AN- preseries tag to Puddle Jumping. If you don't read the first chapter of that, this won't make much sense.

Sam held the package in trembling hands. Part of him, the part that was twenty-six, hated being nine. Of course the part of him that was nine thought the part of him that was twenty-six was stupid and stuffy. Generally Sam tried to just ignore the confusion. It wasn't like he could stop being nine anymore than he could stop being twenty-six.

Gabriel's little stunt, while rebirthing Sam's soul in an alternate reality had kept Sam's memories of his previous life intact. They spent most of their time on the backburner, like a dream tugging the fringes of your consciousness, but they were there, pushing and guiding when Sam least expected it. It was a strange state to exist in.

And a lonely one.

Dean had been on a food run when Gabriel had shown up at the motel room. He'd grinned and snapped his fingers, sending a surprised Sam's body boneless to the floor as the archangel severed the nerves in his back.

As the angel had dragged an immobile Sam across the room he had gone into a long diatribe on the nature of reality, which apparently was infinite. Gabriel had snarkily explained that most people existed in every reality, Sam and Dean being the exceptions once again. Since the boys were the chosen vessels of the forces of Heaven and Hell they had only been born into one and only one, otherwise the entire system would have collapsed as certain realities survived while others died based on the boys' decisions.

As Gabriel had posed Sam on a bed he had informed the youngest Winchester of his fate, telling the boy how if Gabriel set his soul adrift in the other realities Lucifer would never be able to find him to destroy the current reality. The catch was that Sam would be alone forever. It wasn't any worse than Sam deserved but his last thought as Gabriel sent him to sleep was that he wished he could say sorry to Dean one more time.

So when Sam realized that he had an older twin Dean in this reality he had passed it off as either a cruel joke or as the angel's misguided attempt at comfort. With Gabriel you could never really be certain which way it was meant. The angel had twisted notion of helping.

But when Sam had woken sobbing from a nightmare to find Dean's arms around him as he hummed Metallica in his ear Sam had began to wonder if he was as alone as he had previously suspected.

Not that he could walk up to Dean and ask. Even a nine year old would get strange looks if they began asking their siblings if they had been reincarnated together. That and talking wasn't really the Winchester way, even in the current reality.

It was strange how the more things change they more they stayed the same. Lenore, the 'mom' of this reality, was in some ways better than John. She didn't move them around every week chasing ghosts. In fact she didn't move them at all. She didn't drag them into life or death situations and Sam didn't have to choose between trying to pass elementary, which was almost pathetically easy the second time around, and being part of a family. They never ran out of food, or clothes, or toilet paper because she had become too absorbed in her latest quest.

Yet in some ways she was worse than John. She lied like he did but for different reasons. It was never to keep Dean and Sam safe, but instead to protect herself. She'd leave the boys alone for hours on end, disappearing to hang out with her latest squeeze and snort what was fashionable that month.

And she didn't love them. She didn't hate them and she wasn't purposely cruel, but there was no emotional attachment. They were the reason she was in money. That was as far as her affection went, so it was up to Dean and Sam to love each other once again.

But Sam needed to know. Was Dean his Dean or was Dean a different Dean? He could handle it either way but he needed to know. Watching didn't give enough clues. While Dean would comfort Sam after his nightmares and make bullies eat more than there words just like the Dean from Before had, he was also in some ways very different. He was softer and far more willing to show physical affection. Chick flick moments weren't complete taboo and would be picked over a visit to the dentists. And he didn't seem to be pissed at Sam for starting an apocalypse (with the whole multiple realities Sam was fairly certain it had lost the title of The Apocalypse) and having them end up barred from the afterlife and trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.

But Sam had figured out a surefire way to figure out if Dean was Dean. It had taken a bunch of phone calls and all of his allowance, but he had managed to find it.

Which was why the package in his hands was trembling.

"Sammy, you coming or what? Christmas isn't going to wait for you to finish doing your hair!"

"Coming Dean!" Sam yelled down the stairs. He took a deep calming breath. He could do this. No matter how Dean reacted, no matter who Dean was, he was still Sam's brother and that was all he needed to hold onto to get through this. With that Sam straightened his back and walked down the stairs.

Dean was sitting in the living room on the couch nearest the Christmas tree, a large box clutched in his arms. He was smiling, but something about it was off. Had he been old Dean Sam would have sworn he was nervous. "Heya Princess," Dean greeted. "Glad to see you decided to show up for the holidays."

Sam rolled his eyes. Sometimes it was the only response possible when dealing with his brother. "So where's Mom?"

Dean shrugged nonchalantly. "Out."

"Ah." Sam wasn't surprised. He wasn't even hurt. He just wished that Lenore would come to these things because he knew how much they meant to Dean. Then again, her not being there would make this easier.

"So," Sam offered his brother a wide-eyed smile, "Can we start with the presents?"

Dean smirked. "You read my mind, kiddo. Here." He proffered the large box he had been clutching. "You go first."

Sam shook his head, holding out the tiny package. "No Dean. I went first last year. It's your turn."

Dean bristled, surprisingly annoyed by Sam's refusal. It was quickly hidden under the mask of a smile, but Sam knew his brother. He knew it was still there. "You're the youngest, Sammy. You open first."

"I'm the youngest by four minutes," Sam whined. "I'm barely younger than you. It's your turn to open first." Dang it! Why wouldn't Dean open his present?

Dean glared. "Four minutes is four minutes. That means I'm still the oldest and because I'm an awesome big brother I'm making you open your present first!" Dean snarled, standing and shoving the package into Sam's arms.

Sam grabbed it with an annoyed huff. Dean watched and when he was satisfied Sam wasn't going to give it back he retreated back to his place on the sofa. The moment he was settle Sam tossed his gift.

Dean snagged it out of mid air and raised an eyebrow, daring Sam to continue their fight. Sam lifted his chin definitely. "We're twins. We open at the same time."

Dean snorted. "Fine."

"Fine."

"Well then."

"All right."

"Count of three?"

Sam nodded. "Okay."

"One." They counted in unison. Sam placed his hand on the corner of the package. "Two." He glanced up at Dean to make sure his brother was getting ready to open his present. "And three." Sam tore quickly, listen while Dean did the same.

Sam looked down at the package. In his hands sat a Barbie doll. He looked up at his brother, furiously blinking tears from his eyes.

Dean was sitting on the couch, numbly staring at the amulet that had fallen into his hand. The one Sam had given to Dean a lifetime ago. Tears ran unheeded down his face. When he finally looked up it was with wonder and hope. "Sammy?"

"Dean," Sam responded, his voice quivering with emotion. "You knew? This entire time you knew?"

"You knew?" Dean's eyes went wide. "You knew!"

"I didn't know that you knew!" Sam clutched tightly at the Barbie box, crinkling the front plastic. "Gabriel said I'd be alone," he muttered miserably. Sam gave a long sniff as tears began to pour down his face. Stupid being a nine year old!

Then suddenly warm arms were around him. "Oh Sammy. I wouldn't leave you alone," Dean murmured soothingly, running one hand through the back of Sam's hair.

Sam couldn't help but lean into the embrace as sobs began to rack his small form. "But it's all my fault," he wept. "I started an apocalypse and Gabriel sent me away and I didn't get to say goodbye and now you don't get to go to Heaven and it's all my fault and I'm sorry!"

Dean's arms tightened as he began to rock his little brother. "Sammy, it's okay," he promised. "You're my brother. There is no Heaven without you."

Sam continued to cry, letting himself be hugged and rocked by a brother he thought he was never going to see again. When his eyes finally dried he tried to pull out of the embrace, only to have it tighten. "Dean? I need you to let me go."

"No. I just got you back. Let me have this." Dean tilted his head into Sam's neck.

"We can do this again in a minute," Sam promised solemnly. "I just have a Barbie box digging into my chest and it kinda hurts."

"Bitch." Dean murmured fondly into Sam's neck as the hug eased, allowing the gift to fall to the floor.

"Jerk," Sam responded teary-eyed, smiling as Dean gave the Barbie a vicious kick before pulling Sam into another embrace. This time, with his arms free, Sam was able to hold onto Dean for as long as they needed to.

Things were different in this reality, but they weren't bad.

They may even been better.