Over breakfast the next morning Other!Sam asked endless questions, and Dean answered, patiently for the most part.
Things were very different between the two universes, and it seemed that Other!Sam's world had definitely got the short end of the stick.
For one thing, everybody was dead. Bobby, Ellen, Jo, Ash, Pamela, Kevin Tran -- who Dean had never even heard of but who was apparently really important to Other!Sam in that other world.
"Dad?" Other!Sam choked, wouldn't stop coughing for a full five minutes so that Dean had to grab the waitress and get him more water, slap him on the back and finally scoot into the booth next to him to hold him because he was weeping.
"Dad's alive?" Other!Sam coughed when he could finally speak again, tears streaming out of his eyes.
And yeah, Other!Sam was just as messy when he cried. Dean used up the entire pile of napkins wiping at Other!Sam's face, rubbing his big back and murmuring quietly till he calmed down.
"But what about the yellow-eyed demon?" Other!Sam asked, wide-eyed with shock.
"Dad killed him," Dean shrugged. "Years ago. Just after I picked you up from Stanford."
"So -- " Other!Sam frowned, thinking. "So you never made a deal? With the crossroads demon?"
Dean frowned. "What deal?"
"My life for forty years in Hell?"
Dean stared. What the fuck?
Other!Sam slid his hand over Dean's thigh, squeezed gently.
"Your Sam is a lucky guy," he said. "Things are really different in my world."
They covered more ground, established that there were no angels in Dean's world -- Freakin' angels, man! You gotta be kidding me! -- and no apocalypse -- Holy Shit! -- and then Other!Sam wanted to talk to Dad, so Dean called him, and Other!Sam burst into tears again as soon as he heard his father's voice, so that Dean had to take the phone away and explain to John Winchester that something weird had happened but Dean and Sam were taking care of it.
"Why'd you call, Dean?" John's deep voice was rough, demanding.
"Yeah, sorry, Dad," Dean muttered. "Sammy just needed to hear your voice. He's feeling a little homesick."
"Well, tell him to buck up and get the job done. I'm busy on a case here. I don't need you boys calling me every five minutes."
"Yes, sir," Dean nodded, heard the call end on John's side, put his phone away.
"Same old Dad," Other!Sam huffed a laugh, shaking his head. "Still an asshole."
"Sam -- " Dean started to admonish, then realized it really didn't matter.
"Come on," he said instead. "Let's get back to the motel. See if Bobby has anything for us."
"So what do you guys do?" Other!Sam asked later, after talking to Bobby, who had bupkis for them but promised to call or email every hunter he could to see if anybody had ever heard of any phenomenon like the one the Winchesters had encountered. Other!Sam had taken his time talking to Bobby, obviously appreciating the chance to just talk to the old hunter. Sorta broke Dean's heart, watching him keep Bobby on the phone, just chatting, long after the central conversation was over.
They were back in the diner -- a different one -- chowing down on burgers and beer.
"What d'ya mean?" Dean asked, taking a swig of his beer and biting into his burger.
"I mean, there's no angels, demons seem to be fairly rare and garden variety bad-ass, nothing end-of-the-world scary -- so what do you guys do all the time? Just regular, run-of-the-mill hunting?"
Dean stared at him. "Uh -- yeah? We're hunters. It's what we do. Ghosts, monsters, occasional demon."
"So you and Sam -- you never -- I mean you always -- " Other!Sam stuttered, clearing uncomfortable.
Dean lifted his eyebrows. "What, Sam?" he demanded. "We never what?"
Other!Sam took a deep breath, looked into Dean's eyes with an expression of such sorrow and pain it broke Dean's heart.
"You never died?" Other!Sam whispered finally.
Dean was startled. Again. What the fuck?
"Goddamn it, Sam," he stared. "Your world is seriously fucked up. Are you saying I died? So how am I alive?"
Other!Sam shook his head. "It's complicated," he answered. "In my world, you and me -- we die and resurrect. A lot. Or enough, anyway. It sucks."
Dean was still staring. "This is some seriously fucked up shit, man," he said finally, taking another bite of his burger. "I think I need another beer."
And because Dean couldn't help himself -- his morbid curiosity got the better of him and it was his turn to ask some questions, finding out how really miserable Other!Sam's existence was in that other universe, so that he had to get out of there and take him back to the motel and just fuck his brains out so he could forget for awhile.
Because Jesus Fucking Christ Other!Sam's world just sucked egg. All that death and no sex.
And his Sam was trapped there, which sucked most of all.
"You know, you could just stay here," Dean suggested idly as they lay in the dark later, languid and warm and wrapped around each other. "Once Sam opens the portal again and gets his ass back over here, you don't have to go back."
Other!Sam snorted dismissively. "Yeah, right. I bet your Sam would just love that."
"After living in your world for a few days, he would totally understand. Maybe he can bring your Dean back here too." The thought of facing his doppelgänger was more than a little creepy, but if it meant keeping Other!Sam safe, it seemed worth it somehow.
Other!Sam ran his hand into Dean's hair, tipped his face closer so they were breathing the same air.
"I don't think he'd come," Other!Sam said softly. "He feels responsible for all the shit that's happened in our world. He'll never stop trying to fix it; that's who he is. Leaving it would feel like desertion to him."
"Yeah, I get that," Dean said after a minute, letting Other!Sam rub noses, lay soft kisses along his cheek and jaw.
"My Dean is a broken man," Other!Sam murmured. "And I love him so much it hurts."
Dean pulled Other!Sam in for a deep, long kiss. It was becoming harder to imagine losing this sadder, harder version of Sam, whose life was even more messed up than his. Dean's instinct to protect and care for Other!Sam -- and all the Sams in all the universes -- just overwhelmed him.
But the possibility of leaving his Sam in that hell-on-earth world Other!Sam came from was even worse.
Once Other!Sam was asleep, Dean slipped out of bed and into the bathroom to call Bobby.
"You know what time it is, boy?" The twang in Bobby's voice was even more pronounced when he was sleepy.
"Sorry, Bobby," Dean muttered. "I couldn't sleep. Wondering if you found anything."
"Well, considering the last time you called was only two freakin' hours ago -- No, Genius, I've turned up exactly two-thousand-fifty-six-million tons of stinking, smelly nothin', got it? Exactly the same as two hours ago. So leave me alone for awhile, will ya?"
"OK, Bobby. I hear ya." Dean couldn't help sounding defeated.
"Oh for god's sake," Bobby growled, but his voice was softer. "I know you're missing your brother, Dean. I wish I had some magic spell that could bring him back pronto. This thing has got everybody stumped. It's like something out of Star Trek. So unless they can get a handle on it from the other side, I just don't know what we can do."
Dean sucked in a breath, tried to steady his voice.
"Okay, Bobby, I hear ya," he said again. "It's okay."
"Oh, it's definitely not okay, Dean," Bobby answered grimly. "From talking to that kid earlier, I can tell things are bad in that world. I've never heard Sam so shook up."
"Yeah, well that's because you're dead in his world," Dean said. "Everybody is. Even us, apparently, which is messed up in so many ways I can't even wrap my head around it. I can't stand thinking about Sam being there --- "
"So don't," Bobby said sharply. "He's smart. If there's a way to open that portal, get back here, Sam will find it."
Dean took a deep breath, ran his hand over his face.
"Yeah, I guess you're right, Bobby," he said finally. "I just wish it was me and not him over there."
"You can be grateful it's him and not you, Dean," Bobby reminded him. "'Cause I hate to say it, but anybody can see who's got the brains in this outfit. And you may be pretty and all, but -- "
"Okay, I got it," Dean was grinning despite himself.
"Now get some sleep," Bobby commanded, and hung up.
The next day was spent interviewing the families of the missing and new arrivals from the other universe. One of them had moved away, and since Dean didn't want to leave the area in case Sam opened the portal and came back, they stayed in town to work the local angle of the case.
Two of the four formerly missing people had absolutely nothing helpful to say, although their stories sounded like something out of a Rip-Van-Winkle story. Their lives had been fairly identical on both sides of the portal. They were just high school kids who had been exploring the abandoned schoolhouse when the bright light happened. They were so scared they dropped their flashlights and ran, only to discover when they got home that things had changed, subtly. One family had a dog which had not been there before, although everyone insisted the dog had been part of the family for years. The other one had apparently been in a car accident in the past year and was supposed to have a scar that had mysteriously disappeared, according to his freaked-out mother.
The teenagers ended up going back to the schoolhouse the following week to retrieve their flashlights, and the same thing happened -- another flashing light. Only this time when they went home, their families were overjoyed to see them, insisting they had been gone for over a week, and the changes they had observed before had reversed themselves again and returned to "normal." No dog, no car accident.
The third person they interviewed was a building inspector who said he had been hired by the city to determine whether the old schoolhouse was still up to code.
Unfortunately, when he returned to the city office to file his report, no one knew who he was. Worse, his family -- two kids, a wife, house, family -- all were gone. It was if he had never existed.
It took Sam and Dean awhile to find the man, who was now homeless and alcoholic and living on the street, and his story was so sad Dean almost told him the truth, determined to get him back to his life in the other world. Other!Sam shook his head; for him it was just another fail, another instance of fucking things up and not being able to fix them.
Dean was beginning to see why Other!Sam's big back was so stooped all the time. He was a man who wore the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it didn't sit easy.
After a week had passed, the not-really-brothers went back to the schoolhouse, hoping that whatever magical event had transported the teenagers back to their world might happen on some kind of regular schedule.
By that time, Other!Sam had theorized that there might be more than one alternative universe, given the story the kids had told. And there was no telling whether this one was still directly connected to the one Sam had disappeared into.
Dean could feel himself losing hope, and he clung to Other!Sam that night with a kind of heated desperation, as if he could force Sam to return to him simply by force of will. Other!Sam held him and kissed him with extra tenderness that night, trying to provide the comfort Dean craved, somehow knowing his clumsy attempts were inadequate.
The next morning Dean announced they were going hunting.
He had found a case a couple of towns over -- vengeful spirit terrorizing employees in the basement of a public library -- and Dean insisted they take the job.
Other!Sam seemed to understand that Dean needed to work, needed to get his mind off the endless waiting and hoping, so he agreed right away and they headed out.
It felt good to get on the road again, and Dean could almost imagine it was his Sam sitting next to him in the passenger seat. He was wearing Sam's clothes, muttering occasionally about how retro Sam's taste in shirts was -- Dean had to explain that Sam had dated a fashion-designer for awhile who had custom-designed an entire wardrobe for him in his gargantuan size -- a point that seemed to shock Other!Sam.
"Sam dated a girl?"
Dean was driving single-handed, enjoying the wind taking sips along his skin as he leaned one bare arm on the open window. He glanced at Other!Sam, noting his look of surprise.
"Yeah," Dean nodded. "About two years ago. He and I were taking a little break."
Other!Sam took a breath, frowned. "I know it's none of my business, but -- I guess I just thought -- you two have so much together -- And it's not like the demon-blood addiction happened here, or Lucifer and the angel rebellion creating all the tension between us like there was in our world -- "
"Shit happens," Dean shrugged. "Sam gets moody and anxious sometimes. He just needs breaks. I've learned that if I can let him go, he comes back happier. It's just how it is with us."
Other!Sam was staring openly at him, his expression both astonished and revelatory.
"But doesn't it scare you? That he might not come back, I mean?"
Dean frowned, tightened his hand on the wheel for a minute, thinking. Then he shook his head.
"It did, at first," he admitted. "I was pretty pissed when he left for Stanford."
"But you got over it. You moved on." Other!Sam shook his head. "My Dean can't. Or won't." He huffed out a breath. "He's so afraid of losing me, he does terrible things just to keep me with him. Terrible things."
Dean frowned, suddenly not so sure he wanted to hear how dark-side Other!Dean had gone.
"I'm sure it's not as terrible as you think," he suggested gruffly. "You're just being over-sensitive."
"People die around us all the time," Other!Sam insisted. "Everyone who gets too close to us."
"It's not your fault, Sam," Dean said firmly. "I know you. You don't have an evil bone in your body."
Other!Sam huffed sardonically. "Maybe no evil bones, but I have evil blood. Or at least I did, before I got cleansed last year. Now I'm pure, I guess. Pure enough for an angel to possess."
Dean winced. This just gets weirder and weirder.
"You were possessed by an angel," Dean shook his head. "Do I even want to know?"
"Wasn't the first time," Other!Sam muttered grimly, and Dean glanced at him, noted Other!Sam's clenched jaw and brooding glare, and wished he could fix it.
"OK, time to stop for burgers," Dean announced, and Other!Sam turned his gaze on his not-brother.
"Seriously?" Other!Sam huffed, raising his eyebrows. "Dude, you and food -- sometimes I think it's just an excuse."
"Works, dun it?" Dean shrugged, hearing his own Kansas twang asserting itself, something that always made Sam smile.
After lunch they drove to a motel, booked a room where they could change into suits for their investigation. The ghost was a former custodian who had been unlucky in love with a young librarian, so it was taking its frustration out on anyone who wandered into the basement. After a routine salt-and-burn later that night, the Winchesters returned to their motel to shower and make out, pumped and grateful.
"This," Other!Sam announced when they lay tangled together.
He brushed the back of his hand along Dean's cheek gently, and Dean gazed at him expectantly.
"I mean, this is what we used to be like," Other!Sam went on. "Hunting things, saving people. Together. Simple."
"Well, I don't know about simple," Dean grunted. "Kinda dangerous sometimes. This case was pretty straight-forward, but sometimes it gets a little hairy."
"No, I know," Other!Sam nodded. "I remember. It's just -- for me, it's like going back to an earlier time in my life. Don't get me wrong, I like it. It's a helluva lot easier."
"You think this is easy?" Dean felt himself getting defensive.
"No -- it's just less complicated," Other!Sam clarified.
"I'll show you less complicated, you egotistical little bitch," Dean growled, pushing Other!Sam onto his back so he could devour his chest with his mouth.
Other!Sam couldn't speak coherently for awhile after that, which was just fine with Dean.