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Lethe

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The muzzle of the gun is cold on the back of his head, raising gooseflesh where the hair is shorn closest to his scalp. The weapon is a nine millimetre, by his guess, probably a mean mugger’s Ruger, and his assailant knows how to use it; their grip is steady, even if their breathing is not.

Dean raises his hands either side of his head and studies the tiles over the stove, the hairline cracks in ceramic twice his age. Hell years included.

“Think real carefully about your next move,” he says politely, agreeable as could be. “Whoever you are.”

Privately, he conjures up a plan of defence, a strategy that mutates with every second that passes, every moment he’s blind. He’s still alive, which means this jackass wants something, and he can tell they’re damned unhappy about it. It’s a scenario he can work with, a mould that’s pliable, if he can get on top of the situation.

“You’re not in a position to be giving orders,” is the first thing his assailant says, and Dean experiences a sense of déjà vu so powerful it makes his heart stutter. He knows that voice, knows it better than he knows the view in the mirror, better than the back of his own hands. If he was in the depths of sleep or stuck in a nightmare, that voice has pulled him out; that voice has denounced him and screamed at and for his father and laughed so hard it was almost sick. It’s a sound that belongs to his personal Pleistocene, when everything was growing, and pure, and tantalisingly possible, even a happy ending.

Impossible, he chastises himself, forcing his jittery limbs to still. It’s bullshit. Another trick by that cosmic bastard.

“Don’t move,” the voice, the memory, says, and Dean grips the edge of the hot stovetop, inches away from losing his fingerprints. A part of him feels stupid, desperate – like a child clinging to a favoured toy when lost in the woods. It’s a dream, he insists to himself. It’s just you, aging badly.

But.

But.

He has to be sure.

“I’m turning around,” he says, and the barrel is almost jabbed into his frigging medulla oblongata.

“Stay where you are! I mean it!”

Dean obliges him, rubs a thumb over the stove’s tarnished steel, as though it will make the surface any less cloudy. A pot awaiting ramen coughs steam lazily, the boiling soft and awkward as Muzak in the near silence.

“Can you tell me your name, at least?” he attempts. There are no footsteps in the hallway, drawn by the raised volume of the conversation. Jack is asleep and Castiel is in the library and Sam is – Sam was getting his phone to show Dean some stupid funny video before they made dinner, a separation of less than three minutes.

Three minutes, or an aeon. He is alone.

“You kidnap me and you don’t even know my name?” The memory sounds irritated, a palimpsest on the faux-machismo he’d presented with his demands and his big boy gun. Dean can still hear the terror, lurking beneath it all. He knows that shadow as well as his own.

“I’ll go first,” says Dean, so no-one could ever accuse him of having rock-solid survival instincts again. “My name is Dean Winchester.”

The memory says nothing to that, the muzzle warming against Dean’s skin.

“You’re a fucking liar.” Whispered, clearly pissing-his-pants afraid. But never wavering in his grip.

Attaboy.

“Let me turn around and I can show you.” It’s another stab in the dark, another desperate lurch towards what might end up being just a loaded semi-automatic levelled at his head. He’s finding it difficult to care about that consequence. There’s only one that matters, if he’s being honest with himself.

The muzzle’s pressure disappears abruptly, and Dean’s left with the throbbing presentiment to a bruise and the urge to retch.

“Slowly,” the memory says, from a distance. Dean takes his time turning, revolving like he’s caught in a bad trip and waiting for a sharp slap to take him out of it. He wonders, for the decade and a half it takes to face his attacker, if this is another one of Chuck’s gambles. Wonders if he should slip into his poker face, pretend disinterest or disdain.

He faces the door to the library, and the observatory, and one of two exits from the bunker, and forgets to calculate his chances of escape as his body tenses up like it’s been pumped full of venom.

There’s a shapeshifter or a Djinn or a demon standing opposite him. Its shaggy brown hair is falling into hazel eyes that are widening in disbelief, and its angular features are taut with apprehension. It’s tall, though maybe half an inch shy of how tall it should be. It’s wearing his brother’s blue flannel and bootcut jeans with the small tear in the seam by the left knee, the clothes he was wearing five minutes ago, and it’s young, younger than Jack looks, young enough to be in college, young enough to decline phone calls from an older brother when he’s drunk off his ass on what should have been their mother’s fiftieth birthday.

It’s a monster, Dean knows. It has to be some son of a bitch that hates his guts and would want him to suffer, that would delight in the way he is unable to fumble for the Colt in his waistband or a butcher knife. They’re running an old con, one he’s seen before.

“Dean?” Not-Sam says faintly, the gun dipping slightly. It looks frightened, incongruously small in its stolen clothes. “Is that – are you really –,”

Dean struggles to find his voice, is almost surprised when it comes out gravelly and half-choked instead of pitched higher, and warped by a smirk.

“I’m me,” he says, and his fury is building, rapid like a nuclear reactor gone critical, control leaking away. “What I’d like to know is who you are, and why you look like my brother.”

Not-Sam stares, mouth gaping, you’ll start catching flies Sammy, and realigns his aim. “Bullshit. You’re screwing with me.” There’s a tinge of panic to his accusations now, and his eyes keep flicking to the door in his periphery, through which the open corridor must seem like an easy escape route. As though he hadn’t come from there, and wasn’t aware of the labyrinthine burrows.

“You’re the one pulling the gun on me,” says Dean, collecting himself along with his cool. “What was your plan, here?”

“My plan?” Not-Sam is on the verge of yelling. “I just woke up on the floor of some windowless bedroom, in someone else’s clothes, wearing this gun!” He shakes it, vigorously, and Dean notes that it’s not some random pea-shooter, but Sam’s Taurus.

“Now I don’t know what supernaturally fucked situation my family has dug themselves into this time,” Not-Sam continues, “but I had nothing to do with it.”

“Nothing?” Dean edges closer, trying to make it seem like he’s just shifting his weight.

“I have finals in two weeks,” Not-Sam snarls, and suddenly Dean finds himself within three feet of his old friend the muzzle once again. Not in snatching distance, because this thing is smart, as smart as someone trained by John Winchester. “I do not have time for this shit. Where’s my brother?”

“I’m your brother,” Dean says, because in some reality, however this shakes out, it’s the truth. Not-Sam scoffs.

“My brother is twenty-four. You’re like, twice that. Missed the mark on whatever sleight of hand mind-fuck you were planning –,”

“Dean?” Castiel has materialised behind Not-Sam, and is observing the standoff with the same detached concern he normally reserves for Jack’s midnight snacking habits. “What’s going on?”

The split-second distraction is all he needs.

Dean lunges forward, grabbing Not-Sam’s wrist and tackling him to the floor as the gun goes off, probably punching a hole in the Men of Letters’ yellowing legacy tiles.

Not-Sam knees him in the kidneys, squirming to get his legs out from under Dean’s weight, but he’s at a significant disadvantage: Dean knows his moves, knows how to use his gangly form against him, and most importantly, he really wants some answers.

It takes several minutes to subdue him, Castiel watching with mild interest as Dean repeatedly bashes Not-Sam’s wrist against the limestone, letting the gun clatter to the floor before he tries to get him in a chokehold. Not-Sam is relentless too, drawing first blood with a punch that makes Dean taste metal, then elbowing him in a sensitive area that makes him grunt before going for a headbutt that would have knocked Dean’s nose into the back of his skull if he wasn’t following a dance choreographed in childhood. He crushes Not-Sam to him so they’re both restrained, recalls the routine when his own muscles were less corded, his skin smoother, his brother a more negotiable armful of bones and hair and frustration.

“Sammy,” he says, and Not-Sam freezes, panting, rigid as stone.

“Sammy, it’s me.” He feels like a mouse drawn into a trap with the world’s most obvious block of cartoon cheese, but the need to soothe is inexorable, a building block in his DNA. If he’s being baited, so be it; if not, this is Sam, and this is his job. “It’s Dean. I don’t know what happened, but I’m Dean. I swear it’s me.”

“If you’re Dean,” Sam says, between whistling breaths, “then let me go.”

Dean could have laughed, would have, if not for the uncoiled anguish in his chest, lashing him to shreds.

“Can’t do that,” he says, and jerks his chin at Castiel. “Can you check him?”

Castiel blinks. “Check him?”

“Is there an echo in here? Check him, Cas, make sure he’s not a damn shapeshifter!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Sam shouts, thrashing, until Dean has to focus most of his energy on keeping him from breaking something. Or one of Dean’s somethings.

Castiel crouches and places a hand on Sam’s head, his closed eyes glowing lambent blue as he searches. Sam has calmed under his touch, but in a way that’s reluctant, retreating from the light and into Dean’s sternum with a jerk that winds him. Eventually Castiel withdraws his hand with a grieved expression, patting Sam’s knee and standing up.

“Cas? Talk to me.”

Castiel looks down at Sam with bald sorrow on his face, but there’s pity there, too. It’s not a death knell, Dean knows his friend’s tells by now, but it can’t be in any way good.

“This is Sam,” says Castiel. “A source of magic has turned the clock back seventeen years for his mind and his body, but he is not a shapeshifter, nor a Djinn, nor a witch under an illusion. There is no demon or angel that exists that could mimic this transformation.” Castiel meets his gaze, smiling hesitantly. “He may be cursed, or changed somehow, but he is not a monster. He’s our Sam.”

There is a lump in Dean’s throat, and his heart is going a thousand miles a minute, syncopating with Sam’s jackrabbit rhythm, the near silence deafening where they lie, slumped against one another.

“Not even – Chuck –,”

“Maybe,” says Castiel. “But I don’t think so. This is too messy. If he wanted a fresh slate he’d just wipe you off the map like in the rest of his stories and start over, not bungle all the work that it took to get you both to this point. No,” he shakes his head. “This was human interference.”

“Who the hell is Chuck?” says Sam, just as a sandy head pokes into the kitchen, pallid from a day of restless sleep. It’s a state that Dean recognises in the mirror, in every hunter he’s ever met.

“Guys, what’s going – um.” He spots Sam, still tangled with Dean, and rubs his eyes. “Is this another nightmare?”

“I wish,” grumbles Dean, and releases his brother by letting himself go lax. Sam jumps to his feet, favouring his right wrist more than he should be, considering Dean’s loose grip. Maybe he had been overly enthusiastic in relieving him of his firearm, he thinks, and isn’t surprised when guilt bypasses him completely. He picks up the gun just as Sam glances at it, his brief flare of hope for retaliation extinguished.

“What did you mean, ‘curse’?” he shoots at Castiel, who is hovering near him, intrigued by the familiar yet strange slope of Sam’s shoulders, the floppy hair and bare traces of baby fat. Dean’s finding it hard to look away himself.

“You are under a spell,” explains Castiel, as Dean hauls himself upright, refusing to groan as a number of joints pop. Jack slinks up beside him in a t-shirt and sweats, his hair in disarray and dull from a lack of washing. He’s alert nevertheless, his attention locked on Sam.

“I don’t understand,” Sam says, his fists clenched under sleeves that fall past his knuckles. “I was just in my apartment. I get the headache of the century and now I’m – I’m here, and Dean is –,”

Dean waves at him, dread settling in his gut like bad chow mein. “Someone’s fucking with us,” he admits. “You, specifically, but also us. Me.” Dean kneads his forehead, pictures gods and ghosts and witches excitedly stirring up problems for the hapless Winchesters just as they’re preparing to battle the biggest douchebag in existence. It fits. Their luck is always in the process of swirling down a toilet drain.

“I’m going to look for Sam,” says Jack, and abruptly leaves the kitchen. Castiel opens his mouth, then wisely closes it.

“Someone?” Sam prods, agitated. “What are you talking about? I don’t know who these guys are – I don’t even know you! Who wants to fuck with me when I’ve been out of the hunting game for years?”

Dean sighs, pulls idly at a thread in his flannel. It’s Sam’s, he realises, an old red thing he’d wanted to toss after they used it to sop up a bleeder while hunting a rugaru. He couldn’t even remember which one of them it had been, or where, but he can see the slight discoloration on the hem, the hardened patch where he’d gone at it with baking soda and cold water. It hadn’t even been about the money, he recalled telling Sam. This is ours, and we always come through.

Sam had rolled his eyes and muttered something about breaking out the oxy and removing stitches, so maybe Dean had been the one that had lain in the back of the Impala hours earlier, hysterical with blood loss, clutching his brother’s shirt to his stomach.

He can fix this, he knows. This is just one more bump in the road.

“It’s two thousand and twenty,” he says to Sam, who is thrumming with tension, his balance tenuous as he rises to the balls of his feet, preparing to make a run for it. “A few minutes ago, you were thirty-seven. And I’m only forty-one, you ass. We’re both hunters. Cas –,” He indicates Castiel, who nods uncertainly, “– is an angel formerly of the Lord, and our good buddy. The kid that made an Irish goodbye just now is Jack, and he’s – he’s, uh, going to be back soon.”

He twitches under Castiel’s penetrating stare, judgement as plain as the day is long, but he doesn’t want to land Sam in a psychiatric ward by launching into a description of the past few years of their lives. It’s a conversation that can wait, though in truth, while he’s relieved that some form of Sam gets a reprieve from the daily horror, a more secret, ugly part of him feels abandoned to the same.

It doesn’t seem to matter. “You’re insane,” Sam says calmly. “You’re lying, again.”

“I’m not lying,” says Dean, annoyance prickling like an itch in a place he can’t reach. “Look around you. This bunker looks lived in, right? That’s because this is our home, you, me, the angel and the kid. You’ve been zapped back in time, and a lot has happened, too much to explain even in Cliff’s Notes. These are the broad strokes, what you need to know until we get you back to normal.”

Sam jounces his leg and backs up, his chest heaving. “An angel,” he says testily, giving Castiel a cursory once-over, then switching gears by abruptly rounding on Dean.

“Where’s Dad?” he asks, and Dean can’t bring himself to respond. The answer dies in his mouth and rots there.

“Where is he?”

When Dean remains mute he presses his lips into a thin line and looks down, nodding, like what he’s inferring isn’t a shock.

“I left to be safe from this crap,” he says viciously, and Dean can’t speak, doesn’t trust himself not to break. “I have exams coming up. I have a girlfriend to get back to. You don’t actually know me, Dean – if you’re even really my brother, which I have serious reservations about, by the way, Dean wouldn’t – Dean would tell me the truth, he’d tell me –,”

“I get it,” Dean says, approaching him with arms akimbo. He’s a threat declawed, defanged. “This is weird as all hell. But I know you better than anyone, Sammy. And you know me. You know me,” he repeats, wants to reinforce it the way their father drilled laps and gun safety and close-quarters combat, wants to catch up on seventeen years of hating and loving and protecting that this version of his brother has blissfully forgotten.

“What was the last thing you said to me?” Sam says, furiously wiping his eyes and fixing Dean with a glare that could have melted titanium. “On the phone. A month ago.”

Dean stretches his memory back, fills in a bitter silhouette that stank of beer and other people’s cigarette smoke, a winding and hungry weed that sprouted in the silence of the Impala, when the doors were closed and the radio was off and he imagined himself dying alone, finger out and brushing the ceiling of the car, the limits of his sky. He would be some itinerant that a passing Samaritan would find in a ditch, baptised in the gore of monsters, having travelled there in his own shiny black coffin. He was nothing more than a future dead body.

“I called drunk,” he says. “Dad had dumped me to go on a hunt, and I was pissed, so I chewed you out for leaving.” He inhales sharply. “I said you were selfish. That you never cared about us. About Mom. And then you hung up.”

“No,” says Sam. “No, you hung up. But I guess you wouldn’t want to remember it that way.”

Dean’s closer now. He could reach out and touch him, if he wanted.

“I want to go home,” says Sam, curling in on himself, and tall as he is he can make himself look little. He can shrink down to any size smaller than Dean and it wouldn’t faze him, would restore the natural order, if anything.

“I know,” says Dean, which is as much as he can muster, as much as he can give to this innocent without losing his cohesion and crumbling to dust. He lets his hand fall uselessly to his side and it tingles, like he’s just come in from the cold.