Sam’s phone buzzes.
He rolls over in bed, grabs the phone off the nightstand, and flips it open.
Hey, buddy. How’s tricks?
Dude. It’s the middle of the night,
Just checking in on my favorite cyber buddy. Just had a dream about you.
Yeah? This is bound to be kinky, so Sam gets up, careful not to wake Jessica. They’ve only been living together for a couple of months, and she’s used to his late-night online social life, but she doesn’t know about Jensen. Not really. Switching to chat.
Sam pulls his laptop off the table and settles himself on the couch.
Can’t stop thinking about your ass, Jensen types.
You’ve never seen my ass, Sam types back.
Tight, pert, hot. Like the rest of you only with a hole.
Dude, I’ve got a mouth, too! Sam types indignantly.
Love your mouth. Wanna put my dick in it.
Okay, Sam types. He slides his hand down the front of his sweatpants, palms his cock through the material.
You got your hand on your dick?
Good. Real good. I wish I had two dicks so I could put one in your mouth and the other one in your ass at the same time.
Yeah, that’s right. Show me what you got. I can see you lying on the couch, legs spread for me, letting me fuck you everywhere. That’s it. Now come for me.
Sam tips his head back, comes hard inside his sweatpants, wipes his damp hand off as he lies back on the couch, breathing deep as he comes down.
Yeah, baby Jensen’s words pop up on the screen. You’re so good for me.
Can I go back to sleep now? I’ve got an ethics exam in the morning.
Course you can. Just don’t say you didn’t need that.
And the truth is, Sam did. Jensen always seems to know what he needs. It’s not the first time they’ve had cybersex, or even the twentieth. Even after he and Jessica started dating, Sam couldn’t cut Jensen off. He tells himself it wasn’t really cheating, since he doesn’t know Jensen in real life, but he feels guilty anyway.
Jensen’s been Sam’s lifeline for over three years. He’s his best friend. If it wasn’t for Jensen, Sam would have gone crazy by now, hiding himself away like he does, never letting anyone see the real Sam. Not even Jessica.
Especially not Jessica. She’s the key to the normal life Sam’s been hankering for since forever, but the truth is, it’s exhausting being her boyfriend. She lives her life in a bubble of suburban fantasies, her dreams of the future filled with white picket fences, kids and dogs. And it isn’t that Sam doesn’t see the appeal of those things. He does. It’s just that he knows better. He knows what’s out there.
And it’s not just the supernatural world of monsters and demons. There’s something else, something that’s controlling it all. Ever since Sam stumbled into a chat room full of gamers and hackers during the spring of freshman year, he’s been living a double life. These people are serious cyber nerds, but they’re also a kind of cult. They know things. Things about the supernatural world. Things about hunters and monsters and their place in the greater scheme of things.
They seem to be able to predict the future.
Jensen’s one of them. From the beginning, Sam felt as though he’d found a soulmate. It’s not just all the things they have in common: Jensen’s real life family are hunters, just like Sam’s. He leads a double life, just like Sam.
Actually, Sam’s leading a triple life. Jessica thinks he’s a normal college kid with family issues. It’s getting confusing.
Sam and Jensen talk about everything. Sam feels like he can share his anxieties about the hunting life and Jensen gets it. He sympathizes. He actually encourages Sam in his pursuit of a normal life. But he also sympathizes with Sam’s loneliness because he can’t confide in anyone in that world.
Recently, since Sam and Jessica got serious, Jensen has been suggesting that the real world may not be what Sam thinks it is.
At first, Sam figured Jensen was joking. Then Jensen started giving him little hints.
Your history teacher’s sister gets into a car accident tomorrow, Jensen tells him one night, and sure enough, it happens. During history class, Sam’s professor is called away, white-faced and in shock.
How did you know? Sam instant messages that night.
We should meet, Jensen answers.
It’s not the first time Jensen’s suggested they meet in real life.
Jensen thinks Sam’s name is Jared. They both know their names are fake. They know everything about each other. Jensen has a little brother, a real pain in the ass who thinks he can have a white-picket-fence life if he just goes to college for a few years. Jensen misses him like a hole in the heart, but he’ll never admit it. Sam can tell, though. Jensen gets monosyllabic when he talks about his brother.
Sam tells Jensen about Dean. He tells Jensen everything. He doesn’t go into lurid detail about his feelings for Dean, but Jensen gets it anyway. Of course he does.
It’s such a relief to confide in someone. Sam’s never quitting Jensen as long as he lives.
But meeting him in real life is a different matter. Once he knows Jensen in the real world, their relationship will gain physical substance. He’ll have to tell Jessica about Jensen. It won’t be fair if he doesn’t.
That’s the clincher. After two months of cohabiting with his girlfriend, Sam’s beginning to unravel. Hiding his true selves from Jessica is overwhelming. She understands that he’s been damaged by the way he was raised. She sympathizes with his nightmares, accepts the way he keeps a knife tucked under the mattress, a handgun in the nightstand. But she thinks he can get better. She thinks she can fix him.
But Sam’s broken in ways Jessica can’t ever fix. She can’t ever know how messed up he is. It’s far safer for her to keep believing in the stable future she craves. The more he learns about the crazy and weird all around him and how deep it really goes, the more he’s sure he can’t drag Jessica into that. Sam needs Jessica to have the life she deserves.
He owes her that.
We should meet, Jensen suggests again, and this time Sam doesn’t refuse.
The dance floor is crammed with sweaty bodies, the music unbearably loud. It’s one of those campus clubs where the booze is cheap and the lighting makes everybody look a little dangerous. Sexy.
Sam would know those strong shoulders and bow legs anywhere. When Dean turns, the old familiar shock of lust and sheer joy surges through Sam, momentarily taking his breath away.
Then annoyance crowds in, just as familiar, and he frowns at his brother.
“What are you doing here?”
Dean doesn’t smirk, doesn’t look him up and down in that infuriating way that’s half teasing, half daring him to admit how much Sam wants the one person he can’t have.
Instead, he meets Sam’s gaze with a steady, meaningful look that makes Sam’s gut clench. He’s suddenly sure Dean’s here with bad news.
“We need to talk.”
“Is it Dad?” Sam shouts over the music. “Is he okay?”
Dean shakes his head sharply, and Sam breathes a sigh of relief. After the way Sam left, part of him expects never to see his dad again. John’s obsession for revenge and his sheer recklessness has always been a recipe for disaster. Now that John’s getting older and his reflexes are slower, some monster is just bound to take him out. It’s only a matter of time.
All Sam can hope for is that John doesn’t get Dean killed when he goes down. Sam thinks he could survive his dad’s death, but not Dean’s.
“Dad’s fine,” Dean shouts. “I need to talk to you about your dreams.”
“What?” Sam’s not sure he’s hearing right. It sounds like Dean just said something about Sam’s dreams, which doesn’t make sense. He hasn’t told anyone about that, not even Jensen. Definitely not Jessica. They’re too disturbing.
Dreaming about watching your girlfriend burn to death on the ceiling the way your mother died is just freaky. Some kind of oedipal nightmare. Definitely not something to talk about with anybody, least of all the brother who’s been the star of far too many fantasies himself.
Dean leans in close, so he says the words directly into Sam’s ear, so that he doesn’t have to shout. “They’re demon-blood visions. Death omens.”
Dean’s breath on Sam’s skin makes his dick twitch.
“What?” Sam pulls back so he can stare at Dean, see if he can read anything teasing in his tone or his face.
“It’s true, Sam,” Dean says. “I’m telling you the truth. If you don’t come with me now, your girlfriend is gonna die.”
Sam stares, flabbergasted. “Go with you? Why would I go with you? Go where?”
Dean leans in close again and Sam can’t help the tingling rush of pleasure that flows down his spine. He’s hard in his jeans and grateful for the darkness.
“I know who you are,” Dean says. “Who you really are, Jared.”
Sam starts, turns to stare at Dean in shock. Of course their faces are only an inch apart, their mouths so close Sam can feel Dean’s breath, his warmth. He can smell Dean’s aftershave.
“What did you just say?” The words whisper over Dean’s lips, and Dean smiles, lifts his eyes to Sam’s.
Deep pools of green stare up at him, a little cross-eyed this close, and the temptation to kiss that smug look off Dean’s face is powerful. Sam could grab the upper hand by doing that. There’s no way Dean would expect it. Dean thinks he’s little Sammy, the kid brother who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow. Dean can’t imagine what Sam’s been up to since he started Stanford, what Sam’s discovered.
Jared. How the hell does his brother know that name?
Dean nods, holding Sam’s gaze. “I’m Jensen.”
Oh, hell no. Sam’s eyes widen in shock. Disbelief.
At the same time, it makes sense. It’s the logical explanation that makes so many things fall into place. The way Jensen knew so much about him, the way he teased and flirted and seemed to guess Sam’s moods. The way he seemed to know Sam.
“The hell you are!” Sam raises his fist, tightens his jaw.
Dean grabs the lapels of Sam’s jacket and shoves in close, holding his gaze.
“Think about it, Sam! You know it’s true!”
Sam’s mind races. All the conversations, all the revelations, all the predictions. The weird moments when Sam felt sure that Jensen knew him too well, like he’d gotten under Sam’s skin.
“Why? Why now?” Sam shouts.
“The Matrix is trying to control you. It wants you to go down the same road it sent Dad down, all those years ago. And to do it, it’s gonna kill your girlfriend.” Dean takes a breath, shakes Sam. “But you don’t have to go down that road, Sam. You can choose! Tonight. Right now.”
Sam blinks. “The Matrix?” He’s heard the word, but only in passing. Whenever he comes across a discussion in a chat room and the word comes up, nobody answers him when he asks about it. Everybody just leaves the room. “What’s the Matrix?”
“Come with me and find out,” Dean says. He backs off, lets his arms swing loose, but Sam’s not fooled. He knows how his brother moves, how he’s always ready for anything.
Dean’s okay with the sex.
That’s what blows Sam’s mind. He’s not really surprised about the rest of it, and although he’s curious as hell about this shadowy thing called The Matrix, he’s absolutely gob-smacked about the idea that Dean is Jensen.
“You lied to me!” Sam blurts, accusing. “For years! And now you want me to come with you?”
Dean licks his lips, flinches, looks away. “Yeah, well, I thought it was for the best.”
“How was it for the best?” Sam shouts. “Huh? How is lying to me for three years, pretending to be somebody else... How is that a good thing in any way, Dean?”
Dean rolls his eyes. “I thought you’d be safe,” he says. “I thought you could have the normal life you wanted.” He raises his eyes, stares hard at Sam. “I was wrong. Okay? I was wrong.”
Sam clenches his fists. “And that’s not even the worst of it,” he yells as the music pounds. Half of him wishes they could go somewhere private to do this. But the other half needs the adrenaline rush of the atmosphere here — the loud, dark, crowded club. Shouting at Dean feels good right now. “You made me think my brother didn’t want to see me. All those years, you never called...”
“Would you have picked up?” Dean counters, and Sam knows he’s got a point. Sam was so angry at Dean for siding with their dad, all those years ago.
“What about Dad?” Sam asks.
Dean shakes his head. “What about him?”
“Where does he think you are right now?”
Dean looks away again, huffs out a small laugh. “On a hunt, I guess,” he says. “Same as him.”
Sam’s shocked. “He lets you hunt alone?”
Dean looks up, stares hard into Sam’s eyes. “We haven’t hunted together in years, Sam. Dad’s a lone wolf, you know that. After you left, he took off. Said he didn’t need my help after all.”
Sam can feel the effort it takes Dean to admit he’s been abandoned by the father he expected to partner with after Sam left. Imagining Dean hunting alone makes Sam’s chest tighten. His anger melts away, replaced by a fear of losing Dean that makes him shiver in the overheated room.
“Did you tell him about the Matrix?” Sam demands.
Dean shakes his head. “It’s too late for him. He’s too invested. It would destroy his mind, finding out the truth.” Sam can see the pain in Dean’s eyes, but it’s an old pain, like something he’s had to face for a while now. “But you can take it, Sam. I know you can. I know you.”
Sam can’t find any answer to that. Dean knows him because he raised him. Dean knows him because he’s Jensen, the confidante Sam’s half in love with even though they’ve never met.
Dean looks over Sam’s shoulder, into the crowd, and his eyes widen. Sam feels a chill run up his spine as Dean reaches for him.
“We’ve been spotted,” he says. “We need to go now!”
Sam hesitates for only a second. Even though it’s been four years since he hunted with his brother, the instincts and reflexes are still there. His body moves in sync with Dean’s of its own accord.
Dean leads him into a passageway behind the bar, up some stairs and into a hallway lined with doors. Apartments. There are student apartments above the club. In the quiet away from the club, Sam can hear someone clambering up the stairs behind them. He glances over his shoulder as two men in black suits and sunglasses round the corner of the stairwell, guns drawn.
“Come on!” Dean urges, and Sam hurries to follow.
“They’re human!” he hisses.
“They’re agents,” Dean says. At the end of the hall, he opens a window, gestures for Sam to follow him as he climbs out onto the fire escape.
It’s dark outside, raining softly, and the fire escape is cold and slippery. Sam suddenly wishes he was home in bed with Jessica. None of this feels right.
“Come on, Sam! Let’s go!” Dean’s on the fire escape, gesturing frantically.
“This is crazy,” Sam mutters. It occurs to him that his brother has gone off the deep end, finally committed some capital crime that’s got the FBI on his tail.
Sam could turn himself in, let Dean escape. It’s not like they can hold Sam. He hasn’t done anything.
“They’re not human, Sam,” Dean growls. “You’ve got to trust me on that.”
“Halt!” Someone shouts from the end of the hall. “Put your hands where we can see them!”
Just as Sam starts to obey, he finds himself pushed out of the way. Shots ring out, close enough to make his head pound as Dean leans in the window and shoots both agents dead.
“I said, they’re not human,” Dean growls, grabbing Sam’s arm. “Now come on!”
Horrified, relying on instinct, Sam climbs out the window, onto the fire escape. Cold rain slaps his face, pierces his clothing. The narrow stairs are slippery and rickety, threatening to come loose from the building. Dean’s halfway up the first flight.
Sam follows, shivering. He’s in shock. He trusts his brother, but he’s freaked out, too. What if Dean has lost his mind? What if the shadowy hacker world is just a sham? Just a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists boosting each other’s egos?
When they reach the roof, Dean leads him across to the other side, peers over the edge.
“What now?” Sam asks as he stops beside him. They’re ten floors up. There’s an identical building roof directly across, a dark narrow alley between.
“We jump,” Dean directs, nodding at the other building. He backs up to give himself a running start.
Sam gasps. “Are you insane? No way you’re gonna make that!”
“Watch me.” Dean gives him a lop-sided grin.
Before Sam can stop him, Dean takes off at a dead run for the edge of the roof. Sam watches in horrified fascination as his brother leaves the edge of the roof and seems to soar upwards for a moment before making a perfect landing on the opposite roof. He turns, arms spread wide, grinning at Sam.
“See?” he calls. “Easy peasy. Now come on, Sammy. It’s your turn.”
“This is insane,” Sam mutters. But there’s no way he’ll let Dean beat him. He’s Sam’s brother, not a superhero. Even if there were times Sam thought he was, years ago when he was too little to know better.
He keeps his eye on Dean as he backs up as far as he can, then runs toward the edge of the roof. Gravel crunches under his feet, rain slashes at his cheeks and gets into his eyes. When he hits the edge of the roof he keeps going, propelling himself forward with sheer momentum, keeping his eyes on Dean the whole time.
He lands hard, pitches forward and goes down. He manages to roll into the fall so he hits the ground shoulder first, a sharp pain shooting up from his shoulder to his neck, across his back.
Dean’s there in an instant, hand warm on his back, his neck, checking for injuries. It’s a familiar touch, and Sam leans into it, lets it soothe him and make him feel better. Dean’s touch has always had that magic ability to heal and soothe.
Sam’s missed it too much.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” he mutters as he scrambles to his feet, favoring his left arm. He brushes off Dean’s offer of help, aching for more of his touch at the same time.
“Not bad, little brother.” Dean grins at him, approving. “We’ll have you jumping sky-scrapers in no time.”
Sam looks back. The jump he just made seems impossible. The distance is too great.
“What if I didn’t make it?” he wonders out loud.
“Knew you would,” Dean says with confidence. “You’re one of us. Now come on.”
More perplexed than ever, Sam follows as Dean leads him through a door and down some stairs. This building appears deserted, dim lighting from a single bulb hanging above them as they descend. Dean pulls out his flashlight when they reach the landing, counts closed doors to the third one on the right, and grabs the knob. He looks up at Sam before he turns it.
“Ready to have your mind blown, Sammy?”
Sam’s not sure he’s ready for whatever is about to happen, but he’s sure he’ll follow Dean anywhere. He’s already wondering how he could have left him in the first place. The reasons he always told himself no longer exist. Dean knows, and the feeling is mutual.
Sam nods, and Dean opens the door.
Inside, three people are gathered around two computer monitors. A fourth sits alone in a giant armchair next to an empty couch, sipping whiskey while he watches TV. The room is sparsely furnished, dusty and unlived in, like so many of the places where the Winchesters squatted while Sam was growing up. Two tall, bare windows rise up dark and streaked with rain on the far wall. The only light other than the monitors comes from a dusty chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
Armchair Man looks up as Sam and Dean enter.
“Ah, Jensen,” he says in a gravelly English accent. “You found him.”
“‘Course I found him,” Dean growls. “He’s my brother.”
“The fabled Winchester brothers.” The man nods. “In the flesh.”
His eyes roam down Sam’s body appreciatively, and Sam flushes. He doesn’t like this man on principle, wonders why Dean trusts him.
Everyone in the room is dressed in black. Black jackets over black jeans and t-shirts. The only woman in the room, a petite redhead, wears leather from head to stiletto-heeled toe.
“Hello, boys,” she greets them. The others have turned their attention to Sam and Dean as well, and Sam feels like a specimen under a microscope.
“I’m Ruthie,” the woman says, extending her hand with a calculated smile.
Sam takes it and she squeezes, tiny bones cracking in his hand.
“This is Robbie, Rich, and Mark.” She nods to her companions, indicating the man in the armchair last. “And you’re Jared.”
“Sam,” Sam corrects. “Jared’s just the name I use online.”
“Oh you poor boy.” Ruthie shakes her head. “We are online.” She gestures at Mark. “In this world, he’s a demon named Crowley, and I’m a 300-year-old witch.”
“My mother,” Mark says, rolling his eyes. “As if.”
“You’re a demon?” Sam gasps. He glares at Dean. “You’re friends with a demon?”
“Relax,” Dean says. “It’s not what it looks like. Nothing is. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“It’s true,” Mark says. “I’m not really a demon. It would be nice, having all that power, but this is the only place I can use it. And this isn’t real, so.”
“We’re all just human,” one of the other men says. Robbie or Rich, Sam’s not sure which. “Some of us get to play God in here, but it’s just a game. Like Grand Theft Auto with demons and angels.”
“Angels? What the hell? What does any of this have to do with the Matrix?” Sam’s confusion has grown until it verges on panic.
“Sit down.” Mark directs him to the couch. “It’ll be easier if we show you.”
Dean’s reassurance gives Sam courage. If this is okay with Dean, Sam’s willing to put aside his doubts and play along. They sit side-by-side, arms and legs touching, as Robbie, Rich, and Ruthie crowd around behind them. Mark presses a button on the remote control and images fill the TV screen as he narrates, explaining that the real world ended over 1,000 years ago and Sam’s living in a dream world created by a sentient artificial intelligence. Human beings are gestated in test tubes, plugged into the Matrix at birth, and used as batteries to generate energy for the machines who keep them alive solely for that purpose.
As Dean had warned, Sam’s mind is blown.
“But why demons?” he says when Mark finishes. “Why would the Matrix create a secret layer of monsters and hunters underneath all that normal? What’s the point of that?”
“Some humans are born wanting more,” Robbie says. “It’s in our DNA. We think the Matrix created the supernatural world as a way to satisfy that need, to keep those minds distracted so they wouldn’t dig deeper. So they wouldn’t learn the truth.”
“But you did dig deeper,” Sam says, looking around at each of the room’s occupants until his eyes meet Dean’s.
His brother nods.
“We all did,” Dean says. “Now it’s your turn.”
Sam follows his gaze to the little plate with two brightly colored pills on the side table next to Mark’s armchair. Sam’s sure the plate wasn’t there a moment before, and that makes his heart race. Things here are not what they seem, and Sam’s brain screams witchcraft and demon magic. He’s having difficulty trusting this man who’s admittedly demonic. He can’t get his mind around the fact that Dean trusts a demon.
“It’s your choice, Jared,” Mark says. “Take the blue pill and all of this goes away. You wake up snug in your little bed with your girlfriend tomorrow morning with no memory of any of this.”
“Of course, Jessica dies if you choose that route,” Dean warns. “The Matrix wants to send you down a road you won’t be able to escape from. Don’t forget where the quest for vengeance led Dad.”
Fear shoots up Sam’s spine. His heart races and his palms sweat.
“And the red pill?”
Mark smiles, serpentine. “Take the red pill and find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Sam hesitates. “Will I be able to tell Jessica what’s happened?”
He’s consumed with guilt when he thinks about how willing he is to leave her behind, how eager he is to follow wherever Dean leads, even into this strange underground world.
“It’s better if you don’t,” Dean says. “She won’t understand, and you’ll be putting her in danger if you contact her again after tonight. She’s in enough danger already, just knowing you.”
Sam nods. Civilians are always in danger from contact with hunters. It’s the way Sam and Dean were raised to think. It’s why they never had any friends except other hunters.
Mark holds the plate out. “It’s your choice,” he says again.
Sam reaches for the red pill, picks it up and stares at it before looking up at Dean.
“You did this?”
“Yeah,” Dean breathes. His eyes glitter with emotion, and it occurs to Sam that Dean wants him. Has always wanted him. Dean chose Sam over everything, even their dad.
Sam had it all wrong about Dean all along.
That’s good enough for Sam. Before he can overthink it, he pops the pill in his mouth and swallows. A glass of water appears out of nowhere on the little table, and Mark hands it to him. Sam gulps it down halfway before setting the glass down.
At first, nothing happens. Mark watches him with a bored smile on his face while Ruthie stands at his back, arms crossed, smug.
A flash of lightning draws his attention, and Sam looks up. Robbie and Rich have moved over to the monitors and are talking softly, muttering about telemetry and broadcast signals.
Dean squeezes his knee.
“Just relax,” he says. Sam looks down to find a ball of something that looks like liquid metal or mercury on the palm of his hand. He rolls his fingers in it and suddenly the mercury is on them, spreading to the back of his hand and up his wrist.
It doesn’t hurt, but the sight of his arm being rapidly consumed by liquid metal isn’t exactly comforting.
“You’re gonna be fine, Sam,” Dean soothes. “Just hang on. Whatever you’re seeing isn’t real.”
Sam forces himself to focus on Dean’s voice as the metal reaches his shoulder and starts spreading across his chest, up his throat to his face. It’s going to swallow him, he realizes, panicking despite his best efforts to relax.
“He’s going into cardiac arrest!” Rich’s voice calls out.
“I’ve almost got him,” Robbie answers. “I just need another minute.”
“I don’t think he’s got another minute,” Ruthie says.
Sam opens his mouth to scream but the metal’s choking him now, covering his eyes and sliding down his throat.
The nightmare begins.
Later, Sam remembers his rescue and retrieval in a series of nightmarish flashbacks and from what Dean tells him. It’s too much for his brain to process as it happens.
He understands that the rescue ship found him because the red pill he swallowed was really a transponder that allowed the ship to track his whereabouts. He understands that he flatlined for a moment, long enough for the machinery that fed off his body to register his death. As with all dead bodies, his was released and flushed down a drainage tube to become part of the organic material that was used to create and feed new humans. Once there, he was retrieved by the rescue ship.
The ship is called the Impala, of course. Mark’s the captain, and Dean’s first mate, but Dean’s also the ship’s mechanic, which makes him as good as co-captain.
In the ship’s infirmary, Sam opens his eyes and stares at the man he thought was his brother.
“You’re Jensen?” His voice is a hoarse croak, unused to making more than rudimentary sounds.
Dean’s hair is longer than it’s ever been, pulled back and held with a silk ribbon, making him look like a pirate. He’s wearing a tight black t-shirt and jeans, like the others in the room back in the other world. The Matrix. He’s thinner, not as muscular as the man Sam knows.
“That’s me, brother,” Dean nods, winking.
“We’re not really brothers.” Sam states the obvious.
Dean smirks. “Brothers in arms, maybe, if this goes the way I’m hoping it will.” His voice is dark as oak and smooth as whiskey. “But not blood related, sweetheart. Not at all.”
Dean licks his lips, slow and seductive, and Sam’s heart pounds painfully fast. His hands are shaking.
“Here it comes!” A voice calls from behind him. “He’s gonna hurl!”
And, right on cue, Sam does.
Sam spends the next several days decompressing. His muscles are atrophied and weak from disuse, so he spends hours getting acupuncture and other treatments. He exercises in the ship’s cramped work-out spaces. He learns to walk again, learns to use his arms and his legs to control his physical motion. He fights for control of his own body with a single-minded focus, determined to return to the sense of himself as physically fit, as ready for anything.
It doesn’t help that he’s as weak as a baby and half as coordinated.
He doesn’t stand a chance in hand-to-hand combat. The short guy, Robbie, takes him down every time. Sam can’t get a handle on his own physical space.
Until he does.
It’s all the breathing exercises Ruthie teaches him. She was a witch in his world. Rowena. But here, she’s a master of martial arts and a helluva yoga instructor. And that’s just the surface of what she shows him.
“Close your eyes, Jared,” Ruthie instructs, and he obeys. “Now focus on your movements. Tell your body what you want it to do. Visualize yourself doing it.”
Sam does. He thinks about how he used to take down werewolves with a swing of a sharp blade, or razor wire. He imagines himself doing it.
“Stop!” Ruthie shouts, and Sam’s eyes fly open. He’s got the petite woman pinned against the bulkhead, his forearm across her throat, cutting off her air supply. “That’s enough!”
Sam lets her go, trembling. “I’m — I’m sorry,” he says, confused. “I didn’t mean...”
“No,” Ruthie nods, straightening her hair as she pulls herself together. “Of course you didn’t. Let’s try this again, shall we?”
They call him Jared.
Of course they do. In Sam’s world, Jared was the code name he created for himself, the name he used online in every chat room and discussion group. Jared is a cyber terrorist. A rebel. Sam’s never heard the name used out loud before now, and it freaks him out every time he hears it, but he’ll get used to that.
He still thinks of himself as Sam, though.
Dean is Jensen. That’s a hard one to swallow. To Sam, Dean looks only slightly different in this world. The others defer to him, call him “Jensen” and think of him as their leader, but Sam can’t get his mind around it. To Sam, Dean will always be Dean.
Jensen was the much-admired online contact Jared “met” in a chat room three years ago, when this all started. Jensen was the hacker who cracked military codes and undermined worldwide financial systems. He was infamous in Sam’s world.
Sam would never have imagined that his shoot-first-ask-questions-later big brother could be capable of something like that. Credit card theft, maybe. Pool hall hustling, definitely. All the other stuff, that sounded more like Sam himself.
Over the past few years, Dean transformed into somebody else. Being away from Sam changed him. It’s like losing his brother all over again, finding out Dean’s not the brother Sam knew and loved. Not even close.
The more Sam thinks about it, the angrier it makes him. When it’s Dean’s turn to spar with him, Sam pushes him up against the bulkhead, forearm against his throat, towering over him.
“You lied to me.” His accusation is all he has, betrayal like a knife between them. “You never tried to contact me, not once.”
Dean doesn’t even struggle, goes for that scoffing half-grin he gives when he’s nervous. Sam knows it too well, knows exactly how Dean feels. Half hates him for it.
“Dude,” Dean says, slipping out of Jensen like it’s a second skin, eyes downcast. “You never woulda picked up if I called.”
“So you pretended to be somebody else,” Sam says. He’s not ready to contradict, but at the same time he’s incapable of admitting how easily he would’ve returned to Dean, if Dean had asked. “You made me believe I’d found a soulmate.”
Dean raises his eyes, looks hard at Sam. “You did.”
“It was you, Dean,” Sam scoffs, shoving his thigh between Dean’s legs, pressing it against Dean’s crotch, feeling him harden with a smirk of satisfaction. “You know everything about me. Jensen doesn’t even exist.”
It hurts, admitting that. Jensen meant more to him than Sam cares to admit.
“I’m him, Sam,” Dean says. “And I’m also me.”
“You sided with Dad that night,” Sam accuses. “You practically pushed me out the door, told me to never come back. I took that to heart, man. You know I did because I told Jensen about it.”
“Yeah, well, you were a brat!” Dean snaps. “Plus, I was already in love with you. I figured it was better if you left and never came back.”
“Well it wasn’t, Dean!” Sam exclaims, pushing his arm harder against Dean’s throat, not quite cutting off his air supply, but close. “It sucked! I was miserable! Missed you like a fucking hole in the chest! And you know that too cuz I told Jensen all that. Goddamn it, this is so fucked up!”
He lets Dean go with a little shove, backing away from him with a shake of his head.
Dean coughs, looks down at his shoes, scuffs one along the metal floor. There’s no real privacy on this ship, and Sam’s aware that the rest of the crew can hear them, or at least they can hear their raised voices.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I felt the same,” Dean mutters finally.
“It doesn’t!” Sam clenches his fists. “It’s doubly stupid, that’s all! You should’ve told me! You shouldn’t have let me think you hated me, all those years. You shouldn’t have pretended to be Jensen and lied to me! Don’t you see how fucked up that is?”
“Yeah, I do,” Dean sighs. “But you have to understand, I thought it was for the best. I thought you were out. Happy.”
Sam shakes his head, wipes his smarting eyes with the back of his hand. “You know that’s not true,” he says. “I told Jensen — I told you — how miserable I was. How much I missed you. How much I missed Dean.” Sam throws up his hands in frustration. “God, this is so fucked up!”
Dean huffs out a breath, struggling with his emotions.
“Look, Sam, you left, okay? You wanted a normal life. You did that. I thought it was what you wanted, and I wasn’t about to interfere with that. It was your choice, even if Dad told you never to come back. It was your choice never to call me! Never to so much as text me to let me know you were okay.”
Dean pauses, swipes a hand over his face, blinks rapidly. “And I respected that, even if it hurt like hell.”
“So what changed your mind, huh?” Sam bounces on the balls of his feet. He wants to hit something. “Why did you suddenly decide to tell me what was going on, after all that time? Huh? What made you finally decide to tell me the truth?”
Dean hesitates for a moment. He’s trying to decide whether to tell Sam something big, something important.
“What?” Sam demands, impatient, wishing Dean didn’t look so good with his thinner body, his longer hair. Wishing he didn’t feel like grabbing him and kissing him.
Dean nods. “I went to Missouri and she told me the truth,” he says, a small smile curling his full lips at the memory. “She told me that you’re The One, Sam. You’re the hero who’s supposed to save the human race. It’s your destiny.”
What the fuck.