And of course, Dean being Dean, he was confident and cocky about his ability to deal with whatever came at them, convinced he could instill that confidence in Sam, and determined he would protect all of his loved ones from anything that threatened them.
Sam wasn't so sure, of course, knowing what he did about the way the supernatural world had fucked with them in the past. But as time went on and nothing evil crawled out from under their beds or closets, Sam began to relax. Just a little.
For the first few weeks Sam woke up every hour or so, then lay awake listening to Dean's breathing until he drifted off to sleep again, only to start awake, sometimes with a scream in his throat and a nightmare shattering his mind. He yawned through his days, unable to shake the tiredness from his bones.
Finally, after about six weeks or so, Sam slept almost four hours straight one night, waking up shocked and sweating with fear, so that Dean had to pull him close and just kiss him for awhile until he could relax again.
And slowly, as Sam loosened up and began to relax, he found he needed to talk, found to his surprise that this Dean was a pretty good listener. Most of their talks happened in the middle of the night during those first few months, usually precipitated by one of Sam's nightmares, his screams and thrashing waking them both, Sam coming to consciousness with Dean's strong arms around him, his deep voice murmuring softly.
And one night, almost two months after the incident with the djinn, Dean's persistence paid off, and Sam found himself revealing the whole story, as far as he understood it, about what he had done and why.
"So I was turning into a monster," Dean clarified. "And you were gonna have to kill me."
Sam nodded, tears running down his cheeks freely, soaking the pillow case.
"But instead you saved me, Sam," Dean reminded him. "You saved me, just like you say I saved you that one time. Remember?"
Sam nodded, squeezing his eyes shut to stop the tears.
Sam remembered. He also remembered lying together only a week before, telling Dean the story of how he had given his soul for Sam's life, watched the horror and fascination play across Dean's handsome face. That night he had woken screaming because he thought Dean was in hell again.
Dean was patient, understood PTSD because he had seen it so often, had suffered from a mild case of his own after returning from Afghanistan the second time after being in a particularly fierce firefight in which several of his unit had been killed. It was partly survivor's guilt, he told Sam. Feeling like a failure for not saving those men.
"But you saved me, Sam," he reminded Sam again. "You done good, brother. You can rest easy now. You can let yourself off the hook and learn to be just another regular guy, with a home and a family and a good life. You get me, Sam?"
And Sam nodded, let himself be held and stroked until he drifted off to sleep again.
And after that he began sleeping longer on a regular basis, began to lose the dark circles under his eyes and the sallow color in his skin.
He began eating better too. Beth's cooking helped -- she had them over at least twice a week, watching them fondly as they sat together on her couch, bodies pressed together from shoulder to knee, taking turns resting their hands on each other's thighs.
Beth was a revelation to Sam. He'd never imagined having another sibling, let alone one who cooked for him and cared for him the way Beth did. All the things Dean had done for him growing up, Beth did for both of them now. And when he helped her with the dishes one night while Dean and Little Sam were out in the yard throwing a ball around, she told him how happy she was that Dean had found Sam, how she had secretly always known he bat for the other team. He and Emily had had one of those marriages of convenience, she told Sam. It had never seemed quite right somehow, and despite his macho posturing, Beth had always been convinced Dean was gay.
Sam just shook his head, remembering Dean from his own reality, all the girlfriends, the hook-ups -- and he doubted what Beth was saying because he knew Dean had never been interested in men, but that was something he knew he could never say to her. Dean had been very clear to Sam about that. It wasn't lying to Beth not to tell her that they were siblings. It just wasn't. Now that Sam and Dean were together, Sam was as much a brother to Beth as he could ever be. Telling her they were related in another reality wouldn't make that any better.
Besides. She didn't even exist in Sam's reality. How could she be his sister?
It hurt Sam's head to think about, but he had to agree in the end. It wasn't like he'd grown up with Beth. Dean was the only brother he'd ever known, just like Dean was the only brother Beth had ever known. There was no sense in messing with that by trying to convince her that Sam was some supernatural manifestation of a sibling who had died before she was born. It was just pointless.
Sometimes Sam missed the brother he had known growing up. He missed having that shared past with Dean, those memories of their life on the road, the early days with their dad. Sometimes he slipped up, found some memory jog loose that made him smile, made him turn to Dean out of habit and say "Remember when -- " only to register Dean's blank smile and shake his head, mutter "Never mind."
Sometimes Dean understood what was happening in those moments, put his arm around Sam or lightly punched his arm and bumped his hip against Sam's.
"You know, maybe we didn't grow up together, but you are as familiar to me as the back of my hand," he'd say in those moments, which always made Sam grin through his grief. Dean reminded him at those times that they were together because they had chosen each other, not because of some shared tragic past they couldn't escape.
And it made Sam sad, but he had to agree.
Because given the alternatives -- Dean consumed by the Mark of Cain, or Sam living out his life in solitude (and they both knew how that would end -- had, in fact, almost ended) -- Sam felt pretty lucky. It scared him sometimes how lucky he was, in fact, made him paranoid and withdrawn for awhile, so that Dean had to hold him down and tickle him to get him to lighten up. And that always ended up leading to other, even more pleasant things that made Sam feel even luckier.
So he got used to missing the brother he grew up with, and over time as he and Dean built new memories together, the memories of their old life stopped packing so much emotional punch. He stopped having nightmares so often, stopped waking in a cold sweat, breathing hard and sure that something was coming for them until Dean's calm, deep voice and firm touch pushed back the terror and soothed him to sleep again.
Then there was the fact that Dean didn't remember the past ten years the way Sam did. He didn't know how badly Sam had failed his brother, over and over, how Sam had been a monster, pumped full of demon blood, vessel for Lucifer, soulless killer. And even Sam's shame-filled, sobbing confessions in the middle of the night couldn't erase the guilt for all the bad things he had done.
Yet no matter how he tried to tell that to Dean, his brother wasn't having it.
Because here and now, with this kind-hearted, generous man and his loving family, Sam was being given a fresh start that he knew he didn't deserve.
"Doesn't matter, Sam," Dean kept saying whenever Sam hit one of his low times, whenever Sam gave Dean another earful of his sins, trying to convince his brother he wasn't good, wasn't worthy.
Other times Dean pushed him backwards on the bed and straddled him, pinning him down in a way that Sam knew he could probably defeat, kissed him breathless until Sam's chest eased and he was able to kiss back again, could just let himself be loved as Dean seemed determined to do, no matter what he'd done, no matter what kind of monster he'd been before.
And in fact, the crazy thing was, there didn't seem to be anything Sam could say that would convince Dean he didn't deserve to be loved, didn't deserve Dean's love. And once Dean understood the extent of Sam's sacrifice -- all that Sam had given up and tried to give up so that Dean could have his well-adjusted life and happy childhood -- well, that only made Dean love him more, if that was possible.
Because it wasn't just Dean who had been saved by Sam's choice. When Sam asked about their dad, Dean filled his head with happy memories of John Winchester and his beautiful, happy wife Mary, stories that Sam drank in like water in a parched land, recognizing John's voice in Dean's re-telling, spending hours gazing at pictures in photo albums carefully and lovingly compiled by Mary Winchester. Years and years of normal, happy family life absorbed Sam's senses as he studied the pictures -- Dean graduating from high school, proud parents and sister at his side -- Dean's Little League team, his high school prom, performing with his guitar for a middle-school talent show. Family birthday parties and picnics and barbecues and camping trips. John laughing, Mary laughing, Beth and Dean swimming in a lake as children. Dean in his Boy Scout uniform, his junior ROTC uniform, playing soccer and baseball. Dean and Emily dancing, dressed up for their senior prom, looking happy if uncomfortable in their wedding clothes. Baby Sam, looking just like his namesake as a baby, Emily holding him and smiling tiredly into the camera from a hospital bed.
Sam even found the old, faded picture of four-year-old Dean holding baby Sam, the same picture he had back at the bunker. He studied that one for awhile, haunted by his own death, the moment of divergence between the two realities almost palpable. It seemed arbitrary, his being born in this reality. But maybe that had to happen, maybe that baby and his short life was the catalyst for all the rest of it. Certainly, if it hadn't been for that little ghost, Sam himself might be really dead and gone by now. Yet instead, here he was, forging a new life with this Dean-who-was-not-his-brother, having this chance to redeem himself.
It was a gift. Almost a miracle, in fact, Sam admitted to himself finally, shocked to find out he hadn't lost his faith after all.
After about six months Sam finally decided to settle, applied as a non-traditional student at the university, and went back to school. His lack of past school records presented a bit of a challenge at first, but Sam's experience forging documents came in handy, and he didn't really need to study very hard to ace pretty much any entrance exam. And Dean's pride in Sam's scholarly abilities was definitely worth the effort it took to reclaim Sam's past academic successes.
And being a dad to Little Sam was a revelation. Because the boy really loved him, really seemed to think he'd always been there, which was just so weird and wonderful Sam didn't want to think about it too hard. It was like he had traded his childhood for Little Sam's somehow. And now the little guy -- who began to look more and more like Sam as he grew, although Dean couldn't know that -- someday Little Sam would look just like Big Sam and everyone would assume he was Sam's son. He was having this perfectly happy childhood that was totally making up for the broken mixed up childhood that Sam had had, and that was just too much to have asked for.
Another win, Sam decided.
* * *
After a year had passed without further supernatural activity, Sam decided it was safe to return to the bunker, just to check on things there. Dean insisted on coming with him, and Sam allowed that reluctantly because he had made a promise that he wasn't gonna lie to Dean, wouldn't hide anything from him, ever again. He had this superstitious idea that if he could just avoid ever doing that, no matter how difficult it might be, if he could always be honest with Dean, maybe that would prevent anything bad happening again.
He didn't quite believe that, but so far it seemed to be working, so he held to that one bit of superstitious faith just on the off-chance it was true.
Sam was apprehensive about Dean's visit to the bunker because he worried it might stir memories. Dean's visions had completely stopped after Sam entered his life, but that didn't mean they couldn't start again. Or that whatever had triggered them in the first place -- soul-mate lore aside -- might lurk in one of the places Sam and Dean had shared in that other reality.
The bunker was just the same, maybe a little dustier. Sam actually breathed a sigh of relief, realized he half-believed it might have magically vanished. But there it was, a solid, tangible reminder that the supernatural world existed, that Sam hadn't simply dreamed the last thirty years of his life.
Because yes, it had occurred to him that this reality might be a dream conjured by the djinn and that he was really lying wasting away in some dark abandoned building somewhere.
And that still might be true, but after a year in this reality, Sam knew he could never willingly leave it, would certainly never willingly return to the other reality, the one where Dean was sick and becoming more monstrous and terrifying by the minute. Sam had made his choice, and now he was determined to live in it.
Because really, watching his brother's profile as they drove back to Lawrence, watching the sunlight on his hair and the laugh lines around his eyes crinkle as he glanced at Sam, listening to his deep voice sing along with the radio and feeling his warm hand resting on Sam's thigh -- this was it. Heaven on earth. Nothing could be better.
"Thank you, Gabriel," Sam prayed silently.
And somewhere a little voice in the back of his mind snarked, "You're fuckin' welcome, you big idiot."
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