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If I Ever Lose My Faith

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//**//**//

“Everybody dies.”

Chuck’s in the bunker, suddenly and without warning. Sam and Dean had been expecting him, but when he appears in the library as Sam’s researching ways to kill him, they jump.

“What are you talking about?” Dean decides to stall, desperate to ignore the panic rising in his chest.

“Yeah, all your friends are dead,” Chuck smirks. “Guess that’s the breaks if you’re the Winchesters. Always getting their friends and family killed.”

Dean blinks. “I don’t believe you.”

He feels Sam’s warning head-tilt next to him, but it’s too late. Chuck snaps his fingers and the library is suddenly filled with dead bodies. Dean recognizes some of the hunters they’ve worked with over the years as well as some of the hunters they brought over from Apocalypse World.

AU!Bobby lies in a corner, neck twisted at an awkward angle. AU!Charlie lies beside him, also obviously dead. Dean glimpses the bodies of Jodi, Donna and the girls.

Sam gasps as he recognizes Eileen’s body. He grabs Dean’s arm like he needs to steady himself as he turns away. Then he stiffens as his gaze falls on something to Dean’s right.

Dean follows his gaze, cold shock searing through his veins.

Castiel and Jack lie next to each other, hands almost touching, eye sockets smoking and empty. Shadows of their blasted wings spread wide under them on the stone floor.

“You bastard!” Dean hisses, turning back to Chuck. “Stop this!”

“Oh, I’m not done, Dean,” Chuck says, snapping his fingers.

Sam’s neck snaps and he crumples to the floor.

“No!” Dean screams. He grabs onto his brother’s body to break his fall, easing him to the floor. He cradles Sam’s dead body in his arms as he checks for the pulse he knows he won’t find.

“You bring him back, you hear me? You bring him back now!”

He glares fiercely at Chuck, who shakes his head sadly, almost sympathetically.

But Dean knows better. There’s not a sympathetic bone in Chuck’s body.

“No,” Chuck says with a sigh. “I don’t think so. Not this time.”

“Then you kill me, too!” Dean roars, clutching Sam’s body, shaking it. “You kill me now!”

Chuck shakes his head. “No, not gonna do that, either. I think I’m done here. I think you can live out your life alone, Dean. That’s your ending. And don’t think you can get Billie to help you. She and I have a deal. So don’t waste your time thinking you can get her to help you bring your brother back. And she’s not going to let you die, either, so don’t think that’s happening, Romeo.”

Chuck paces in front of Dean, one arm crossing his chest, tapping his cheek with his index finger thoughtfully.

“No, this time the Winchester cycle of life and death and resurrection is really and truly over.”

Dean rocks his brother’s body in his arms, hot tears spilling down his cheeks. “You stop this, Chuck, you hear me? Stop this, damn you! Bring him back!”

Chuck halts his pacing and sighs. “Oh, this is such a just ending,” he says with a little satisfied smile. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. Everybody left you, Dean. You’ve been really and truly abandoned. So tragic.”

“Fuck you, Chuck! This isn’t an ending!”

“Oh, yes it is,” Chuck nods, and Dean can see the mania in his eyes. He’s insane. “Everybody dies, but the hero survives. No need to destroy this world after all. It’s perfect!”

“It’s not perfect, you sick son of a bitch!”

Chuck claps his hands, gives Dean a smile that’s half-rueful, half-delighted.

“Bye, Dean.”

Chuck disappears, and Dean roars. “Chuck!”

When there’s no answer, he shakes Sam’s body, buries his face in Sam’s neck. “Sammy.”

For several moments, Dean kneels on the floor of the bunker, in too much shock to think clearly. Sam’s body begins to cool, but Dean doesn’t move. He can’t. The silence is deafening, broken only by Dean’s sobs, his ragged breaths.

When a rift opens in the air beside him, at first Dean barely registers it. Then a bright light flashes out of the rift, splitting the air with a deafening sound of ripping, filling the bunker with the noxious smell of ozone.

Dean looks up as the light engulfs him. He holds Sam’s body tight as something moves around him, crackling like electricity, making his ears ring and throb with pain, and for a moment it occurs to him that Chuck was wrong. He can die. Despite what Chuck said, Dean’s going to die right now, right here, after all.

He buries his face in Sam’s neck and holds on tight.

But he doesn’t die. Instead, the sound and the light are sucked back into the rift and it closes with a final sound of something being zipped closed. Then, silence.

//**//**//

The sudden quiet is almost too much for Dean to process. He keeps his face buried in Sam’s neck, wondering if he’s lost his hearing.

When he hears the voice he thought he’d never hear again, he starts.

“Dean?”

Dean looks up, too deeply programmed to respond to that voice to resist. He can barely see through the blur of tears, but he’d recognize the tall man standing in front of him anywhere.

“Sam?”

Sam sinks to his knees, a look of wonder and joy on his handsome face. “Dean.”

Dean looks down at the body in his arms, then up at Sam again. “Is this Heaven?”

“What?” Sam glances at the body and frowns. “No. It’s Kansas.”

Then Dean notices the differences. The bunker library has updated light fixtures. There’s a comfortable easy chair in one corner, a little table with a desk lamp next to it. The bookcases hold newer volumes in addition to the old Men of Letters tomes. There’s a large Persian rug on the floor and a picture of John Winchester on the wall, another one of John with his boys on the top of the bookcase.

It’s still the bunker, but it’s homier. Cozier.

Dean’s gaze returns to Sam. He looks different, too. His hair is shorter, although just as scruffy and unclean. His eyes are sunken deep in his sockets, the way they get when he hasn’t been sleeping.

He’s wearing glasses.

“Where are we?” Dean asks as realization dawns. The rift. They went through a rift.

“You’re home, Dean,” Sam says. His voice sounds choked, like he’s been crying. “You’ve been gone for over a week, man. I tried so hard to get you back...I was about ready to go through the rift myself, just to see if I could find you...”

Grief clenches Dean’s heart like a vise. He looks down at the body in his arms, still and cool.

“You’re not him,” he says, fighting to hold back the grief swelling in his chest.

Sam’s mouth falls open as he gets it. Smart boy, in any universe.

“Oh my God,” Sam breathes.

Dean’s jaw tightens. “Yeah, pretty much,” he mutters, then raises his voice to the ceiling. “Chuck, you dick! Fix this!” He shakes Sam’s body for emphasis.

Sam flinches. “Who’s Chuck?”

Dean turns wild eyes on Sam, ignoring his question.

“Crossroads,” he snaps. “I gotta make a deal.”

Sam frowns, confused. “What?”

“A crossroads demon,” Dean clarifies. “I need to summon one. Get him to bring Sam back.”

Sam’s eyebrows go up. “A demon?” he repeats doubtfully. “You’ve seen a demon?”

Dean stares. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he growls. “Don’t tell me this universe doesn’t have demons.”

Sam looks puzzled. “Not that I know of,” he admits. “I mean, I’ve heard of them, sure. Just never seen one. Nor heard tell of one during my lifetime. Unless you want to count the ones on TV or in the movies...”

“Angels?” Dean suggests, but he knows the answer just by the blank look Sam gives him. “Chuck Shurley, Former Prophet of the Lord, now revealed to be the Lord God Almighty himself?”

“Wow,” Sam says, hesitating before answering, wary. “Those things are real in your world? God is real?”

Dean glances around. “Pretty much, yeah,” he nods. “He’s destroying everything as we speak. Pretty sure we don’t have much time till he gets here.”

Sam’s eyes widen. “What do we do?”

His question sounds so familiar, so much like Dean’s little brother needing his big brother to take charge, that Dean falls into that role on instinct.

“Without demons or archangels or nephila or even Death herself on our side? The odds aren’t good, little brother.”

Sam flinches again, and Dean blinks. This isn’t his brother.

Then Sam rallies. He gives a little nod, blinking away any tears that may have formed in his eyes.

“So it’s just us,” he says softly. “You and me against the world.”

Dean huffs out a breath, frowning. He’s got a plan, he just needs to find a crossroads.

“Here.” Dean hauls his brother’s body up. “Help me carry him into the infirmary.”

Sam obeys without hesitation, helps Dean half-carry, half-drag the literal dead weight into the other room. When they’ve got Sam’s body laid out on the bed, Dean stands back, looks down at him as he catches his breath.

“What are you going to do?” Sam asks.

Dean starts. Remember the plan, he tells himself. Focus on the plan.

Reaching into the front pocket of his jeans, he pulls out the keys to the Impala.

“My baby’s here in this world, right?” He tears his eyes away from the body on the bed, glances up at Sam. “Tell me your brother drives a ‘67 Impala.”

Sam’s eyebrows go up. “That’s Dean’s car,” he breathes. “Nobody else gets to drive her.”

Dean nods grimly. “At least some things haven’t changed.”

“Where are you going?” Sam asks as he follows Dean towards the garage.

“Gonna find a crossroads,” Dean says. “Gonna try to summon a demon.”

//**//**//

No demon answers his summons.

Dean spends over four hours yelling into the void, waiting, drives to five different crossroads to try again and again.

Nothing happens.

Hell must be locked down tighter than Sam’s ass, he figures finally.

Time for Plan B.

“In my world, Sam knew a spell that could resurrect a dead person,” he explains to Sam when he gets back to the bunker. “Tell me you know how to do that, too.”

Sam’s eyes widen. “Necromancy? Dean, that’s dark magic. Dad always said, what’s dead should stay dead. He was very clear on that. My brother would never...”

“I don’t give a shit what your brother would do,” Dean snaps. “He’s not here, is he? That’s not you lying in there on that bed. And I’ll tell you one thing, if it was and he was here, he’d be trying to do the same thing.”

Sam stares at him for a moment, then ducks his head and clenches his jaw. “You were gone for six hours.”

Dean frowns. Sam looks more tired and worn out than before, and he gets it. He knows how it feels to think you’ve lost someone. Again.

“I’m not him, Sam,” he says as gently as he can.

“I know, I know.” Sam takes a shaky breath, tries to look him in the eye but can’t quite do it. “It’s just — When you came through the rift, I — For just a moment, I thought — ” He clears his throat, tries again. “I just can’t lose you.”

Dean takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. He understands. Even if he’s just a carbon copy of this man’s brother, that’s better than nothing.

And given what Chuck’s been doing to the other worlds, it seems more than likely that the other Dean is toast.

He reaches out, lays a hand on Sam’s shoulder and gives it a squeeze.

“Look, Sam, I’m sorry about your brother. I’m sorry I’m not your brother. But if I know him at all — and I’m pretty sure I do, since he’s me — I can tell you that he’d want you to find a way to go on without him. Meet a girl, or marry the one you already care about. Does Eileen exist in this world?”

When Sam nods, Dean goes on. “Settle down. Have kids. Grandkids. Be happy. Right?”

Sam nods, blinking back tears, and Dean pats his shoulder before drawing his hand back.

“But first, maybe you need to take a shower, huh? Eat something? How long is it since you slept?”

Sam lets Dean take care of him, and Dean falls so easily into the role he almost forgets about the dead body in the infirmary.

Almost.

He focuses on feeding Sam, getting him showered and changed. He gets him a glass of water to take to bed. After Dean cleans up in the kitchen, he checks on Sam just as he would have done after a hunt. Sam’s left the door to his bedroom ajar, just as he always does when they sleep in separate rooms. The light’s off, but in the lighting from the corridor Dean can see Sam sprawled on his stomach, big socked foot hanging off the side of the bed, arms folded under his pillow. Except for the glasses on the nightstand, he looks just like he always does when he sleeps.

Dean gazes at his not-brother just a moment too long. Then he quietly pulls the door almost shut and heads back to the library for a nightcap and some research.

Somewhere in this bunker is the spell he needs to bring Sam back to life. Dean’s going to find it, or die trying. That is, if God doesn’t get here to finish off this world first.

He wonders about that as he sips his whiskey. Why did Chuck leave this world virtually intact? Did he just miss it somehow? Or is it set to blow any minute? Dean suspects the latter. If he’s lucky, he’ll be dead soon, hopefully meet up with Sam in Heaven.

He takes his whiskey and a book on ancient necromancy into the infirmary, sits down on the chair next to the bed and stares at his dead brother.

“I’m sorry, Sammy,” he murmurs finally. “I didn’t see this coming. I figured Chuck would let us go down together at least, you know? Not this lingering on afterwards with you dead.”

He throws back the rest of the whiskey and pours himself another.

“I guess I should just shoot myself, huh? I know Chuck said Billie wouldn’t let me die, but how would she know? We’re not even in the same world.” Dean sniffs, biting back the tears blurring his vision. He reaches out and tucks a curl behind Sam’s ear.

It occurs to him that Sam’s probably happier where he is, in Heaven. He’s probably living his best life with Jessica, maybe. Or Sarah. Or maybe there are memories of Dean that don’t make him totally miserable, and he’s got Mom and maybe Dad if those are happy memories...

Sammy’s probably fine without Dean, in Heaven. He was always going to be fine without Dean. Like he was at Stanford. Like he was while Dean was in Purgatory.

“Anyway, it’s just a matter of time before Chuck gets here and destroys everything. This poor guy here? Your doppelgänger? His days are numbered.” He wipes his nose with his sleeve. “His brother’s gone, too. He probably doesn’t want to live, either.”

He takes another sip of whiskey, looks down at the book balanced on his knee. The words blur across the page, useless and undecipherable. He flips through the book, shaking his head.

“You could fix this,” he murmurs, fighting back despair. “If you were here, you’d know what to do. You’d have a spell or two we could try. This guy here, this world’s Sam, he’s afraid of ‘black magic.’ Couldn’t perform a resurrection to save his life.”

Dean takes a deep breath. “I know you’d hate it if I forced him to do it, but I’m tempted, Sammy. I’m really tempted. You know I can’t live with you dead.”

He finishes his glass and sets the book on the floor. He wants to slide to his knees, bury his head in his arms on the bed next to Sam, stay there till he dies. Maybe he’s had enough to drink tonight to give himself alcohol poisoning. Maybe if he falls asleep he’ll pass away, right here next to his dead brother. That other Sam will come into the infirmary in the morning and find two dead bodies.

Dean feels vaguely guilty at that prospect. The Sam in this world seems like a nice guy. Innocent. He’s been missing his brother and was so grateful when Dean fell through the rift. He was so glad to see him. It would be cruel to just die on him like that.

Dean almost wishes he cared.

//**//**//

“Dean?”

Dean starts as he feels a hand on his shoulder. He reaches under his pillow for his gun but finds no pillow, just his folded arms, wet with drool. Then he remembers.

He’s on his knees on the floor next to the bed where Sam’s dead body lies, having drunk himself into a stupor, and now the clock on the wall says 6:15.

It’s morning.

Sam stands at the foot of the bed, looking worried. Concerned. He’s dressed in track clothes, as if he was on his way out for a run before he stepped in here because he heard Dean snoring.

Sam puts a hand out, trying to help Dean up off the floor, and Dean slaps his hand away.

“I’m okay, I’m okay.”

He rolls over, fighting the combination of nausea and pounding headache, and runs a hand over his face. He needs a shave. A shower.

“Were you here all night?” Sam’s voice is soft, careful.

“Doesn’t matter,” Dean mutters, pushing himself to his feet. “None of it matters.”

“Dean — “ Maybe it’s time to bury him, huh? Or maybe think about a hunter’s funeral? Sam doesn’t need to say that last part for Dean to hear it in his head. He knows Sam too well.

“Leave it alone, Sam!” Dean roars, making his head feel like it’s about to split open.

Sam lowers his eyes, nods once, and Dean feels like a dick. The kid doesn’t deserve to be yelled at. This isn’t his fault.

“You know, I could perform a preservation spell,” Sam says as they both look down at Sam’s body. “I could stop the decay, at least.” Since you’re not ready to let him go,

“What?” Dean blinks uncertainly.

Sam nods. “I can’t bring him back, but I could do that much.”

Dean hadn’t even thought about it. It hadn’t occurred to him that he couldn’t just keep Sam’s body on the infirmary bed indefinitely while he searched for a way to bring him back, if that was the plan.

Was that the plan?

“Go on,” Sam says. “You take a shower while I do the spell and make coffee. You can use Dean’s shaving kit. Put some fresh clothes on. You know where Dean’s room is, right?”

Dean finds himself leaving the infirmary, leaving Sam’s body, doing what Sam asks him to do because he’s Sam and sometimes Dean lets Sam tell him what to do.

He’s probably a little drunk still.

When he stumbles back down the corridor later, clean and shaven and dressed in fresh shirts and jeans, the smell of coffee and bacon improves Dean’s mood considerably. The shower and shave helped him feel better, and now the smell of food has him on a leash.

“Hey.” Sam greets him from the stove, where he’s stirring eggs in a pan.

“Hey yourself,” Dean answers as he reaches for a cup, pours himself coffee. Everything in the kitchen looks the same as it does in his bunker. It’s safe. Familiar.

“Eat,” Sam instructs as he puts down a plate of eggs at Dean’s usual place at the table. A plate of bacon and another of buttered toast are already laid out.

Dean takes his seat, sips his coffee. It’s good. Black and strong, the way he likes it. He looks up over the rim of the cup as Sam joins him at the table with his own plate of egg whites.

“Thought you were going for a run,” Dean notes.

Sam shrugs, doesn’t look up as he reaches for a piece of toast.

“Figured I could run later,” he says, noncommittal. After I make sure you’re okay.

“So, you and your brother live here alone?” Dean asks, forcing himself to care.

“With our dad and three other Hunter-Men of Letters,” Sam says with a nod.

Dean lifts an eyebrow. “Dad? Your dad’s here?”

“He was.” Sam sips his coffee, puts it down. “Until the rift opened up about a year ago. Dad led an expedition into the rift six months ago. He never came back.”

“And your brother went after him last week,” Dean suggests. “With another expedition.”

Sam nods. “We thought we had the coordinates right,” he says. “Dean was so sure he could rescue Dad, get him back through the rift before it closed again.”

“But he missed the window,” Dean guesses. “Rift closed again before they got back.”

Sam blinks, obviously struggling with his emotions. “Yeah. I’ve spent the last week trying to open it again. Until you came through, I wasn’t having any luck.”

Dean nods. He takes a bite of his eggs, chews. They’re good.

“Your brother’s a hunter,” he suggests. “And you’re... A Man of Letters? The brain to his brawn?”

Sam’s jaw twitches. “I hunt,” he insists. “But my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. I’ve developed other skills to compensate.”

“Magic,” Dean suggests, raising an eyebrow. “Spell-casting. You’ve got a talent for it. You’re good at it.”

“Right.” Sam flashes a dimpled grin, making Dean’s chest ache. “I’ve got a garden out back for herbs and this and that. I grow most of the ingredients I need for my spell work. The bunker provides the rest.”

“The bunker provides?” Dean frowns.

Sam looks up, holds Dean’s gaze for a moment. “This bunker is the most magical place on Earth, Dean. Isn’t that true in your world?”

Dean flushes, grins lopsidedly as he ducks his head and scoops up another forkful of eggs. “In our world, it’s mostly just an old dead place full of musty old books and storage rooms. But it’s home, I guess. A place to come back to after a hunt.”

“Your dad?”

Dean draws a breath. “He died a few years ago,” he admits, taking a sip of his coffee. “Mom just last year.” No sense in explaining everything. “Your mom?”

Sam flinches. “She died on a hunt when we were kids. Dad went a little crazy afterwards for a while, so Dean basically raised me.”

Dean nods sympathetically. “Do you remember her?”

“More or less,” Sam says. “I was four. We were living in a nice suburban home in Lawrence, but after she died, Dad moved us here. Said it was safer.”

“Well, he’s not wrong there,” Dean says. “So your dad was a Man of Letters.”

Sam nods. “Born and raised, like his dad before him.”

“Huh.” Dean takes a bite of bacon, chews thoughtfully. “In our world, hunters and men of letters lived pretty separate lives. They didn’t like each other much.”

Sam grins again, and this time Dean can’t take his eyes off him. Sam’s whole face splits open when he smiles. His eyes sparkle.

“Yeah, Mom and Dad had kind of a rough marriage, from what I can tell. Her people were hunters, and she never really left the life, even after she had us. She was always gone, always hunting. Dad had to pick up a lot of slack.”

“Huh.” Dean thinks about the young woman he met years ago, in another timeline, the young woman who wanted out of the hunting life, who swore she wouldn’t raise her kids the way she was raised. “So Dad knew she was a hunter when he married her.”

“Of course,” Sam says. “But it was a bone of contention between them. It was compulsive with her. She just wouldn’t give it up.”

Dean nods. That sounds like the woman he knew recently. “And how about you, Sam? Didn’t you ever want something better? Something more...normal?”

“Something better than being a Man of Letters?” Sam looks so shocked that Dean almost laughs. “What could be better than that? I get to do real good in the world.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean raises an eyebrow.

“Dean, a couple of years ago, I used a spell that purifies groundwater to clean up the drinking water supply for the entire city of Pittsburgh.”

Dean chuckles. “Good for Pittsburgh.”

“Damn right,” Sam says, puffing out his chest. “That spell saved lives, Dean.”

Dean finishes his toast, washing it down with the last of his coffee.

“My Sam, he stopped the apocalypse,” he says with a proud smile. “He saved the world from the Devil himself.”

Sam shakes his head. “Wow. Angels are real in your world. I don’t know if I can get my head around that.” He takes a deep breath. “When I was a kid, I used to go to church and pray. I used to pray to God. Finding out God’s real is just mind-blowing.”

“Yeah, well, let’s keep hoping he forgot about this world, because he’s on a rampage to destroy everything that even you couldn’t stop.” Dean clenches his jaw.

“You and your brother...” Sam hesitates, and Dean waits. “You and your brother were very powerful, in your world.”

Dean huffs out a laugh. “Naw, we were just a couple of guys who knew a few things,” he says. “We had help. Two angels, a demon who became the King of Hell, his witch mother who took over the job after he died. Plus lots of hunters. Good men and women who worked with us, trusted us. We got a lot of them killed, of course. A lot of them.”

Dean pushes his plate away, stands up. His chest feels tight. Heavy.

“I think I’ll go check on my brother.”

He can feel Sam’s eyes on him as he leaves the kitchen to return to the infirmary.

Sam lies as still as before, but Dean can feel something has changed. Or maybe isn’t changing. That’s probably the point. Sam’s skin is pale, but not ashen anymore. His body is solid, not shriveling or shrinking. He looks like a statue, lying cold and hard on the infirmary bed.

Dean sits down on the chair next to the bed and picks up the book he dropped the night before. As he reads, he tries not to think about what will happen to this world when Chuck finds them. Sam’s hopefulness, his conviction that he’s doing real good in the world, breaks Dean’s heart. He’s a good kid. Dean can’t help caring about him. He can’t help wanting to protect him, to keep Chuck from hurting him if he can.

Dean will be sorry to see this world where demons and angels don’t exist disintegrate under Chuck’s destructive power. John and Mary existed here, John until very recently. It hurts to think about how much different their lives might have been in Dean’s world if Mary had come clean to John about her hunting upbringing before they married.

On the other hand, John growing up as a Man of Letters instead of losing his father at a young age must have made him a different man, someone Dean probably wouldn’t even recognize.

Yet, even here, John had become an obsessive bastard who left Sam to be raised by his big brother. The Dean of this world had done a lot of the heavy-lifting, leaving his little brother safely at home with his books while Dean went into the rift to try to save their dad.

Dean wonders if Sam’s figured out by now that his dad and his brother are dead. Probably. Poor kid. At least he doesn’t have long to live now.

The words swim on the page. Dean’s head hurts. Part of him wants it all to be over right now. He’s not sure he can stand the suspense.

“Hey.”

Dean starts, looks up to see Sam standing in the doorway. He’s changed his clothes and his hair is slicked back and damp, like he’s just taken a shower. Like he’s been out for the run he postponed earlier so he could make breakfast for Dean.

“You want some lunch? I’m just on my way to the kitchen to make something.”

Sam’s tone is hopeful, entreating. Hard to refuse.

Dean glances at the clock on the wall. It’s almost noon. Time seems to move differently here. Faster. He’s already been in this world for twenty-four hours. How is that possible? Where the hell is Chuck?

Dean’s stomach growls. Food sounds good.

“Thanks, Sammy. Sounds great.”

Sam winces, nods, and starts to turn away. Then he turns back and lifts wounded puppy eyes to Dean.

“My brother called me Sammy,” he says. “He’s the only one who did.”

Dean nods, gestures to the dead body on the bed.

“Yeah, this one, too.”

Sam frowns, hesitates a moment, and Dean waits.

“You know, I never had a body to mourn,” Sam says finally. “Without Dean’s body, or Dad’s, I can still believe they’re alive. I can still go on hoping they’ll stagger home someday.”

Dean takes a deep breath, lets it out on a slow nod. “You know they won’t though, right? You know there’s nothing out there. All the other worlds are gone.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sam agrees. “But without a body, I can still hope. It’s not a good thing, that kind of hope, but it is what it is. At least you have your brother’s body. At least you have proof that he’s gone, you know?”

Anger blooms hot and sudden in Dean’s chest. As Sam turns to leave, Dean surges to his feet, pounds up the stairs and grabs the big man before he can get out the door.

“You know I would give anything to be able to hope that my brother was still alive,” he growls fiercely. “Anything!”

Dean pins Sam against the wall, fisting his hands in Sam’s shirt.

“I don’t know how you and your brother are, but we never let the other one go. It’s who we are. You can call it soulmates or you can chalk it up to the way we were raised or the way we’ve always sacrificed for each other. But I would never give up on him.”

He presses up into Sam’s body, chest to chest, and Sam stares at him, frowning, flinching as Dean shakes him.

“I would always try to find him, always try to get him back,” Dean snarls. “And he would do the same for me. He has done the same for me. So I’m not giving up. Just because you won’t help me, just because you think it’s unnatural or black magic or whatever the fuck you think, I’m not giving up trying to get him back, you hear me?”

Dean shoves a leg between Sam’s, presses up so he can feel Sam’s erection. Sam gasps, reddens, his eyes drop to Dean’s mouth as Dean shakes him again.

“Body or no body, I’m not giving up!” he says. “And neither should you.”

He lets Sam go, steps back, and Sam follows. He grabs Dean’s face and turns them so Dean’s the one pressed against the wall, steps in and crashes his mouth down over Dean’s.

It takes a second for Dean to realize he pushed too far. It feels so good to have Sam so close, to taste him after losing him, that Dean lets it happen for another second. He can’t help it.

But this isn’t his Sam. He can’t do this.

Before he can even start to push away, though, Sam lets him go. His cheeks are flushed, lips swollen and glistening, hair mussed. His eyes are hard behind his stupid glasses.

“I’m not giving up,” Sam hisses, chest heaving. “I would never give up on my brother. Fuck you for saying that to me.”

He shoves Dean back against the wall as he shoulders past him, heading toward the kitchen, leaving Dean gasping and shaking, unsure what the hell just happened.

Dean licks his lips, tasting Sam. He rubs his thigh, the impression of Sam’s erection lingering. He knows he provoked the big man. It’s Dean’s fault this happened. He was probably secretly angling for it ever since he staggered through the rift. He’s such a pervert.

Dean’s body doesn’t know the difference between his brother and this other Sam. His brain, neither. Obviously his libido. They’re all tangled together, just as his love for Sam has always been a tangled mess of feelings, physical sensations included.

It’s not even the first time they’ve kissed.

Well, it’s the first time Dean and this Sam have kissed, but getting worked up and shoving each other around isn’t new. Neither is the occasional sexual release they get out of it. Doesn’t mean anything. They’ve lived their entire lives attached at the hip. Those charged moments are normal for them, especially in times of danger and/or crisis, times of impending or barely avoided death.

Times like this.

“Fuck.” Dean rubs the back of his hand across his mouth, straightens his shirt to hide his half-hard dick. “What am I supposed to do now, Sammy?”

It’s probably a little crazy, talking out loud to his dead brother, especially with his body lying right there in the room. Dean’s crazy. He’s totally losing it. That’s why this happened.

Sam’s safe in Heaven, waiting for Dean. Or he’s in the Empty, suffering Billie’s “cosmic consequences.” There’s no way Sam’s ghost is lingering around. He would sense that. Dean’s definitely just talking to himself.

“Dean!”

Sam’s voice yelling from the kitchen brings Dean back to himself like a slap. It’s so ingrained in him to respond to Sam’s call that it actually takes him a second to remember that it’s the guy he just kissed who’s yelling for him, not his brother.

Nevertheless, Dean runs to the kitchen, heart pounding with fear. The possibility of losing another Sam is just too much to take today.

Sam’s standing in the middle of the kitchen floor with two plates of sandwiches in his hands, scowling.

“Eat!” he orders, slamming one of the plates down on the table with a resounding clank. As he shoulders past Dean with the other plate, Dean frowns at him.

“Where are you going?” he asks, half-afraid of the answer.

“To the library,” Sam snaps crossly. “Gonna find a way to bring your damn brother back.”

//**//**//

“So your Dean never sold his soul to bring you back from the dead?”

It’s an hour later, and Dean’s sitting across the library table from Sam, flipping through one of the books on necromancy. It might be the same one he was looking at earlier, he’s not sure. It’s so boring he can barely keep his eyes on the page.

He wonders if the bunker has some magic spell woven into the fabric of the walls that makes Dean sleepy whenever he opens a book. He wouldn’t put it past it.

“What? No! Of course not!”

Sam’s still irritated. He won’t look Dean in the eye. He’s got five books open on the table in front of him, seems to be able to read them all at once with minimal effort.

Nerd.

“Huh.” Dean takes a sip of his coffee. “Did you ever die?”

Sam looks up, stares at Dean in disbelief for a moment. “No!”

Dean nods, satisfied. “Then you don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?”

“You don’t know what your Dean would do if you died,” Dean states flatly. “You don’t know how far he could go to get you back.”

Sam huffs out a disgusted breath. “Why does this sound like it’s not the first time you’ve done this?”

“Because it isn’t.” Dean shrugs. “It isn’t even the third time. He and I have died too many times to count. And we always bring each other back.”

“You know that’s pretty sick, right?”

Dean shakes his head. “We’re not exactly poster boys for health,” he agrees. “Although, learning that God — the literal God — has been manipulating our lives since before we were born kinda gives us a pass in the toxic codependency department.”

“I can’t believe God exists in your world,” Sam says, shaking his head.

“I take it you’re used to things like ghosts and vampires. Werewolves, maybe,” Dean suggests.

“Well, yeah.” Sam nods. “We’ve hunted Wendigoes, black dogs, a ton of vengeful spirits, the occasional shapeshifter. Took down a Djinn once. Dad and Dean took out a nest of vampires near Omaha a couple of years ago. We don’t get many of those.”

Dean leans back in his chair and sighs. “Simpler times,” he says. “That’s the way things were for us, back before we got sucked into the whole demons-and-angels thing. Back before Sam got possessed by the Devil himself.”

Sam’s eyebrows go up. “Seriously? Your Sam was possessed by a devil?”

“Not just any devil,” Dean corrects. “Lucifer. Satan. The big cockroach himself.”

“Wow. How did he get out of that one? I mean, I’ve heard of possession, of course. Did you do an exorcism on him?”

“My brother is the bravest man I’ve ever known,” Dean growls. “He rode Satan into Hell and lived to tell about it. Well, after Cas brought his body back and I got Death to bring his soul back.”

“Cas?”

Dean’s chest clenches with grief as his gaze falls on the spot on the floor where, in his world, Cas’s dead body lay.

“A friend,” he says quietly. “Angel. Dead now.”

Sam shakes his head. “Your world is really weird.”

“It’s no Disneyland, that’s for sure.” Dean lifts his gaze to Sam. “But you hunt. You know the risks.”

“Of course.” Sam nods. “After my injury a couple of years ago, I got benched. Dean doesn’t let me back him up much anymore. I stay here to do research, provide intel while they’re out in the field. But Dad’s getting older now.”

Dean squints, does the math. “Yeah, he’d be what? Sixty-six now?”

Sam nods. “He’s stubborn. Doesn’t want to retire until he kills every evil thing that roams the Earth.”

“That sounds like him, all right.” Dean smiles ruefully. “My Sam — he tried to get out, a couple of times. Sometimes, I wish he’d been able to stay out.”

“Did he go to school? Stanford?”

Dean frowns. “Yeah, he did. Practically killed me to watch him go, but yeah. He and Dad used to get into the worst fights.”

Sam chuckles. “That’d be about right,” he agrees. “Back before I left for school, I was so angry. At Dad, mostly, for riding Dean so hard and leaving us alone so much.”

“Did your dad throw you out?” Dean can’t help himself. He’s morbidly curious. “Did he tell you to get gone and never come back?”

Sam’s wide-eyed expression answers the question even before his words do.

“What? No! He was proud of me for getting into Stanford. Scoring that full-ride scholarship was the best thing I could do. The law degree helped our family out of a helluva lot of jams over the years. Plus I learned how to file all the paperwork to keep this place running under the radar in a totally legal way, so nobody ever bothers us.”

Dean nods. “Huh. Good for you. And you didn’t have a girlfriend who burned on the ceiling?”

“Wow.” Sam shakes his head. “That happened to your Sam? I’m sorry, man.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not the worst of it.” Dean huffs out a breath. “My brother, he’s the strongest man I’ve ever known. What he went through, what he’s had to suffer...”

Sam regards him with a sympathetic, thoughtful look Dean knows too well.

“I don’t know, man. Sounds like your brother had it pretty rough. Maybe he’s better off now, huh? At least he’s at peace.”

Anger rises in Dean’s chest again. He’s suddenly restless, can’t sit still.

“Yeah, maybe,” he scoffs, getting to his feet. “Hey, I think I’ll drive into town, get us something for dinner. You want anything?”

“A salad?” Sam asks. “We’re out of bread, if you want to stop at the grocery store. I haven’t been eating much this week except peanut butter sandwiches.”

The drive cools him down some, but Dean’s still fidgety when he gets to the grocery store. He’s so distracted he doesn’t notice the woman waving to him from the produce aisle until she finally calls his name.

“Mr. Winchester?” Dean looks up in surprise. Nobody knows his real name here, at least not in his world.

A petite motherly woman smiles broadly at him now that she’s got his attention. Glancing around, he notices several other shoppers giving him friendly smiles. They all seem to know him.

“Oh, I’m so glad I caught you!” the woman goes on. “Remember that spirit problem in our barn last summer? Well, I think it’s back.”

Dean chokes back his alarm. She knows what he does?

“Um, I’m sorry to hear that, Ms. — “

“Carson,” the woman provides helpfully. “But you always call me Ruth, you know that.”

“So I helped you with a spirit problem, did I, Ruth?”

“Oh, you sure did!” Ruth doesn’t seem to mind that Dean doesn’t remember her. “We were so grateful, but you warned us that the spirit might be back.”

“I did?”

“Uh-huh, and you were right! Rattling chains in the middle of the night, flickering lights, the whole thing. I don’t suppose you have a moment to check on it for me?”

Dean blinks. “Uh, well, I’m on my way home with dinner at the moment...”

“Oh, you don’t have to come by tonight,” Ruth assures him. “It’s not urgent. Not like the spirit’s trying to kill anybody or anything.” She smiles brightly, like she’s made a joke. Like spirits don’t sometimes do exactly that.

But whatever.

“Okay, good.” Dean starts to back away. “I’ll drop by tomorrow sometime. How would that be?”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful! Thank you so much, Mr. Winchester.”

“Dean,” Dean corrects her. “You can call me Dean.”

Ruth’s bright smile threatens to explode off her face. “Oh, I forget. You young folks don’t like the title. Your father, now, he always stuck to formality. I would never have thought to call Mr. Winchester Senior by his first name. Oh my no!”

Dean backs into a produce table piled with oranges, grabs one just as it starts to fall to the floor.

“Right. Okay. Bye.”

Ruth continues to smile as Dean turns away, putting the orange into his basket for Sam.

Now that he’s been recognized, he notices other shoppers nodding and smiling at him. He’s well-known, apparently by his real name and for what he really does for a living. Okay.

When he gets to the check-out counter, the clerk smiles and calls him by name, asks him how he’s doing.

“We haven’t seen you in here for a while,” she says. “Everything all right at home?”

Dean frowns. What the hell does that mean?

“Uh, yeah,” he mutters. “Everything’s fine. Everything okay with you?”

The clerk rolls her eyes. “Well, you know, ever since your brother helped us communicate with Grandpa Glen, things have been a little complicated.”

“That so?” Dean doesn’t want to know. He really doesn’t.

“Yeah, I mean, now Dad and his brothers won’t stop arguing,” the clerk goes on. “I guess it’s not always a good thing, communicating with the dead. But tell your brother thanks, okay? At least we know what Grandpa Glen really wanted now.”

“Right.” Dean’s so horrified he doesn’t wait for his change. He practically runs out of the store with his bag of groceries, nodding at a bag-boy who waves at him cheerfully from behind a line of shopping carts.

“What the hell is wrong with this world?” He mutters as the car roars to life. “I gotta tell you, Sammy, this world’s us seem about as dangerous as shoe salesmen. Weird.”

Just on a hunch, he pulls over to check the trunk about a mile out of town. As he suspected, the trunk is full of hex-bags and various spell paraphernalia. When he finds a salt gun and a silver knife he’s relieved.

At least the trunk contains some weapons.

//**//**//

“So you guys are just the friendly, local ghostbusters,” Dean accuses Sam when he gets back to the bunker.

Sam frowns as he starts unpacking the groceries. “We help out in the community when we’re needed,” he agrees, confused. “Don’t you do that in your world?”

“It doesn’t really come up!” Dean huffs out a breath in disbelief. “Nobody in town knows who we are, in our world. Dad’s prime directive: don’t give the talk unless absolutely necessary.”

“The talk?”

“You know. Monsters are real. That talk.” Dean shakes his head. “They’re civilians, man. It’s dangerous for them to know the truth. They’re not trained to protect themselves like we are.”

Sam shrugs, still confused. “That’s why we’re here,” he says matter-of-factly. “We protect them, if necessary. Besides, the town is heavily warded. Nothing evil ever comes to Lebanon.”

“Except ghosts!” Dean snaps. “Ruth Carson says there’s one in her barn.”

Sam chuckles, ducking his head. “Ruth’s ghost isn’t dangerous. It isn’t even a ghost. It’s just a sprite that likes to play in the hayloft. It’s perfectly harmless. When Ruth was a little girl, she used to play with it. It misses that, so sometimes it tries to get her attention. It just wants to get her to come out and play. It doesn’t realize how annoying it’s being, now that she’s a middle-aged woman who doesn’t want to play with an imaginary friend anymore.”

Dean’s flabbergasted. “And Grandpa Glen?” He practically squeaks. “You did a séance for the cashier in the grocery store? She’s not exactly happy about it, by the way. Says her dad and his brothers won’t stop fighting now.”

Sam winces. “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that,” he admits. “I thought it would help, knowing their father’s wishes. It just made things worse, apparently.”

“So you’re this town’s Pamela.” Dean shakes his head. “My Sam, he repressed his psychic powers. Dad was suspicious of them because of the demon blood.”

“Demon blood?” Sam’s eyes widen behind his glasses. It’s cute.

But now it’s Dean’s turn to wince. He’s not sure he should tell Sam about the demon blood. Obviously, things are radically different here in that regard. This Sam doesn’t need to know how fucked-up his counterpart’s life really was, does he?

“Never mind.” Dean pulls steaks out of the grocery bag. “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”

They eat in companionable silence. Dean feels Sam glancing at him, like he wants to ask, but Dean keeps his eyes on his food. They wash and dry the dishes like they always do. It feels normal. Regular.

Dean checks on his dead brother afterwards, falls asleep drinking and talking to him. He’s only half-aware when Sam comes to collect him, takes him gently to bed and tucks him in, pulling his boots off before leaving him to sleep.

//**//**//

The next day, after research and dinner, Sam follows Dean into the infirmary for his third night’s vigil.

“If you’re psychic, can you sense him? Is he still here?” Dean asks.

Sam closes his eyes, goes still as Dean watches and waits. He already knows the answer, but he needs confirmation.

When Sam opens his eyes, he gives a little shake of his head. “He’s gone, Dean.”

Dean nods, clenching his jaw. “That’s what I thought. I wish I knew he was safe, that’s all.”

“Safe?”

“Yeah. Billie threatened to throw us into the Empty when we died. I wish I knew he made it to Heaven instead.”

“Heaven’s real in your world?” Sam’s eyes widen.

“Oh yeah. It’s a place where you get to live out your favorite memories, forever. Sam and me — we’ve been there.”

“You have?” Sam takes the chair across the bed, facing Dean over his brother’s body.

“Yeah.” Dean finds himself telling the story, explaining Heaven to Sam, telling him about their visit there, all those years ago.

Sam listens, nods. It feels good to talk about it, which is something Dean never expected. Sam is patient, interested. He’s a good listener.

“Soulmates,” he says when Dean finishes the tale. He’s nodding slightly. “Like me and my brother.”

“What?” Dean wasn’t expecting that. “You and your brother are soulmates?”

Sam frowns. “You thought you and your Sam were the only ones?” He shifts on his chair uneasily. “We’ve known since we were kids. Psychic fortune-teller at a circus in Boise told us, but I already knew. I could sense Dean, sometimes.” He puts his hand over his heart. “Right here.”

Dean’s opens his own hand against his chest reflexively, recalling the times he’s felt something, too. He and Sam have always known, too. It’s the same way he knows Sam’s not here now, even if he hasn’t been able to acknowledge it before.

Dean lifts his eyes to Sam, who’s looking down at the body on the bed thoughtfully.

“You know, it’s possible that your brother is waiting for you in Heaven,” Dean says. “I know I would be, if our situation was reversed. I’d want you to live out your life, try to find some happiness for a while. Try to keep on fighting the good fight.”

Sam’s eyes fill with tears and he swallows thickly. “I know.”

“Hey, come on now.” Dean’s protective big-brother instincts kick in like a flipped switch. He gets up, gesturing to Sam to follow him. “Let’s get you some rest. We can start this fresh in the morning again.”

He shepherds Sam down the corridor, one hand on his arm, the other on his back. When they reach Sam’s bedroom door, Dean gives Sam’s neck a little squeeze, reassuring.

“You’ll be all right, Sam,” he says. “You’re strong. You’ll be okay.”

Sam turns, and suddenly they’re pressed almost chest to chest and Dean’s not strong enough to step away.

“That’s just it, Dean,” Sam says, voice choked, pleading. “I’m not. I’m really not okay. I don’t think I ever will be.”

“Yes, you will,” Dean murmurs, fighting down the erection he’s sprouted from being this close. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath through his nose, taking in Sam’s scent, his heat. When he opens his eyes again, Sam’s right there, leaning in, eyes on Dean’s mouth.

The kiss is desperate and messy. Sam’s half-crying, gasping. His hands cling and clutch, grasping Dean’s back, his hair, his ass. Dean holds on as best he can, letting Sam take what he needs, giving Sam whatever he can because that’s all he’s ever done. It’s all he knows how to do. He knows it’s wrong, fucked-up in ways he can’t wrap his head around. Dean’s not this guy’s brother, he’s not the guy Sam’s missing. But Dean’s programmed to give in to Sam’s needs. He can’t do anything else. It just isn’t in him.

They stumble backwards into Sam’s bedroom, pulling off clothes while fighting to keep their mouths and hands on each other. It’s like so many other times, times when Dean and his brother survived another death-defying hunt, when they were so grateful to be alive and in each other’s arms the sex seemed completely beside the point. Inadequate to their frantic desire to hold each other as close as humanly possible, to get under each other’s skin and inside each other’s bones, to touch and cling to the part of each other that was deeper than anything physical.

Losing each other is always disastrous. Being without each other is always a train-wreck waiting to happen, and it’s been three days for Dean, over a week for Sam. Their bodies don’t know the difference between the brother they love most and the not-brother in their arms. It’s just as intense and insane and messed-up as it always is. Sam comes with a shout that echoes through the entire bunker, making Dean come a moment later. They lie panting and sticky together afterwards, too relaxed and fucked out to move.

“So this is obviously a thing with you and your brother,” Dean notes when he gets his breath back. “How the hell did you...?”

He can’t finish the sentence, but Sam knows. He grins, dimples on full display.

“There’s spells,” he says as he shifts under Dean’s weight. “Silence spells so nobody can hear a thing.”

Dean thinks about that. “Huh. I just can’t believe you got away with it with Dad right here.”

Sam squirms, winces. “Yeah, Dad’s pretty good at not seeing what’s right in front of his nose sometimes. He’s myopic about some things.”

Dean nods. Yeah, he could see that. John Winchester was good at ignoring things that didn’t fit with his obsessive world-view.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “Mom was like that, too.”

“Yeah?” Sam’s tone is hopeful, interested. “What was she like?”

“Committed to hunting, that’s for sure,” Dean says softly. His mother will always be something of a mystery to him, although he’s glad he had the chance to get to know her. “Didn’t your brother tell you about her?”

“Dean never talked about her,” Sam says. “Her death hurt him too bad, I think. He was awfully young when she died. I don’t think he ever got over it.”

“Yeah.” Dean nods. “I know what that’s like.”

“You do?” Sam’s confusion mixes with an eagerness to hear another story about his not-family, but Dean’s done for tonight.

“It’s a story for another night, Samuel,” he says with a light chuckle. “Time to sleep.”

Dean cleans them up, but when he tries to go back to his own room, Sam begs him to stay, puppy eyes on full display, and Dean can’t resist that. He snuggles down behind Sam on Sam’s bed, wrapping an arm around his big body, spooning him, and they fall asleep like that. Dean tells himself it’s not cheating on his brother because Sam isn’t even here, but he feels guilty anyway. It’s just more than he can bear, having his dead brother’s body lying in the infirmary while this other Sam is right here, alive and needy and missing his brother so much he can barely breathe.

Dean’s going to have to accept that this is just something that happens when there’s another Sam around while his is gone. It was probably inevitable from the moment he landed in this universe.

Sam is Sam, Dean’s body and heart tell him. This is just the way it is.

//**//**//

A week passes, then two. Dean and Sam spend the days doing research, being domestic, passing the time. Sam shows Dean how to take care of the sprite in Ruth Carson’s barn (“don’t kill it, Dean, just use this spell to put it to sleep”) and one evening they knock off research early to watch a movie together in Dean’s man-cave.

Every night they share a bottle of whiskey in the infirmary while Dean tells Sam stories of his brother’s life. Afterwards, they go to bed, sometimes together, sometimes separately. Sometimes they start out the night in separate beds and wake up tangled together.

“We were set up by God from before birth,” Dean explains one night. “He sent a cupid to make sure our parents fell in love. They didn’t even like each other at first.”

Sam shakes his head, takes a sip of his whiskey.

“I can’t imagine that happened to our parents,” he says. “The hunting world isn’t exactly gigantic. I’m pretty sure the Winchesters and the Campbells knew each other from way back.”

Dean has a vivid flashback to his grandfather Samuel and his bunker full of Campbell cousins.

“Yeah, I can see how that might be true,” he agrees. “It’s hard to believe the Men of Letters kept their secret from hunters. They needed the hunters’ help too much.”

“You said something about demon blood, the other night,” Sam says. “Did your brother have some in his veins? Is that what gave him his powers?”

“What makes you say that?” Dean scoffs, but he knows Sam’s not fooled. Sam can read him like a book, knows his tells. Even this Sam knows Dean better than he knows himself.

“Just a hunch,” Sam shrugs. “I can tell some pretty mixed up shit happened. You don’t need to be explicit about it, but...”

“Sammy jumped into Hell to save the world,” Dean snaps, cutting him off. “Doesn’t matter about the blood. Doesn’t matter about any of it, now. Christ, this is so unfair!”

Sam’s silent for a few moments, then he lifts his glass in salute.

“To Sam,” he says softly.

Dean shakes his head. He’s not ready.

Sam gets that. He gets up to go to bed, and Dean follows not long after. He slips into Sam’s bed and spoons him, nuzzles into the back of Sam’s neck.

“‘Night, Sam.”

//**//**//

“Caught a case,” Sam says one morning.

They’re in the library, staring into their laptops, and Dean looks up, surprised.

“What’ve you got?”

“A couple hiking in the woods near Missoula had their hearts ripped out. Locals are saying animal attack.”

“Werewolves,” Dean comments flatly. He’s not sure he cares. This isn’t even his world.

Sam nods. “If we leave now, we could be there by tomorrow afternoon.”

Dean hesitates.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Sam says softly, tilting his chin up toward the infirmary. “And we need a break to clear our heads.”

He’s not wrong about that. Dean’s starting to think Chuck has completely forgotten about this world. Or maybe he hasn’t, but he’s fine with leaving Dean stranded here.

Maybe this is the ending he had planned for Dean all along.

//**//**//

“So who’s alive in this world?” Dean asks once they’re on the road. Sam’s presence in the passenger seat feels more normal than it should, and getting away from the bunker lifts Dean’s mood, which he did not expect. He has a feeling Sam planned it that way.

“What do you mean?” Sam frowns.

“Well, let’s just go down the list. Bobby Singer? Jody Mills? Charlie Bradbury? Any of those names ring a bell?”

“All of them, actually,” Sam admits. “I haven’t seen Bobby in a while, though. He and Dad didn’t get along.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Dean says with a nod.

“Jody Mills is sheriff of Sioux Falls,” Sam says. “We helped her out with a zombie situation a few years back. She’s a good friend. And Charlie is about the best computer hacker we’ve ever met. Better than me, even.”

Dean smiles, relieved. “She’s okay here. And Jody and Bobby are fine, too.”

“As far as I know,” Sam agrees. He hesitates before going on. “I’m guessing they’re all dead in your world.”

Dean sucks in a breath, nods curtly.

“We could visit them, if you want,” Sam offers.

Dean shakes his head. “Wouldn’t be the same, anyway. I’m not the Dean they know.”

“You’re more like him than you think,” Sam says. Dean can hear the emotion in his voice. Keeping one hand on the wheel and his eyes on the road, he puts his other hand on Sam’s thigh, gives it a squeeze.

“What’s he like, your brother?”

Sam lets out a breath. “He’s brave, smart, a little reckless sometimes. Thinks he’s funnier than he is.”

“Ha! I’ll bet he’s plenty funny,” Dean chuckles. “You just don’t want to admit it. You like to give him those little faces — Yeah, that one! But it only makes him worse.”

Sam shakes his head. “Why are you like this?”

“You know why,” Dean grins. “You know it’s my job to make you laugh, to keep your mind off all the bad. Or at least, that was my job, with my brother. I used to get him to groan and bitchface at me all day. It was great.”

“You’re impossible,” Sam says, but he’s smiling. His dimples are showing.

Dean’s definitely feeling better.

//**//**//

After the werewolf hunt, they stop at a motel near Billings for the night. The motel feels familiar. Getting cleaned up and stitching each other up feels familiar. If it wasn’t for those damn glasses, Dean could almost believe his brother was alive and sitting across from him in the diner. It had felt good to have Sam’s back on the hunt. Felt familiar.

“We made a good team back there,” Dean says as they wait for the waitress to bring their food.

“Yeah, we did.” Sam sounds hopeful, tentative. “Maybe we can do it again sometime.”

Dean gazes at his not-brother for a moment, speculative. Then he shakes his head.

“I can see what you’re doing, Sam,” he says.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dean takes a deep breath, lets it out. “You’re trying to distract me,” he says. “Trying to remind me that this is what we do. This is what we’re good at.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but...” Dean licks his lips. He doesn’t want to hurt the kid, he really doesn’t. Truth be told, he’s grown fond of this version of Sam, over the past few weeks. He likes him.

But he’s not Sam. He’s not Dean’s Sam. He can’t ever be that. There’s no replacing his brother in Dean’s life. That just can’t happen.

“I’m not your brother,” Dean says finally, lifting his eyes to Sam. “And you’re not mine.”

Sam flushes, drops his eyes to his water glass, lifts it and takes a sip without looking at Dean. His hand shakes. Dean watches as he puts the water down, clenches his jaw.

“Don’t you think I know that, Dean?” Sam says. “I’m just trying to find a way to go on, you know?” And I think you should, too.

“Not gonna happen,” Dean says.

Sam looks up and there are unshed tears glistening in his eyes. His jaw works, and Dean can see how determined he is to try to fight through his own emotions, not to let them overwhelm him.

“Look,” Sam says finally. “I can’t ever fully understand your life, okay? And you don’t know what my life has been like, either. But I’m willing to listen, I have listened, and I’ll keep on listening to anything you want to tell me. I’ll keep trying to understand you and what you’ve been through. All I’m asking is that you meet me partway. Not even halfway. Just part of the way.”

Dean shakes his head. He really can’t explain to this Sam what it means for him to try to live without his brother. It’s never been something anyone else could ever understand.

“Sam, I know you miss your brother,” Dean begins. “I know you think maybe if we try really hard we can figure out a way to be enough for each other, so that even if your brother never comes back, things could be almost as good.”

The waitress takes that moment to return with their food, and Dean waits for her to do her thing before he goes on.

Sam watches him with puppy eyes and something like despair warmed-over, and Dean can’t stand it. He never could resist that look when his brother directed it at him, and he can’t resist this Sam’s hopeful, half-desperate, ready-for-anything-Dean-can-dish-out expression. It reminds Dean of that time Sam was pumped up on demon blood and trying to kill Lilith because he believed with all his heart that it was the right thing to do.

Dean called him a monster then. He’s not about to make the same mistake twice.

He knows he’s backing down when he pleads, “I just don’t know if I have it in me, Sam. I don’t know if I can be who you want me to be. Me and my Sam, we went to Hell, man. We did terrible things to each other. I shoved an angel into him after he’d been possessed by Lucifer. He betrayed me with a demon. A demon, Sam. It’s hard to come back from those things, but we did. We figured it out. And when he thought I was dead and safe in Heaven? He took up with a girl. He went for normal as best as he could. But me? I could never do that. I just can’t.”

“What about Lisa?” Sam argues.

Dean blinks. He’d forgotten he’d told Sam about Lisa. One of those evenings drinking over Dean’s brother’s dead body in the infirmary. Right.

“I was a mess with Lisa,” Dean says. “Drinking, depressed, suicidal. It wasn’t pretty.”

“I’m not asking for pretty, Dean,” Sam insists. “I’m just asking for effort. Just a little attempt to live again. With me.”

Dean stares into Sam’s eyes, sees nothing but compassion there, mixed with the grief he’ll probably never stop feeling, along with a little frustration because Dean’s being such a bastard about this.

But he’s also being honest with Sam. A future with this Sam wouldn’t be easy. Dean will never stop missing his brother. This Sam won’t ever measure up, won’t ever replace the emptiness in Dean’s soul where his brother lived.

Dean won’t ever be able to wake up and not feel a wave of grief as he remembers that Sam’s dead, that he’s just doing time here until he can join his brother, wherever he is.

“I’m not ready, Sam,” he says honestly. “I may never be ready. I need — I need to know he’s safe.”

Sam nods, sits back and reaches for his napkin. “I can live with that.”

//**//**//

It doesn’t get better after that, but Sam seems satisfied. He seems to think Dean might eventually come around.

Dean doesn’t have the heart to squash Sam’s hopes. He wasn’t lying when he said he wasn’t ready. When they get back to the bunker, he sits with his brother’s body for the rest of the day until Sam comes to get him for supper.

He dreams about his brother every night. Sometimes, they’re on a hunt and Sam dies in the end and there’s nothing Dean can do. Sometimes, Chuck’s there, snapping Sam’s neck while Dean watches helplessly.

Dean wakes up with tears on his cheeks and an ache in his chest that simply won’t go away.

Sam knows better than to try to comfort Dean when he wakes up crying. They don’t talk about it. If Sam’s in the bed with him when it happens, he lies quietly beside him until Dean’s sobs subside. Sometimes, after Dean stops crying, he turns towards Sam on the bed. Sometimes he reaches up and touches Sam’s face, traces his dimples, tucks his hair behind his ear. Sometimes, Dean lets himself pretend Sam’s his brother, just for a moment. In the semi-darkness of the bedroom, in the still of the night, it’s almost possible to believe.

Sometimes Sam wakes up sobbing, and it’s Dean who lies still, lets Sam feel Dean’s presence, remember that Dean’s not his brother. Sam always turns towards Dean then. He always lets Dean know that he’s okay with the substitute. He’s okay that Dean’s not his brother.

They never talk about those moments, their mutual grief. It’s too intimate, for both of them.

//**//**//

“I spent a year in Purgatory once,” Dean says one night.

They’re sitting in the infirmary, whiskies in hand, facing each other over Dean’s brother’s dead body. It’s been over two months since Dean fell through the rift with his brother in his arms.

Chuck should have destroyed all the worlds by now. Dean can’t figure out why he’s leaving this one, except that it must be part of his fucked-up plan for Dean. Chuck’s latest plot-twist.

Thinking about that makes Dean feel ill.

“Purgatory, huh?” Sam leans forward on his chair, twirling his glass between his hands, dangling it periodically between his spread knees. “What’s that like?”

“Not pretty, I can tell you that,” Dean says. “It’s where monsters go after they die. Place is crawling with vamps, shifters, werewolves, you name it. And every single one of them wanted a piece of me. If I hadn’t found an ally, I don’t think I would’ve made it.”

“An ally, huh?”

“Fellow named Benny.” Dean nods, lifts his glass in a quick salute, takes a sip of the whiskey before going on. “Vampire.”

Sam’s eyes widen. “You made friends with a vampire?”

“Sure did. I needed back-up, he needed a ride out.”

“Where was Sam?”

Dean glances at the still face of his brother and winces.

“He survived the explosion that sent me to Purgatory,” he explains. “Hit a dog, found a girl.”

Sam straightens up in his chair, frowning. “So he thought you were dead.”

Dean nods, then shakes his head. “When I got back, I was too hard on him. Blamed him for not looking for me, for not figuring out what had happened to me. I accused him of dropping the ball on his responsibilities.”

Sam sucks in a breath. “He thought you were safe in Heaven. He was trying to keep going without you.”

Dean raises his eyes to Sam and nods. “Yeah. He was. I get that now. And the sick thing is, he felt bad, you know? He felt like he let me down because he stopped looking for me. Years later, he still felt guilty about it.”

Sam nods, takes a sip of his whiskey. He frowns as he looks down at the body, and Dean can see the wheels turning in his big brain.

“You know, I could help with that. If you want.”

Dean raises his eyebrows. Wild hope surges through his veins.

“What are you talking about? Did you figure out a spell to bring him back?”

Sam shakes his head. “Not that. I meant, I could do a séance, ask him to tell us if he’s okay.”

Dean frowns. “I thought séances were just about talking to ghosts,” he says uncertainly. “Sam’s not a ghost.”

“No, he’s not,” Sam agrees, gazing down at the body. “But that’s not the only thing that séances are for. Often, they’re about closure. Living relatives want reassurance that their loved ones are safe, that they’re okay with being dead.” He raises his eyes to Dean. “There’s a way to summon a spirit from the afterlife, just long enough to answer a couple of questions. I’ve done it at least a dozen times. It can help.”

Dean sucks in a breath. His hands are trembling. He sets the glass on the bedside table so it doesn’t slip out of his hands.

“I thought you said he was gone,” he says. His voice is shaking. “I thought you said he’s not here.”

“Right,” Sam agrees. “He’s not. But I can ask him to come for a short visit, just long enough to let you know how he’s doing, wherever he is. I’m not saying he’ll answer, and honestly, since your world is so different from ours, I don’t know if the summons will work across worlds in the first place. But I’m willing to try. If you want.”

Dean frowns. He feels betrayed. He narrows his eyes and glares his accusation at Sam.

“Why didn’t you tell me you could do that?”

Sam looks away, obviously embarrassed. “Honestly? I was afraid it would make things worse for you. You’re having a hard time letting him go as it is.”

Dean’s eyes widen as realization dawns.

“Wait, did you already do this with your brother? Did you already summon your brother’s spirit?”

Dean’s offended, although he can’t figure out why he should be. None of this had occurred to him before, but of course Dean’s only experience with séances was the kind Pamela Barnes did, which were all about summoning spirits that were already here on Earth. It had never occurred to Dean that there might be a way to summon a spirit from somewhere not on Earth. He’s pretty sure that’s not possible in his world or he would have heard about it.

Of course, maybe Sam’s just special that way.

Sam’s jaw clenches and he nods briefly. “I did. About a week after you arrived. I needed to know. I couldn’t live without knowing. And since you seemed so sure Dean was dead...”

Dean glares, fury rising in his chest. “You’ve been living with that knowledge all this time? And never thought to tell me?” He rises to his feet, paces back in forth next to the bed because he can’t sit still.

“I wasn’t sure you would want to know,” Sam admits. “It’s so final. I don’t want to force that on you if you’re not ready, and you’ve shown me again and again that you don’t want to let him go yet.” Sam takes a deep breath. “I get that, Dean. I really do. If I didn’t have you... If you weren’t here, I’m not sure I could’ve done the séance for my brother. I’m not sure I ever would’ve done it.”

Dean’s flabbergasted. “Don’t tell me you gave up trying to find a way to bring him back,” he accuses darkly, gesturing at his brother’s body. “Don’t tell me this was your plan all along.”

Sam’s eyebrows go up. “No, Dean, I wouldn’t lie to you about that. I’ve been looking into everything I can find. It’s just — What you’re asking may not be possible. I mean, maybe if Sam was willing to return to his body...”

“You were holding out on me, Sam,” Dean accuses, furious. “You knew you could do this summoning thing all along and you just didn’t want me to know.”

“That’s not true, Dean.” Sam shakes his head. “I know you. I could see you were suffering...”

“You don’t know me,” Dean growls. He wants to hit something. If a dead body wasn’t lying between them, he’d be up in Sam’s face like a shot. “I’m not your brother, you asshole!”

Sam’s jaw clenches. He closes and reopens his eyes, shakes his head, struggling to hold onto his emotions. He rises slowly to his feet, hands out, palms down, a gesture that Dean knows well. He wants Dean to calm down.

“You don’t have to tell me that,” Sam says, his voice carefully controlled. “I know who you are. But I also know who he is, because he’s me.” Sam gestures at the body. “He knows you’re not good at living without him. He knows that all you want to do is join him as soon as you possibly can. Living without him isn’t an option for you.”

“It sure as hell isn’t!”

“But you’re doing it, Dean,” Sam reminds him. “You’ve been doing it for over two months now. Living without him is something you can do. It is.”

“You call this living?” Dean glares, fists clenched. “We spend our days researching ways to get him back and our nights drinking and fucking and crying over his dead body. You call that living, Sam?”

Sam shakes his head. “I call it a start,” he says. “Maybe not really living yet, but you’re still here.”

“Only because Chuck told me he’d bring me back if I died,” Dean snarls. Tears are leaking out of his eyes and he wipes them away angrily. “Even if he hasn’t destroyed this world yet, I’m pretty sure he’s still in charge. He’s watching!”

Sam’s eyes widen. “You think God let you come here? You think he allowed this to happen?”

“What do you think, Sam? I told you, Chuck’s in charge. He’s the Lord God Almighty. None of this would be happening if it wasn’t the way he wanted it to be.”

“But what if he wasn’t?” Sam says. “Isn’t it possible that he’s not in charge anymore? At least, not in this world.”

Dean blinks, confused. “What are you talking about? I told you, Chuck made a bunch of alternate worlds, and just before I got here he destroyed them all.”

“Exactly. But this world is still here. So I’m thinking, what if this world is unique? What if it’s not one of the worlds that Chuck created?”

Sam looks so hopeful, so eager, that Dean can’t stay angry with him. It’s just not in him.

“You said Chuck disappeared right before you came through the rift into my world, right?” Sam goes on, pushing his point. “So what if he just lost track of you completely at that point? What if you slipped out of his jurisdiction, so to speak, and into a hidden world that he doesn’t even know about?”

Dean frowns. “He’s the Lord God Almighty, Sam. Pretty sure he knows about all the worlds, since he created them.”

“Maybe,” Sam concedes. “But maybe not. Or maybe this world falls below the radar somehow. Maybe it’s too insignificant for Chuck to care about, or even remember creating.”

Given how long Chuck had left Dean’s world alone before intruding in person, Sam’s suggestion doesn’t sound completely impossible. Implausible, maybe, but not impossible.

“So you’re suggesting I could die and join my brother in Heaven, if that’s where he is,” Dean says slowly.

Sam flinches like he’s been hit and Dean almost takes it back. Almost.

“I was just suggesting that maybe you’re free here,” Sam says. “You can choose.”

Dean considers pulling his gun out, firing in into his own head, just to test Sam’s theory.

Then he thinks about the shock he’d be giving Sam, the life of grief he’d be condemning the kid to, and the idea goes right out of his head again.

One thing’s for sure. Dean’s anger has dissipated, replaced by the terror of knowing something he didn’t know two months ago.

He might be able to find out where his brother is. He might learn that Sam’s truly happy there, and all this struggle to bring him back is just Dean being incredibly selfish.

Again.

Dean takes a deep breath and reaches for his whiskey glass, knocks back the amber liquid and reaches for the bottle. He takes a seat as he pours himself another glass, offers the bottle to Sam.

“You know, he almost died trying to close the Gates of Hell one time,” Dean says. His voice is rough with emotion and whiskey.

Sam reaches across the bed, takes the bottle, pours himself another glass, and sits down on his own chair, waiting.

“I couldn’t let him die, so I made another deal to save him, this time with an angel.” Dean rolls his eyes. “That was a disaster, obviously.”

“Because Sam had been possessed by an angel before,” Sam breathes sympathetically. “Lucifer.”

“Yeah.” Dean sips the whiskey. “When he finally kicked the angel out, he hated me for a while.”

Sam nods. “You stole his autonomy,” he says quietly. “You didn’t let him choose for himself whether he wanted to stay with you or not. You didn’t let him decide whether it was worth it.”

Dean shakes his head. “You know the worst thing, though? The worst thing was that I actually believed he would rather leave me. He would rather never see me again than let me save him. I thought he blamed me for letting him jump into the Cage, for letting him suffer like that.”

Dean sighs, brushes the tears off his cheeks, the ones he didn’t realize he’d shed. He must be drunker than he thought.

Sam shakes his head. “He did that to make you proud, Dean,” he says. “He did that to save the world.”

“I know that now!” Dean protests. “I understand now that he wouldn’t leave me, not willingly. But back then, I still thought he’d rather have a normal life, you know? He’d rather be done with hunting. Done with me. I thought he never stopped wanting out.”

He gazes down at the body on the bed before he goes on.

“And I wanted him to get out, that’s the thing. I wanted a better life for him than danger and violence and always moving around, always being on the fringes. I wanted him to have a home, with a wife who adored him. I wanted him to have kids and grandkids and never to fear for his life again.”

Dean takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. “And instead of all that, I got him dead.” He closes his eyes, squeezing back the tears. He won’t let himself cry. He won’t.

“You didn’t get him dead, Dean,” Sam assures him. “He knew the risks of the job. He knew what could happen to him. What would happen to him, eventually, if he stayed in the life long enough. We all take that risk when we become hunters. Every hunt we go on could be our last. It’s a risk we all take willingly.”

Dean listens, nods. Sam’s right. It just hurts so much, seeing his brother on that bed, his life cut short.

“It should be me lying here, dead,” Dean says. “I’m his big brother. I should’ve protected him.”

“You did the best you could, Dean,” Sam says softly. “I know you did.”

Dean looks up sharply. “How the hell do you know that?”

Sam smiles sadly. “Because I know you. I’ve gotten to know you over the past two months, Dean. I know you did the best you could do. I know it.”

Dean stares at him for a moment, then slams his glass down. “Damn it, Sam. You don’t know a damn thing.”

He feels Sam’s eyes on him as he leaves the room, knows Sam won’t follow. Not right away. Dean almost hates how much he’s learned to understand this Sam and his sympathetic, psychic ways. It should make him angrier than he does. It should make him hate this Sam for trying so hard to replace his brother.

But it doesn’t. Sam’s just doing his best. He’s just trying to find a way to go on without the love of his life. Dean gets that. Dean should try to do the same thing.

But he can’t. He’s not strong enough. He’ll die of alcoholism or a broken heart or both first.

Dean’s grief and sense of failure know no bounds.

//**//**//

“Okay, let’s do this thing.”

Sam looks up as Dean stalks back into the infirmary a few minutes later, jaw clenched with determination.

Sam nods, understanding immediately. He’s already moved the chairs into place, at the foot of the bed, facing each other. He gestures for Dean to take the other seat, then reaches for his hands.

“Take my hands. Relax and close your eyes. Think of your happiest memory with Sam.”

Dean feels like an idiot as he obeys. He’s like a kid at a slumber party, He feels hopeful and sad, all at the same time. He’s not ready for this.

“Okay,” Sam says. “I’m summoning the spirit of Sam Winchester, the brother of this man, Dean Winchester. Dean wishes to speak to the spirit of Sam Winchester. Will you come to speak with him?”

Dean cracks one eye open, glances around, half-expecting Sam’s ghost to materialize, even though he knows that’s not possible.

Then his chest clenches painfully, and he gasps.

Sam’s here.

Dean’s eyes fly open as Sam drops his hands, sits back in his chair. His eyes are wide with a surprised expression as he stares first at Dean, at his own hands, then around the room. He squints, reaches up to take the glasses off his face, blinks as he looks around the room again. When his gaze falls on the body on the bed he gives a small gasp. He rises to his feet, gesturing at the body as he turns a hard look on Dean.

“What are you doing, Dean?”

“Sam?” Dean doesn’t know whether to be thrilled or horrified. He gets up slowly. “Is that you?”

“Of course it’s me,” Sam snaps. “What the hell are you doing?”

“I — I — You died, Sammy. Chuck killed you! I’ve been trying to find a way to bring you back, man.” Dean’s never felt so helpless. He never needed anything as bad as he needs Sam, and he’s not afraid to beg. “I need you back, man. You know I can’t live with you dead.”

“Yes, you can,” Sam snaps. “You can, Dean. You made a promise.”

Dean stares, flabbergasted. “That was years ago! And I couldn’t do it! I tried, and I failed. I failed big time, man! Almost got Lisa and Ben killed...”

“Dean, listen to me.” Sam glances at the body on the bed, closes his eyes and shakes his head before opening his eyes again. He notices the glasses still dangling from his fingers and he puts them down carefully on the bedside table. “I’m fine. I’m in Heaven, waiting for you. We always knew this would happen sooner or later. I hoped we’d grow old together, I really did, but that’s not happening. I’m not coming back, not this time.”

Ice water floods Dean’s veins at Sam’s words. He’d known. He’d always known, and he’s ashamed for thinking he should make Sam return when he’s safe where he is. He’s okay.

This is what Sam wants.

“What about Chuck?”

“Chuck’s been neutralized,” Sam says. “Jack fixed everything.”

“J — Jack?” Dean stammers. “I thought Jack was dead?”

Sam shakes his head impatiently. “Billie brought him back so he could fix things, and he did. He did, Dean! Everything’s the way it should be now.” Sam’s proud of the kid. Dean can see it.

Sam’s death wasn’t for nothing.

Dean fights back tears. “I can’t let you go, Sam.”

“Yes, you can,” Sam assures him. “I’m at peace now, Dean. No more demon blood, no more Lucifer, no more making mistakes and letting you down.”

“You never let me down, Sam,” Dean insists. “Never.”

Sam smiles, sad and fond. He crosses around the bed and leans close, cupping Dean’s cheek with his big, warm hand.

“You’ll be okay,” he assures Dean. “You’ve got this other me to keep you company. He seems like a good guy.”

“He’s not you,” Dean complains. “I can’t do this. I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried. With Cassie. With Lisa. But I can’t make a life with anyone else. It just isn’t in me.”

“Yes, you can,” Sam assures him again. “You’re my big brother, and there is nothing you can’t do. I looked up to you my whole life, Dean. You never valued your own life as much as I wish you did, but I value you. I see the good in you and the love in you. It saved me more times than I can count. So I know you can do this. I know it because I know you, Dean, better than anyone.”

Dean can’t argue with that.

“Sam — I can’t — I don’t know how — “ Tears flow freely. His voice sounds choked. “I’m not as strong as you are. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” Sam murmurs again, leaning close so their foreheads are touching. “You can. You’re stronger than you think you are. You keep on fighting the good fight, saving people here in this world, keeping this Sam safe. You do all that, and when you’re done, we’ll see each other again, Dean. I promise.”

Dean slips his arms around his brother, pulling him close, holding him tight.

“Don’t leave. Please don’t go.”

Sam’s lips press against Dean’s cheek. “I’m not leaving you. I’ll always be right here with you. I’m the part of you that always keeps fighting, remember?”

When he feels Sam start to pull back, it’s too soon. Every instinct in Dean’s body tells him to hold on, never to let go.

“It’s okay, Dean,” Sam murmurs. “You’re gonna be okay.”

“Sammy...”

“I believe in you, Dean,” Sam breathes.

Dean makes a choked sound that’s half-sob, half-laugh.

“You’ve always had faith enough for both of us.”

Dean feels Sam smile against his cheek. “You’re gonna be okay,” he repeats, as if he’s imbedding his faith and strength deep into Dean’s soul. He needs Dean to survive, believes that he can. He needs that to be enough.

Dean nods, swallows thickly. As Sam pulls gently away, Dean clings to both of Sam’s arms, keeping him close, just for one more moment, before letting him go.

He watches as Sam crosses to the bedside table and picks up the glasses. He spares a brief glance at the body on the bed before returning to his chair, taking position with another glance around the room, nodding at Dean to do the same, and Dean obeys because it’s the last thing Sam wants him to do, it’s Sam’s last wish.

“Sammy...”

Sam smiles as he catches Dean’s eye, holds his gaze. Their knees touch. Dean leans forward in his chair, puts his hands over Sam’s where they lie in his lap, holding the glasses.

“See you later, Dean.” He won’t say goodbye.

Sam closes his eyes, and when he opens them again he’s not Dean’s brother anymore.

//**//**//

Dean’s not proud of the way he behaves later. As soon as his brother’s spirit leaves, Dean’s out the door. He gets in the car and drives. He just can’t handle being in the bunker another minute. He can’t bear to look into the face of his not-brother, to see his brother’s dead body on the bed.

Hours later, he’s still on the road, ignoring Sam’s frantic calls. He finally pulls over to the side of the road, gets out and throws a few rocks. He finds a fallen branch, gives the ground a few sound whacks, then whacks a tree a few more times for good measure. He yells his grief and frustration into the Badlands National Park forest, grunts loudly as he lobs rocks and whacks everything he can find that isn’t his baby. (She’s not really his baby, but he lets himself forget that point.)

Eventually, he wears himself out. He sinks to the ground, breathing hard, kneels there for what feels like hours. He feels small and helpless and hollow. His chest is a pounding, wrenching pit of pain. Finally, he looks up at the stars, tears stinging his cheeks in the cold night air. He wonders vaguely if the stars are the same here, how much of this world is completely unique from his own.

It occurs to him that he could die now. Chuck’s neutralized, so his deal with Billie is off. If Dean dies, he can stay dead.

He thinks about pulling his gun out, sticking the barrel into his mouth, pulling the trigger.

Sam’s sad, fond face pops into his head. Sam would be so disappointed in him. So let down. He can’t do that to Sam.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

The sound of a car engine fills his ears. He looks up, sees the light on the horizon. It’s almost dawn. He’s cramped and cold from being out here so long. The car stops on the road behind him and a door opens, shuts. Feet crunch the gravel on the shoulder of the road.

“Dean?”

He stays where he is, lets Sam come to him, help him to his feet, walk him back to the car.

“How did you find me?”

“Low-jacked the Impala after the last time you did this,” Sam says. He sounds weary. This has been an exhausting night for him, too.

“Of course you did.”

Sam tucks him into the passenger seat of the Impala, drives back to the bunker, leaving the antique car on the side of the road. Dean has a feeling Sam used some kind of spell to get it to run, since he doubts Sam has the mechanical skills to get the old car up and running. Thing probably needs new spark plugs and an oil change, at least. Definitely a new battery.

Back at the bunker, Dean crawls into bed with his clothes on, passes out and sleeps twelve straight hours. When he gets up, he takes a shower, heads to the kitchen for food. Sam’s out running, so Dean makes himself some eggs and toast, drinks the last of the coffee from the pot on the stove, still warm.

Sam finds him in the infirmary when he gets back from his run. He’s showered and shaved, but there are still dark circles under his eyes. He still looks beat to hell.

“You okay?” he asks. You’re not planning to kill yourself as soon as I turn my back?

Dean takes a deep breath, nods at the body on the bed.

“He needs — He deserves a hunter’s funeral.”

Sam’s lips part and his eyebrows go up, but all he says is, “Okay.” He gives a little nod, turns his face away but Dean still catches the tiny flicker of hope in his eyes.

Dean ignores the panic that rises in his chest at the prospect of burning his brother’s body, of the finality of it. But he heard Sam. He heard him say that this is his choice, this is what he wants. He’s damned if he’ll renege on Sam’s final wish.

He’s damned if he’ll let Sam down again.

Sam helps him build the pyre, in the woods on the same patch of land where they burned Charlie and Mom, all those years ago in that other world. Dean washes and dresses his brother’s body, reminds himself that Sam had to do this too, more than once, and now Dean needs to complete the task for his brother’s sake.

Sam stands to one side while Dean flicks the lighter and tosses it onto the pyre. As they stand watching the flames catch, Dean has a moment of panic. He wants to throw himself onto the pyre, try to save the body or die trying.

Sam seems to sense his panic, sways just half-an-inch closer. He’s standing on Dean’s right, just a little behind him, and his warm presence feels so much like Dean’s brother that Dean closes his eyes for a moment, lets the feeling of Sam’s presence wash over and soothe him.

He’s pretty sure if he tried throwing himself onto the fire, Sam would dive right in to try to save him, maybe get himself killed in the process.

They watch the fire in silence, wait until it dies down and is no more than a pile of lumpy ash and embers. They use sticks to poke through the remains, ensuring there’s nothing left to smolder and threaten the surrounding trees. They bury the remains in the adjoining pit, erase all sign of what was done here. Then they drive back to the bunker in silence. Dean lets Sam drive again, and Sam doesn’t mention how his brother didn’t get a hunter’s funeral, but Dean’s pretty sure he’s thinking about it.

//**//**//

Back at the bunker, they hover around each other for a few days, feeling more like ghosts than flesh-and-blood men. Dean finds it harder to get out of bed each morning, harder to shower and shave, almost impossible to eat. Food tastes like sawdust and ash. Sam lets him be, but Dean can feel his worry. When a call comes in on the fourth day, Dean can’t muster enough energy to care.

“You go, Sam,” he says as he pours himself another glass of whiskey. “I’ll hold down the fort here, in case another call comes in.”

Sam takes a deep breath. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says. “Hunting alone is a major no-way.”

Dean shrugs. “So find another partner. I’ll bet Bobby would back you up. Or Jody. I’m sure you’ve got a list a mile long of people you can call.”

“That’s not the point, Dean.” Sam purses his lips. “I need you. You’re my partner now.”

Dean looks up at his not-brother, realizes he hasn’t really seen him in a few days. The kid looks tired, eyes red-rimmed like he’s been crying, skin sallow and unshaved. He’s too thin.

Dean’s been so buried in his own grief, he hadn’t noticed that Sam was suffering, too. Sam’s not doing so well at all.

“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” he asks.

Sam shrugs. “A while.” He thinks for a minute. “Maybe yesterday?”

Dean puts his glass down, climbs to his feet. “Okay, you know what? We need to get you fed. You want some soup? I’m gonna make some soup.”

Sam follows him into the kitchen, sits at the table while Dean warms up a can of tomato rice soup and grills a cheese sandwich.

“You, too,” Sam insists when Dean sets the plate down on the table in front of him. “You haven’t eaten in a couple of days, either.”

“I’m not really hungry,” Dean starts to say until he catches the look Sam’s throwing at him. His puppy-eyed, skeptical look is skewering Dean as sure as if he was a shish-kibosh, which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound half bad.

“You know, maybe I’ll come along on that hunt after all,” he says. “We could stop at that place in Huntsville that serves barbecue on a stick, remember that place?”

“Barbecue Bill’s?”

“That’s the one,” Dean nods. “We stopped there on that rugaru hunt that time.”

Sam grins, dimples popping. “You love that place, Dean,” he says. “We’ve gone out of our way to stop there too many times to count over the years.”

“Yeah.” Dean doesn’t remember it quite that way, but he doesn’t say that. Sam probably doesn’t remember the rugaru hunt, either. They’re just humoring each other, recalling memories of their lives with their dead brothers as a way to deal with their grief.

And the truth is, it helps. Dean feels better just knowing that Sam remembers Barbecue Bill’s, even if it’s a different memory for him. Obviously, their lives have overlapped enough to leave them with a lot of common memories. Maybe thousands.

“Remember Biggerson’s in New York state?” Dean’s out on a limb here, but he can’t help himself. It feels too good, and feeling good isn’t something he’s done a lot of lately. “That time we walked in and they gave us the prize for being their one-millionth customer?”

Sam laughs. “Black Rock. They took our pictures for the local paper,” he says. “Nearly got us arrested because you were wanted for that thing in St. Louis.”

Dean frowns. “The shifter thing?”

“Yeah, of course.” Sam looks confused for a moment. “Wait, how can you remember that?”

Dean shrugs. “What can I tell you? I guess some of our memories line up.”

“I guess they do.” Sam seems pleased, which makes Dean’s chest warm.

They share a few more memories, and it becomes obvious that their timelines matched up pretty well until Dean’s brother died in Cold Oak. Things seemed to diverge after that.

They agree to leave the bunker for good the next morning. There are too many memories here for both of them. They don’t say anything directly, but Dean can see that Sam agrees. They’ll go on this hunt, then find something else, but they’ll never come back here. It’s a place of sorrow and longing now. It’s not home anymore.

They leave the key to the bunker with the Men of Letters office in Normal, Illinois, which still exists because Abaddon never invaded this world, apparently.

They spend two and a half years on the road, hunting things, saving people. As long as they stay busy, Dean finds some solace. Whole days go by when he isn’t crushed by grief, although the nights are another matter.

One day, a hunt goes south and Sam ends up in the hospital, so Dean makes the decision for both of them that the time has come to stop hunting. It’s just not worth it to risk losing another Sam. Let other hunters take care of things in this world from now on.

Sam accepts a job as a law professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and one morning Dean finds himself driving down the street where he used to live, in that other universe.

“That’s our old house,” Sam announces as Dean pulls up in front of the place. It doesn’t look half-bad. A little lived-in, but that’s good.

“In my world, that’s where it all began,” Dean says. “On the night of Sam’s sixth month birthday. Demon infected him with its blood and he grew up watched by Lucifer’s minions.”

Sam’s eyes widen and his lips form a silent “oh.”

“Yeah,” Dean goes on. “Fire broke out in your nursery that night, killed Mom.”

Sam frowns. “But I thought you said she died last year.”

“Yeah, well, it’s complicated,” Dean says, shaking his head. “God’s sister brought her back about four years ago.”

“Wow, Dean, I honestly thought she left you guys. I mean, for the longest time after she died, that’s what I thought happened to her. Dean wouldn’t talk about her, and Dad was gone all the time, tracking down the thing that killed her. He’d get so angry when I asked about where she was, I figured she’d left us. I didn’t find out the truth until I was about eight years old.”

Dean nods. “Painful memories, either way,” he notes.

“More traumatic for you, though.” Sam shudders. “You must hate this place.”

“That didn’t happen here,” Dean says. “Here, you all just packed up and left, moved to the bunker. For me, this is just another replica of something that didn’t happen.”

Dean pulls away from the curb and doesn’t look back.

//**//**//

They find a small house on the outskirts of town, just close enough for Sam to walk to work at the University. Dean gets a job at the garage where his dad used to work. Between work and domestic life, they settle into a routine. They take on the occasional hunt, but mostly refer cases to other hunters, fielding calls with questions and giving advice about how to deal with various monsters.

At night, they still share stories. They both wake up crying. Neither of them ever stops missing their brother.

One day, Sam brings home a dog. Dean pretends to be indignant, but Sam swears the dog will be his responsibility, and since he’s home more than Dean is, Dean grudgingly agrees.

“I miss you when you’re not here,” Sam claims. “I need the company.”

Dean can’t argue with that.

One night, Dean wakes up screaming. He’s back in Hell, with Alastair. It’s been a while since he had that dream, definitely since before he came to this world. He’d started to hope that particular dream was done torturing him, but of course it isn’t.

“He figured out how to break me,” he tells Sam afterwards.

His throat’s raw with screaming, cheeks damp with tears and snot. Sam’s holding him, ostensibly to keep him from flailing around and breaking things, including Sam, but Dean’s allowing it because he really needs it right now.

“After thirty years, he figured it out,” Dean goes on, voice shaking. “He told me Sam was dead from natural causes and he ended up here in Hell, because that’s where he belonged. He showed me Sam being tortured, told me if I behaved, if I got off the rack and started torturing other souls, then I’d get to see him again. He’d even stop torturing Sam once in a while, let us be together.”

Sam squeezes Dean tighter against his chest, and Dean buries his face in the crook of his shoulder, breathing deep.

“I never told Sam that,” Dean confesses. “I think he knew, though. I think he knew why I broke.”

Sam cups the back of Dean’s head, presses a kiss to his temple.

“I love him so much, Sam.” Dean’s voice breaks, his body shakes with sobs.

“I know, Dean, I know.”

Dean cries himself to sleep but Sam never lets him go.

//**//**//

One night, two years after they moved into the little house in Lawrence, Dean looks across the table at the man everyone in town assumes is his husband and realizes he loves him.

This kind, gentle man who misses his own brother at least as much as Dean’s misses his, is someone Dean loves. Maybe not as much as his brother — there’s not enough love in the universe to replace Dean’s brother in his heart — but enough.

As this epiphany hits him, Sam looks up, surprised, as if he can hear the words Dean’s not saying. Dean holds Sam’s gaze silently until Sam smiles, soft and fond and more than a little grateful.

And just like that, without exchanging the words, they both know.

Dean’s heart unclenches just a little that night. Later, he dreams of his brother, standing with his back to Dean as he looks off into the distance. They’re standing on some kind of bridge, the car parked a few feet away, as if Sam was driving and stopped here to enjoy the view.

“Sam?”

Sam turns, smiling the way he sometimes did, part exasperated, part fond.

“You’re early,” he says.

“I don’t think I’m even here,” Dean answers, glancing around. “Is this Heaven?”

“What do you think?” Sam scoffs lightly.

“I’m doing what you asked, Sam,” Dean insists, defensive. “I’m living.”

Sam nods, serious. “I know.”

“I miss you so much, man,” Dean blurts out.

“I know that, too.”

Dean’s eyes fill and he moves forward without even realizing it, taking Sam into his arms, tucking his face into Sam’s shoulder, breathing deep.

“You’re doing good, Dean,” Sam murmurs. “I’m proud of you, big brother.”

“How much longer?” Dean’s sounds pathetic, but he doesn’t care.

“Seems like you’re doing okay,” Sam remarks, rubbing his back, soothing. “Better than you expected.”

“I miss you every fucking day, Sammy.”

“I know.” Sam holds him tight. “At least you’ve got somebody. At least he’s with you.”

“It’s not the same!” Dean cries, pulling back so he can look at his brother. “Sammy, he’s not you!”

“Of course he isn’t,” Sam smirks, the bitch. “But he loves you. You know he does.”

Dean can’t deny that. His not-brother loves him. It’s a good thing. It’s not enough, but it’s a good thing.

Sam reads Dean’s confusion and shakes his head. “It’s okay. I’m not jealous. Not much, anyway. You’ll be here with me soon enough.”

“I will?” Dean can’t stand how hopeful he sounds. He feels like such a fool.

“Of course you will,” Sam assures him. “Time moves differently here. We’ll see each other soon, I promise.”

“In Hell, time moved so slowly,” Dean reminds him.

Sam nods. “This isn’t Hell. It’ll be okay.”

Of course it will.

“Sammy, sometimes I think I see you.” Dean’s almost afraid to admit it, afraid to jinx it. “Out of the corner of my eye, or down the block, or even next to me in the car when he’s right there.”

Sam takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. “I’m always with you, Dean. I told you that.”

“Yeah, but. Is it really you?”

Sam shrugs. “Maybe. I told you, I’m always with you. We’ve always had that sixth sense about each other, remember?”

Dean nods.

“Can I ask you a question?” They’re standing side-by-side now, facing out into the beauty of the wilderness, shoulders and arms pressed together, fingers touching on the bridge railing.

“Shoot.”

“Will he end up with his brother, when this is all over? Is there a Heaven for them?”

Sam frowns thoughtfully. “I don’t know the answer to that for sure, but I feel like there must be. It wouldn’t be very fair if we’re the only Sam and Dean who get that. And just because I haven’t seen any of the AU hunters or any of our AU friends here, doesn’t mean they’re not here. Heaven’s a big place, and Jack’s opened it up to everybody.” Sam nods. “I think you can reassure your friend that he’ll most likely see his brother again someday.”

Dean nods. He tangles his fingers with Sam’s, squeezes. He’s suddenly very tired, so sleepy he can barely keep his eyes open.

“Dean?”

Dean struggles to open his eyes, realizes a moment before he does that he’s in bed, at home, with not-brother Sam lying next to him, his eyes open and gazing at him with sleepy fondness. Their fingers are tangled together, and Dean smiles as he brings Sam’s hand up, kisses the back of his knuckles.

“Sammy.”

 

fin