He should have burned the thing.
Too late now, Dean thinks as Sammy Number Five staggers into the bunker’s library, as confused and disoriented as the first three.
This one looks young, maybe 18 or so, definitely younger than the others. He’s still got a few teenage pimples on his smooth cheeks, and his bangs won’t stay out of his eyes, no matter how he tosses his head in that youthful, coltish way he used to do.
Sammy Five does a double-take when he sees the other Sams. They barely acknowledge him; they’re a little busy, researching a way to stop this latest (and weirdest) thing from continuing to happen.
When the kid sees Dean, his eyes widen, then he frowns, eyes narrowing suspiciously. He slides his hand into the back waistband of his jeans, where he keeps his Taurus tucked, and Dean puts a hand up.
“Hey, Sammy. Whoa there, tiger. You’re safe. It’s really me.”
Sammy Five freezes, his eyes flickering away from Dean nervously as his hands reappear, empty. He shifts from foot to foot, unsure if he should raise his hands in surrender or make a run for it. Dean can read this kid like a book.
“And these dudes are all you, from different timelines,” Dean goes on, nodding at the other Sams. The one standing by the bookcase with an open book in his hand looks up and nods a grim greeting. Sammy Number One, Dean thinks. His Sam. The one from this time.
“We’ve had a little time travel malfunction,” Dean explains. “You guys have been coming through at the rate of about one an hour all day. I keep telling them we should burn the thing...”
“Dean.” Sammy Number Three rolls his eyes. Post-Purgatory Sam. He looks like he’s about thirty, from that year after Dean was in Purgatory. His hair is as long as it’s ever been, and he keeps giving Dean guilty looks every few minutes. “We already nixed that idea, remember?”
“Yeah,” Mystery Spot Sam chimes in. He was the first one to come through the time-closet in Sam’s bedroom, and he’s obviously from that horrible period just before Dean went to Hell. He keeps touching Dean, like he’s afraid he’s about to disappear. Or as if he can’t quite believe he’s still alive. “If we do that, how are we going to get back?”
“Oh, and you want to go back, do you? You want to see what happens next? ‘Cause I can promise you, it ain’t pretty.”
“Dean!” Sammy Four snaps. He’s from the time just after Kevin died, when the Dean in his time made one of the biggest mistakes of his life. He’s pissed, can’t even look at Dean without anger in his eyes. Dean thinks of him as “Not-Gadreel Sam.” “We have to fix this. If we don’t, this –– “ he waves his hand around the room, glances at Sammy One before he glares at Dean again. “None of this will happen. This future will cease to exist. And I can already see, things are better here than they are in my time.”
“Yeah, they are,” Dean breathes. He still feels the old twinge of guilt for shoving an angel into his brother all those years ago. He’ll probably never get over it.
“So let’s fix this,” Not-Gadreel Sam barks, pulling another book off a shelf and turning his back to Dean.
“What is this place?” Sammy Five asks, tossing his hair out of his eyes as he stares around the bunker curiously.
“Better for you if you don’t know too much,” Not-Gadreel Sam grumbles.
“No, it’s okay,” Sammy One says. “I’ve got a spell that’ll wipe his memories just before he goes back. He won’t remember a thing about this place.”
“A spell?” Mystery Spot Sam looks worried. “You’re doing magic now?”
Dean can see his big brain working. Maybe there’s a way to save Dean here, he’s thinking. Dean knows him.
“I dabble a little,” Sammy One says modestly. Dean snickers.
“Anybody hungry?” Dean claps his hands, raises his eyebrows expectantly. “Cuz I’m starving.”
Post-Purgatory Sam rolls his eyes. “Same old Dean, I see.” But he’s the one who follows Dean into the kitchen.
As Dean pulls eggs and bacon and orange juice out of the icebox, Post-Purgatory Sam finds the griddle and some plates, pours himself a glass of juice.
“So, you’re not mad at me anymore,” he comments. His tone is tentative, hopeful, but also challenging.
Dean glances at him as he turns on the griddle, gets out a bowl for the pancake batter.
“That was a long time ago for me,” he says. “Water under the bridge.”
Post-Purgatory Sam huffs out a breath. “You were pretty mad.”
Dean shrugs. “And now I’m not,” he says, cracking eggs into the bowl. “Time heals all wounds, Sammy. You know that.”
“Or I did something to atone for what I did,” post-Purgatory Sam suggests.
Dean thinks about the Trials, thinks about how sick Sam was, how determined to do them even if they killed him.
“Water under the bridge, Sam,” Dean growls again. “Just let it go.”
“Huh,” Post-Purgatory Sam nods. He’s got his answer, knows he’s about to make some horrible choice to atone for giving up when Dean went to Purgatory.
It makes Dean sick to think about.
This whole thing is making Dean sick. Revisiting the past this way, with all of these different versions of Sam in their home at once, it’s almost worse than spending forty years in Hell. Most of the time, Dean can go day to day without thinking about the mistakes he’s made. Most of the time, he doesn’t have to face the choices that got their friends killed, the mistakes that sent Sam into the Cage with Lucifer riding him. He’ll never make up for those choices, so it’s easier to forget about them. He suspects Sam feels the same way. Some things should never be dredged up, never discussed. It’s how they’ve survived this long.
One thing’s for sure. After they send all of these Sams back where they belong, they’re burning that damn time closet.
“Smells good in here.” Mystery Spot Sam shuffles into the kitchen, eyes seeking out Dean in that needy way Dean remembers from that period before he went to Hell. It gives Dean the creeps.
“Sit down, Sam,” Dean tells him.
Both Sams obey immediately, bumping shoulders in their haste. They flinch away, startled, as if they’d forgotten there were two of them in the room, and when they sit down on opposite sides of the table they frown warily at each other.
Dean rolls his eyes.
“You two should have a lot to talk about,” he says as he spoons scrambled eggs onto their plates. “I died for both of you. You can compare guilt trips.”
“You died at least 100 times for me,” Mystery Spot Sam corrects. “Broward County, remember?”
Dean shakes his head. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, kid, if you think Florida was tough. And no, I don’t remember, thanks to Gabriel. Nice of him to make sure you never forgot, though. Dick.”
He slams the empty pan onto the stove, suddenly angry. Sam always had it worse. Sam’s suffering was always longer and more intense than Dean’s, in practically every timeline. It’s unfair. Dean would trade places with any one of these Sams if he could save them some pain.
“But you survived in the end,” Mystery Spot Sam says as Not-Gadreel Sam digs into his plate of food. “That means there’s hope for my Dean.”
“Oh, you think me going to Hell is the worst thing that happens to us?” Dean wipes his hands on a dishtowel, flings it onto the counter next to the sink. “Cuz it happened, Sam. It happened. But that was only the beginning.”
Mystery Spot Sam blinks at him, and Dean can see the desperation in his hazel eyes, hope dying as Dean’s words sink in.
“Dean,” Post-Purgatory Sam reprimands softly. “Don’t.”
“And you,” Dean snarls at the older, longer-haired Sam. “You think not saving me from Purgatory was the worst mistake you ever made? Because I can promise you, we’ve done worse. The way I yelled at you for giving up after what I did while you were in the Cage with Lucifer… That was worse. After what happened to you, I had no right. I should have been on my knees begging you to forgive me for that, and instead, all I could do was yell at you for giving up hunting and not looking for me.”
“Dean...” Post-Purgatory Sam looks devastated.
“I was an ass, Sam,” Dean goes on. “And things only got worse. I thought I couldn’t live without you when you were dying, so I made the worst mistake of my life. The worst! There’s no forgiving that one, I can promise you that. You think I’m lying? Ask Not-Gadreel in there. Go ahead! Ask him!”
“Dean,” Post-Purgatory Sam tries again, but Dean interrupts, shaking his head sharply as he heads toward the door.
“I can’t do this,” he mutters angrily. “I’ll be in the firing range if you need me.”
Dean’s on his fifth round when he catches a glimpse of young Stanford-era Sam hovering on the edge of his peripheral vision. He lets the kid stand there for a minute or two as he finishes the round, hitting the bullseye every time. Then he locks the safety back on his empty gun and puts it down on the ledge in front of him.
“Hey.” Stanford-Sam shuffles awkwardly, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans. He’s wearing the hoodie Dean remembers so well from those days. Dean figured the kid lived in that thing, probably slept in it.
It makes him look young and vulnerable, despite his height. He’s just starting to grow into his muscles, the gawky boy he used to be still prominent.
He’s adorable. He brings out all of Dean’s protective instincts. Dean would love to take this kid and hide him somewhere safe, keep him from ever finding out what’s in store for him. Stop it all from happening.
“You wanna shoot some rounds?” Dean offers.
“Nah, I’m good,” Stanford-Sam says with a shrug.
Dean nods. “You want a tour of the bunker?”
Anything to avoid going back to the library.
Stanford-Sam’s smile is positively blinding. Dean had forgotten how devastating young Sam’s smiles could be.
“That would be great.”
Dean nods. “Well, this is the shooting range. Obviously. And over here, through that door, is our gym.”
He brushes past Stanford-Sam to pull the door open, trying to ignore the whiff of something sweet and familiar. Stanford-Sam’s been eating candy. Sam always ate candy at this age. The sugar helped him concentrate. He didn’t like coffee back then, and Dean didn’t like him drinking it for fear the caffeine would stunt his growth.
So Sam ate candy instead to help him stay awake while he studied.
“What?” Stanford-Sam asks curiously in response to Dean’s faraway smile.
“What? Oh nothing. I just remember how much you loved those gummy candies. What were they called? Gummy Worms?”
Stanford-Sam flushes. “I don’t eat those anymore?”
“No,” Dean shakes his head. “You’re a coffee-drinker now, same as me. Coffee to wake up, whiskey to wind down. We pretty much share all our poisons these days.”
Stanford-Sam wrinkles his nose. “Whiskey. Yuck.”
Dean chuckles. “Give it a few years, Sammy. Give it a few years.”
Dean leads the way into the garage, tries not to look too pleased as Stanford-Sam recognizes his baby.
“Wow! Dad gave you the car?” Stanford-Sam runs his hands along the hood and up over the roof.
“Just after you left for college, yeah.” Dean raises an eyebrow as Stanford-Sam bends to look inside the car. “When exactly are you from, anyway?”
“Two-thousand-two,” Stanford-Sam says. “First week of February.”
Just after Dean’s twenty-third birthday. Sam had drunk-dialed and hung up five times that night. The last time, he breathed heavily into the phone until Dean told him to hang up and go to sleep. He knows exactly how much Sam was missing him, because he had felt the same way. Torn apart from the inside out, holding on by a thread.
“I always thought Dad gave me the car as a consolation prize for losing you,” Dean says. It’s easy to be honest after all the years that have passed and everything they’ve been through. “Now that I think about it, he probably meant it as a consolation prize for losing both of us.”
“But didn’t you and Dad keep hunting together after I left?”
“Not much.” Dean shrugs. “Dad was always kind of a lone wolf, remember? He didn’t work so well with others.”
Stanford-Sam stares at him, stunned. “You were alone? You hunted by yourself?”
“Nah.” Dean huffs out a laugh, knocking his shoulder into Stanford-Sam’s to wipe that look off his face. “I knew plenty of hunters. I wasn’t stupid, Sam. I knew better than to hunt alone, most of the time.”
Stanford-Sam’s clearly horrified. He doesn’t believe Dean. He always assumed Dean would become their dad’s hunting partner. Dean knows that’s what Sam thought because he’d told him so. Sam always figured he was the one making his way all by himself in the world. Sam always figured he was missing Dean way more than Dean was missing him.
It’s how Sam justified staying away for so long without calling. He always figured Dean preferred it that way.
“Doesn’t matter now, anyway,” Dean reminds him. “As you can see, we’re together now. These days it’s just you, me, and Baby, doing what we do, same as it’s always been.”
“Dad’s gone,” Stanford-Sam says softly, shoves his hands in the front pockets of his jeans.
“Yeah. He’s been gone a few years now.”
Stanford-Sam’s eyes fill with tears and his lips tremble. He nods. “How— How did it happen?”
“Died doing what he loved,” Dean says, fighting a sudden wave of grief. Seeing Sam like this, still so young and unaware, takes Dean back to that time before, makes it seem fresh again. “Went down fighting the good fight, like he always said he would.”
This young version of Sam doesn’t need to know the details. He doesn’t need to know that their dad sold his soul to save Dean’s life. He doesn’t need to know about their dad’s final words to Dean.
It’s all so long ago now.
“Come on,” Dean smiles and claps a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I’ll show you the dungeon.”
“You have a dungeon?” Stanford-Sam wipes his eyes with the back of his hand and tries to laugh.
“Kept the King of Hell captive there for the better part of a year, once,” Dean brags. He pats Stanford-Sam on the back as he guides the kid out of the garage.
They run into Sammy One in the corridor. “Found a spell,” he says, frowning at Stanford-Sam’s flushed cheeks and reddened eyes. He raises an eyebrow at his brother, who shakes his head and rolls his eyes.
“Oh goody. More magic.” Dean thinks for exactly one second about returning to the library, then turns and heads back down the stairs to the garage. “I’ll just be down here if you need me.”
“Dean, we need you,” Sammy One calls after him. “The spell calls for the blood of the next of kin. Pretty sure that means you.”
Dean throws his hands up in defeat. He knew his being gone while the Sammies did their research was too good to last.
With a deep, put-upon sigh, he turns and reluctantly follows the two Sams up the stairs.
“Our working theory is that the time closet is acting as a conduit for each of us to try to solve various crises at different times in our lives,” Sammy One explains.
“That makes sense.” Not-Gadreel Sam nods. “From what you’ve told us, that’s what it always does.”
“Right.” Sammy One says. “But in the past, it only sent through one of you — one of me — at a time. Obviously, something’s not right. And I think I know what it is.”
Dean glances around the table. The original four extra Sammys have been joined by two more, and Dean can be forgiven if he flinches when they meet his eyes. One of them is probably from that period when he was a demon, if the desperate look in his eyes is any indication. The other one makes Dean remember that period of their lives just before Sam killed Lilith. He looks guilty and defiant at the same time, and Dean wants to grab him and shake him, hold him down so he can’t go through with the terrible thing he’s about to do.
Dean would travel back through time and save Sam from the Cage in a heartbeat, if he could.
But apparently that had never been an option. The time closet belonged to Sam, and apparently only Sam could use it. Or overuse it, as was the case now.
“You think this time isn’t right,” Not-Gadreel Sam suggests, obviously following Sammy One’s train of thought better than Dean could. Obviously not as distracted as Dean is by the overabundance of Sam in the room. “The closet’s trying to fix the timeline the only way it knows how.”
“By making it clear there’s a problem,” Post-Purgatory Sam chimes in. “So we’ll be forced to fix it.”
“Wait a minute,” Dean interrupts. “Are you saying that thing is malfunctioning on purpose? It’s spitting out all of you at once just to get our attention? Why?”
He stares around the room at the identical faces, all but one looking back at him with that slightly fond, slightly condescending expression Sam gets when Dean’s being dense.
Not-Gadreel Sam stares at the floor, arms crossed, jaw clenched. He’s got no patience for Dean right now.
“Something’s wrong with this timeline, Dean,” Sammy One explains. He’s being gentle, like he’s feeling sorry for Dean for not understanding. “What’s happening now isn’t supposed to happen.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious!” Dean huffs. “You’re not all supposed to be here, in this room, at the same time, being bigger pains in my ass than usual!”
“No, it’s more than that,” Post-Purgatory Sam says. “What he means is, you — and him — you’re not supposed to be here.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I live here!” Dean glares, furious because he really doesn’t understand. This whole thing is annoying, confusing, and downright infuriating. He definitely needs a drink.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Not-Gadreel Sam says sharply. “You don’t know. The point is, this timeline is wrong, and we have to fix it before it goes even further off course.”
Dean thinks about that for a moment, then it hits him. “It’s something we did, isn’t it? One of the Sams we brought here from the past went back with knowledge he wasn’t supposed to have.”
Sammy One looks dubious. “Maybe,” he says. “Or maybe when I used it to travel back in time I changed something. We’ll never know. If we fix it, we won’t remember.”
Dean stares around the room, considering how each Sam is frozen in a moment in time when things could have gone very differently. If he could, Dean would do anything to prevent each of them from going through the suffering headed their way. But he can’t save them all. It makes every bone in his body hurt to admit it, but he knows he can’t save them all.
“Okay.” Dean takes a deep breath. “Let’s do this.”
“Dean, if this works, then this reality ceases to exist.” Mystery Spot Sam says. He’s clearly worried.
“Yeah? But that means you all go home, right?”
“Well, yes,” Mystery Spot Sam admits. “But you’re here, in this timeline. You survived Hell. And I don’t need to know the details; it’s just enough to know you survived. But what if — in the other reality — What if you didn’t make it?”
Dean exchanges knowing glances with Sammys One, Three, Six and Seven.
Not-Gadreel Sam rolls his eyes.
“He survives in any timeline,” he growls angrily. “It’s all predestined, goes way back to Cain and Abel. ‘Dean Winchester must be saved.’ So don’t worry. Dean’s existence — and yours — doesn’t end when he goes to Hell.”
“What’s he talking about, Dean?” Stanford-Sam asks, wide-eyed, freaked out by all of this.
“Never mind, college boy,” Dean says, giving his voice the authority and reassurance that usually works on most Sammys. “They know what they’re doing. Everything’s gonna be just fine.”
“Liar,” Not-Gadreel Sam mutters.
“All right, that’s enough!” Sammy One admonishes. “We need to do this spell before another me comes crashing through that time closet. We’ve been off the timeline long enough as it is.”
Sammy One and Not-Gadreel Sam have assembled the ingredients for the spell with help from Sammy Six, Demon-Dean Sam, who keeps casting wounded glances Dean’s way. He’s thin and haggard, arm in a sling, and Dean feels guilty just looking at him.
He grabs a knife, checks the sharpness with his thumb, then lays the edge of the blade against the tender underside of his forearm. There are several paper-thin scars there, just like the one he’s about to make for this spell.
“Okay. Let me know how much and when.”
Sammy One holds out the silver spell cup. Dean can see sage and rosemary and what looks like bird bones in the bottom of the cup.
“Baby lizard embryos,” Sammy One corrects, as if he can read Dean’s mind. “Still in the shell. Found ‘em in your ‘Gross Stuff’ drawer.”
“Of course you did,” Dean growls, holding his arm over the cup to wait for his brother’s signal.
There’s a moment when their eyes meet, when Dean notes the emotion there, all of Sam’s personal fear that things will change irrevocably after this. Sam fears that Dean won’t be the same, that when they fix the timeline he’ll be a different man. Still Sam’s brother, but not. Sam fears his own tenuous hold on reality.
“Stone number one, Sam,” Dean murmurs. “Stone number one.”
Sam nods and clenches his jaw. “Right. Let’s do this,” he says, echoing Dean’s words as he squares his shoulders.
Nothing happens when the first drop of blood hits the other ingredients, nor the second, nor the third drop. Dean clenches his fist, making himself bleed faster before the wound closes. But it’s not until Dean’s bled seven drops of blood into the bowl, one for each Sam in the room, that something happens.
Dean’s about ready to give up. He’s feeling slightly nauseous and more than a little tired, day-dreaming about locking himself in his room for the night while the place gets overrun with Sammys because this is clearly not working...
Then the lights flicker and dim. Dean looks up from the bowl as the air in the room suddenly seems thinner, like that time Ketch locked them in to die. He catches Sam’s gaze, realizes that he’s been chanting under his breath the whole time but now he’s stopped. Now he’s staring back at Dean with a shocked expression.
“Dean! You’re fading!”
Sam’s voice sounds far away, as if it’s coming from down at the other end of a long tunnel. The room gets dimmer, so that when Dean glances around he can barely make out the faces of the other Sams, all gathered in a circle around him. Dean’s heart pounds and sweat breaks out on the back of his neck. He’s dizzy and having trouble breathing, sure he’s about to pass out. His arm throbs.
Just before he passes out, he hears the Sams calling out to him in various tones of distress. Even Not-Gadreel Sam looks worried, and Dean’s just enough of a dick to get a little satisfaction from that, although he’s flooded with guilt at the same time, of course, since that’s just the way he’s made.
Then everything goes dark.