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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.