Sam wanted to leave. Just get up, go outside, and bolt the second he hit the night air, so he wouldn't have to think about anything ever again but the pull of muscle on bone and the strain of lungs and heart, thundering at his core. It wasn't like anyone here would miss him. Or back home, honestly. And by this point, how much of a chance of getting home did he even have?
But then he wanted to stay, because no matter what Sham had implied, he didn't run away. He'd go and find him, either out in the hall or in his room, and he'd -
A second after the words in Sam's head dissolved into sensations (flesh pulping under his hands shockwaves juddering up his arms from punches that took his full weight the give of a collapsing body), he dropped his face into his hands, winding his fingers through his hair and squeezing until it hurt. The rage, a toxic, inhuman breed he hadn't felt in several years now, ebbed slowly away, leaving him feeling exhausted and unstable.
I don't want to be that, he thought weakly to himself. And then he wondered if Sham had ever felt that. That...taste of Hell, that acid sliver, melting on the tongue, of what it was like to be a demon. He knew the Dean in this world definitely had.
Thinking about Dean made him think about the car. About leaving, again. Finding the keys. But that wouldn't really be any better than going on foot, wouldn't get him anywhere in a world he knew nothing about, and it was still running away.
Sam wound up just sitting there in the dark library for close to an hour, hating Sham with an ugly intensity that bound up all of him inside of it, drinking whiskey that made him gag after the first glass. He walked the careful tightrope of emotions that would get dangerous if he slipped, and thought about what Sham had said to him, what he'd said back. A perfect record of their conversation played over and over and over again in his head.
Sam didn't know what time it was when he got up, swaying a little on his feet as the world started to go fuzzy and unreal around him. He didn't care, either. He snagged the tablet off the end of the table, and went back to his room.
He threw himself heavily down on the bed. The springs screamed the second he hit, frame knocking against the wall, and he was fifteen all of a sudden, fresh off a hunt that'd pressed bruises into his skin and a lecture from his father that had his ears still ringing.
It was vivid enough he might've fallen asleep for a second, but he wrenched himself out of it, woke the tablet up. He squinted as the blue light scalded his eyes, and opened the search engine.
"Just how good are you?" he whispered. "Really."
Research had always been his forte. Even drunk and smarting from everything Sham had accused him of, it came easily. He looked up things that he remembered from his own world. Things that had come up over the past week. From there a rabbit hole opened up underneath him, and he was falling.
There were conspiracy theories, sites, cameos and mentions in a shitty ghost-hunting webseries, a series of cheap books he spent way too much time researching (work of some sort of psychic, obviously). But mostly it was news articles. Cold, hard facts he could piece together.
There was a part of him that didn't want to know. Just like always. But for the first time in over a decade, the part that did want to know, that wanted to know everything, that always had and always did ever since he'd learned to read, was stronger, and so Sam kept going. Mapping out the quilt of saved lives and averted calamities that lay over the country like a fine mesh of steel-woven lace.
And all this, everything he found. It was just the stuff that had gotten reported on, that had made its way online. It wouldn't be the entire picture, the whole story.
Sam held onto the storm inside him with both hands and his teeth, too. But eventually, he forced himself to start letting go. By the time it had calmed, he ached the same way he had the night he'd woken up here.
He was laying on his back when the alarm clock went off, jangling itself right over the edge of the nightstand. He let it beat itself broken on the floor as he stared sightlessly up at the ceiling above him, a dead tablet next to him and exactly zero sleep under his belt.
There was a knock not too long after that. Sam slowly began to push himself up, joints creaking, but Sham was already opening the door, apparently unlocked.
Sam half-expected a fist to the face. Or maybe even a bullet. He would have half-welcomed either with varying degrees of lukewarm enthusiasm.
Instead, fully dressed and with a duffel slung over one shoulder, Sham told him, "Get up. I know how to get you home."
They stopped in the kitchen so Sham could snag a thermos off the counter, but otherwise, pulled a straight path right into the garage. Sham tossed the duffel in the back of the Impala, then climbed in behind the wheel. Sam couldn't see any choice beyond getting in next to him.
Sham doubled over, began rooting around under the seat like he knew exactly what he was looking for. Sam watched, tense, until he pulled out some kind of adaptor. One end went in the tape deck, the other plugged into his phone. He fiddled with it, then put it down and started the car. The engine made the pain of Sam's headache, sitting sluggish and nauseated in his skull, vibrate.
They were on the outskirts of Lebanon before music started to play, Nirvana filling the car. Sam glanced at the radio in surprise, apparently obvious enough about it for Sham to notice.
"Sorry." Sham offered him a self-deprecating smirk, the first emotion Sam had seen from him all morning. "I was a teenager in the nineties. An angsty teenager in the nineties."
"So was I," Sam pointed out, and they very nearly smiled at each other.
It hadn't occurred to Sam that they would have the same taste in music. Not now and not back then. But up until one crucial point, they'd essentially been the same person, hadn't they?
Sham took them through town and then out, onto the plains. Staring out the window at the rolling infinity of the landscape, Sam realized he hadn't been anyplace like this since he was a teenager, crisscrossing the entire country in his father's wake. The memories still hurt. But this morning, the sour taste they left in his mouth was more guilt than hate, and he couldn't remember the last time that had happened.
He didn't want to talk. His bones felt like concrete inside him, weighing him down, jaw too heavy for words. He didn't know how much of that he could assign to not sleeping and how much was something else. But he did manage to eventually ask, "Where are we going?"
"Just wanna make sure we're a good ways out," Sham replied after clearing his throat. "I jerry-rigged the ritual I'm gonna try, and I don't know what'll happen if it backfires, but. Can't be a bad idea to not have any other people around."
Sam was silent again, going back and forth on the other question he wanted to ask. Finally, he decided it couldn't make anything worse. Thinking about the conversation Dean had had with him back in the bunker's kitchen, he asked Sham, "Are you gonna kill me?"
He'd meant for it to come out half-joking. He didn't hit a note anywhere near that.
"Wha - ? No!" Sham looked at him like he couldn't believe he'd even thought of it. "Why would I do that? Would - would you have killed me, if I showed up back where you're from?"
"Well, no, but…" Sam trailed off. He wanted to say they weren't the same person, but he knew that Sham would take it the wrong way. The way Sam would have meant it before last night.
"I'm not gonna kill you," Sham said deliberately, eyes back on the road. Then he sighed heavily, through his nose. "And I owe you another apology." Sam didn't even have a chance to ask him what the hell he was talking about before he started, "What I said last night - "
Sam cut him off. "You don't need to do that."
Sham looked at him, reluctant, puzzled. Sam forced a deep breath into his lungs, and his chest hitched like he'd been crying. Hesitantly, he told him, "I'm...the one who oughta be sorry here."
Something in Sham's face had cleared and leveled when he asked, "Are you?"
"What I said to you." Sam kept going before he could lose his nerve, and soon enough, it was like running down a hill. He couldn't stop, just went faster and faster. Had to pray he wouldn't fall on his face in a nest of rocks. "I was wrong. And you were right, a-and I hate it. I wanna think I'm a good person, right? Like you said. Everybody does, everybody tries so damn hard to convince themselves they did the best they could with the hand they were dealt, but - "
Sham tried to interrupt. Sam talked over him until he closed his mouth.
"I'm a lawyer, and yeah, the justice system needs reform like nobody's business, and I'm trying, I wanna try, but even if you really stretch it, I've only honestly, actually saved...what, four people? Five? And you. You saved the whole world. More than once. Not to mention...so many people, that I let die back home." He rubbed at his eyes, burning. "I've gotten so good at hating people, and telling myself it's not my problem, and pretending not to see and feel what's right in front of me that...I'm not sure I even know who I am anymore. I'm not sure I have for years."
Sam's voice cracked, painfully. Sham stared at him. He wasn't looking at the road much anymore, but it was flat and straight and early in the morning, so Sam guessed it was okay.
"You said you thought I might be the ideal version of you, but I think that's flipped. I think...you're what I would've been if I'd just done things right." He swallowed. "If I'd been better. Even just a little bit."
Sham didn't say anything. Not for a long time, not even after Sam had talked himself out, left his throat raw and his chest achingly empty. When they came to a stretch of road with a shoulder big enough to pull off onto, Sham parked, then climbed out and grabbed the duffel bag out of the back.
Sam got out too, and then they were staring at each other over the glossy black roof of the Impala, morning dew that had gathered during the drive winking at them. Sham was the first one to talk.
"I'm not the ideal." He shook his head. "There is no ideal. Unless we sat down and plotted out every second of our lives after twenty-two and...tallied it all up, we're never gonna know who did more damage or more good. Maybe it's me, maybe it's you, and besides. Isn't that all kinda, I don't know, subjective anyway?"
"Saving the world's not subjective," Sam replied dryly. Sham half-smiled.
"You wouldn't believe some of the things I've done, some of the things I've let loose, to save Dean and only Dean."
"I didn't even do that," Sam said back, a little weakly. "I threw my Dean out of my life."
With that mention, it felt like he was standing over a jigsaw puzzle, all of a sudden. One he'd been putting together for years, unable to stop himself as pieces were unearthed in his brain and his world. He'd kept them flipped over, afraid of what the picture on the other side would turn out to be, even though part of him suspected he already knew. Last night, he'd finally forced himself to look at it right side up. Confirm all his suspicions.
"It wasn't his fault, Jess dying," Sam admitted, every word dragging blood grooves along his tongue. "It was mine."
"No," Sham corrected. "It was Azazel's."
They left the car behind, walked out onto the plains until they came to an area where the groundcover was sparse enough to set up. Sham unzipped the duffel, and then it was all crystals and bowls and spray-painted sigils on the hard-packed dirt, Sam following silent directions and the scribbled notes that Sham handed over to him. It was probably about half an hour later, sun coming up over the horizon in a blue blaze, that Sham spoke again.
"I still wanna tell you I'm sorry." When Sam looked over at him, Sham's eyes were on his hands as he very carefully arranged a little pyre of sage bundles. "I shouldn't have called you a monster."
"I called you one first."
"Doesn't make it better." Sham shook his head. His hair fell past his ears, mostly hid his face. "It scared me. Finding out about the decision you made after that first hunt, with the Woman in White."
Sam frowned. "It...scared you? Why?"
"'Cause I almost made it, too." Sham finally looked at him. "I thought about it. Staying behind, going to law school. I was mad at everyone that morning, everything, and I'd already spent six or seven years being at least a little mad at Dean. It would've been so easy to skew a little harder towards him than me and the demon."
"So why didn't you?"
There was a pause, and they were staring at each other again.
"I don't know," Sham answered.
They got back to work. Sam smirked to himself for a few minutes, bitter and bleak.
"You were afraid 'cause you found out you could've been me," he said eventually.
"No. That's not it." Sham stopped. "I've spent so much of my life fighting hard as I can against my...so-called 'destiny.' I've clawed for every decision I've gotten to make, every act of free will. But somehow, it's still terrifying to find out that I could've been something other than what I am right now."
Sam was surprised at how true that rang for him, too.
He hadn't expected any more conversation. Not for a while, at least. So it startled him when Sham very tentatively broke the silence.
"Can I ask about your…" He nodded to Sam's right hand. "Wife?"
Sam looked down at the ring, plain gray silicone, and felt his face tighten a little.
"Not a wife."
It took Sham about half a second to puzzle that out, then there was an awkward, "Oh."
"Are you not - ?" Sam glanced at him.
"No. No, I am. Just mostly, y'know…" Sham trailed off. "Girls."
"Yeah." Sam focused on the can of spray paint in his hand. "Me, too."
"Would it be...I mean, is it," Sham began cautiously, "anybody I know?"
Sam straightened up, blew a massive sigh out his nose. "Tyson Brady."
"Shit, no." Sham was immediately in full alarm mode. "Okay, you gotta - "
"I know he's possessed." Sam cut him off, closing his eyes. "Or was, at least. It was feeding me demon blood. It was the one that'd killed Jess, too. I found out, I exorcised it...Brady was dead by then."
When he opened his eyes, Sham was standing there and looking at him. Sam searched his face, expecting pity or maybe even disgust, at how weak he'd been. All he found was empathy, and a complex breed of grief.
"The ring's a reminder." Sam held up his hand. "Of what happens when I…"
"Let people in?" Sham guessed softly. Sam looked away. After a beat, Sham said, "I'm sorry. I know how you feel."
"Thanks." Sam licked his lips, looked back at Sham. "You...got anybody?"
Sham smiled. Sam wasn't sure that it was the kind of expression he'd ever seen or even felt on his own face before.
"I'm not alone," Sham replied, hand straying, oddly enough, to his shirt pocket.
Sam nodded once. "Good. That's good."
By the time the spell circle was finished, the sun was fully up. It rose fast out here. Sham retrieved the thermos from the car, and they stood back from their handiwork, sharing it back and forth.
"So all we gotta do now is light a couple fires, bleed a little, say the incantation I threw together and pray that it doesn't all blow up in our faces," Sham announced once they were both sufficiently caffeinated.
"Great," Sam deadpanned.
They both stood there, examining what Sam had to admit was a really incredible feat of magical engineering. Massively complex, twenty feet wide, symbolism from fifteen different cultures he could count and probably a dozen more he couldn't painted onto and scratched into the dirt. Well over a hundred ingredients in the bowls placed inside smaller circles. Two dozen kinds of gemstone, each one intended to channel or attract a different kind of energy they'd need for this. Insanely complex, a Frankenstein's monster of alchemy and witchcraft. Sam almost wanted to take a picture and see if he couldn't -
"You don't have to go back," Sham said suddenly.
Sam glanced at him, not sure he'd heard him right. "What?"
"You can stay here." Sham was talking fast. "With us. You can hunt, if you and me wind up working cases together we can just tell people we're twins, that might actually come in handy. You can keep your room at the bunker." He met Sam's eyes, then gestured to the mutant spell circle. "You don't have to risk...this."
Sam opened his mouth. Then he closed it. And then he thought about it, what Sham was offering him. Really, honestly thought about it. And it was more tempting than he ever would have expected it to be a week ago, or even a day ago.
He could feel it, the "yes" crawling up the back of his throat. But then he thought about Dean. Telling him he'd died for this Sam, killed for him, would do it again. The answer vanished, and a new one took its place.
"No," Sam told Sham. "That...it'd just be another kind of running away. And I think I'm finally sick of that." He took a deep breath. "I need to go home. I need to try and figure out how to fix as much as I can of what's left. I want to. And I think I know where to start."
Sham nodded, in a way that made Sam think that was exactly what he expected to hear. "Good luck."
"If I'm the same person as you…" Sam smiled a little. "I won't need it."
Sham snorted. "If you're the same person as me, you're gonna need as much as you can get."
Then he hugged him. It was like Sam had just brushed up against the world's biggest supply of static electricity, the contact. He stood frozen for a second, and he realized he didn't know what to do. Because the last person to touch him, to really touch him, to hug him...it had been Brady. Sam swallowed, let his eyes fall closed. He hugged Sham back. He smelled like him.
They walked carefully through the circle, lighting the contents of all of the bowls. They stood over the one in the center, cut down the middles of their palms with clean knives, bled into the flames. For Sham, it just meant unzipping a scar Sam could tell had been opened dozens of times before.
"You ready?" Sham asked him, hand still dripping.
Sam nodded. Sham closed his eyes, began to speak, apparently from memory.
He didn't even reach the end before everything went violently black.
It was late afternoon when Sam drifted vaguely back into consciousness. He could tell that just by looking up at the ceiling above him, washed in light inching towards a honey-gold. It was familiar, what he could see. Even if he didn't spend a whole lot of time looking up here.
He was back in his apartment. He was home.
He pushed himself stiffly up onto his elbows, head pounding and back aching. He was on the floor in the middle of his living room, couch and coffee table and TV. He tried to get up, but a wave of vertigo knocked him back onto his ass, and he had to sit there with his head between his knees until it passed. Apparently interdimensional travel was just as hard on the return trip, and he could only hope it wasn't doing any permanent damage to him.
Sam finally managed to get up, staggered into the kitchen for a glass of water. He managed to spill a decent amount of it down his front, still clumsy and disoriented, and when he glanced down, he realized he was still wearing Sham's clothes. Buttoned flannel and loose jeans. His own stuff was still back over there, in the room he'd left behind.
That sucked, he thought distantly to himself. The jacket especially had been expensive. But he didn't care all that much right now.
He did a circuit of the apartment very first, making sure his wards were still up and everything was in working order as his body slowly remembered it had fine motor skills. It was all exactly as he'd left it, with the exception of the pile of mail in front of his door. Looked like time did pass the same over here as it did back there, which meant there had to be a dozen different messes for him to sort out.
Sam gathered up the envelopes, laid them neatly out on the kitchen table in a few separate piles. Junk mail, bills, work. He stood with his hands on the back of a chair for several long minutes, just staring down at them as shadows lengthened around him and the light thickened. Then he left them, heading to his room and sinking down onto his bed.
He needed a second, Sam told himself. He'd deal with it in a minute, but for now, he just needed a second.
He had no idea how long that "second" actually wound up being. All he knew was that night had fallen completely by the time he suddenly twisted his ring off his finger and hurled it into the wastebasket on the other side of the room.
He hadn't even been thinking about it. Just hadn't been able to stand the feel of the rubber against his skin, out of the blue.
Maybe that had been the case for a while now.
Sam pushed himself up, crossing to his dresser. Kneeling, he pulled open the lowest drawer, pawed past all the neatly-folded cold-weather stuff he used maybe six days out of the year, until he found a faded scrap of paper half-wedged into the seam between two pieces of wood. He'd had it for over a decade, brought it along on multiple moves. Held it above a trash can and an open flame at least a dozen times each but never gone through with it. The messy ink scrawl had gone soft and faded with how often he'd looked at it, touched it.
He found his cell phone, dead. Used the landline to dial the number on the paper. It rang half a dozen times before there was a brusque, "You know what to do."
Sam took a deep breath before the tone sounded.
"Hi, Dean," he said softly into the receiver, and squeezed his eyes shut, praying. "I know it's been a while, and...you probably don't wanna hear from me. I get that."
He sat there, in the sturdy borrowed hunting clothes he'd never give back, rubbing almost absentmindedly at the newly-bare skin on his left hand.
"But I need you to call me back. We...we got a lot to talk about."