It's worth it.
Sam said it, and he believes it's true as much as he ever believed in anything. Still, it's just words. Not much, weighed against everything Dean left behind. Not much against the weariness written in every line of Dean's body, the shadows that live behind his eyes all the time now.
He wonders about that other Sam, the one who was supposedly so happy. The one Dean's subconscious created. The one who had everything and still put two thousand miles between himself and his family when he had the chance.
He wants to ask Dean if it was better when they didn't get along. If it was a relief, being around a Sam who didn't want things from Dean he shouldn't, who didn't need so much from him all the time.
He's afraid he knows the answer.
* * *
Dean sleeps restlessly, plagued by dreams. Sam lies in the dark and listens to the cars on the wet road outside, to his brother's troubled sleep, his own latest nightmares playing over and over behind his eyes. Never again, he vows for the hundredth time in two days. Never again is he letting Dean get away with the kind of crap he pulled on this job, leaving Sam sitting in a motel with his thumb up his ass and no clue whether Dean was alive or even where to start looking. After what Dean's been through, Sam's willing to cut him some slack for a day or two, but they are going to talk about this.
His overactive brain shifts gears from the images of the bodies in that warehouse, of Dean strung up like a side of beef (like he was already dead), to thinking about the stolen car they left two states behind. He's pretty sure he was careful enough, that they won't find any of his prints on it, but the condition he was in, frantic and running on fifty-one hours with no sleep, it's possible that he screwed up somewhere along the line, left one more bread crumb for Henricksen to follow.
That train of thought's good for at least another hour, before his weary brain circles back around to where it started. Dean's wish. That other Sam. And the way Dean had confessed, I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay so bad.
Is it stupid, to be jealous of yourself? Not even a real version of yourself, but some imaginary construct made up of genie dust and your brother's slightly skewed vision of what it would take to make you happy? Sam's pretty sure it is.
It's another hour before he finally drops off. His shoulders are tense, and he knows he'll be sore when he wakes up, but he's sick of listening to himself.
* * *
Wishes are funny things, and Sam's read enough myths and fairy tales to know that there's always a catch, and it's always a doozy. But the djinn is dead, and in the privacy of his own thoughts, it's safe to consider the possibilities, the what ifs. It becomes a weird kind of game he plays during the rare times when he takes a turn behind the wheel, in the quiet spaces late at night when he can't sleep. It doesn't mean anything. It's something to do to pass the time.
Jess, of course. She'd be the easiest, the cleanest wish he could make, and he thinks that if it had happened to him like it happened to Dean, attacked between one breath and the next and no time to think, Jess might have been the first thing he'd think of. She's always there, even now, a bright, sharp regret he carries as close to the surface of his thoughts as he can stand. It's not even that he thinks he owes her that, though that's true—it's just that of all the messed up shit that's happened to their family, Jess seems the most unfair, somehow. She wouldn't even have been a part of it if it wasn't for him, and he's never been able to get past that.
So, yeah, he thinks the djinn might have given him Jess, alive and happy and never having met him at all. In all the stories and legends, the simplest wishes are always the best.
But after a while, since it's just a game and it doesn't mean anything, he lets himself get ambitious. At first, he can't stop thinking about what Dean told him about his wish-version of things. About how Dad was still dead, like Dean couldn't quite let himself believe in a world where he was allowed to hold on to everyone he loved.
Sam wonders if the same would have been true for him. If he'd been the one to undo what had happened to their mom, would he have seen the same world that Dean did, or one of his own making—one that he could believe in? Which makes him wonder, if Dean had framed his wish differently, if he'd wished for Mom and Dad and him and Sam alive and happy and together, would he still have found the strength to leave that world behind? Or would he have let go, only too glad to do it, and left Sam on his own?
That's how he gets to the place he is now, where he spends too much time thinking about every aspect of their messed up lives and which thread would unravel what, if you pulled it. If he'd never gone to Stanford, Jess would still be alive, and he and Dad might eventually have learned to get along. Dean would never have been left to deal with Dad on his own, and maybe when the shit started to hit the fan a year and a half ago, the three of them could have faced it together. Maybe it would have been over by now; maybe Dad would have made it.
Sam thinks about that one a lot. It hurts to think that not even a djinni could get their dad back for Dean, that even in that fantasy world, he couldn't have the one thing Sam wishes he could—the one thing that's cost Dean more than maybe any other price he's had to pay. Some days, Sam thinks he'd give just about anything if he could go back to that stretch of dark highway and see the truck coming. If he could somehow avert the sickening impact of steel on steel that landed them in that hospital. If Dad hadn't had to trade himself for Dean's life, if they could have found safe ground somewhere, regrouped, he thinks maybe they could have found a way to take out that son of a bitch demon once and for all. They'd always been stronger as a family.
Sometimes, watching Dean trying so hard to keep it together, Sam's imaginary wish is smaller, more selfish. Sometimes he imagines a world one step over from their own, where he's allowed across the no-man's-land so clearly drawn between them. He wants to believe that isn't what he'd wish for, given the choice of anything in the world, but there are days—more than he'd like to admit—when he wouldn't give odds on it.
On his darkest nights, when the nightmares come and he wakes sweating and shaking in the dark, he holds himself still and bites his tongue so Dean won't know, won't have to deal with Sam's fears more than he already has to. And it's on those nights that he thinks about what their dad said about him, his dying words to Dean, and what it means.
It's never far from his thoughts, but it's only on the worst nights that he gives in to it and lets himself imagine what it would be like to erase himself from existence, just take himself out of the picture. Dean would beat the crap out of him if he could hear him talk like that, but at his lowest points, Sam can't help thinking it.
His family could have been normal without him—they could have been safe. Dean could have had the childhood he'd never been allowed to have. Jess would still be alive. Jim Murphy and Caleb, too, maybe, and Steve Wandell. Dean would never have to kill for him, never have to carry that along with everything else he carries. Sam would never have to see the sick fear Dean tries to hide.
When it comes down to it, Sam doesn't know what he would have wished. And it's on those nights that he's most glad he'll never have to know.
* * *
"What would you have wished?" Dean asks him, his voice curling around Sam in the dark.
They're lying in a field, looking up at the night sky. The grass is cool against Sam's back, against his neck and between his bare toes. But Dean's hand is warm against his belly, and it's the only thing that really matters.
Sam watches the moon, breathes in and out with the soft cadence of Dean's breath. "Probably the same thing you did," he says at last. It's been weeks since the djinn—weeks since Sam even thought about it.
Dean turns his head and buries his nose in Sam's hair. Sam feels the soft exhale he makes, a derisive snort. "No, you wouldn't."
Sam's mouth quirks despite himself. "What makes you so sure?"
"What you said, about Dad's legacy. The people he saved, the people we've saved... you really believe that."
Sam shifts, covering Dean's hand with his. He laces their fingers together, holding on. He's been holding on like this for days, and he doesn't plan on letting go.
"And who do you think taught me to believe it?" he asks, thumb stroking the warm skin at Dean's wrist.
Dean's quiet for a while, letting Sam hold on as much as he needs to. It could never have happened before. Sam would never have tried it, because Dean would never have allowed it. But Sam died, and now Dean understands, too well. Sam knows that his brother has passed through a bleak and terrible landscape that he has yet to face himself. That he never will, if he has anything to say about it.
So many things have changed, so many lines crossed between them that never should have been crossed, and Sam would gladly take them all back for the one thing he needs to be true. But until he figures out how to make that happen, this is what they have: they have each other. Sam died, and Dean sold his soul to get him back. Everything else has been stripped away, and there's no point any more in pretending it wasn't always that way.
Sam searches the sky until he finds the brightest star in it. With his eyes wide open and fixed on that distant, brilliant spark, he makes a wish. Just one, and he makes it with all his heart.
"You remember what you said?" Dean asks, low and gravelly against his neck. "That it was worth it?"
Sam swallows, his heart beating slow and heavy. "Yeah," he whispers, chest tight.
Dean says nothing. He doesn't have to. He rests his head on Sam's chest and lays his hand flat against Sam's ribs, and tells Sam what he already knows.
* end *