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The Day The World Went Away

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So, Mom's death, Jessica – it's all because of me? —Sam, Salvation

Chapter 1

The house loomed as a black shape beneath the purple twilight clouds. It sagged a bit to the left, the slate roof a jagged line against the sky. The wood siding was darkened with age and mold and if those boards had ever seen a lick of paint, it was but a distant memory now. Weeds grew in clumps between the shingles on the roof. The second-floor window panes had long since shattered, leaving large holes that resembled empty eye sockets and the front door stood ajar, hanging on one hinge. It reminded Sam of some underworld beast, its gaping maw open and ready to gobble up anyone who came close.

He shivered in the cold March air. Heavy snow clouds were amassing in the north and threatened to blow in. In southern states, people would be preparing for spring but up here in Montana winter wasn't quite ready to give way yet. If they couldn't get the job done in the next few hours, they risked being caught in a blizzard. Perhaps they could find a hunt in Texas next, Sam thought.

At least we'll be warm.

He snuck a glance sideways at Dean before directing his eyes back at the house. "It looks hungry."

Dean shot him a look as if to say, Dude, are you crazy?

Sam offered a one-shouldered shrug; the house did look hungry.

Dean shook his head and checked the shotgun one last time, making sure that it was loaded properly with rock salt. "Let's get this bitch over with," he said. "I'm freezin' my ass off here."

Snapping the barrel of the shotgun back in place, Dean strode across the last few feet of uneven ground and hopped up the porch steps, the set of his shoulder underneath the leather jacket not boding well for the thing that lurked inside the house. Sam hurried to catch up. He touched the handgun lodged in the waistband of his jeans, against his spine, seeking comfort in its cool, unyielding hardness. Not sure what they were dealing with, they'd come prepared for most supernatural eventualities, and the gun held a clip of silver bullets.

Despite these preparations, Sam still had a bad feeling about the whole thing. They rarely went in to a hunt this blind but this time they had not had a choice. The house predated the real estate records so they'd failed to learn its earliest history and as far as anyone's memory could recall, nobody had ever lived there. At least not since the days that wagon trains first ventured onto the Montana plains. Local lore said that the house was haunted, though, and it was whispered that those who went in never came out.

Sam shrugged off his misgivings and slipped after Dean through the opening left by the hanging door. The hallway was decked in gloom and shadows, which deepened even further when he blocked what little light managed to fall through the doorway. Switching on their flashlights, they moved further into the house. A foul smell hung in the air, moldy and heavy with dry rot; Sam could feel it clogging his throat. The floorboards creaked beneath their weight, and for a moment Sam held his breath, fearing that the floor would give way. The house was old, and termites would've started feasting on the ancient timber decades ago. But the floor held, and with one final groan that shuddered through the entire building, the house settled around them, becoming silent.

Dean shone his light around the hallway. It appeared unremarkable, with an archway to a room on the right, another on the left. Further on, a staircase with a flimsy-looking banister went up to the second floor. Darkness swallowed the far end of the hallway, at least until Sam directed his flashlight straight at it. Another door—pantry, maybe—glimmered pale in the glare.

"Left or right?" Sam asked.

Dean shrugged. "Left."

They walked through the left-hand archway. The room beyond was bare, not even a piece of abandoned furniture in sight, with a cold, empty fireplace that, by the looks of it, had never been lit. A thick layer of dust coated the wooden floor. And in that dust a single set of footsteps led away from the doorway and stopped in the middle of the room.

"What the hell?" Dean pinned the prints with his flashlight.

Sam checked for the gun again and thought about taking it out before he tightened his grip on his own light. He swiveled the beam around, shining it into the farthest corners but aside from the footsteps, there was nothing to see. He knelt beside the prints, careful not to disturb them, and touched their edges with one finger. "These are fresh," he said. "Looks like an expensive shoe, too. Smooth leather soles, not sneakers."

"The developer guy."

"Yeah." Sam straightened. It was that story, which had brought them here in the first place: Real Estate Agent Disappears Without A Trace. By itself, the newspaper headline wouldn't have been enough to make them drive up north from Colorado. But then they learned the man's company had been looking to start a new development project and was planning to tear down an old, abandoned house that was reputed to be haunted. That had gotten their attention and they'd begun to dig a little deeper until they discovered the other disappearances.

Couple of teenagers, back in the fifties.

A woman wildlife photographer from out of town, twenty years ago.

And, get this, a kid's dog, just last month. All of them had gone into this house and never returned, leaving no sign they'd ever been there in the first place. Except for that single set of footprints.

Dean inched further into the room, circling around the trail so he wouldn't damage the impressions in the dust. Sam suddenly realized what bothered him about the room: it was too empty, too clean despite the layer of dust. In his experience, every abandoned building had its share of animal squatters: spiders weaving webs in the corners, birds nesting under the rafters, rodents leaving droppings all over the place…

"Dean, be—Whoa!"

Without warning, the house started to shake, rattling and banging doors and windows. The floorboards undulated beneath their feet, bucking and heaving like an angry rodeo bull, catapulting Dean forward into the room, where he smacked head-first into the fireplace with a sickening thud. His shotgun clattered across the floorboards and his flashlight rolled after it, flickering one last time before it died. Sam was thrown backwards into the hallway, landing hard on his ass and sliding along until he hit the wall. Agony shot up along his spine and for long moments, Sam could only gasp in pain.

At last the floor settled, the boards uttering a soft series of creaks and cracks before silence descended again.

"Dean!"

Dean didn't move, didn't answer, didn't utter any of the expected curses about them getting attacked by a goddamned floor.

Sam suppressed the urge to rush to Dean's side and see how badly his brother was injured. He hesitated only a moment before he went back into the room, tiptoeing, as if he could thread lightly enough to keep the house from noticing him. He inched his way ever closer to Dean, toeing each board before putting his weight on it. Another two yards, five more feet and—

He never made it.

Three, maybe four feet of treacherous floor into the room, the ground disappeared beneath him. It didn't give way, didn't collapse or anything. One moment it was there, firm, unyielding, sturdy. The next, it was just… gone.

Sam let out a cry, more startled than anything, and fell into inky nothingness.

o0o

Something wet and sticky dribbled down Dean's jaw. Blood— he'd felt it often enough to recognize it even through the daze of semi-consciousness; its slick warmth on his skin was almost as familiar as the texture of his favorite jeans. It felt like a trickle, the flow already stopping.

Just a cut, then, nothin' to worry about.

Reassured he wasn't bleeding out, Dean continued his mental inventory. A hard, sharp object was poking his left shoulder blade; dust clogged his nose, and his head pounded like a jackhammer. He really should stop smacking into things head-first, he thought; one of these days he was gonna end up with his brains so scrambled they'd never get straight again.

He scrunched his eyes into slits, peeking through his lashes. The beam from a flashlight discarded near the doorway pierced the gloom, dust motes dancing in its glare. They tickled his nose and he sneezed, moaning at the way the convulsion exploded in a bright flare of pain behind his eyes. Dean counted to five, then ten, taking careful breaths through his mouth until the pain faded to a dull throb inside his skull.

"Sam?"

Last thing he remembered was walking into the room and getting chucked into the fire place. After that, things were dark. But it wasn't hard to figure out what happened: some angry poltergeist had been waiting for them, and they'd walked right into its trap.

Sloppy, Winchester, Dean chided himself. Slipshoddiness like that could get them killed.

He eased himself up in a sitting position, feeling fresh bruises tug at his skin, and ran a mental check of limbs and torso. Everything seemed to be in working order; there were no broken bones or cracked ribs, no injuries other than the cut on his forehead. He lifted a hand and touched the wound lightly. His fingers came away bloody, but his first guess had been right: the gash wasn't deep, the blood already clotting over the cut.

"Sammy?"

Dean half-expected to find Sam at his side, with that apprehensive wrinkle of concern between his brows that only eased once Dean woke up—as if it were Sam's job to look after him. He looked around the room again, peering into the shadowy corners where the dim beam of the flashlight didn't reach, but saw nothing. He felt the first twinge of worry.

"Sam!"

Sam didn't respond. The house was still around Dean. Very, very still, contrasting sharply with the chorus of creaks and cracks and groans that had greeted them when they entered. His breathing was the only sound in the room, and Dean thought he could hear his heart thump against his ribs, it was that quiet. He was gaining a new understanding of the term 'oppressive silence'.

He scrambled across the floor for Sam's flashlight, ignoring the rough boards that scratched the flesh of his palms, and angled its beam higher, lighting up the dark corners. The room remained empty. Clambering to his feet, Dean staggered into the hallway, where he shone the light around again and peered up the staircase and down the corridor. There was no sign of Sam anywhere.

"Sammy!" Dean fought down the surge of panic, angling the flashlight back into the room once more as if repeated inspections would miraculously produce his brother. Perhaps—perhaps Sam had gone to search the other rooms for the poltergeist, he told himself. Maybe he'd gone back to the car for the first aid kit, or—

"Holy shit."

The list of things Sam might be doing that would explain his absence fled from Dean's mind the instant he saw the footprints. The smooth, leather-soled impressions left by the real estate developer were gone, hidden beneath the fresh layer of dust that had settled after the house's upheaval. Instead, Dean's own boots had made a couple of new prints in the doorway and he'd left a long streak in the dust where he'd crawled to the flashlight. Besides those, there were a couple of gargantuan footsteps that could only be Sam's, slightly smeared where Dean had walked right over them. Sam's trail headed for the fireplace…

…except…

…his footprints stopped.

They fucking ended right in the middle of the fucking room. Just like the footprints of the developer had.

For long seconds, Dean gawked at his brother's boot prints that ceased in the middle of the room, like Sam had gone up in thin air or sprouted wings and flown off. A thought repeated itself in his head, over and over again. Sam was gone. Sam wasn't in another room. Sam wasn't outside. Sam was gone. And it looked as if the house had swallowed him, exactly like it had those other people.

"Goddammit ," Dean swore, his voice reverberating through the empty, quiet rooms and nearly scaring him out of his skin.

Houses did not eat people. Not even in their fucked-up crazy Winchester world they didn't.

They just… didn't.

Chapter Two

Warmth on his face. A reddish glow behind his eyelids. Birds twittered somewhere off to the right, and the air smelled fresh and sweet, like spring flowers. Sam opened his eyes and squinted into the harsh glare of the low-hanging sun.

He sat up, dazed and disoriented, blinking to clear the sun's afterglow from his vision. Dirt crunched beneath him and the shiny black asphalt of a narrow country road shimmered in the sunlight. Shrubs lined the road, casting long shadows; freshly plowed farm fields stretched as far as the eye could see, showing him square after square after square of brown and red earth, the stark lines only broken by clusters of tall trees. Where the hell was he? It looked like the Midwest; it sure as hell wasn't Montana in March.

With the thought, memories came flooding back. The haunted house. Dean, limp body in an awkward heap, not moving, blood trickling from a cut on his face. Trying to get to his brother. And falling, falling through endless darkness—then nothing, until he woke up here beneath a warm spring sun.

"Dean?" Sam called out without much hope he'd get a reply. And true enough, the only answer he received was the shriek of some bird of prey, high up in the sky, circling on the warm air currents in search of food.

Sam shivered despite the warmth of the afternoon sun and his too-thick winter jacket, and climbed to his feet. Dizziness washed over him and he waited for the world to stop spinning before taking further stock of his surroundings. The blacktop road led away in an ever narrowing straight line until it faded in the haze on the horizon. The sun looked like a huge ball of fire close to the ground, far, far off to the west. A few wispy clouds reflected the light in a smear of pink against a deepening blue sky. It had to be late afternoon, he thought, or perhaps early evening. Depending…

He twisted around to look into the other direction and—

Oh crap.

Sam's breath caught in his throat. Next to the road stood a town sign, not thirty feet from where he found himself, paint flaking off a crimson-and-blue cartoon bird next to stylized black letters.

Welcome to Lawrence, Kansas

Home of the Jayhawks

Stunned, Sam sank back until he was sitting once again on the ground. That answered the question of where he was. But the knowledge just raised more questions. How the hell had he got himself from Montana to Kansas? And when was he? The last time he'd lost a part of his life he'd been… He swallowed, unwilling to follow the thought through. Black spots swam before his eyes and something bitter burned in his throat. He drew up his knees to rest his forehead against the soft cotton of his jeans, and took several deep, slow breaths.

Please, not again.

He fumbled for his phone, almost dropping it because his hands were shaking so bad. The battery was nearly full, the signal strong. He speed-dialed Dean's number; the phone rang, once, twice.

C'mon, Dean, pick up. Pick up, please.

There was a click and then—Oh, thank you, God—Dean's voice on the other end. Sam heaved a sigh, light-headed with relief, so grateful to just hear his brother's voice, to know Dean was alive and well, that he spoke before Dean had fully finished .

"It's me."

Silence on the other end. Then, "Sorry. Who's this?"

Sam sat up straight. "Um, Sam?" Somehow, it came out like a question.

Another few seconds of silence while Sam waited for Dean to start laughing, tell him had you going, didn't I. But Dean didn't say anything. In the background, Sam heard noises. Metal clinking against metal, the hiss of a welding torch, an engine coughing before it turned over reluctantly.

Finally, Dean's words when he had answered the phone filtered through. Sam squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. "Um, Dean?"

"Yes…" Hesitant, uncertain.

"It's Sam, Sam Winchester. Your —" He stopped short of saying brother, some instinct telling him to hold back though he wasn't sure why.

"Oh, you're my cousin?" Dean said. "I remember Dad saying once he had relatives on the west coast."

Sam wanted to say something back, confirmation or denial, he wasn't sure, but his vocal cords refused to function. His own damn brother didn't have a clue who he was, sounded as if he'd never even known him. What crazy weird shit had he landed in?

"That's great. Are you in Lawrence?" Dean continued, oblivious to Sam's despair. He seemed to have already accepted his own conclusion as the truth, like most normal people did when confronted with a sensible-sounding theory—which was so very, very wrong for Dean. Dean was like Dad; neither accepted the easy truths about strange things at face value but doggedly scratched and picked at the surface just to see if there were other, darker truths beneath the veneer of the obvious. "Why don't you come on over? I'd like to meet our Cali cousin. I'm sure Dad'd love to meet you too."

Dad? But Dad was… Sam managed to wring a sound from his throat that vaguely resembled "Yeah."

"We're at the shop," Dean said. "It's at—" He proceeded to give Sam directions, and Sam soon realized Dean was talking about Mike Guenther's garage.

Dad's old place.

"I'll find it," Sam said, discovering his voice had grown a little more firm now that he had a course of action. He told himself he should approach this like any another job: find out what was going on, figure a way to fix it/kill it/banish it, whatever was needed to set things straight, and then do it. He could worry about everything else later.

Sam hung up, stuffed the phone back in his jacket, and set off on foot following the road towards town.

o0o

It was close to three miles from the town limits to the garage, and by the time Sam arrived, he was hot and sweaty. He'd slung his winter jacket over his shoulder, rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt, but perspiration had still popped out on his back and trickled down his spine beneath the warmth of the Kansas spring sun.

He stopped at the corner of the street, taking a moment to look at the building. The last time he'd been here, the sign on the wall had read "Guenther's Auto Repair" and the place had been chock-full of tiny Japanese imports that Dean dubbed tin cans for chicks. But now it said "Winchester & Son Auto Repair" and the finest of American vintage cars had replaced the tin cans. Next to the entrance was a gleaming red Ford Mustang convertible with a white top—a '65 or perhaps '69, Sam wasn't sure—with a For Sale-sign in the window. Just inside the double sliding doors, a marine-blue Camaro with a dented fender waited to be serviced right next to a dark green Olds that showed signs of rust and had no wheels. Further into the workshop, someone hunched over the engine of what Sam believed was a Dodge Charger. Car parts were strewn all about, and tools hung in neat rows on the walls. He'd been around Dad and Dean enough to recognize and name several, even if he wasn't always sure what they were for.

Parked outside just around the corner of the building was a shiny, black '67 Chevy Impala, chrome mirrors glinting red in the reflected glow of the setting sun.

Freaky.

Sam shook himself, and walked up the incline where the garage grounds sloped down to meet the road. The floor had been swept free of dirt and dust, although ancient oil spills stained the cement. Dean, wiping his hands on a dirty cloth, ambled over. Sam found himself staring. Dean looked, well, like Dean. Same short-cropped hair, easy grin; torn jeans, faded blue T-shirt streaked with car grease, black smudge on his right cheek.

"Sam?" His voice was the same too.

Sam nodded. Dean gripped his hand and shook it vigorously. "Good to see some family from out west, man."

Sam dipped his head in another nod. He didn't dare speak, afraid of what questions or accusations might come tumbling from his lips if he did.

This isn't Dean.

Close up, he could see the many small ways in which the man wearing Dean's face and Dean's smile differed from the man who'd entered a haunted house in Montana ahead of Sam, shotgun at the ready.

This Dean's hair was better groomed, as if he had the time and money to get proper haircuts instead of having Sam hurriedly snip away beneath the glare of motel bathroom lights. The expression in the green eyes was less guarded; in fact, Dean's entire posture seemed more open, more trusting. But most significantly, he lacked the network of tiny, overlapping scars that marked his real brother's face and hands and forearms; scars Dean had gained over two decades of hunting, of receiving cuts and scrapes and abrasions in battles with pissed-off spirits, hungry wendigos and angry tree-gods. Dean's forehead was smooth, the jagged cut he got when the demon plowed thirty tons of trailer truck into the Impala non-existent. Sam was also quite certain that if he peeled away the faded T-shirt and torn jeans, he'd find none of the white-against-tan-skin lines that betrayed where Dean had suffered deeper lacerations, many of which Sam had stitched up himself with nylon thread in moldy rented rooms, barely able to see what he was doing under the meager light of cheap bulbs.

"Damn, look at you," the man who wasn't his brother said with a laugh. "You look like you could drain Clinton Lake, you look that thirsty."

Sam realized his throat was parched. He hadn't been prepared for a long walk in the heat of an early Kansas spring—he'd not come prepared for anything but trying to stop some evil being from haunting an abandoned hovel.

"Shoulda told me you didn't have a ride," Dean continued. "I could've picked you up. You walk here from the Amtrak station?"

"Um…" Sam shrugged the jacket off his shoulder, then held it awkwardly, not knowing what to do with it.

"Well, let's get you watered before you wilt completely." Dean preceded Sam to a small office cubicle in the back of the garage proper. Battered metal file cabinets hid most of the far wall while invoices, statements and old car manuals with dog-eared pages covered the large desk that occupied the rest of the room. Dean opened a tabletop model fridge in the corner and gathered up a couple of Budweisers. Condensation beaded the cold aluminum surface instantly. He handed one to Sam, put one on the desk, and opened the third.

Sam held the can to his forehead for a moment , relishing the cold against his heated skin. He popped the lid and drank deeply, the cool beer soothing his dry mouth.

Dean grinned. "Better, huh?" He stuck his head out of the office and hollered, "Dad!"

A moment later, a man walked out of the shadows of the workshop and into the fluorescent glare of the office lights, his silhouette so familiar that the mere sight of him sent a stab of fresh pain and longing through Sam. And although he'd been warned he'd get to see his father when Dean first mentioned him, had tried to brace himself against the shock on the long walk to the garage, Sam found that the reality of meeting John in the flesh again was a far cry from what he'd imagined. Seeing his father alive and well took his breath away, made his eyes burn with unshed tears.

He wanted to cry out, Dad! but he swallowed down the word before it could escape.

"Dad, this is Sam Winchester. From Cali."

The man who looked so much like his father stuck out a hand. "Sam, eh? John Winchester." Sam stared for a long beat before it dawned on him that he should take the offered hand. John's eyes bored into him, scouring his soul, just like Dad's always had, eyes that seemed to see all Sam's dirty little secrets, the things he'd tried so hard to hide—from using his father's guns for play when he was seven to losing his virginity to a girl called Peggy during those three months they stayed in Tulsa, back in '98.

"Welcome to Lawrence."

"Thank you, sir." The address came to his tongue naturally, without thinking.

Dean chuckled and took another swallow of his Bud. "So, what brings you here, cousin?"

Sam sipped from his beer. His stomach felt hollow, like he hadn't eaten anything in a long time and he could feel that first long swallow he'd taken going straight for his head. If there ever had been a time he couldn't afford to muddle his brain, it was now. "Just passing through."

It wasn't a lie—or so he hoped. He couldn't keep his eyes off of John, mentally listing the many small ways in which this John Winchester differed from his dad, just like he had with Dean. Aside from the obvious lack of physical marks a life of hunting evil had left, John, like Dean, was less wary, less weary. The streaks of gray in John's beard had barely begun showing and the lines around his eyes were not as deep as Sam remembered. Wherever he was—whenever he was, these Winchesters seemed oblivious to what lurked in the dark, seemed unknowing about that yellow-eyed bastard, or shtrigas that snacked on little children, or swamp monsters, or even the truth about Bigfoot. Hell, for all Sam knew, there was no Bigfoot legend in this world.

They also didn't know anything about him. Though Sam couldn't imagine how, that had to be significant.

He told them lies mixed in with truth. Dad—the real one—had always taught them, If you have to lie, stick as close to the truth as you can. Makes it easier to remember. So Sam said he was a pre-law student at Stanford.

That earned him an admiring look from John. "Stanford, eh? Pretty good school."

Sam shrugged, ignoring the pang that lanced through him at hearing the kind of approval he'd always longed to get from his real father come out of the mouth of this man. "Yeah. I'm taking a break from classes, though. See some of the world."

Dean looked a little envious while John hmm'ed noncommittally, and Sam didn't offer any further explanation. Once they'd drained the last of their beer, Dean collected the empty cans and dropped them in the trash. He turned to Sam, put a hand on his shoulder and looked up.

"Know what? You should come to the house, have dinner with us. I'm sure Mom would love to have you. Ain't that right, Dad?"

John grinned. "You know your mother. She's always cooking as if she's expectin' an entire Marine unit to show up on our doorstep at the last moment."

Sam wasn't even surprised to learn that his mother also lived in this world.

"Yeah." Dean chuckled. "And you can meet my wife and little girl."

Sam nearly choked. Wife? Dean was married? Now, that was unexpected…

He followed Dean and John—it was easier to think of the man as John; it separated him a little from Dad, if not much—out of the garage, and waited until they had closed the doors and locked the place up. They preceded him to the parked Impala—no surprise there—and Dean took the wheel. John offered Sam the passenger seat while he folded himself in back. It struck Sam: Dad'd never do that.

To his father, Sam had always been his youngest son no matter how tall he'd got; he wasn't a distant, all grown-up cousin from California.

Dean switched on the radio before he put the Impala in reverse and backed out onto the road. Pounding rock filled the interior—catch the wind, see us spin, sail away, leave today.

Sam smiled to himself when he recognized the song from the countless times he'd heard it before: Led Zeppelin. At least Dean's musical tastes seemed to run along the same lines here.

He let the noise wash over him while he stared out of the window at the darkening Lawrence streets, trying to mentally prepare for meeting his mother. Sam already knew he'd fail miserably.

Chapter Three

The drive from the garage to the house lasted less than ten minutes. It seemed like a lifetime to Sam, yet at the same instance, it didn't take long enough. Seeing his father was bad enough; how could he ever expect to be ready to meet his long-dead mother?

But it wasn't as if he had much of a choice. Dean turned onto the wide, quiet street of their earliest childhood, and Sam recognized the house instantly. The bare-limbed tree in the yard, a few buds showing where new shoots started to grow, the green paint, the white trim. The house looked exactly like it did in the old photographs.

The Impala rolled to a stop against the curb and Dean switched off the radio. He and John climbed out while Sam just sat there motionless, gazing at the house and summoning his courage.

I can't do this. I can't.

"Hey, dude. You okay?"

"What? Yeah." Sam opened the door, hearing that familiar squeak of the old hinges and got to his feet.

He followed Dean and John across the lawn, onto the flagstone path leading up the steps to the front door. John unlocked it and went inside, calling for his wife. "Mary, honey. We brought a guest for dinner."

And that was when Sam saw her. She came out of t he kitchen, wearing a flowered apron, and, seeing him, she wiped her hands on it while she approached them.

Fully unaware of what a happy-freaky-scary moment this was for Sam, Dean said, "Mom, this is Sam Winchester. From California."

John gestured. "Sam, meet my wife, Mary."

Their voices seemed to come from far, far away.

Mary held out her hand and Sam took it. It was warm and soft, and tiny against his palm. She'd gained a few pounds over the years; little laugh lines crinkled around her eyes and a couple of gray strands shimmered in her blond hair, but other than those small signs of aging, she looked stunningly like the family photos they'd salvaged from the basement, or the ghost that greeted them when he and Dean had returned to Lawrence as a result of one of his visions.

Sam forced himself to draw a breath.

Mary smiled, at him, and nothing else mattered any longer. He felt faint. I wish Dean was here. Dean would—

Well, frankly, he had no idea what Dean would do. That depended upon how much his brother believed in what was right in front of his eyes. But Sam… Sam knew she was real, knew it in every fiber of his body. This world wasn't an illusion, wasn't some glamor or spell some creature had put on him. He could see her, feel her; he could smell her. She smelled like soap and a blend of kitchen aromas. It was a good smell—a safe smell. It reminded Sam of Pastor Jim's wife; she'd smelled the same when he'd been five and scraped his knee on the sidewalk. It had hurt like hell and Dad told him to stop whining and be a man, but she'd hugged him and kissed his knee to make it better.

Dimly, through the ringing in his ears, he heard Mary speak.

"Nice to meet you, Sam." His mother had to crane her neck up to gaze up into his eyes, and she chuckled. "You're a true Winchester, all right." She glanced at John who winked at Sam.

John laughed. "He sure looks like he got the genes. Those extra inches must've come from the California sunshine."

Somewhere, Dean snorted. Sam realized they were making fun of him, teasing gently, and he should probably respond but his brain failed to come up with a witty reply. With any sort of reply, actually. All he could do was gape at the woman whose hand he was still holding, way past the point where doing so became awkward. He dropped it and she waved in him through the door.

"Come on in, Sam. We're having meatballs, potatoes with cream, carrots."

"Sounds delicious, ma'am." His voice sounded steadier than he had expected.

"Please, call me Mary. Ma'am makes me feel so old."

Sam nodded, though he was afraid he'd never be able to call her by her name. It just wouldn't seem right.

He followed her across the threshold. The house was warm, smelling like apple pie and fresh roses. Family photos hung on the walls: Christmas scenes and birthdays and summer vacations at some lake, John, Mary, a young Dean, all three grinning at the camera.

Dean brushed past Sam and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. "Baby, we're home," he hollered up.

The stairwell creaked beneath someone's weight and a female voice drifted down. "Let's go say 'hi' to Daddy, Hope."

Sam froze in midstep. His stomach dropped and his heart jumped up in his throat. That voice…

It can't be…

With great effort he made himself turn around and look up, afraid of what he'd see and overwhelmed with hope at the same time. He couldn't stop the soft exhale, "Jess…" when his former girlfriend came down the stairs, alive, radiant, more beautiful than he remembered, carrying a baby wrapped in pink in her arm.

"Jess, this is Sam. A distant cousin."

Jessica descended the last steps, and Sam was torn between wanting to wrap her up in his arms and never let go, or bolt out of the door to never return. Neither was an option, so he just stood there, feeling like an idiot with his arms hanging limply at his side because he'd be damned if he knew what to do with them.

"Sam? Meet my wife, Jessica. She's from California too. And this is our daughter Hope." Dean beamed up at his wife and little girl.

"Hi," Sam managed faintly. The buzz in his ears had increased tenfold, drowning out all sound, and although he desperately wanted to look away, wished he could squeeze his eyes shut and wake up in a filthy haunted house in Montana because this was so terribly wrong, he couldn't tear his gaze away when Dean reached up, collected the baby from his wife and gave Jessica a fond peck on the cheek.

Dean would never—

Suddenly, everything clicked, and Sam found his heart forgot how to beat.

I don't exist in this world. I never have.

That was the reason Dean didn't know him; that was why they were still alive: Mom, Jess, even Dad. Because he, Sam, wasn't. Not in this universe.

They died—because of me.

His knees trembled and he couldn't seem to pull in enough oxygen. Something clamped around his throat, cutting off his airway like a giant hand trying to strangle him. A bitter taste filled his mouth and the world shimmered around him.

"Sam? You okay?"

"Can I…" It came out in a strangled whisper. He coughed to clear his throat and tried again. "Can I use your restroom?"

"Sure. Up the stairs, second door on the left," Dean said. "Dining room's down the hallway when you're done." He pointed. "On the right, next to the stairs."

Sam raced up the stairs as if an angry ghost was on his heels, taking the steps two and three at a time, not caring that the Winchesters shot an odd look at his retreating back. He just needed to be alone for a moment and get his bearings back. He ran into the bathroom, locked the door behind him, and took several deep, hitching breaths, hunkering over the sink. He swallowed hard a couple of times, forcing the nausea that still threatened away. After his stomach had settled, he turned on the tap and splashed cold water onto his face. He ran a hand through his hair. A bit of pale dust from the Montana house stuck to it, and he wiped his fingers on his jeans.

"Sam?" John's voice, muffled. "You all right in there?"

Sam breathed in. "Yes, sir." He flushed to make it believable, and gazed at himself in the mirror for a moment. "C'mon Sammy. You can do this."

He took another deep breath, ignored the queasiness that still held his insides in its grip, and walked back down the stairs toward the dining room. The Winchester clan had already gathered around the table, reserving him a seat at Mary's right hand, with Jessica on his other side. He sat down, gingerly, trying hard not to stare at the women next to him.

Mary handed him the potatoes while Jess scooped carrots onto his plate. There were meatballs and apple sauce, and despite the lingering nausea his stomach rumbled at the smells. God, he couldn't remember the last time he had a decent meal. With Dean, hunting, it was mostly greasy burgers in greasier diners, served by tired, grumpy waitresses—and here he sat down with his family, eating a startlingly normal dinner. Sam discovered tears filled his eyes and he blinked them away.

"So, Sam, what're you doing out here all the way from California?" Mary asked.

Sam swallowed down a mouthful of carrots. "Um, nothing much," he said with a shrug, trying to recall what he'd told John and Dean. "I… I guess I wanted to see the country and I remembered that our family came from Kansas."

"Be careful you don't end up staying," Jessica said. "Like I did."

He gave her a curious look and she grinned in response. "The summer after high school," she said, "a couple of my girlfriends and I went on a road trip. You know, we wanted to see the country too before we headed off to college." She speared a meatball with her fork and dipped it in the applesauce. Sam found his gaze glued to her; with a pang, he remembered how Jess had always liked to eat odd combinations of food.

"Our car broke down," she continued after she'd finished the bite, "in the middle of nowhere. Dean came to our rescue, towed us into town and fixed up the car."

Dean gave an amused laugh. "I found them next to a soybean field: four helpless, long-legged, scantily clad California girls beside a fire engine-red '73 Beetle." He grinned. "It was like a wet dream come to life."

"Dean!" Mary exclaimed in horror, while John bit his lip, the corners of his mouth quirking.

Jessica mock-glared at Dean before she turned back to Sam. "Never mind him," she said. "Anyway, one thing led to another, and I decided I could just as well go to KU."

"So, here she is," Dean finished. "Stuck in the boondocks, married to a grease monkey." He gave her the kind of look Sam had only seen on his real brother's face once: in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

"And I wouldn't have it any other way," Jessica said. She sent an affectionate smile of her own back across the table.

Hot jealousy for the man who wasn't his brother shot through Sam. This Dean had everything Sam ever dreamed of: a regular life, a family… Jess. She used to reserve that smile for him… but what had he given her in return? Being with him had only brought her pain and death. Sam forced the resentment away. No, Jess was better off here, living a safe and happy life with Dean and his family.

"That is… good," he managed to say. He stared at his plate, having lost all appetite.

o0o

After dinner, Mary drafted John to help her clean up the dishes while Jessica put the baby to bed. She was the sweetest little girl too, Sam thought, with Dean's bright green eyes and faint freckles already showing on her smooth baby skin. Add Jess's long legs and blond hair, and Hope was going to have an army of suitors come pounding down the Winchester door when she grew up.

He said as much to Dean, outside, sitting on a bench underneath the old tree while drinking beer from a bottle and watching the stars. He felt sated, calmer, his belly filled with a home-cooked meal and the shock gradually wearing off. Sam couldn't help but think how happy his brother was, living with his family so close around him, and he found he could no longer begrudge Dean the kind of life he himself had always longed for but never found.

Dean grunted. "I got a shotgun in the shed that says otherwise."

Sam gave a start. At times, this Dean sounded so much like his brother, he could almost forget he wasn't the same man. Perhaps it was how Dean said shotgun or something about the fiercely protective way he spoke of his daughter, but it took Sam aback with its similarities and he had to remind himself that this wasn't his world or his life, and that his real brother was out there somewhere, probably frantically searching for Sam.

"Anyway," Dean continued, kicking at a clump of grass, "that'll be a long time comin'. Hope's just six months old."

All at once, Sam lost his breath again, as if a big fist had smashed into his chest. "Six months?" he wheezed. "When?"

"Today, actually." Dean gave him a look "Hey, man, are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Yeah, m'fine," Sam muttered. He sucked air into his lungs. "Too much apple pie, I think."

Dean laughed at that and slapped Sam's back. "Mom does bake the best pie in the county."

Sam got up. "I… eh… I gotta go."

Six months.

He didn't know how he knew, he hadn't had a damned vision or premonition but he was one hundred percent certain that the yellow-eyed demon would come for Hope that night. People would die—his family would die, and the cycle would start all over.

It's fuckin' happening again!

"Where you stayin'?" Dean asked. "Want a ride?"

Sam shoved the half empty beer bottle at Dean. "No, thanks. I'll walk." He gave a sickly smile. "Some air will do me good. Thank Mo—thank your mother for dinner." He strode across the lawn without waiting for a reply.

"Hey! Aren't you gonna say goodbye?" Dean called after him.

Sam stopped at the edge of the sidewalk. He didn't look back. "I just remembered something," he said, the excuse sounding weak and not very credible. "Something I need to do."

In the darkness behind him, he could sense Dean's shrug.

Chapter Four

Sam jogged through the empty streets, his shadow swirling back and forth around him while he moved from one pool of lamplight to another. He didn't pay attention to where he was going; instead he wracked his brain trying to come up with a plan. Coincidences happened—he'd told Dean that often enough—but to believe that his ending up in this other world on the day of his niece's six month's birthday was an accident?

No fucking way.

He knew as sure as night followed day that the demon would come for the little girl.

Sam crossed a street without looking, and a car honked angrily, swerving to avoid hitting him and startling him back to the present.

No, the word echoed in his mind. No! He wasn't going to let it kill anyone. Not again, not this time. And he sure as hell wasn't going to allow that little girl to grow up like he had, motherless, dragged across the country by a father burdened with grief and guilt and a burning desire for vengeance.

But how? He was alone, he didn't even have the luxury of time to come up with a plan; all he had was a handgun loaded with silver bullets. And a fat lot of good that'd do against that yellow-eyed son of a bitch.

There was a pay phone on the corner, and Sam stopped beside it, grabbing for the phone book. Maybe Missouri could help. If she existed in this world, she was his best chance on such short notice; she'd know he was telling the truth without needing a lengthy, time-consuming explanation. He browsed through the pages and sent up a silent prayer.

God, let her be in here.

His eyes flew over the listings for psychics, and he released a heavy breath when her name jumped up at him from the page. Missouri Mosely. He scanned her ad, grateful to see that she lived at the same address as his Missouri, and set off at a run.

o0o

Missouri's house wasn't very far from the Winchesters, and some ten minutes later, Sam climbed her porch. He rang the bell, then rested his hands on his knees in an effort to catch his breath while he waited for her to come to the door. The house was dark and he hoped it merely meant she'd turned in early. Without Missouri, he wasn't sure what he could do—aside from trying to get the Winchesters out of their home before the demon showed or perhaps salting the ground around the entire house. He had no clue how to explain it to them, though, and, yeah, telling the truth had always worked so well in the past… He pressed the doorbell again, keeping his finger on the buzzer for a good five seconds.

It took another minute, but then the hallway light switched on, its yellow glow spilling onto the stoop and Missouri's muted voice drifted out. "All right, all right, I'm comin'. Don't get your drawers all in a twist."

She looked exactly the way Sam remembered: a heavy-set woman with gleaming deep-brown skin and eyes filled with more knowledge than humanly possible yet still carrying a sparkle of mischief. He must've woken her up, he thought; she was wrapping a rose-patterned pink duster around herself, tying it off with a tasseled sash; blue and yellow curlers held her hair in check.

"What's the…" Missouri's voice faltered when she saw him. Her eyes narrowed and lost their playful spark.

"You're not supposed to be here," she whispered.

"I know." Sam was still gasping for air after running as fast as he could all the way. "Not by choice, I assure you." He straightened to his full height and met her eyes squarely, silently pleading for her understanding. "I need your help. Or a little girl is going to lose her mother tonight."

Wordlessly, Missouri moved back into the house, obviously expecting Sam to follow her. She showed him to the sitting room, offered to make tea, and shuffled off to the kitchen without waiting for a reply. Sam fidgeted on the couch while he waited for her to come back.

"So," Missouri puffed five minutes later, putting a tray with cups and a steaming teapot on the low coffee table. "What's on your mind?"

Sam shot her a startled glance and she quirked an eyebrow. "It's not an unreasonable question to ask of a young man who pounds on my door in the middle of the night."

"It's not the middle—I thought you could—"

"I can," Missouri said calmly. She poured tea into the cups and added sugar. "But your mind… your thoughts are all tangled up. I can't make heads nor tails of it. So, start at the beginning."

Sam told her the whole story. Explained how he and Dean had entered the haunted house, how he'd fallen through the floor and woken up here in Lawrence. He told her about the yellow-eyed demon and that in his world, it had killed his mother when he was six months old, then the bastard had killed his girlfriend twenty-two years later. However, he couldn't bring himself to explain that the same girl had married his brother in this world; he didn't think it mattered much.

"And now you think it'll come for Hope tonight," Missouri concluded.

"No," Sam said. "I know it will. Don't ask me how, but I know." He perched on the edge of the couch, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, never noticing how his tea was going cold. Missouri had to understand, she had to believe him or…

"I believe you," she said, as if she'd heard his thoughts—which, knowing her, she probably had. "But what do you want me to do? Look at me: I'm an old woman with a bad hip and knees that swell when it rains. I'm no hunter."

"You know about—?"

"Of course I do," Missouri interrupted with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I know many things that most people have no clue of. But that's not important. What's important is that you're here."

"Why am I here?" Sam asked. "How did I get here? Where is here? Is this part of the demon's plan?"

Missouri sniffed. "Not everything that happens to you is the devil's work."

"Then what?" Sam cried. He heard the plaintive note that had crept into his voice and hated it but felt incapable of suppressing it.

Missouri leaned forward and poured more tea. "Have you ever considered," she said once she was finished, "that if evil exists, there may be good also?" Her tone was gentle.

Sam stilled. He had once said something similar to Dean. But that was before he learned what price Sue Ann LeGrange exacted in exchange for her husband performing miracles. Before Father Gregory. Before Dad died. "You mean… like what? God? Angels?"

Missouri shrugged. "Perhaps. All I know, is that the universe requires balance, in all things."

"You can't have one without the other," Sam murmured, remembering the one class in Eastern philosophy he'd attended at Stanford. "Silence and sound. Yin and yang. Good and evil."

"Yes." Missouri smiled encouragingly.

"If that's true, where were they when Mom died? When Dad traded his soul for Dean? Why didn't anyone stop Jess from burning alive against my goddamn ceiling?"

"Language, boy." She glared at him. "And it doesn't work like that."

Sam realized he'd been shouting. He closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths. "That still doesn't explain how I got here," he said once he had himself under control again. "Is… is my world still out there? How am I gonna get back?"

"I don't know that," Missouri admitted. "I don't have all the answers. But I believe you're here for a reason. There's something you must do here, a task you must complete. Once that's done, and if there is a way to get you back to your own world, we'll find it."

Sam got up and went to the window. He stared out into the dark, quiet night. Why him? Why here? Somewhere out there, hidden in the darkness, supernatural creatures roamed: demons, ghosts, spirits. Missouri was right; there had to be a reason. And if it wasn't the demon that brought him, it had to be something else, something that knew he had fought and thwarted the yellow-eyed demon before, something that knew it would come for Hope tonight. But what could he do? At least the last time he'd faced off with that bastard, he'd had…

He looked over at Missouri. "There is a—"

"The Colt?" She plucked the image right out of his head before Sam could put voice to it and gave a brief, mirthless laugh. "Nobody knows where it is."

Sam felt his heart sink. He'd hoped—But it made sense. Nobody had known where the Colt was back in his world either, not until a bunch of vamps sucked the life out of Daniel Elkins and Dad showed up. He knew it'd been too much to hope for, but still, he'd had to try.

"What about charms?" he asked. Spells and talismans wouldn't be enough to stop a creature as powerful as the yellow-eyed demon but it was the best he could think of. "Can we use those? Last time, you made us put together gris-gris bags of herbs and oils."

"Last time?" She raised a brow, then her eyes grew wide. "Oh. I see."

Sam mentally slapped his forehead. That had been the other Missouri. "Sorry," he murmured. "It's confusing."

Missouri offered him a small smile of understanding. "Well, I can get you some protective amulets," she said, not dwelling on the subject of her other self. "But if this demon is as strong as you say it is…" She shook her head. "…those won't do much good."

Sam dropped his head in his hands. God, he wished Dean was here. "Then how am I going to stop it?" he whispered.

o0o

A short time later, Sam found himself sitting behind the wheel of a large, gray Volvo station wagon with a production date that went back to the early eighties—the car was probably older than Sam himself. The interior smelled of herbs and incense, and Missouri's flowery perfume. The woman herself sat in the passenger seat, her presence comforting even if she wouldn't be much help taking on the demon.

Sam had told her he'd go alone, but she wouldn't hear of it. "What're you thinkin', boy? That I'd let you go up against such evil all by yourself?"

They'd parked across the street from the Winchesters with a good view of the house. Sam squirmed against the seat, too wired to sit still. It was like Salvation all over again. Except this time he didn't have the Colt, and he didn't have Dean to watch his back. Instead, Dean—this world's Dean—was sleeping the sleep of the innocent in one of the rooms in the house, perhaps dreaming pleasant dreams about his little girl all grown up, without a clue of what lurked in the shadows.

Sam rubbed at his eyes; they were gritty with fatigue.

"When was the last time you slept?" Missouri asked quietly.

"Yesterday. I think." He'd pulled an all-nighter digging up all he could about the house in Montana before they went in, and Mary's home-cooking sat heavy in his stomach, making him a bit sluggish.

"Why don't you close your eyes for a bit," Missouri suggested. "I'll wake you if something happens."

Sam shook his head. He was too worried to rest. "Can't."

He could sense her nod more than he could see it. The night was black, the moon almost new, and the closest streetlight was a dozen yards away. Sam had parked the car in the shadows for a reason.

"So," Missouri said after several minutes passed in silence. "Tell me more about this demon you're hunting."

And Sam found himself pouring out everything he knew, from the earliest stories he'd been told of Mom to his fears about what the demon's plans for him might entail. Some of it he told her in words; other times, when his throat clenched tight and the words choked him up because it was too damn hard to say them, she picked the tale right out of his brain.

"And now, it's starting again," he finished with a heavy sigh.

Missouri reached over and patted his arm. "Except you're here this time, honey" she said, softly. "You can stop it."

Sam didn't think he was so sure about that, and she made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort.

"Don't be an idiot," Missouri said firmly. "Just because this thing is a powerful evil, that don't mean—oh!"

The last word came out on an intake of breath and Sam glanced sideways. Missouri's eyes were round, startled, and her mouth had dropped open in shock.

"What—" Sam began, but the next moment he felt it too and goosebumps popped up on his skin. The streetlights hissed and flickered, and the car radio turned itself on, spitting static. The Winchester house was a carnival of blinking lights.

It's here.

Sam flew from the car and raced across the street without looking to see if Missouri picked up on the thought he launched at her. He leaped onto the veranda and started banging on the front door; it was too heavy to kick in and his lock pick tools were in the Impala back in Montana. "Dad!" Sam hollered without thinking. "Dean! Wake up!"

The door swung open and Dean, dressed in striped pajama pants, his hair mussed, stood yawning in the hallway. "What the—"

Sam didn't give him time to finish. He shoved Dean aside. "Get everyone out of the house. Now, Dean!" He didn't wait to see if Dean complied but barged up the staircase, taking the steps three, four at a time. He flung open the first door on his right. Jessica was sitting up in the bed, looking scared, holding the blankets clenched in her fists before her chest.

"Nursery, where?" Sam panted. Jess just stared at him, lips moving soundlessly. "You've got to get out," he shouted at her even as he continued running down the upstairs hallway, throwing doors open left and right. He found what he was looking for at the end of the hallway. His old room; he should've known. Hope's crib took center stage in the room, a mobile with little pink ponies dancing over her head. A large, hooded shadow was leaning over her, arms outstretched.

Just like Salvation.

"Hey!" Sam yelled. The shape straightened, turned to him, and in the inky blackness he caught the yellow gleam of its eyes. It seemed surprised for an instant.

"Aw, if it isn't little Sammy, all grown up," it said, in that gravely voice that send cold shivers of fear tingling along Sam's spine. "Sad to say I missed out on you here."

"Well, what do you know." Sam reached for the gun lodged at his back. Though he knew it wouldn't do much good, a silver bullet had to do something to the demon. He just needed to distract it long enough so he could get the baby from her crib.

But before he could aim the weapon, Sam found himself plastered against the wall, spread-eagle, unable to move a muscle. The gun fell from his grip and clattered to the floor. He began to slide upward: heels, then toes leaving the floor, his body getting pushed higher until his head bumped against the ceiling. He tried to fight it with all his might, tried to fight the demon's power but failed—just like he had failed before when it had used his father to squeeze the life out of Dean. Sam grunted with the effort but he remained stuck to the wall, helpless to do anything but watch.

"You can't stop me, Sam," the demon said. "Not here, not there."

"What the hell?" John appeared in the door opening, eyes growing wide while he took in the scene.

"The gun, Dad," Sam ground out. "Shoot it."

John glanced around, saw the gun and dove for it. He fumbled with it for an instant before his Marine instincts kicked in and he fired it at the black shape. The demon laughed, turning into the familiar, thick black smoke and the silver bullet whisked through it, thudding into the wall. But the shot provided enough of a distraction that Sam came free and tumbled from the ceiling. His ankle folded with a painful snap as he landed and he rolled awkwardly onto his side, all the air going out of him in an oomph.

"What… what was that?" John's voice was shaking.

"No time," Sam hissed through the agony of putting his weight on his bad leg. "Gotta get out." He scooped Hope from her crib, shoved her into John's arms and pushed him and the baby out of the door, limping clumsily after them. "Go. Go!"

Behind Sam, the room burst into flames, the fire crackling and the heat searing his back through his shirt. "Go, go!"

Together, while the fire roared all around them, Sam and John stumbled down the hallway, tumbled along the stairs and out of the front door just as the nursery exploded in a fiery ball, shattering the windows and sending Sam to his knees. Shards of glass rained down on him, tinkling across the pavement and pattering against his back. Sirens began to howl in the distance, growing closer with every passing second.

"Honey, are you all right?" Missouri, her voice strained, leaned over him and brushed the splinters from his hair.

Sam nodded, wordlessly. Are they…?

She uttered a brief laugh. "Yes. Shaken up, but alive and well. You got them out in time."

Chapter Five

The next couple of hours went by in a blur of questions and interviews. Paramedics checked the burns on Sam's hands, smeared some kind of soothing ointment onto them and wrapped them up in gauze, saying he'd need to have those injuries checked at the hospital. They also wanted to take him in for X-rays of his ankle though they claimed it was likely sprained, not broken. Sam refused; he promised he'd take care of it in the morning and they reluctantly let him go. Cops milled about on the sidewalk, poking through the glass and rubble in the yard, demanding to know what Sam had been doing in a quiet residential street at one o'clock in the morning, and he didn't really have an answer to give them. The looks the police gave him grew suspicious.

"I was just out walking when I saw the flames." It sounded lame, even to his own ears. Sam's eyes met Dean's over the shoulder of the police detective, a slim woman with brown hair pulled back in a pony tail and mistrustful blue eyes that scrutinized his face. He could expect no help from his brother; Dean had gone into full protective mode and seemed to blame Sam as much for what happened as the demon—not that Sam'd told him that little fact.

"Sam's my nephew." John came up and put an arm about Sam's shoulders. "He's been staying with us." Sam decided that John was as glib a liar as his father had ever been. "I guess we're just lucky he went out for a stroll when he did, aren't we? Couldn't sleep, son?" He directed the last question at Sam.

"No, sir."

"Hm." The detective folded her notepad and put it away. "Don't leave town yet," she told Sam. "We may have more questions." But the wary look had disappeared from her eyes.

Sam nodded, and turned to John to thank him but John had already joined his family, wrapping his arms around Mary, who looked pale and very shaken up but determined not to break down into tears. They huddled with Dean and Jessica over Hope; the baby was wrapped up in a gray emergency blanket, upset and crying at all the fuss. With Missouri a silent presence at his side, Sam watched the firemen extinguish the last of the flames.

Finally, the firefighters gave the all clear. The second floor of the house had burned out, blackened support beams illuminated by the flashing red and blue lights of the police cruisers. The air stank of soot and smoke and, if you knew what to search for, sulfur. "Faulty wiring in the walls, most likely," the fire chief said. "We'll take a closer look in the morning, but with these old houses…" He shook his head.

o0o

They took refuge for the remainder of the night in a large hotel somewhere in downtown. Dean, Jessica and Hope shared one room, John and Mary another. Sam had been given a single, a small room at the back of the hotel with a view of the blind wall of the next building over. He twisted and turned in the bed for over an hour, exhausted and bone weary but too pumped with adrenaline to sleep. Shortly before dawn, Sam gave up. After putting his soot-stained, reeking clothes back on, he went down to the all-night bar across the street for a drink.

At this hour, the bar was largely deserted and Sam scooted into a booth as far from the few other patrons as possible. A drunk who'd had too much beer slept with his head resting on the table in the far corner. A couple occupying two stools at the bar toasted each other with small shot glasses, the girl's eyes glittering too brightly in the dim light, and two men in crumpled business suits sat nursing whiskeys at another table, a half-empty bottle of Jack on the table between them.

Sam ordered himself a drink and gazed out of the window. The dead of night in Lawrence was a quiet time, with the random car passing by once in a while, headlights briefly illuminating the bar's interior when the driver turned the corner. He sipped his whiskey, relishing the heat as it trickled down his throat.

"Is it over? Is Hope safe?"

The low voice was so familiar, Sam replied without thinking. "Yes, I think so."

John slipped into the seat opposite Sam's, looking tired and worn-out, his eyes red-rimmed and puffy, black stubble shadowing his jaw. He appeared to have aged several years in the span of a few hours, and resembled his dad so much, it took Sam's breath away.

"What was that thing?"

Sam heaved a deep sigh and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. They were raw and still stung from the smoke. "You don't really want to know."

"Hm."

Sam squinted. John was looking at him thoughtfully, not quite as upset as Sam had expected him to be after seeing his first demon—not to mention that it attacked his granddaughter or tried to burn down his house.

"You called me 'Dad'."

I did?

Sam frowned, wanted to deny it, but he couldn't even remember so he said nothing.

"In the nursery," John clarified. "When you were…" He paused and took a large swallow from his own drink—straight up Scotch, by the look of it— "…stuck to the ceiling."

"Oh." Sam's brain scrambled to come up with a reply, but damn, he was so tired.

Silence fell between them, stretc hing out while Garth Brooks murmured from the speakers and the woman at the bar gave a peal of laughter at something her companion said. Sam started to fidget beneath John's quiet scrutiny.

"Look, I—" he began at last, at almost the same instant John said,

"I once had a son name Sam."

Sam's mouth snapped shut and he stared at John. John quirked a half-smile at the surprise on Sam's face before it melted away and his expression grew serious again, his eyes dark with some distant memory.

"Four years after Dean," John said, "Mary was pregnant again. A couple of months before the baby was due, there was a… an accident." He tripped over the words, the pain of the memories apparently still sharp. "A hit and run. They caught the guy a few days later, some lunatic raving about how he'd had a vision that the end of days was near and demons walked the earth. He said that Mary's baby would—" John's voice caught and he closed his eyes for a long moment. "They put him away in some state asylum, said he couldn't be held accountable since he was so clearly insane."

Sam stayed quiet, drink forgotten. John lifted his glass, swirled the liquid around before taking a sip.

"Anyway," he continued, "that didn't do us any good. The doctors did the best they could, and they managed to save Mary. But they couldn't save the baby. Turned out to be a perfect little baby boy too. We named him Sam." Again, he paused, took another swallow. "And then we buried him. We never had another child."

Sam didn't know what to say. So he reverted to those hollow words that were said far too often. "I'm sorry."

John offered him a sad look. "I was a Marine, you know," he said. "Did two tours in 'Nam. God knows why I signed up a second time, but I was young and stupid, and there you have it."

Sam nodded slowly, unsure of where John was going with the seeming non-sequitur.

"That place would mess with your mind: being faced with an invisible enemy that lived in the shadows; the constant fear, death lurking around every corner. Drives you to see things. Crazy things. Impossible things." John gulped down the last of his Scotch and gestured the bartender to bring him a refill. "People torn apart limb to limb in a way that no bomb or grenade could ever do. Entire patrols disappearing without a trace. Once, we found a guy two weeks after his whole squad had gone missing. He came back stark mad, blabbering on and on about flames and burning people and yellow-eyed devils until they pumped him so full of morphine that he passed out. I thought he'd simply snapped, alone in the jungle." He looked up at Sam. "It does that to a man, you know. All that green and suffocating heat and the insects…"

Sam nodded, more in commiseration than because he knew. 'Nam wasn't something Dad had often talked about.

"But the guy that hit Mary… I was at his trial, and he said… he said the same things that soldier said, using the exact same words, so I kept track of him. He killed himself in the hospital, though. Slit his wrists and bled out. You'd think they'd have security against such things in those places, but…" John took a breath. "Anyway, after he was gone, it sort of slipped my mind. I still had Mary, we had Dean, life goes on, right? But that thing, tonight…made me remember. Makes me think…"

Sam remained quiet for a moment. What could he tell him? Yes sir, I am your son Sam from another universe, where the demon killed your wife and you became a demon hunter until you made a pact to save Dean's life?

What Sam said was, "It's complicated."

"Right." John's dark eyes scrutinized his face, exactly like Dad used to do, and it took Sam all he had not to squirm like a thirteen-year-old caught in a lie. "All right." John got up. "You should get some sleep. You look like shit."

Sam barked a humorless laugh. "Right back at you. Sir."

o0o

Missouri's station wagon stuttered to a halt at the edge of the country road, across from the sign that said Welcome to Lawrence.

"You ought to have that looked at," John said and killed the engine.

Missouri huffed. "You just go gentle on her, and she'll be fine."

Sam rolled his eyes and smiled to himself while he crawled out of the back seat; John seemed to have the same effect on the psychic as Dean had had back in his own world, making her determined to ruffle their feathers a bit. He raised his arms and stretched tired muscles until his spine popped; he'd managed an hour or so of rest after his talk with John but not much more. He felt like he could sleep for a week. First, though, he had to get back where he belonged and he hoped Missouri could help with that. She said she was confident she could.

Lawrence lay a few miles behind them and ahead the bare fields rolled along the curve of the earth as far as the eye could see. Gray clouds scudded across the sky, driven by a strong wind, threatening rain. He turned back to the car to help Missouri out of the passenger seat.

"You've got to tell me exactly where you woke up," she told Sam.

"Right here." Sam showed her the spot, a dozen feet or so from the sign. The tall grass still showed a slight indentation where he had lain.

"Hm." Missouri looked around, took a few steps left, a few steps to the right, holding out a hand to feel her way like a blind man who had lost his cane.

Sam followed her every move. "Sense anything?" he asked.

"Not yet. Don't be impatient, boy. It's not every day I have to find a doorway to another realm." She took another step, froze, and waved her hand up and down, fingers spread wide, exploring some unseen surface. "Here." She sounded wheezier than usual and a frown creased her brow. "Something's not right."

"What?"

"It's… flickering in and out of existence," Missouri said. "I can't put it better than that. It's here, then it's not. It's… I think the portal's collapsing. If you're gonna do this, you better hurry."

Sam hesitated. He looked back at John who was leaning against the hood of the car, arms folded in front of him.

I could stay, he thought. He could have the normal life he'd lusted after for so long. A normal life, with Mom, Dad and a brother whose single goal in life wasn't to save Sam from the demon. A real life. Even if it meant he had to pretend to be a distant relative, he'd still be with his family.

He glanced over at Missouri, who gestured impatiently for him to cross the invisible barrier. On the other side waited pain and blood and demons and an uncertain fate. The demon said he had plans for him. He might go darkside, turn evil. Sam shuddered. He'd had a little taste of what that was like and the memory was enough to make his stomach lurch unpleasantly.

If he stayed here, he'd be safe. The demon didn't want him here, had even seemed surprised when he showed up. It shouldn't be such a tough choice…

Sam recalled all the countless victims they'd saved, whether those people knew it or not. He thought of the incalculable numbers they might still save, him and Dean, hunting together with all the skills and knowledge their father had given them. "That's Dad's legacy," Sam had told his brother one cold night. "We gotta keep going, for him."

Could he abandon that? Could he abandon Dean?

Dean, who had sacrificed everything for Sam, saved his life more times than Sam could count, and if he didn't return, Dean would be left all alone. He couldn't desert Dean. Not again.

"Just a sec," he told Missouri.

She made a sound in the back of her throat. "I don't know if you have a 'sec'," she murmured, but he ignored her. Sam limped back to John, careful about putting his full weight onto his bad leg. He met and held John's dark-eyed gaze, trying to say things that words couldn't express.

"There's a man named Daniel Elkins," Sam told him. "A hunter, he should live in Manning, Colorado. He's got a gun, a specially made Colt with special bullets. That Colt will kill anything. If the demon ever comes back…"

John nodded. "I'll find that gun," he finished for Sam, "and blast that son of a bitch to hell. Nobody touches my family." Right then, he sounded so much like Dad, Sam's heart ached.

"I have to go," he said, softly. "Dean will be freaking out."

At John's raised eyebrow Sam gave a one-shouldered shrug. "My brother."

"You aren't really a nephew of mine, are you?" John asked softly.

"No, sir. I'm not."

"I see." John smiled, placed a hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed. "You turned out good, Sammy. I'm glad."

Tears blurred Sam's vision, and he scrubbed at his eyes with his fingertips He cleared his throat, but words wouldn't come.

"What ya waitin' for, boy?" Missouri interrupted them. Sam gave John a small salute in farewell, his vocal cords still refusing to function. He hobbled back to Missouri as fast as he could.

"What do I do?" His voice was rough, hoarse, and it took an effort to speak around the lump in his throat.

"I haven't a clue," Missouri said. "Walk through, I guess."

And Sam did.

Chapter Six

"You son of a…" Thwack. "…bitch!" Thwack. The ax bit into the floorboard and fresh splinters flew up. "I swear to God—" Thwack. The steel blade lodged in the wood and Dean grunted as he wrenched it loose. "If you don't give me back my brother…" Again, he swung the ax and at last the board cracked beneath its force. "…I'm gonna chop you into little pieces and have myself a bonfire they can see up in fuckin' Canada."

Dean had been at it all night, taking the house apart board by board, stopping only to slug down some water; his hands were covered in blisters from wielding the ax, the rest of him was coated head to toe in dust, plaster and wood chips. By all means, between his head injury and exhaustion he ought to keel over any minute but fear and anger kept him going beyond what was humanly possibly, turning the house into kindling in a desperate search for his brother. In the beginning, sheer panic had made him break through walls and hack at floorboards willy-nilly, and it was only when fatigue began to slow him down that he decided he needed to work a bit more methodically. So he'd returned to the room where Sam disappeared in the first place, and was slowly working his way from the fireplace to the hallway, tearing up the floor.

He raised the ax again, but before he could bring it down, thunder boomed behind him. Jumping in shock, Dean whirled around, expecting to see the house come crashing down around him. Instead…

Holy crap!

"Sammy?"

A low moan was his only reply. Dean dropped the ax, raced over to the crumpled body in the middle of the room, and fell to his knees next to Sam. "You all right, dude?"

"No." It came out as a grunt, laced with pain. "Little help here?"

Dean helped Sam roll over and— "What the hell?" The floor had broken open, a gaping maw attempting to spit his brother out, but two shattered planks had caught Sam's right leg and ugly splinters clawed at him. "Hang on."

Dean rushed to get the crowbar from the toolkit he'd brought in from the car, and a moment later he wrenched the shattered floorboards apart. With a groan and a heave, Sam pulled free, a rusted nail ripping his jeans. He rested face-down in the dust, gasping for air while Dean looked him over, patting long limbs to search for hidden injuries. Sam's hands were wrapped in white gauze and his jeans were torn where the nail had caught them, but otherwise he seemed unharmed.

"Stop that, will ya," Sam growled, sitting up and slapping Dean's hands away. "I'm fine."

Dean pulled back, resting on his haunches, staring at Sam's face. An irrepressible grin tugged at his lips; he was immensely glad to have Sam back in one piece after all those long panic-filled hours of shredding the place to look for him. "So, what happened? You give the damn house indigestion?" He wiggled his eyebrows, smirking.

Sam just stared at him, puzzled, clearly not getting the joke, giving him that exasperated bitch face look that said Dude, seriously…, and Dean's smile faltered.

"Never mind."

Sam glanced around at the destruction Dean had brought to the room: holes in the floor, splintered boards, torn up walls and bits of plaster scattered everywhere. The air was thick with dust and he sneezed. "What happened here?"

"What happened?" Dean echoed. "I was gonna rip every last board apart to find you, what do you think? You were just gone, man. That's some freaky shit you pulled."

"I fell through some sort of portal, I guess," Sam said. "To…" He paused. "…elsewhere. You wouldn't believe—" He shook his head.

"Oh yeah?" Dean said. He helped Sam climb to his feet, noticing his brother favored his left leg over his right. Concerned, he reached down and began tugging at Sam's pant leg. "Did you get cut by that nail?" He tried to recall when Sam last got a tetanus shot.

"Stop fussing." Sam shook him off, a bit impatiently. "Sprained my damn ankle, is all."

"And your hands?" Dean asked with a nod of his head at the gauze.

"Burned them."

Dean drew up an eyebrow. "Sounds like you had yourself quite an adventure."

Sam uttered a wry laugh. "You've no idea."

Something in Sam's voice made that Dean stopped asking. He had no doubt Sam would tell him when he was good and ready; after all, his brother was big on the caring and sharing. He changed the subject. "What about those other people that disappeared? Did you see them? They gonna get spit out too?"

"No." Sam shook his head. "I don't know where they went, I didn't see them. And I don't think they'll come back. They've been gone a long time. I could only find the portal again, 'cause I had help. Besides, it's…"

"What?"

"I think you sealed it," Sam said, "when you destroyed the house."

A cold sliver of fear trickled along Dean's spine. If Sam hadn't come back when he did… "So, they're gone."

"Yeah."

"Well, in that case, what d'you say we make damned sure nobody else disappears from here ever again." Dean wrapped an arm around his brother, supporting him while Sam limped out of the ruined house. "C'mon. Let's torch the sucker."

o0o

Dawn was creeping in, as shown by the gradual return of color to their surroundings. Sam had been gone all night, the timeline of both worlds close if not exactly similar. He and Dean watched the house burn from the grassy clearing in front. The flames roared and crackled, reflecting orange against the heavy, snow-laden clouds that filled the sky. Sparks drifted on the stiff breeze, floating sixty, seventy feet in the air before they extinguished. The heat of the fire made moisture pop out on Sam's brow despite the cold wind and the thirty-some feet they stood away. Overhead, the clouds were finally making good on their threat and thick, wet flakes of snow started to drift down. Watching them, Sam imagined he could hear them hiss when they touched the flames.

He studied Dean from the corner of his eye. His brother stood by his side, a silent, familiar presence. Dean's face was inscrutable, his feelings hidden under the smear of dirt on his chin and the rusty dried blood on his face that covered old scars; dust and wood slivers stuck in his hair. He looked grim, confident, ready for anything. He looked like a hunter.

"Dean?"

"Yeah?" Dean shot Sam a sideways glance.

"I'm sorry."

Dean drew his eyes away from the fire and looked up at Sam. "For what? Disappearing on me? Because I'll tell you—"

"That too." Sam shrugged. "For everything. This life."

"Oh. Is this gonna be another of your we're-so-screwed-I-want-to-be-normal whining sessions?"

Sam winced. "No. I know this is what we have to do. I understand that. But sometimes—"

"Dude, shut it. Don't you think I have doubts, wonder if it's all worth it? The pain, the people we lost. Sure I do. Since Dad died—" He paused and looked away for a long moment before he sought Sam's gaze and held it. "But Sammy? Normal's overrated. You see me with a wife, two point five kids and a picket fence?"

Yes, Sam thought, thinking back to the lighter, happier version of Dean he'd met in that other world. If not for me—

Dean turned back to watch the fire and his mouth curled in a mischievous grin. "Besides, what more could I want when I got a sharp ax in my hand and an evil house to burn to the ground?"

Oh, Dean. Sam snorted with laughter. "Yeah, right."

"Good. See that you remember that." Dean hefted the ax onto his shoulder and dug the keys to the Impala out of his pocket. "Let's go. I could do with a shower and you look like you're about to drop dead. Besides, all that choppin' made me hungry." He thumped Sam's shoulder. "But dude, if you ever throw yourself down a rabbit hole again, I'll kick your ass into next Sunday."

"Screw you."

"Bitch."

"Jerk."

Sam chortled to himself as he hobbled to the Impala's passenger side.

Epilogue

Later, Sam told Dean about what had happened to him after he'd fallen through the rift between worlds. He'd never been able to keep secrets from his big brother, at least not for long and not when it mattered. So, in the dimness of their motel room, with the wind howling and chasing snow around the building and the old heater clanking as it tried valiantly to banish the chill that crept through the thin walls , he told Dean everything.

His brother listened with very little comment and he remained quiet for so long after Sam had finished that he wondered if Dean had fallen asleep. Then Dean's voice floated over from the other bed.

"So you're sayin' that I … with your Jessica? And that we had a baby girl?"

"Yeah." Sam planted an arm behind his head, staring at the ceiling and remembering the shock and joy and burning jealousy he'd felt when he first saw Jess come down those stairs in their old house.

"Wow." Another minute of silence. "How the hell did that happen? I mean, she was cute and, whew, in that skimpy Smurf shirt she—"

"Dean." Sam so didn't need the memories of the last time he'd seen Jess alive dredged up.

"You know I'd never—"

"Dean!"

"All I'm sayin', you and her, you were shopping for rings, and—"

"Dean, shut the fuck up." Sam rolled over onto his stomach, punching the pillow into shape and wincing when it made the blisters on his hands throb.

"Yeah, okay, shutting up now."

Sam closed his eyes, trying to sleep. He'd nearly drifted off when Dean's voice broke the silence again.

"Damn, that son of a bitch sure knows how to screw with your mind."

Yeah, Sam thought. That's what it had been: the ultimate mind fuck. Courtesy of the yellow-eyed demon. Possibly part of his plan. Except—

Except, Dean said he'd disappeared completely through the portal, not a trace left behind. So it hadn't been a dream or a vision or something. Maybe, just maybe, it had been real. Maybe there really was another world out there somewhere. A world where Mom and Dad would soon celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary, where they were planning to move to a bungalow on the shores of Clinton Lake after Dad retired and left the workshop and the house to Dean and his family. Where his brother owned a garage and rebuilt classic American cars while Metallica thumped from the sound system. A world in which Jess lived to graduate and become the proud mother of a green-eyed little girl called Hope…

Sam slept. And for the first time in a very long time, he smiled in his dreams.

***