Sam knows it like he knows his own name - which string to tug, which to relax. Unravelling it would be easy, should he want to. He doesn't.
Dean sacrifices in big ways. He always has. Take a bullet here, sell a soul there. Spur-of-the-moment choices for someone else's good. Sam's sacrifices are smaller, steadier. More mundane. He bites his tongue and preserves Dean's anger, lets him burn his own guilt in the flames of indignation. Lets him stay whole.
It should be you up there and not her.
He's been to confession twice now in his life. Once in that church, offering his sins to an empty confessional, an absent priest, an absent God. He's wondered, off and on, whether the Trial would have even worked, had he completed it. Whether blood could be purified without absolution.
The first time he went, he was young and weary with the knowledge of his corruption. It wasn't a new discovery; shame formed the blueprint of his evolution, the scaffold of his sinew and bone and blood. Sam was, and Dean went hungry. Sam was, and Mary died. His existence was a house of cards, tumbling into chaos.
Forgive me father, for I am.
Samuel, she calls him, and he doesn't correct her. She's blood and smoke and vitality and death all fused together, equal parts horror and fascination and just as irritating as her son ever was, but Sam has no moves left. We can find your misplaced brother, she says, but only if you truly want him. The time and sacrifice required will be...considerable.
Dean's sacrifices are big; Sam's sacrifices are small. Even that great, plummeting fall cost only himself. It's not a sacrifice if the reward's worth the price.
She calls it an apprenticeship. Lilts the word at him like a curse with amused curl of her lip. Shall we commence your apprenticeship?
The parallels to Ruby are staggering and he doesn't care.
There are only two buildings on this tiny slice of rock, two buildings and a strip of concrete that functions as a walkway. One's an orange brick privy; the other's a crumbling, unmanned lighthouse. He had to rebuild the second floor and install a ladder just to make it liveable. Lakewater may not erode like salt, but the storms are just as violent.
He's up in the lantern now, face pressed against the cold glass as waves rise below him. The sun's light is weakening, obscured by stormclouds, but the room is lit with the sanguine glow of the lines and curls of his spellwork.
What's happening to me? he'd asked her.
Three things you must know, she'd replied.
One, there is Darkness, and there is Light. What God hath put asunder, let no man join together. She'd laughed at that, pleased with herself, while Sam counted shadows on the white gleam of her teeth.
Two, she'd said, there is also the Darkness-and-the-Light. The great, formless void of Creation, unseparated, an atom with immeasurable power in its division. She'd leaned close to him then, and he'd felt her breath hot on his face, felt himself grow smaller in her urgent stare. That power—Creation, it doesn't belong to God, Samuel. He simply harnessed it, manipulated it to his own ends. And when He was done, he locked it away where no one else could reach it.
She'd paused, steepled together her white, white fingers. You can feel it, can you not? The buzzing in your blood. You have some innate gift of your own, after all. You might find it's grown a bit stronger, now.
It had. Sam had noticed. The histories of objects played out against his fingertips, the twitchy thoughts of passers-by broadcast in his head. He'd noticed.
A horribly destructive, amoral force, Death had said. The Darkness. A lie and not a lie.
And three? he'd asked her.
And three. She'd smiled. There's always a cost.
Cryptic answers to straightforward questions became something of a habit with her in the months after that.
He lights the campstove and sets water on to boil. It's a small thing, but the smell of coffee is the smell of Dean, or part of it, anyway, and he'd like one last mug before the end.
You'll have what you want, she'd crooned. Every last little denim-wrapped bit of it. There's just one thing I'd like in return.
Crowley had said something like that, once. Am I the only game piece on the board who doesn't underestimate those denim-wrapped nightmares? He must have shared that sentiment with his mother.
He sips his coffee and waits.
Jess had loved the coast in Palo Alto. Civilization's watery impasse, she'd called it, stretching her long, white legs on the dock. She'd grown up on a different ocean, but the feeling was the same. This far, no further.
But for him the water is both, somehow, the end and the beginning. A no-man's-land that blankets the earth far past the dip of the horizon. There's nothing beyond that, his eyes insist. True and not true.
This much he knows:
At Gull Rock in Lake Superior, a hundred years ago tonight, a freighter ran aground. For three tempestuous days its passengers survived on this scrap of land that's been his home for over a year now. No one died.
Somewhere else, they did.
A needle in a haystack, Rowena says when they find it. A speck of dust in the swirling mire of the cosmos. Death stole Sam's brother and tossed him into this infinite blastocyst of worlds separated only by might-have-been moments, into growth exponential, beyond the bounds of human comprehension. Dean's as hidden as oblivion, as distant as a mirage. No human could hope to reach him.
But Sam isn't human. He's a denim-wrapped nightmare and he's cowed the King of Hell, deceived the Father of Lies, subdued the Morning Star of Heaven. Death's sting could never sway him.
They've broken each other, him and Dean, broken themselves and the world more times than he can count. Codependent, the angels said, psychotically, irrationally, erotically so. The angels never understood, though. Not really. They might have won if they had.
They drove a wedge between the brothers, made Sam doubt himself. Made Dean doubt him, too. They conned and weaseled and manipulated and orchestrated a sequence of events that drove Dean away when they thought Sam would need him.
But Sam doesn't need Dean. Not like that. He doesn't need Dean's presence, or Dean's support, or even Dean's understanding. He doesn't need Dean to watch his back or soothe his nighttime fears.
But there's nothing he wants more than his brother.
You'll never, ever hear me say that you, the real you, is anything but good.
The rain burns cold on his skin, parody of Lucifer's caustic fingertips. It's finally dark. Waves crash around his ankles, drenching him more than is safe in a Michigan November with only a campstove for heat. He shouldn't be out here. He shouldn't, but the sky looms vast and prescient above him, and there are millions of them, he knows now, millions and millions of might-have-been worlds that brush each other like the down on a wee babe's cheek. The L.C. Waldo gleams in the darkness, frames the mainland with the twin sections of its fractured hull, and he can hear the gasping, screaming sobs of its terrified passengers. Ghosts on a ghostship a hundred years dead, here tonight for him.
It took months of searching, slaughtering cats and bats and owls, divining the secrets of their coiled intestines. A year after that of blood and ritual and isolation, and he's near skeletal now, he knows, and possibly insane. But the bridge has been built, tenuous and transitory in the darkness, and it's more beautiful than anything he's ever imagined.
The wood of the ladder slips beneath his palms, slick with the ooze of sweat and lakewater as he climbs up to the lantern. He knows this room. He's slept and bled and endured each moment of his exile here, but it's flickering now, out of focus, and he's dizzy, mindless with the metallic screech of two worlds colliding, his and the other birthed on this island. The bridge he's summoned has anchored to the bloody curls of his spellwork, and he's hypnotized, drawn toward the gateway like some helpless thing.
There's nothing for him in this world but death and darkness, an endless sequence of half-solved crises that drown him in the guilt of his failure. His sins take faces in his memory, a mountain of corpses left in his wake, but there's none he's hurt like he's hurt his brother, none he's loved with the same blind fierceness, and none he wants like Dean.
There's always a cost, Rowena had told him. He'd seen her predatory smile, the calculating glint in her eye, and it hadn't dissuaded him. He'd have given her anything.
If I help you find your brother, if I show you how to reach him, you'll leave this world to me.
He curls up wet in the blankets he's heaped on the floor, lets the storm soothe him to sleep.
He'll wake up with Dean.