Sam was in the dungeon of the bunker, performing his fifth locator spell, when he heard the screams.
He'd know that voice anywhere.
Sam was up the stairs like a shot, letting his legs carry him toward the screams on pure adrenaline and instinct, skidding around the corner into the library and down the hall to Dean's room --
The room was dark, and it took Sam a minute for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, but he could see the figure huddled on the floor in the corner because he was wearing a white bathrobe.
The figure screamed again, curling his body into a tight ball, hands in front of his face to ward away something unseen. He was shaking, turning as far away as he could as Sam approached.
"Hey, it's okay, it's me," Sam murmured, moving slowly and cautiously toward his brother, hands out in a calming gesture. "Take it easy. You're okay. It's just me."
Sam could see now that Dean was basically naked except for the robe, and maybe a pair of boxers. His chest gleamed in the meager light from the hallway, and his feet were bare. When he lifted his face for a moment Sam could see that his hair was wet, and he wore some kind of headband which held his hair back from his face --
Sam gave an encouraging smile when he caught Dean's eye, stopped in his tracks by the look of abject terror in Dean's expression.
"Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god -- "
The litany of panic poured from Dean's lips as he hid his face against the wall again, putting his hands up as if the thing that terrified him was right there in the room with him. As if the thing he was most afraid of was --
"Hey, Dean," Sam knelt down cautiously, not daring to move any closer. "It's just me, buddy. I'm not gonna hurt you. Not gonna let anybody hurt you. It's okay."
What the hell had happened?
It had been two months since Sam had seen his brother. Two months since Dean had died in Sam's arms. Two months since the night his body had disappeared from this very room. Sam had spent every waking moment searching for him since, chasing down every lead, performing rituals and spells and interviewing endless witnesses.
And Sam had done everything, literally and absolutely everything, short of killing someone, to get his brother back. This last spell had been a particularly complicated and dangerous one -- he'd had to use his own blood, Dean's DNA (luckily a few stray hairs had been left behind on his hairbrush and pillow) and the blood of a demon he had trapped and tortured, something Sam would never have done before this.
But Dean's death and disappearance had changed everything for Sam. Faced again with a future without Dean, Sam was determined he would never stop looking, even if it killed him. Especially if it killed him. Even if it meant that what came back to him wasn't really Dean anymore.
Or was damaged beyond anything Sam could do to heal or help.
Dean was whimpering now, so at least the screaming had stopped, but the pained muttering continued, as if he was making an effort to calm himself.
Sam stayed where he was, squatting a few feet away, murmuring reassuring sounds as Dean's breathing slowed, his mutters finally reduced to whispers, then stopped altogether.
"Hey, Dean," Sam tried getting through again once Dean was quiet, watched as his brother spread his fingers apart, opening one emerald green eye to stare out at Sam.
Sam smiled, nodding.
"That's it," he said softly. "See? It's just me. It's just me, Dean."
"Why do you keep calling me that?"
Dean's voice was muffled behind his own hands, but at least he was speaking, at least he seemed calmer.
Sam shrugged, pushing down the dread nudging at the back of his mind.
"It's your name," Sam explained gently, wondering if Dean's confusion was indicative of some kind of brain damage or -- or worse.
But at least he was talking. That was a good sign, wasn't it?
Dean took a deep, shaky breath, let it out slowly, letting his hands slip down over his knees, clutching them to his chest.
"No, it's not," he said, shaking his head sharply. "You know that. So why are you calling me that? What's happening? Where are we?"
"We're in the bunker, Dean," Sam explained, nodding. "This is your room, remember?"
Dean shook his head sharply again.
"No, it's a t.v. set," he insisted. "It's just a t.v. set. It's not supposed to be real."
Sam frowned. Something wasn't right here. Bad dreams or hallucinations were one thing, but this sounded like a full-blown delusion, a transposing of one reality onto another --
"What's the last thing you remember?" he asked.
Dean looked up at him, winced, shook his head again, then looked away at a corner of the room.
"I lay down for a minute -- we were between scenes and it was gonna take awhile to set up the next shot, and I was up late last night so I figured I could just catch a couple of minutes of shut-eye. Then I wake up and everybody's gone and the set is wrong, man. There's no way out. Everything's wrong! It's some kind of big joke! Somebody's decided to play a stupid fucking joke on me and I need it to stop! Now!"
Dean was working himself up into another panic attack, and out of sheer instinct Sam moved closer, laid gentle hands on his brother's shoulder and neck, trying to calm him.
Usually it worked. Usually Sam's touch was the one thing that got through to Dean when he was like this. Sam's touch and Sam's voice were the magic antidotes to anything that ailed Dean.
But this time it just wasn't happening. If anything, Sam's touch was the thing that was making Dean's freak-out even worse.
"No!" he jumped away. "Don't hurt me! Please! Oh god oh god oh god oh god --"
"Not gonna hurt you," Sam shook his head, his exasperation with the situation finally breaking through his caution. "Dean, what's wrong with you? You're home. You're safe here."
"No, no, not home, not home," Dean insisted, scrambling away from Sam with a wild look on his face. "I'm not him, damn it. I'm not -- you're not -- "
He stopped suddenly, peered up at Sam with wide eyes, realization dawning.
"You're not him, are you?" Dean said, tentative. "You're -- you're -- Oh my god, how is this happening?"
"Dean, calm down -- " Sam moved forward again, determined to stop this panic attack from escalating again.
"No," Dean started to pull himself up, stumbled, fell heavily on his ass, stared up at Sam, blinking. "No, listen to me. I'm not him, okay? I'm not -- I'm not Dean, goddamn it."
Sam felt like he'd been slapped.
Of course. Of course this wasn't Dean. Why the hell hadn't he figured that out before?
Then who -- or what -- was this half-naked man cowering in the corner of Dean's bedroom?
The man read the sudden fury in Sam's face, his eyes widening as he tried frantically to scramble away again.
"No no no no -- I can explain -- please don't hurt me! Please!"
But Sam had already grabbed the man by the lapels, was already hauling him to his feet, shoving him back against the wall, anger and frustration rising like a tidal wave from the depths of his soul.
"What have you done with my brother?"
The words roared out of Sam's chest with the force of a cannon, and the man's head snapped back, hit the wall hard.
"Ow!" he moaned. "Please, stop! Okay? I can explain! Don't hurt me! Let me go and I'll explain!"
Sam was shaking the man and shoving him against the wall, and now he could smell it -- something expensive, some kind of styling gel or cologne or something -- nothing like the earthy sweat and leather and Old Spice smell of his brother. The guy was wearing some serious product.
"Tell me," Sam bellowed. "Tell me right now why I shouldn't just end you?"
"No, no no no no," the man winced. "Please -- I think I know what's happening. It's insane but I think -- You -- You're Sam Winchester, aren't you?"
Sam shoved his face right up close, hauled the man up on the wall so he was on his toes, almost suspended with Sam pressed against him.
"You bet your goddamn life I'm Sam Winchester," Sam snarled. "Now who the hell are you?"
"J -- Jensen -- Jensen Ackles," the man stuttered, trembling violently in Sam's grasp. "I'm an actor."
Sam's eyes narrowed as the information sunk in, the name bringing back memories of something that happened years ago --
The t.v. show. Fake Castiel. Fake Ruby, for godssake. That freaky alternative universe where there was no magic, no supernatural. Just a shitty little t.v. show starring a couple of douche-bag actors.
Sam loosened his grip slightly, backed off so the guy -- Jensen Ackles -- could take a breath. The actor relaxed a little, eyes flicking up to Sam's, wincing, looking away again, still clearly trembling and scared shitless.
And so obviously not Dean, now that Sam knew the truth, that he couldn't help staring, noting the differences.
"No, you're not my brother," he breathed out, letting go of the man and backing away. "I can see that now. You're that actor. From that t.v. show."
Jensen straightened his robe, pulling it closed over his bare chest, crossing his arms in an attempt to appear less nervous. He nodded, then glanced up at Sam again.
"So what are you doing here?" Sam asked. "How did you -- "
Suddenly Sam knew.
"Oh my god," he murmured. "You and Dean share DNA -- alternate universe, same DNA -- how is that possible?"
Jensen shook his head.
"You tell me, man," he said. "You're the brilliant big-brained geek. I just act."
"But you have -- obviously you're not -- " Sam's brain was working hard to make sense of this, because it simply didn't make sense.
Finally he shook his head.
"No, that can't be it, because you don't have the same ancestry. Your parents are different. This isn't biological. This is something else. Plus, you and I aren't related -- "
Sam peered at Jensen skeptically. "Are we? I mean, the other actor -- he's not your brother, right? The one who plays Sam?"
Jensen's eyes got big, and he actually stared straight at Sam for the first time, shocked.
Then he looked away again, shaking his head and shifting his feet nervously.
"God, no," Jensen breathed. "Jared and I aren't even friends."
"Huh," Sam nodded, remembering that other time. "That's right. Wow. This is -- "
He was about to say "weird," but he caught himself. When had weird ever been unusual for the Winchesters? And the opportunities here, if he could just figure this out, were enormous.
But first, there was a shivering civilian standing in front of him, a scared and completely freaked-out guy who needed some reassurance.
"Hey." Sam tried to soften his voice, put on his most sympathetic expression. "How about we find you some clothes, get you something to eat. Then we'll figure this out, okay? Does that sound good?"
Jensen raised his eyes, and the doubtful look there puzzled Sam. It was like the guy thought he was being the butt of a cruel joke. Like he was used to being a punching bag. For Sam.
Or Jared, the actor who played Sam.
Sam held Jensen's gaze intently, as he would when he worked with a traumatized victim at a crime scene, and finally it seemed to work a little. Jensen's facial expression went from tense and terrified to resigned and bewildered, and he gave a little nod as he looked away, seemed to be trying to collect himself.
"Okay," he agreed.
Sam opened drawers, pulled out Dean's jeans and a tee-shirt, laid them on the bed.
"Okay," he turned to Jensen, who was hugging himself and watching Sam. "I'll leave you to it. You know how to find the kitchen, right?"
Jensen nodded, looking so lost and sad that Sam couldn't help reaching out, couldn't help laying a reassuring hand on the actor's shoulder.
"Hey," Sam spoke gently, and Jensen looked up, wide-eyed and bewildered. "It'll be okay. We'll figure this out. We'll get you home, okay? I promise."
Jensen's face softened and his eyes suddenly glistened and for a minute Sam thought he was going to cry, so Sam patted him, then squeezed his shoulder, looking away awkwardly.
Because he did not need this strange man with his brother's face and body bursting into tears and needing comfort right now.
Sam so did not need that.
In the kitchen Sam scrambled some eggs, fried some bacon, made fresh black coffee and toast. When Jensen finally appeared -- what was he doing in there that took almost twenty minutes? -- Sam struggled not to jump. In Dean's jeans and black tee-shirt Jensen looked good. Really, really good.
Of course he looks good. He's an actor, Sam reminded himself. It's his job to look good.
Still, Jensen's appearance rattled Sam to the core in ways he didn't want to think about too deeply.
Because, the thing was, Sam was missing his brother something awful.
And suddenly, here was this look-alike in his kitchen, and it was -- it was unsettling.
To say the least.
"I can't eat that," Jensen noted, looking at the bacon and eggs on the table, obviously set out for him with the coffee.
Sam raised his eyebrows.
"Why? What's wrong with it?"
"I'm vegan," Jensen said. "I don't eat animal products."
Sam stared at the actor in disbelief.
"You're kidding me," he said. "They cast an actor to play Dean who doesn't eat meat."
"So how do you even play all those scenes in the diners with the cheeseburgers and the barbecue and steak and -- "
Jensen lifted his eyebrows, taking Sam's breath away because his eyes were so green and looked so much like Dean's.
"It's called acting," Jensen said. "They use soy for the burgers. Usually they cut the scene so I can spit it out anyway. If I ate the way Dean does I couldn't fit through the diner door, much less these jeans."
Sam did not want to touch that comment with a ten-foot pole, not least because Jensen looked so damn good in Dean's jeans and it was totally messing with his mind.
Because he was not thinking about balling his brother, so there was no way he could be thinking about fucking this douche-bag actor.
No fuckin' way.
"Okay," Sam nodded, trying his best to show how calm he could be if he tried really, really hard. "So what can you eat?"
Jensen shifted his feet, looked awkward, like he fully expected Sam to take every advantage of any weakness he showed.
"Salad," Jensen suggested slowly. "Fresh fruit, fresh veggies, soy milk products, coffee. Oh yeah, lots of coffee."
Sam reached over and plucked the cup of java from the table, shoved it into Jensen's hand.
"Good. Here," he offered, trying hard to ignore the reaction he couldn't avoid when his fingers brushed Jensen's.
"Thanks," Jensen acknowledged, hands closing in around the mug of hot coffee like an anchor, letting it pull a moment of normalcy into the mix. "I'll just wake up now, thank you very much."
Sam turned away, determined not to let Jensen's presence affect him, knowing in his heart that was a losing battle.
"Not a dream, I'm afraid," Sam said softly, scooping up the plate of food and dumping it into the compost bin at the end of the counter.
Cuz Sam Winchester could garden with the best of 'em, and composting was totally part of the program.
Except that he'd been spending the past couple of months tracking down spells and leads to get his brother back, so the gardening and whatever else domestically was taking a bit of a backseat.
"Okay, I think I get how you got here," Sam turned back to the actor, who was sipping the coffee and staring at him over the rim of the cup.
So not fair.
"You and Dean are clearly identical in every physical sense," he continued, thinking it through as he talked so he didn't have to admit how affected he was by those green eyes. "And don't ask me how that's possible, since you don't have the same parents. Right?"
Jensen shook his head, and Sam nodded.
"Okay, so it's a classic doppelgänger scenario," Sam went on. "You and Dean prove the theory that we all have an identical twin in another universe. Except in this case, there's this crazy coincidence that you and Dean actually have something in common -- namely, the story of our lives, which is fiction in your universe."
Jensen was still staring at him over the rim of his mug, and Sam felt his cheeks grow hot. He cleared his throat and shifted his feet in an obvious attempt to hide his body's reaction, but Jensen was watching him too intently not to notice
"You're really not him, are you?"
Jensen's question was so out-of-the-blue and unexpected that it took Sam a second to readjust, frowning in an effort to follow the words.
"Who?" he asked.
"Jared," Jensen clarified. "You're really not Jared."
Jensen's eyes dropped to Sam's crotch, then slowly raised to his mouth before meeting his eyes again, this time with a come-hither smirk that made Sam instantly hard as a rock.
Sam cleared his throat, shifted awkwardly, put one hand on his hip and ran the other through his hair, cleared his throat again.
"No," he agreed. "We already established that."
"You don't hate me," Jensen continued.
"Dude, I don't even know you," Sam huffed out a laugh. "Hate's a pretty strong emotion. Not exactly something you can muster for someone you barely know."
He looked speculatively at Jensen.
"Why does he hate you? You seem like a nice enough guy."
Jensen shook his head, looked away, a grim smile turning up the corners of his mouth but not quite reaching his eyes.
"It's a long story," he said. "We have to project this camaraderie on screen, you know? Everybody thinks we're best friends. The network likes it that way. Feeds the fan following. Two hot guys playing brothers, best friends in real life. Sells advertising. It's good for business."
Sam couldn't stop watching the actor's mouth as he talked, wanted him to keep talking just so he could keep watching. He was so distracted he barely heard the question.
"So where's your brother?"
"Huh?" Sam shook his head, dragging his gaze away so he could focus.
"Your brother? Dean? Tall, good-looking, crush on his younger sibling?"
Sam blushed to the roots of his hair, lowered his chin to his chest in a last-ditch effort to hide his response.
Jensen made a low chuckle, and when Sam raised his eyes the actor was smiling, crows feet at the edges of his eyes, straight white teeth showing.
"Man, you've got it bad," Jensen noted. "You and Dean are really doin' the deed. It's like every bad fan fiction fantasy come true, am I right? Wow." He shook his head, still grinning. "Can't say I'm surprised, and I'm definitely not saying you two don't deserve it, after all you've been through. But incest is -- wow."
Sam moved so fast Jensen didn't have a chance. He grabbed the actor's shirt in his hands and shoved him hard against the wall, sending the coffee cup crashing to the ground, where it shattered spectacularly.
"Shut up!" Sam bellowed. "You don't get to judge! You don't have a fuckin' clue! Who the hell do you think you are? Just because you play Dean in some stupid t.v. show, you think you know him? You think you understand us? How dare you, you little shit."
Sam shook the man soundly, for emphasis, and was rewarded with the return of abject terror to Jensen's handsome face.
"Hey, I'm sorry, man," Jensen stuttered, his whole body shaking in Sam's grasp. "I didn't mean -- sorry. No disrespect, seriously."
More satisfied by Jensen's fear than he probably should be, Sam nodded, stepped back, released the actor and let his eyes drop to the floor for a minute, ignoring the mess.
"Sorry. I'm a little on edge lately," he mumbled as he shuffled his feet and ran a hand through his hair, self-soothing to calm himself down. "Dean's missing, and I've been trying everything I can think of to find him -- And now I've got you to try to deal with --"
"Dean's missing?" Jensen repeated. "Wait -- is this right after he turned into a demon? Are we in the middle of the hiatus right now? Is that what this is?"
Sam stared, shaken to the core, unable to comprehend Jensen's words because they seemed so nonsensical.
"What? Dean turned into a demon? What are you talking about?"
Jensen nodded, taking a step sideways to position himself out of Sam's reach.
"At the end of Season Nine," he said. "Dean died, right? Metatron killed him. That just happened, am I right?"
Sam nodded slowly.
"Two months ago," he said. "I've been looking for him ever since."
Then it hit him.
"But -- " Sam's brain was spinning. "Dean has the tattoo. He can't be possessed."
Jensen was shaking his head, tiny smile turning up the corners of his mouth again.
"Not possessed," he said. "He IS a demon. Like Cain. Scary, out-for-nobody-but-himself, super-strong, care-free. And you can't find him because he doesn't want to be found, Sam. Cuz he's a monster now. He's the thing y'all used to hunt and kill."
Sam heard Jensen's words, understood what he was saying, and in his heart he knew it was true, but that didn't prepare him for the crushing weight of grief and devastation he was suddenly experiencing.
It pinned him in place, making it difficult to move.
"How do you know?" Sam breathed out, only now realizing that he'd taken a step backwards, hit the table with the backs of his legs.
He grabbed the edge of the table to steady himself, his legs threatening to give out on him all of a sudden.
Jensen was watching him, sympathy winning out over the trepidation in his eyes.
"It's in the script," he said gently. "I'm sorry, man. We've already been filming. We've got the third episode in the can already."
"Wait -- so you know everything that's gonna happen," Sam clarified.
Jensen tilted his head, shrugged.
"I've got a general idea," he admitted. "I've read the scripts for the first few episodes, and they've given us the story arc for the season."
Sam ran a hand through his hair.
"You're like Chuck Shurley or something," he suggested, desperation making him grasp at straws. "You're like a prophet."
Jensen shook his head.
"No, I'm not a fictional character," he insisted. "And I'm not a writer. Those guys are the gods of this thing, not me."
"Wait -- what did you just say?"
Jensen lifted his eyebrows, shrugged.
"I'm not a fictional character," he repeated.
"No, the other thing. The writers."
Sam was already bounding out of the kitchen and into the library, Jensen on his heels. Sam grabbed his laptop, slid into his seat.
"Those guys might exist here," Sam said. "Maybe one of them can help us figure out what's happening."
"I can tell you what's happening," Jensen insisted. "But you're not gonna like it."
"Dean being a demon isn't bad enough?" Sam snapped.
"Unfortunately not," Jensen admitted. "He's not the real monster in this story, Sam."
"What?" Sam looked up, confused. "What are you talking about? Who's the real monster then?"
"Well now, that would be you," Jensen shrugged, backing up to give Sam some room to absorb his words, his accusation.
Sam glared, waiting for Jensen to continue. The actor managed to look smug and a little bit apologetic at the same time, and Sam struggled with the urge to hit the man.
Or kiss the damn smirk off his pretty face, whichever.
"I don't know why I'm even listening to you," Sam went for the bitch face.
Jensen shook his head.
"You're gonna get really desperate, Sam," he explained. "Another month or two go by and no Dean, and you start torturing people for information, doing whatever it takes to find your brother."
"No way," Sam shook his head. "Not gonna happen."
Jensen shook his head again.
"It's in the script," he said. "It's already been filmed. Sorry, Sam. It's a done deal."
Something in Jensen's words struck a nerve in Sam, made him catch his breath and shake his head, overwhelmed by a sense of deja-vu.
This conversation was too familiar, too much like other conversations with other creatures -- and Jensen might be human and a civilian, but his very existence was a supernatural event, and therefore he -- Jensen -- was a kind of supernatural creature. Something that shouldn't exist, but did.
Then it hit him. This was a lot like those asshole angels, like Zachariah telling him all those years ago that he couldn't escape his fate. That he and Dean were destined to bring on the apocalypse.
"No," Sam breathed out now, raising his eyes to Jensen's, feeling the familiar Winchester stubbornness well up inside him. "No, that's not how it's gonna be. I'm changing it. Right now."
Jensen's eyes widened in surprise.
"You can't," he insisted. "It's already been filmed."
"Well, it hasn't happened here yet, in this universe, so that proves we're not perfectly parallel. Your being here proves that, right? Or did the actor who plays Dean magically appear in the middle of the bunker one summer day in your world? In one of the scripts?"
Jensen was still staring, seemingly mesmerized by Sam's intent gaze. Then he swallowed, and Sam couldn't help letting his eyes drop, watching Jensen's throat move.
"No, that's true," Jensen agreed softly.
Sam tore his gaze away, turned back to his laptop.
"Okay, then," he said, clearing his throat. "Let's get to work. I need to know everything you can tell me about how the story unfolds in your timeline. What are the names of those writers?"