He had a routine, an established routine he had followed for twenty-odd years. The receptionist watched as he came in, a newspaper tucked under his arm and a cup of coffee in his hands. He greeted her, picked up his mail, said hello to Mr. Hennigan's secretary, hello to Mr. Douglas' secretary and good-morning to his own. His secretary, Susan, had worked for him for the past fifteen years. She was close to retiring. He would miss her. A new girl might mess up the routine.
The fact was, he liked having a routine, a schedule, a map of his day. Deviation was riskier. Stray from the path and who knew what would happen. There were dark things lurking out there.
He went into his office and fired up the computer. It hummed through its warm-up while he got more coffee brewing in the machine he kept on the credenza. Since the loss of his wife he pretty much lived on coffee. He wasn't much of a cook, didn't care to eat out alone. Lunch usually involved clients and high end restaurants, and that was okay. A frozen meal cooked to rubber in the microwave was dinner – when he remembered. Deanna often sent him e-mail: "Daddy, you look thin. Are you taking care of yourself?"
"Sure," he would tell her.
He was, wasn't he? The yellow pills to fight cholesterol, the pink to reduce his blood pressure, the white tablets were for arthritis, while the orange...oh, those were Vitamin C. He'd gotten rid of the little blue pills, the ones his therapist prescribed. He'd taken them for a year after becoming a widower. They hadn't made much difference. The ache never went away.
Deanne told him to sell the house, get a condo, something smaller. He was too much a sentimentalist, and had issues about "home." The house was the first home he'd really ever had, and it was too hard for him to give that up. Dee just didn't understand. He didn't know how to explain it to her either. She'd said something about "Mom's ghost." There were no ghosts in their house, especially not that of his beloved Sarah. He'd made sure of that. He'd made sure she'd been cremated.
The pills. He dutifully took them, swallowing them down with gulps of lukewarm coffee. The new pot wasn't ready yet. He checked his email, weeding out the personal from the business.
One was from Deanne. She'd gotten good scores on her last two finals. She'd be coming home for the summer very soon.
"You haven't taken a vacation in years, Dad. Let's do something special, just you and me. Let's go to Europe!"
Europe, he scoffed. Overrated. He'd never been out of the country in all of his fifty-two years, and didn't plan on starting now. Dee would be disappointed, but he'd make it up to her. Maybe they could go to New Orleans, or the Keys instead. Good food and sunshine. He would benefit more from basking in the sun on a warm beach somewhere than having to crawl around in a bunch of ancient ruins. Damn old breaks everywhere and joints just plain tuckered out, his body was showing its age and then some. When the nights got chill sometimes he could barely move.
From inside his office he could hear the secretaries chat back and forth and the receptionist manning the phones. Around the corner from the three partners' offices were those of their support staff: a couple of associate attorneys, a paralegal or two, and a trio of accountants. It was a small, but renown firm. They did good business. Their clients had money. The partners were quite comfortable. He was paying Deanne's way through college, Stanford, of course.
The phone rang. Penny, the receptionist, picked it up on the second ring. "Hennigan, Douglas and Winchester, how may I help you? Yes he is, please hold." She swiveled around in her chair. Bob and Rich always had their doors closed. He didn't. Instead of shooting his calls through automatically, Penny always gave him the heads up. It bugged the hell out of the two older attorneys.
"Mrs. Geigenhauk on line three."
"Got it, thank you Penny."
And so the day began, just like the one before it had, and just like the one to follow would.
Or so he thought.
The case was frustrating. They'd repeatedly had to file orders for the production of documents from the plaintiff's counsel. Evidence was trickling in piece-meal. Sam was getting pissed off at his opponent's tactics. The other attorney was dragging his heels. "Don't," he'd warned in his last correspondence. "Make me schedule a meeting with Judge Howard regarding this matter."
Sam hated having to charge his clients when it wasn't necessary. All the time consuming work he was having to do fighting with this arrogant bastard was costing both their clients a butt-load of money. Mrs. Geigenhauk had the means to pay him, to be sure, but that was no excuse to overcharge the woman for extra work he wouldn't be doing otherwise.
He put in long hours these days. The empty office was much more comfortable than that big, empty house with all its memories. Deanne was born there, delivered by a midwife in their own bedroom. She'd learned to walk, to talk, and to dance there in the house. Sam remembered twirling her around the living room in her fancy prom dress, warming her up for the boyfriend who would be her escort.
"I want her home before midnight."
"Daddy, I'm not Cinderella!"
"Midnight." Sam had warned.
Had he been able to get away with it, he would have demanded she be home before dark. He knew what was out there hiding in the shadows. Cancer had claimed her mother. He hadn't been able to fight that, but he'd be damned if he'd let something he could fight take his daughter.
"Be home before midnight."
He had taught her to defend herself. She knew martial arts, she could use a gun, and throw a knife. She just didn't know why he was so adamant she learn all those things.
"Just in case," he told her.
"In case of what?"
That he would not say.
A sound at the front door caught his attention. The office was closed, and the building was empty save for the janitorial crew and the security guard down in the lobby. Sam hadn't bothered to lock the suite's door.
He put down his pen and took off his glasses, folding them neatly and placing them in his shirt pocket. They were for reading. At distance his vision was still 20/20. Across the room and through the open door of his office he could see the doorknob begin to turn. Quickly he reached over to one desk drawer and eased it open. His questing fingers found what he was looking for – an old, reliable .38 special. Without taking his eyes from the door he slipped the gun under the desk and flipped off the safety.
The door opened slowly, creaking in its frame as it swung inward.
A young man slipped in, shutting the door quietly behind him. He wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a worn blue hoodie with patches on each elbow. A burglar? Sam didn't think so. Something about the way the boy carried himself seemed to say otherwise. He was looking around as if seeking something, but not in the way a thief might have, and when he looked up and saw Sam staring at him, he stopped in his tracks. A thief might have run.
"Are you lost?" Sam asked. "We're not open for business."
"Yeah, I can see that."
The kid walked past Penny's desk, and continued by the secretarial stations. As he grew closer Sam could see he was older than he'd initially appeared, his age falling somewhere between twenty and thirty. That was still young in Sam's book. He had a coffee with cream complexion and dark, wavy hair – a good looking guy. His green eyes held Sam's as he approached. The expression in them was cocky, challenging the older man on his own turf. Sam wasn't intimidated, although he had no doubt the tall, trim, and muscular young man could hold his own in a fight. A thin scar across one high cheekbone said he'd been in at least one.
Sam tightened his grip on the gun. "What do you want?"
"Are you Sam Winchester?"
"Depends on who's asking."
One side of the boy's mouth quirked into a wry grin. "That answers my question. My name is Zach. Ellen Harvelle told me where to find you."
Startled, Sam eased up on the trigger. He did, however, keep the gun cocked. "Ellen Harvelle?" There was a name he hadn't heard in a while.
"Yeah. Old lady, runs a roadhouse out in Nebraska. May I?" Zach gestured toward one of the chairs in front of Sam's desk. Not waiting for Sam to say anything, he sat down in one. "You can put down the gun."
Narrowing his eyes, Sam brought his hands up on top of his desk. He did put the gun down, but left it sitting on the pile of paperwork he'd been going over moments before. If the kid made one wrong move, Sam could have the gun in his hand and the trigger pulled in seconds.
"You're a Hunter," Sam said flatly. A silver cross hung around Zach's neck. Not much protection, that, but every little bit helped. "What do you want from me?"
"I could use your help."
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm no longer in the ghost-busting business." Sam rested his elbows on his desk, steepling his fingers together. "I retired a long time ago."
Zach nodded. "After you killed the demon who murdered your family. I know the story. Everyone knows the story. The Winchesters are legendary."
"And retired," Sam repeated. "I'm sure there are other Hunters out there who can help you out." Reaching into his pocket, Sam pulled out his glasses and put them on, giving his visitor a cool look over the top rims. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
He wasn't excused. Zach leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I don't think you want anyone else to help me," he said quietly.
Sam rolled his eyes and put his pen down once more. "And why is that?" he demanded.
"Because of what – or should I say who – I'm Hunting."
"All right, I'll bite."
"It's a girls school, near Lincoln. There have been some disturbances here and there over the years, just mild stuff. Things moving around, disappearing and reappearing in another place moments later. Occasional hair pulling. The kids have had fun with it. Hunters haven't bothered to investigate. We've had bigger fish to fry." Zach gave Sam a hard look. "Earlier this year the school board decided to do some renovations. They opened up a wing of the building they hadn't been using and bought a piece of property nearby in order to build a gymnasium. After all that started, the spirit upped the ante."
"Not surprising," Sam shrugged. "Spirits don't like changes to their status quo."
"They also don't like having their remains dug up and dumped in a communal grave miles away." Zach said gruffly. "The school building had once been a hospital. The land the cheap-ass board bought for the gymnasium had been where the hospital buried unclaimed bodies from their morgue. You do the math."
"Contractors with a deadline. A school board wanting to sweep someone's incompetence under the rug, not to mention not wanting to go over budget with a proper clean-up. It all equals one pissed off spirit."
"One pissed off spirit," Zach agreed quietly, sitting back in his chair once more. He stretched his legs out before him and folded his arms across his chest. Sam noted he had a tattoo encircling his right wrist – a string of Chinese characters. He caught Sam looking and quirked another smile. "Protection against demons."
"Is that so?"
"Better safe than sorry." Zach cocked his head. "You still don't know why I'm here, do you?"
"You want me to haul my retired old ass off to Nebraska with you and help you with this case."
"I want you to help me put your brother to rest."
Sam flinched. "What?" The statement took him off guard, completely off guard. It took him a moment or two to recover, fighting back a flood of memories – both good and bad – that thoughts of Dean invariably brought back. He shook his head slowly. "No. No, you're mistaken. My brother is dead."
Zach snorted. "Of course he is..."
"No." Sam snapped. "He's dead. He's gone."
"His spirit shoved a nine year old student down a flight of stairs just last week and nearly killed the girl. Two days ago a fire broke out in another class room." Zach pushed himself up out of the chair and stood with his hands braced on Sam's desk. "There were twenty kids and a teacher sitting right there when it happened and every single one of them claimed the flames erupted out of thin air. They barely escaped before it engulfed the whole room."
"It isn't Dean."
"All the incidents have been on the third floor, near the room where your brother died. Someone reported hearing a whispered name, your brother's name."
"It isn't Dean!" Sam stood up, slamming a fist down on his desk. "I was there," he said hotly. "I know what happened to him."
"Sure you do, and so does everyone who knows the Winchester story. Dean was in a coma, put there by the demon, and he never came out of it. He died."
"He was taken, by a reaper." Pulling his glasses off, Sam picked up the gun and moved out from behind his desk, pacing uneasily back and forth. Zach watched him warily. "Right before he...died...I was in contact with him. He told me a reaper was hunting him. A reaper takes you, and you don't come back."
"How do you know it got him?" Zach turned around and stood leaning against Sam's desk, unphased by Sam's angry glare. "Look, I didn't come here to piss you off. I'd tell you what you want to hear if I could. You're a freakin' lawyer, you should know how it works. Facts are facts, and the fact is it's your brother's spirit haunting this school. He's pissed off as hell, and getting dangerous. Now you can either come with me and help me put him to rest nicely, or I'm going to go by myself and do something nasty to him. It's your choice."
Sam stopped pacing. He stared at the young Hunter and felt a horrible ache growing in his chest. Had he not known better he might have thought his heart was giving out on him. This ache was more emotional than physical, however, brought on by memories of a life he'd put aside many years ago. Zach – the boy reminded him of himself, and Dean, when they'd been at their peak. He wasn't much older than Dean had been when he died.
"Fine," Sam said finally. "Give me a couple of days to wrap some things up here, and I'll go."
Her timing couldn't have been worse.
Deanne arrived a day before Sam would be leaving for Nebraska. She came home, saw him making plans for a trip, and was less than thrilled with the prospect. Sam had a reputation for being an overprotective father. Since her mother died Deanne had turned the tables. It was fear, Sam realized. She didn't want to lose him too.
"Nebraska? What the hell is in Nebraska?"
"Dee..." Sam walked around her. She was standing between him and his dresser, holding her arms out from her sides as if she were truly blocking him. In reality she was just frustrated with his hedging. "I told you, an old friend is having some legal trouble. I told him I'd come help him out."
Deanne snorted. "Well, that's specific."
Sam jerked his head around to look at her. "What?"
"You're not giving me any information, Dad. The name of this 'friend', where I can reach you..."
"Just call my cell, Deanne."
"You've been acting weird since I got home, and now you're leaving for God knows how long?" Putting her hands on her hips, she followed him into the bathroom as he continued packing. "Daddy..."
He stopped, turned around, and grasped her by her shoulders. "Dee. I'm fine. It's just a little trip to see an old friend. I'll be back in a few days and we...we'll plan that trip to Europe you're always talking about. We'll go to Italy, Paris, wherever you want to go." He let her go with a gentle smile. "Okay?"
She scowled at him. "Now I know there's something wrong because every time I mention Europe you always get that wriggly look."
Sam laughed. "Wriggly look?"
"Yeah, the one where you really want to just come right out and tell me you hate the idea but don't want to hurt my feelings." With a sigh, Deanne flounced down on the end of the bed, toying with the zipper on his bag. "I just worry, is all."
Of course she did. All they had was each other. Oh, Sarah had family back in New York of course, but they'd all but disowned her after she ran off with Sam. A Vegas wedding. Her father had been mortified. Deanne and her maternal grandfather only met once, at Sarah's funeral. If Mr. Blake had been expecting a wild child with boorish manners he'd been sorely disappointed. Intelligent and attractive with impeccable manners, Deanne could charm the pants off anyone. As a result, she now had a nice little trust fund waiting for her upon the old man's death. If he had met the short tempered, cut-your-throat-with-sarcasm version Sam sometimes encountered her grandfather might have changed his mind. That version took after her father.
Physically Deanne looked very little like her mother. Her hair was light brown, and her eyes were green. She was tall too. The coloring and the height were perhaps the only things she shared with her father despite the fact she'd definitely inherited the Winchester stamp. Oddly, she bore more of a resemblance to her grandfather and her uncle than Sam. If he hadn't known better, if Dean hadn't been dead for years before Sarah conceived, Sam might have suspected his wife had been unfaithful to him – with his brother. Deanne looked uncannily like her namesake.
Sam blinked. "What, what?"
"Why are you looking at me like that?" She cocked a brow and Sam shuddered.
That spirit can't be Dean. It can't. The reaper took him. This Zach kid is wrong.
"I was just thinking."
"Thinking about what?"
He tousled her hair as he walked back to pull another pair of jeans from his closet. "How much I love you."
Annoyed, she combed her fingers through her hair and tucked it behind her ears. "If you loved me you wouldn't freak me out by running away to Nebraska to meet some mysterious 'friend'. Dad - I just got home. I've been away for months. I just want to spend some time with you."
"And you will, when I get back."
"Take me with you," she said suddenly. "Road trip."
"Oh, come on..."
"I said no!"
Deanne should have looked startled, as Sam rarely raised his voice to her, but she didn't. Instead she looked even more concerned, and more than a little mad. Her voice was low and chillingly calm when she replied to him.
"If you're just going to do some legal work for a friend, why are two guns missing from the gun cabinet?"
Sam met her eye, but he didn't answer.
Slowly, his daughter stood up and walked away toward the door. Just before she exited the room she turned and leveled him with a look that cut him to the bone. There were tears in her eyes, and in contrast, a stubborn, angry, set to her jaw. He flinched as she hit him with her parting shot.
"You think I'm stupid don't you," she said quietly, and then added: "Don't get killed, Daddy."
With that, she left. Sam heard her go down the stairs. The front door slammed, and a moment later he heard her car leaving the driveway.
He closed his eyes and sighed. "Dad, I know you're laughing your ass off somewhere," he muttered. "She's grown up into me."
And I've grown up into you. How's that for irony, Dad? Huh?
Sam had Zach pick him up at the office, not wanting to have to explain him to Deanne. She'd been giving Sam the silent treatment all evening. He was almost relieved to be getting away from her.
Zach pulled up in a black SUV roughly ten to fifteen years old. It looked to have been cobbled together from a Hummer and various pieces and parts of other such vehicles. Sam had no doubt it could go anywhere. There was also no doubt there was a veritable arsenal of weapons hidden somewhere in back. He opened the passenger's side door and climbed inside. He heard the low throb of music coming from a large set of speakers set under the seats.
"We drive straight through we might be able to get there by morning." Zach put the vehicle in gear and pulled away from the curb. The truck had power too. Sam couldn't help but be impressed.
"You know I called Ellen, don't you?" he said. "To confirm your story."
The boy flashed him a grin. "Knew you would."
"She sounded convinced you're right."
"I am right." Zach said shortly. "And Ellen knows I know the business. I've been Hunting for, oh, seven years now."
"Don't we all?"
"Not all," Sam replied. "My father didn't."
"No, but you did. Your brother did. Most Hunters these days – they're the second, third generation to pick up the job. Not many outsiders. You don't just stumble into it anymore like your father did."
Sam snorted. "He didn't stumble. He was shoved into it."
"Whatever." Falling quiet, Zach concentrated on driving, maneuvering his way steadily through city traffic. The truck was sure footed, and he was a good driver. Gradually Sam began to relax a little bit. It had been a long time since he'd been on a road trip – a very long time.
"So what about you?" Sam asked, sitting back in his seat as they finally found a clear patch of road leading out of town. "What's your story?"
"Eh. It's not all that exciting." Zach tapped the steering wheel along with the music they could barely hear over the roar of the SUV's engine. "Left home at eighteen, spent a tour of duty in Thailand during the war. When I got back I took up Hunting." He shrugged. "Different kind of war, but war all the same."
"Sounds like you stumbled into it."
"My father was a Hunter."
"Was," Sam shook his head. "Past tense seems to be par for the course when talking about Hunters." He looked over at his companion sympathetically. "I'm sorry."
"I never knew him, just of him. Mom isn't thrilled with my choice of professions. My stepfather won't speak to me anymore." Shrugging once more, Zach glanced back at Sam with a grin. "What can I say? I like what I do."
"It gets in your blood."
"But you retired."
"My brother got the Hunting gene, not me. I didn't stumble into it either, I was dragged kicking and screaming."
Zach laughed. "And here you are again."
"Here I am again, but much too old for temper tantrums." Sam sighed.
It was more like quiet resignation. If the spirit was Dean's, he had to take care of it. The thought of someone else...
What's the real reason, Sammy, eh? Let's be honest. You miss him.
Sam turned his gaze out the window. They were traveling the back roads, the country roads where there were no street lamps and people were wary of the dark. There weren't many truly rural places left anymore, but Sam knew spirits, demons and other creatures were very adaptable creatures. Hunting did get into one's blood. Sam still knew how to read between the lines of some of the stories he saw in the news. He knew the big city lights didn't intimidate the things of nightmares. There were dark corners in which to hide, and plenty of prey in the city to sustain any number of evil beings.
The countryside, however, was still their favorite haunt, and where Hunters roamed the highways. Sam watched the dark landscape pass by the window and felt as if he had stepped back in time.
"Where to next, Sammy?"
"Sam, you got our next gig? Let's go!"
Sam, like Zach, had left home at eighteen. He'd spent his first two years at Stanford struggling to fit in with "normal" people. Dean visited him just shy of his twenty-first birthday, just prior to the party where Sam would be introduced to Jessica Moore. He and Sam went out and got drunk. Sam very nearly gave up on college and gone home with Dean. He would have if Dean hadn't stopped him.
"You really want to go back? Man, I've got dried blood under my freakin' nails. I stink like rot from digging up graves. My back is completely screwed up from sleeping in the car. Sammy, it isn't what you want and you know it."
It had been the demon that brought him back. It had already taken his mother. It came, and it took Jessica away from him. In the years that followed it took his brother, his father, and very nearly drove him insane before he finally discovered the means to destroy it.
When it was all over – that's when the loneliness set in, when he had time to think and to grieve. Even during the years they'd been apart, Sam knew his brother always had his back. Dean had always been there since the moment he ran out of their burning home, carrying the infant Sam to safety. It had been Dean, not their father, who spent the most time raising him, becoming the mother he'd never had and filling in as father too when John wasn't around. Finally realizing Dean wouldn't show up to borrow money or help himself to Sam's beer, knowing he couldn't pick up the phone and hear Dean's voice making some smart-ass comment - it broke him.
Grief shattered his strength both mentally and physically. He was ill, despondent, nearly suicidal for over a year. A vague memory now, he recalled lying in bed staring at his cell phone for hours, days even, looking at the numbers he had programmed into it.
He paged up and down through them over and over again until, completely in error, he thumbed down one place too many.
When he heard her voice he completely lost it. He'd been holed up with Ellen and her daughter Jo at the Roadhouse in Nebraska. Sarah took the first flight out of New York, wasting no time getting to him despite the many months they'd been apart. It was Sarah who picked up the broken pieces of his life and made him whole again.
Now she was gone, their daughter was grown, and Sam found himself having to deal with loneliness once again. It wasn't so bad this time, but bad enough. It had, he thought wryly, forced him back on the road, heading for the last place he'd seen his brother alive, and where, quite possibly, he'd see Dean once again.
He toyed nervously with the pendant hanging around his neck. Turning his attention to his driver, he leveled Zach with a steady gaze. The boy glanced back at him and raised a brow.
Sam cleared his throat.
"Does this thing move any faster?"
Dean had been close to death even before the accident that would ultimately claim his life. The demon had nearly ripped him in half, tearing ugly wounds in his chest and abdomen. Sam had to carry him to the car. He was barely conscious, shivering with cold as shock began creeping in. It was Dean's strength of will that kept him alive – anyone else who had lost so much blood so quickly would have been dead already.
He whispered to Sam to take care of their father. It would be the last thing he would ever say.
Out loud, anyway. Dean lapsed into a coma, and he never came out of it. Sam spoke with him though other means.
"A reaper? Dean. That's what you're hunting?"
"Is it after you?"
Only hours after making contact with his brother's spirit, Sam stood watching the doctors swarm around Dean's body, frantically trying to keep it alive. It had arrested again.
It. Dean was no longer a part of the equation.
Sam figured he'd grown more sensitive since their contact through the Ouija board. He knew Dean's spirit was there, watching the doctors' efforts right along with him. No one paid much attention to Sam. If they had they would have thought him insane, talking to himself like he was. He wasn't though – talking to himself – and if he concentrated he could "hear" the replies.
"Don't leave me."
"I don't want to, Sammy."
"It doesn't work that way."
"You can't leave me here with Dad. Come on..."
"Try not to kill each other, will ya?"
"I've got to go now, Sammy. She's waiting."
"No! No. You can't, not now. I need you!"
The flat-line squeal of the heart monitor mutated into the wail of a car horn. Sam jerked awake, automatically reaching for the gun at his back. He was momentarily disoriented, confused as to where he was and who he was with.
Dean, dude, I just had the worst nightmare...
A voice came out of the darkness. "Wasn't a vision was it?"
Sam rubbed his forehead. "No," he said roughly, slightly peeved that this young upstart actually knew about his visions in the first place. "It wasn't."
He hadn't had any visions for over twenty years, not since the first time Sarah got sick. The cesarean had brought more than just Deanne to light. Sam dreamed of the doctors delivering the diagnosis, going over their options for treatment, and Sarah's remission. He told her, "You're going to beat it. I've seen it."
What he hadn't foreseen was the cancer coming back eighteen years later.
Thinking of Dean, and the relationship he had with his brother, Sam regretted the fact Sarah had not been able to bear children after their first. Frankly, with her health so fragile, she couldn't have handled another and Sam respected that. Deanne was an only child. Sam was the first to admit he'd spoiled her rotten. He'd always felt as if he had to make up for her being alone.
He cleared his throat. "Where are we?"
"Nearly there," Zach said, reaching over to turn off the radio. "The place is empty right now, school's out for the year. I've got a buddy in the local police department. He's gonna make sure they turn a blind eye to any lights or noises coming out of there tonight." He glanced over at Sam. "Tell me, how come you didn't burn the bones before? They buried him as unclaimed. What happened?"
"The demon happened," Sam stretched as best he could in the confines of the truck. Stiff joints protested. He silently told them to shut the fuck up. "Dad was dealing with it, trying to work out something to save my brother. They made a bargain, but Dean was already gone, and the demon refused to dissolve the contract. It demanded payment anyway."
"You had to run."
"We had to run like hell," Sam muttered.
It hadn't done them much good. The demon found them just days later and an ugly confrontation occurred. Sam was badly hurt in the fight when he was thrown into a glass block wall. John shot the bastard with the Colt's last bullet, but his aim had been skewed and he could not save himself. Like a wounded animal the demon had only attacked with more ferocity than ever. Sam would never forget the sound of John screaming as the demon tore him apart, nor his own torment that followed.
Sam was left lying amid the broken chunks of glass, surrounded by the pieces of his father's body. The demon had made sure the head was right in Sam's line of vision. John's eyes had been open wide as if startled to suddenly find his head absent from his shoulders. Sam hadn't been able to get up. He hadn't been able to move at all. His back had been broken. He laid there for three days, breathing in the stench of spoiled blood and rotting flesh, staring helplessly into his father's dead eyes. All he heard was Dean's last words...
Take care of Dad, Sammy.
One simple request from a dying man – and Sam had blown it.
A homeless man seeking shelter in the abandoned tenement finally found him. The doctors told him he was lucky to be alive, lucky the paralysis hadn't been permanent. Sam was almost disappointed. He had come close to being taken out of the game he no longer wanted to play. His survival meant he had to get back out there and rejoin the fight – alone this time.
Dean was dead. John had been brutally murdered and Sam nearly killed. But the demon had not escaped unscathed either. The Colt's bullet had hurt it, and it went into hiding until it could recover from its wounds. Its subsequent absence from the field of battle bought Sam some much needed time. He'd devoted himself to finding another weapon, spending countless hours searching through old records, cruising the Internet, and listening to the wind. He heard tale of a knife. The tale turned out to be true, and when the demon finally came for him again, Sam had a surprise waiting for it.
He remembered looking deep into the demon's yellow eyes as he'd twisted the knife in its gut. He remembered its look of stunned disbelief at the fact it had been bested. It was dying, and the last thing it heard was Sam's snarl.
"Game over, bitch."
"So," he asked. "Are you part of a kinder, gentler generation of Hunters?"
"What do you mean?" Zach frowned as he shifted gears and turned down a long, tree-lined drive. The pseudo-Hummer's engine roared. The road was badly in need of repaving.
"Why bother coming to me? You could have just breezed in here, doused that mass grave with salt and gasoline and been done with it. You'd not only take care of my brother's spirit, but any others that might have ideas about returning."
"I could have I guess."
"Why didn't you?"
"Yeah. I told you, the Winchester name is legend. You think I'd wanna waste your brother's spirit without gettin' you in on it?" Laughing, Zach shook his head. "Piss off the man who killed the biggest bad-ass demon to walk the planet since the time of Eden? Hell no."
Sam looked him over carefully. "You're afraid you might be wrong," he said quietly.
Zach hesitated before answering. "I'm not wrong."
"But you're afraid you might be, or..." Sam cocked his head. "You don't want to be."
Again there was some hesitation, this time longer, and when Zach replied he skirted the issue. "Look, the game plan is just to go in there, see what's going on, and do whatever we have to do to stop it. If that involves some sort of ritual, or just nuking the fuck out of that gravesite, we'll do it and be done." He stopped the truck and parked it. The rumbling engine fell silent. "The sooner the better."
"Sounds good to me."
Sam opened his door and stepped out of the truck. Their journey had ended in the parking lot of a three-story block building in the center of a good-sized parking lot. Sam only vaguely remembered the place, having been strapped to a gurney when he came into it, and in a massive hurry when he'd come out again. It looked a little worse for wear after nearly thirty years. The parking lot, like the driveway, needed repaving. A cluster of six yellow school buses sat huddled off to one side next to a sagging chain-link fence. On the other side the pavement had been removed and a playground had been built inside another chain-link fence. A stone path led from the playground to a covered area that had once been the emergency room ambulance bay. Brightly colored murals had been painted over the stark white walls.
There was a pale blue light in one of the upper windows. Silhouetted against it was a man-shaped shadow which vanished quite quickly after Sam spotted it. The light flickered out, reappeared in a first floor window, and then disappeared completely.
"There's something going on here, that's for sure," Sam murmured.
"Maybe a lot of things. There were at least two dozen bodies unearthed back there." Zach nodded toward the other side of the building as he got out of the truck. One short wing jutted out from the main building. Just beyond one back corner of the wing Sam could see the bucket end of a bulldozer. "This whole deal was sour from the very beginning. Those bodies should never have been buried here in the first place."
"Where are they now?"
"There's a farm a few miles away from here. The owner lets people dump there illegally, for a price. Contractors paid the price, dug a hole, and that's where the bones went."
Sam grunted. "I take it this isn't public knowledge."
"How'd you find out about it?"
Zach poked his head out from beneath the truck's cargo hatch. "I told you, I know my business, and that includes knowing the right people to talk to for information." He tossed Sam a shotgun. "Here."
"Among other things."
Sam broke the shotgun and pulled out a cartridge, sniffing it before putting it back in the gun. There was definitely an organic scent to it. "What is it? Some sort of herb?"
"Neem oil. Spirits hate the stuff." Zach smiled wryly. "I learned a few things in Asia besides how to kill people." He slammed the hatch shut and swung a canvas bag over his shoulder. In his other hand he carried a second shotgun. "Let's go."
The inside of the school wasn't as dark as Sam expected. Dim emergency lighting gave the hallways a dusk-like appearance, with only the rooms left in total darkness. That was unnerving as hell, because as they passed, Sam kept thinking he saw things out of the corner of his eye, things like people, watching them from the shadows. He'd turn quickly, shining his flashlight into a room, only to find nothing there but a jumble of desks shoved off into a corner.
He hadn't been Hunting in years. The closest he'd ever come to anything supernatural had been during one of the firm's family picnics. Sam hated the things, but being the junior-most partner he always got stuck hosting. That year Deanne had been seven and wouldn't hear of missing the event. Part of the entertainment had been a fortune teller. She was, Sam's secretary informed him, an honest to God Romany gypsy.
She was also an honest-to-God psychic who raised an eyebrow at him when Sam sat down at her table. His long suppressed abilities started pinging like crazy whenever he got anywhere near her. His intention was to see what her intentions were regarding the "fortunes" she was telling.
"You think I tell them the truth of what I see?" she'd scoffed. "This only pays the bills. I don't waste my abilities on foolish people who only want to know if they'll be lucky in love."
He'd held out his palm to her. "I'm not a fool. Tell me my future, Melanie."
Her dark eyes met his. "You say you're not a fool? I know who you are, Sam Winchester. You don't need me to see what's coming." She'd smiled then, and playfully slapped his hand away. "Go on. You're holding up the line."
He'd gone home with a migraine that day, one so bad Sarah had almost taken him to the hospital. He could feel one forming now as his abilities started giving him the heebie jeebies. There was definitely something roaming the hallways of the old hospital building and it was definitely not happy.
Halfway up a flight of stairs, Sam stopped abruptly. "Something's missing," he said softly.
A few steps ahead of him, Zach turned around. "What? What are you talking about?"
Sam looked up at him. In the dim light he could just make out the general impression of the boy's features. There was a dip between his brows. He looked to be on edge, nervous. Experienced Hunter or not, when the energy of a place was this negative it was bound to have some effect.
"I don't feel him," Sam replied. "Dean. I don't feel him at all."
"We're not there yet. One more flight and..."
He heard the sound first, the "pumbph" of something solid striking the bag lying across Zach's back. A second later Zach's body arched forward, falling toward Sam as if he'd been pushed. The shotgun and flashlight flew from his hands as he reached frantically for the stair railing to stop himself from falling. His fingers, however, slipped from the smooth wooden rail. Sam lurched sideways, dropping his own gun and looping his left arm around the rail. Zach's body hit him in the right shoulder. They grabbed at each other.
Sam's fall was short lived. His legs buckled under the weight he'd caught. Had he not kept his grip on the railing both of them would have rolled the rest of the way down the stairs. Instead they slammed into the wall and collapsed onto the steps. Zach cursed as he barked his shin against a step. Sam turned his head toward the top of the stairs.
A young man stood there. He was tall, good-looking if one overlooked the pallor. He stood very still, looking down at them. For a moment Sam thought it was a real person, despite what his senses were telling him. His eyes were playing tricks on him. The features may or may not have been familiar. It was, however, definitely not a living being.
"Dean?" he whispered.
The spirit snarled. In an instant it was rushing down the stairs, fingers curled like claws, malevolent gaze focused on its two startled victims.
"Stay down!" Sam roared. He untangled himself from Zach and half slid down the remaining steps to the first landing. His hand closed upon one of the shotguns...
He turned, aimed, and fired just as the spirit reached for Zach's throat.
The roar of the blast echoed through the empty hallways, mingling with the spirit's scream as it dissipated into the darkness. Sam stood on the landing, gasping for breath as he lowered the gun and leaned heavily against the wall.
"Was it?" Zach pulled himself to his feet. "Jesus! Sam..." He turned his attention back up to the top of the stairs and started up again. His voice sounded frantic. "Was it him?"
"I don't...Zach, wait!" Sam grabbed the other shotgun and Zach's flashlight, struggling up the stairs in an effort to catch up. He was out of breath. He was out of shape. "Zach!"
There was a "plink" sound from the top of the stairs. Both of them froze.
"What was that?" Zach whispered. He squinted up into the darkness of the third floor. Sam resumed his climb and came up next to him, handing over one flashlight and one shotgun. Without taking his eyes from the top of the stairs, Zach reloaded the gun. "Wait..." he whispered.
There was another "plink," and then another, and Sam saw something small and spherical bouncing down the stairs. He and Zach trained their lights on it. It bounced onto the step just in front of Zach and stopped. Zach reached down and picked it up.
Sam frowned. "What is it?"
"A peanut M&M," Zach muttered, and flinched as a virtual waterfall of the chocolate candies suddenly began bouncing down the stairs.
A breath caught in Sam's throat. Memories surged up from the depths of his mind.
Dean sits on the edge of a bed, a bag of candy in one hand, throwing M&Ms up into the air and catching them in his mouth, laughing whenever he misses.
"Will you knock it off!"
"Aw, com'on Sammy. I'm bored!"
"Nothing on." Another M&M flies up into the air. Dean catches it, crunching the candy shell loudly between his teeth. He's grinning. He's being annoying on purpose.
Sam turns his attention back to the computer screen. "Grow up."
Candy hits him in the back, right between the shoulder blades. Another bounces off the keyboard.
"Right. That's it."
He grabs at the candy Dean has thrown at him and backhands it with some force at his tormentor. Dean laughs.
The M&M war begins.
"Christ! It can't be..." Sam pushed past Zach and took the stairs two steps at a time, his boots crunching the candy beneath his feet. The sound brings back more memories, memories of a motel room floor littered with candy – the sound of his brother's laugh. "Dean!"
"Oh-kaaaay." Zach hurried to keep up this time. "Apparently this means something."
Sam ignored him. He reached the top of the stairs with his heart pounding. Frantically he swung his light back and forth. "Dean!"
A shadow darted out of the light at the end of the left hand hallway. Sam took a step in that direction only to be jerked back by a hand on his arm. He thought he heard giggling, saw another figure flitting in and out of a doorway, and struggled to get loose.
"No!" Zach jerked him back again, his fist closing tightly around Sam's sleeve. "Don't." The younger man didn't back down when Sam shot him a nasty look. "Two dozen bodies, dammit! It's not just your brother's spirit we're dealing with and if that was him back there, it's obvious he doesn't give a shit who we are. I didn't haul your ass out here with me just to get you killed." He let go of Sam's jacket with a flourish. "All right?"
Sam shrugged his shoulders, straightening his coat. "I know what I'm doing."
"Yeah? Since when do you rush off after something like that? You're rustier than you think, old man." Zach snorted and nodded toward the right hand hallway. "Your brother's room was that way."
They turned down the hallway, leaving the stairs behind. Sam took a quick glance over his shoulder and thought he saw a tall figure standing there for just a heartbeat before it ducked into an empty room. He couldn't be sure. He couldn't. But if it were Dean...
"You can't think too much, Sammy. You let your feelings get in the way and you're toast. These things feed off that kind of energy. They can see what you're thinking. You know that. Don't let 'em in."
"But doesn't it bother you, Dean? I mean these spirits, the things we hunt, they used to be people!"
"Key words - 'used to be.' They aren't people any more, Sam. They're things, and they're dangerous. Don't think. Point and shoot. You got me?"
"I got you," Sam murmured. He wiped sweat from his brow. The air was stagnant, oppressive. The rooms they passed as they traveled down the hall were mostly empty. One or two contained stacks of books. From the layer of dust on them and the tattered look of their covers, they'd been long out of use. "This floor isn't used?" he asked.
"There used to be a teacher's lounge up here where they held meetings, but it was too out of the way, not to mention the bad vibes this floor tends to give people. Now they just use this floor for storage."
"How do you know all this?"
Chuckling, Zach continued down the hall, peering into each room they passed. On each door one could see the faint outline of the numbers which used to hang on them. "I told you, I have sources."
"Uh-huh. Sources?" Sam stopped.
Zach turned around to look at him. "Okay, okay, I fooled around with one of the teachers. A long time ago," he quickly added, and then even more quickly: "I wasn't a student!"
It was Sam's turn to chuckle. "My brother would have liked you."
"Really?" Zach smiled as he turned back to his business. "I'll take that as a compliment." He nodded toward a room on his left. "This is it."
Sam stepped into the room first. Zach followed at a distance. It was bare now, but many years in the past there had been a bed occupying most of the space, a bed surrounded by life support machines. Handing Zach the gun and pocketing his flashlight, Sam walked around the room with his hands outstretched at his sides. The curtains were gone from the windows. A security light outside show into the room, allowing them to see quite clearly. Sam paused to look out the window. It overlooked the construction sight. No wonder Dean's spirit had been disturbed.
It was here Sam could feel a presence, and it had a familiar, if faint, signature to it. He closed his eyes and he could almost hear the steady beep of a heart monitor, and the click-hiss of the ventilator that for almost twenty-four hours had kept Dean's body alive. Sam had maintained hope until he learned of the reaper.
"If it's here naturally, there's nothing we can do to stop it."
He went to where the end of the bed had been and knelt down to touch the floor. The Ouija board had been there. Sam wondered what became of it after he and his father fled. Ouija boards were actually serious business. He hoped it had become a serving tray and not a slumber party toy. God only knew the things a bunch of pre-teen little girls could inadvertently summon.
"What was he like?"
Sam glanced back over his shoulder. Zach was lingering in the doorway. His voice was low, hesitant, as if he didn't want to disturb Sam's silent retrospective.
"I thought the Winchesters were legend. Don't you know?"
Zach snorted softly. "Yeah, well you hear about John mostly, and you. There isn't much said about your brother."
Standing, Sam wiped the dust from his hands. There was a thick layer of it all over the floor. "What is said?"
"Ellen says he was a good Hunter."
"And how would Ellen know? She never met him. I only got to know her after Dad died and she offered me a place to crash."
"How does Ellen know anything? She listens. Other Hunters talk. The stuff we Hunt sometimes talks. I know your Dad did. He was proud of you and your brother."
"Nice of him to share that with Ellen and not us," Sam said bitterly. He paused. "Dean was a damn good Hunter," he said softly. "A damn good son, and...the best brother anyone could ever have." Tears filled his eyes. "I should have stayed. I should have taken care of him, made sure he didn't..." Biting his lip, Sam shook his head. "We shouldn't be here. If I'd done what I was supposed to do he wouldn't be suffering like this."
"You think spirits suffer?"
Zach looked pained. His knuckles were white where he gripped his shotgun. "I never really thought about it."
Sam wiped his eyes and took his gun back. He'd made his decision. He wasn't going to waste any more time. The spirits here needed to be put to rest, regardless of who they may or may not be. "You have what we need to set fire to that gravesite?"
"Then let's just get the hell out of here and do it."
Zach followed him down the hallway. "But don't you want to..."
"To what?" Sam turned and faced him, bringing the young Hunter to a screeching stop just inches away. "Confirm that it's Dean? To see what he's turned into?"
"You can't blame yourself! You said it yourself – the demon was pissed. It would have come after you."
"It did anyway, Zach!"
Catching Sam by the arm, Zach stopped him as he had back at the stairs. "But what if I'm wrong? What if we're both wrong and it isn't him? What if his spirit isn't angry, but just waiting..."
"Waiting for what?"
"I...I don't know. I just... thought...maybe you could talk to him, one last time. If we burn the bones he won't be able to come back."
"That's the point!" Sam frowned, shaking his head. "He's gone, Zach, and he should stay gone. What's dead should stay dead and any other Hunter would tell you the same thing." He shook loose and grabbed Zach by the shoulder, shoving him ahead. "Go. Let's get out of here, now!"
Zach whipped back around. "You don't understand! I..."
He never finished. A piercing scream interrupted him.
It was July 4th in Indianapolis, Indiana. On the radio patriotic music played in time to the fireworks bursting overhead in all directions. Dean had pulled over on the side of the highway where they had a view of more than one community display. He and Sam sat on the Impala's hood, passing their last bottle of beer back and forth as they enjoyed the show. They could feel the BOOM of the rockets vibrate through the car's frame. The antenna shuddered. Dean joked about mounting a cannon to the Chevy's hood.
"And fill it with rock salt?" Sam had scoffed.
Later, as the fireworks sputtered to the stray pop of a firecracker, they'd gotten back in the car and hit the road again. Sam had waxed nostalgic. It was the beer talking. He expected Dean to chide him for it, but he hadn't.
"Where do you see yourself in twenty years?" Sam asked.
"Don't be morbid, Dean."
"I'm being realistic, Sammy. Let's say we scotch the demon tomorrow. You'll go back to school, Dad will probably retire to some trailer park in Florida..."
Sam had laughed at the very idea of John Winchester in Bermuda shorts and flip flops.
"And I'll keep Hunting."
"Because that's what I know."
"And so in twenty years you'll be dead?"
"Lifespan of a Hunter ain't long, Sammy. One day I'll screw up, move a little too slow, get a little too confident. It happens."
"But don't you want anything else, Dean? Don't you want to settle down, have a wife, children?"
"Wife, maybe. Kids...can you honestly picture me with a bunch of rug rats?"
"You'd make a wonderful father, Dean. You were always one to me."
Dean hadn't had an answer to that. They drove on for nearly a mile before Sam broke the silence.
"Don't keep Hunting, Dean," he'd said. "I don't want to be around on the day you screw up."
Sam didn't know why that particular memory came to him. It seemed incongruous, until they heard the screaming voice once more. This time it was identifiable as a woman, a young woman.
"Dee?" Sam jerked his head up, staring toward the stairs. "Deanne?" He shoved Zach out of his way as he broke into a jog down the hall. To hell with caution. His daughter was crying for him. He could not ignore it. "Dee!"
"HELP ME! DADDY!"
He heard Zach running to catch up with him, but Zach was the least of his worries. Deanne had somehow managed to follow them, tracked them here without realizing the danger. Her voice was coming from the stair landing. Something was after her.
Sam cocked the shotgun at the top of the stairs. He aimed it and the flashlight down at the landing.
There was nothing there.
He knew immediately he was in trouble, kicked himself for being an idiot – again.
At the sound of Zach's shout he whirled around and came face to face with the ghost. It wasn't Dean, Sam concluded that much in the split second he had to get a look at it. He caught whiff of a scent all too familiar to him, that of decomposing flesh. An instant later the spirit raised clawed hands, lunging toward him with an ugly snarl. Sam had no room to get off a shot, no time to react much at all. As soon as it touched him his whole body went numb with cold.
"No," he breathed.
It hit him hard, shoving him with enough force his feet left the floor, and he was momentarily airborne as his body arced back out into the stairwell. He heard a shotgun blast, felt the sting of rock salt shrapnel, and heard the spirit shriek with pain and fury. Zach shouted his name once more but it was too late for either of them to do anything.
Sam landed on his back halfway down the stairs. He heard it break seconds before the back of his head made contact with the sharp edge of a step. A bright burst of light obscured his vision. There was no pain at all. He felt nothing as he rolled the rest of the way down to the landing.
Consciousness must have fled him at some point, but he was unaware of it. One moment he was falling, and in the next he was sitting at the top of the stairs. He was alone. Zach was down on the landing, kneeling beside the crumpled body of a tall, gray-haired man. There was a smear of blood on the stairs, and on Zach's hands as he fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone. Sam heard him call 911, his voice breaking with far more emotion than perhaps he should have been feeling for an old man he barely knew.
Sam didn't feel like there was any need to hurry. In fact, it took him a while to realize he was watching himself die. Time seemed irrelevant. Everything seemed irrelevant. He was filled with an odd sense of calm while below him Zach pleaded with him not to go. He was flattered the cocky young Hunter was taking it so badly. Of course it had been Zach who dragged the legendary demon killer out of retirement only to have him get killed within minutes of starting their case.
A voice echoed that sentiment, a painfully familiar voice.
"Guilt. He knows he shouldn't have brought you here."
Sam closed his eyes. "Dean."
"You know that was pretty damn stupid, Sammy. Oldest trick in the book, throwing voices. It suckered you right in."
There was a rustling sound. Sam felt a breath of air against his cheek and when he opened his eyes he saw his brother sitting beside him on the top step. Dean looked exactly as he had the day they performed the exorcism on Meg, the day before he died. The t-shirt that would later be soaked in blood was spotlessly clean. His button-down was rolled up to his elbows, elbows he rested casually on his denim clad knees. He hadn't aged. In fact, he looked somewhat younger.
Or maybe he just looks like that because I'm so much older.
"I guess I'm more than a little rusty." Sam's voice trembled slightly. He glanced back down at the tableau unfolding below them and sighed. "That's such an undignified way to die."
"Could have happened on the toilet. Man, Elvis will never live that down."
Zach began CPR.
"Will that help?" Sam whispered.
"Nope. Not in the slightest, but it makes him feel better."
Sam met his brother's gaze. "God, its so good to see you," he choked on his words. "Dean. I...I'm so sorry."
Dean cocked his head. "For what?"
"For this. I should have taken care of you."
"Burned my bones and scattered the dust to the wind?" Dean chuckled, easing down a step and leaning back with his elbows beneath him. He looked up at Sam and his expression grew serious. "We both made the right choices, Sammy. Trust me on that one, I'm in the know. I've got inside knowledge."
"Inside...I don't understand."
Dean shrugged. "Most people get two options. You can choose death, and move on to the next stage..."
"What is the next stage?" Sam asked suddenly. "Considering I'm about to take that step it would be nice to know."
"Will you let me finish?"
Jerking his head toward the landing, Sam snorted softly. "Doesn't look like you have much time."
"Then shut up already."
Sam smiled. Some things hadn't changed. "Two options, death and..." he prompted.
"The life the poor schmucks around here are living, stuck between life and death, not able to let go and not able to move on." Dean frowned and took off on his own tangent. "Those bones have got to be burned, Sammy."
"Zach will take care of it."
"He's gotten a little side-tracked."
"He knows what he has to do. He's a good Hunter," Sam said quietly. "Reminds me of you a little bit."
"Does he?" Dean murmured. He was quiet for a moment before sitting up and turning to meet Sam's eye. He held up two fingers as he regained his train of thought. "Two choices."
"And you chose death."
"That's how much you know. No, Sammy. I took the third option." He seemed slightly smug, slightly proud of himself. "Go ahead, ask me."
With a sigh, Sam obliged. "What third option?"
Dean grinned. "Gainful employment."
"What?" Sam shot him a startled look. "You want to explain that?"
"Well, I'm obviously not lounging around in paradise..."
"You made it to paradise?"
Sam smiled wryly. "Learned from the master himself."
"Dude, who taught you to keep interrupting?" Dean huffed. "So. I'm not in paradise, and I'm not a ghost."
"Great," Sam rolled his eyes and laughed. "I get to spend eternity playing twenty-questions with you."
Dean didn't laugh. Instead he affected the soft, serious voice Sam rarely had occasion to hear. His eyes were filled with what could only be described as sorrow. There were no tears, but a grim sadness and quiet melancholy.
"I'm a reaper, Sam."
Sobering, that. Dean's gentle gaze had power behind it. It was at once very calming, comforting, and Sam could see that he did indeed have inside knowledge. The dream suddenly became reality. What Sam was witnessing there on the landing below was really happening. He was dying.
His mind went back to Sarah, and the night she finally lost her battle with cancer. Sam had sent Deanne home to rest. He remained alone by Sarah's bedside well into the night, knowing the end would be soon. She drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the night. It was nearly dawn when she had finally looked up at him and whispered, "Love you." Moments later she uttered her last word. She asked for their daughter. "Dee..."
No. Sam realized the truth now.
Sarah hadn't been asking for "Dee," or "Deanne." She'd been greeting the one who had come for her.
"You were there." Closing his hands into fists, Sam let his nails bite into his palms, but that little pain failed to distract him from the bigger one. "You came for Sarah."
Dean studied him gravely, taking some time to answer. "Yeah, I did," he said finally. "And I did my best to make it easy for her. She was worried about you. That made it hard, she didn't want to leave you."
Sam allowed himself a small, sad smile. "She was always pretty protective of me."
"Glad she was there to take over my shift." Shuffling his feet on the stair, Dean plucked idly at his shirttail. Sam watched his profile, still hardly believing he was really there. When he spoke again Sam barely heard him. "I didn't want to leave you either."
"I didn't want you to go."
Their eyes met. Dean shook his head slowly. "I had to, Sam, or that yellow-eyed bastard would still be stirring up shit." His stern expression softened. "And you wouldn't have hooked up with Sarah. No Sarah, no genius kid to follow in your footsteps..."
"Yeah, I guess," Sam murmured. The old pain of loss flared, along with hope and desire. "Will I see her again?"
"Yeah, Sammy, you'll see her again, that much I can tell you."
With a sigh, Dean tapped idly at his watch. (It didn't, Sam noted, have any hands.) Suddenly he seemed uneasy, nervous, obviously struggling with whatever was to come next. Sam was patient. It paid off. When Dean looked up again he wore a pained expression, not bothering to disguise his true feelings as one in his position probably should have.
"Sam, I don't want you to do this."
"A little late for that don't you think?" With a nod down the stairs, Sam pointed out the obvious. "I'm pretty wrecked."
"You don't have to be."
Sam stared at him. "What? Wait. Are you giving me a third option?"
"A third...yeah. I guess I am." A slow grin spread across Dean's face, a grin Sam knew all too well. "All you have to do is say the word, Sammy. Tell me you want to live."
"Isn't that against the rules?"
"Since when do I follow rules?"
"You've got a point there."
Dean got to his feet and climbed up to the top of the stairs again as Sam stood up too. "But it's your decision. Three options, Sammy. Which one is it gonna be?"
Sam knew better than to choose to linger in spirit. He'd said it himself hadn't he? Ghosts did suffer. He didn't want to suffer, nor slowly go out of his mind like the spirit which now haunted the school, the spirit who had killed him. He wondered idly what Dean would think if he knew they'd suspected that spirit to be...
"Me?" Dean snorted. "Please. I like to think I'd do something more original than shoving people down the stairs."
"How did you..."
"Know? Com'on Sammy. You're dying. I'm a reaper." He reached over and tapped Sam in the forehead with one finger. "I know what you're thinking."
Batting his brother's hand away, Sam scowled. "That's crap," he said, but knew it wasn't.
Do you know, then, how much I've missed you?
A broad smile was the only reply he got.
"Delusions of grandeur," Sam growled, with affection.
Affection. How quickly had they fallen back into the easy banter they'd once shared. Gainfully employed or not, Dean had to make some sort of appearance in the afterlife. Sam would have him back, have Sarah back, and maybe even...
"Yeah, Mom too." Dean leaned over toward him slightly and dropped his voice to a whisper. "They're all over each other like newlyweds – all the time. It's disgusting."
"I'll bet..." Sam said softly.
He closed his eyes. All that he had to gain...but what would he be leaving behind?
In his mind's eye he quietly, swiftly, relived twenty-one years. He saw the baby Deanne lying in her mother's arms. He saw her learning to crawl, and then to walk, run, ride a bike. He had been there for her first day of school, her first date, and her first car. When she'd been accepted to Stanford he had been the first to congratulate her.
I never had a mother. I barely had a father. I lost Dean much too soon. She still has such a long way to go...and no one else but me.
He never opened his eyes. Dean was there beside him, Sam could feel his presence, yet his voice seemed to be coming from a long way away. It was soft, comforting, as it should have been. Death wasn't anything to fear.
But death, this day, would not be coming for Sam.
"I think you've made your decision," Dean said softly.
NO! Wait, Dean!
A pair of strong, warm hands cupped his face. He felt the brush of lips upon his forehead, and heard Dean's final words only in his mind.
"I'll see you later, Sammy."
The bonfire lit up the night, the flames reaching high into the sky. Zach had "borrowed" a tanker truck full of gasoline and completely soaked the ground in and around the mass grave. The soil was still loose. The gas ran down over the bones below and saturated them. Sam scattered the surface with salt. With a little bit of help from some plastic explosive and a remote detonator, they'd set the grave ablaze.
Dean had left Sam his memories. He knew the miracle Zach thought he'd witnessed wasn't a miracle. Sam had regained consciousness, not only brought back to life, but healed of his injuries. He had chosen life over the afterlife and been rewarded accordingly. The decision, however, weighed heavily on his shoulders. Time worked its insidious fingers into his aged joints and gave them a squeeze. He was tired – no - exhausted.
Zach honored his silence and did not ask any questions regarding what had happened. He probably figured it out on his own anyway. Jo had called him. Her elderly mother had died in her sleep.
"It was," Jo said. "Her time."
Sam's heart broke when Zach told what Jo had said. He knew it hadn't been Ellen's time, it had been his. A life for a life. A reaper's power had its limitations. Dean could only break the rules to a certain point.
Together Sam and Zach stood on a hill overlooking the bonfire. They could hear the distant sound of sirens as the fire department came to investigate. The blaze had been burning for a while now, long enough for Zach to have returned the tanker truck to wherever he'd stolen it from, long enough for the spirits to be released from their sentences. The firemen would have very little left to do.
"Dean's spirit was never there," Sam said softly. "I was right."
Zach cleared his throat. "Yeah," he replied roughly. "I know. He told me."
Sam turned to look at him, not bothering to hide his surprise. "What?"
Putting his hands in his coat pockets, Zach shrugged. He continued staring down at the fire, watching the smoke rise from the flames. "I saw him. He spoke to me."
"When?" Sam's voice held concern, and for good reason. One usually didn't see a reaper unless it was coming for them, and obviously Dean had chosen Ellen in exchange for Sam's life, not Zach. How had Zach come to see Dean and still live?
"When you...I'd given up on you. I thought you were dead. I just...I couldn't move. I didn't know what to do. I was just standing there and...he was..." A muscle in his jaw twitched. Zach turned his gaze down toward his own feet, scuffing his boots in the dusty soil. He gave a small, breathy laugh. "I almost shot him."
"But you didn't."
"No," Zach whispered. "I didn't." He cleared his throat again and raised his head. "I knew it was him. I...I've seen a picture..." Shaking his head, the boy dismissed that thought in favor of another. "He told me not to worry, that you'd be okay." In a whisper, he added. "He said you'd live."
Neither of them said anything more for a while, but Sam knew there was more. He leaned back against the bastardized Humvee's front fender and quietly studied the young man's profile. Zach's long, dark lashes were damp with unshed tears as he struggled to keep whatever emotions were churning around in his head in check. When he did speak again his voice was unsteady, the words stilted and halting.
"He told me...he said that...I was a good Hunter and my...my father...would be proud of me."
It was the way his jaw clenched, and the angry glint in his eye – anger directed at himself – that finally grabbed Sam's attention. Here was a young man who took his job very seriously. He cared a great deal about the people he protected, and yet had come to the decision that caring showed weakness. He took upon himself truck-loads of responsibility even when he wasn't obligated to do so, and humbly blew off any accolades he was given. Sam saw all of this and more in the young Hunter's proud profile and his own eyes began burning.
Like father, like son. Oh, God, Dean. How could I have been so blind?
Zach was indeed someone to be proud of.
"I'm sure of it." Sam said softly.
Turning around, Zach met Sam's gaze. His lips quirked into a wry smile. "Thanks." He took a swipe at his eyes and squared his shoulders, clearing his throat before he continued. "Means a lot to know that."
"I guess it does." With a smile, Sam pushed himself away from the truck's bumper. "Come on. Let's go home. I've got an overprotective daughter waiting up for me."
Sam had Zach take him directly home. He'd have Deanne drive him to the office to pick up his car later. Right now all he wanted was a hot shower and bed. He was too old, he thought, to be pulling all nighters. He used to be able to go days without sleep. Not any more. Pity Dean hadn't been able to heal the arthritis as well.
The sun was not far from the horizon, still sitting low in the sky behind the rows of houses on Sam's block. Streams of light shown all around them, giving each building an almost a haloed appearance. The sun also shed light on Deanne, who stood on the front stoop of the Winchester house waiting for her father. Sam had called her from the road, telling her he was okay and that he'd been home soon. She was dressed. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She looked as tired as Sam felt. Evidently she had been waiting up for him.
Zach pulled up at the curb and peered out at her. "She's not happy."
"Oh, I'll get a lecture I'm sure," Sam replied with a sigh. He was touched, though, and felt a surge of love for his headstrong child.
"Does she know?" Zach put the truck in park and leaned over the steering wheel as he gave Sam a bemused look. "About what you do?"
"Did," Sam corrected. "I'm retired, remember?"
"Yeah," Zach chuckled slightly. "Did, then. Does she?"
"Don't you think she should?"
Sam looked out at his daughter. He'd never wanted to her to have the life he had, never wanted her to lose her innocence like he had. It was better, he'd thought, for her not to know that the things of nightmares did exist.
"They're still out there," Zach reminded him, as if he'd heard Sam's thought. "Or else there wouldn't be any Hunters, and believe me, there are more than ever."
"I don't want her involved in any of that, Zach."
"Maybe you should let her decide that for herself."
"Like you did?" Sam asked softly.
"Hey," the boy smiled. "Like you said, it gets in your blood." He shrugged. "My mother worries about me, but she understands why I do it. As long as we're out there, no other families have to go through what yours did."
"Don't you mean what ours did?"
They stared at each other in silence. Out the window, just beyond Zach's shoulder, Sam could see Deanne still watching them from the house. He was once again surprised he hadn't picked up on the resemblance sooner. They could have been siblings. The thought made Sam shiver.
"You had ulterior motives for this little trip didn't you?" he added.
There was a moment of feigned innocence. "I wanted to stop people from getting hurt."
Sam shook his head. "You wanted to meet your father."
Zach looked away, knowing he'd been caught in his deception, and quiet possibly ashamed of it. It took him a while to reply. "I wanted to make sure he was at peace," he said finally."It's the least I could do, you know?"
"And so," Sam prompted. Are you satisfied?"
That small, wry smile, an achingly familiar smile now that Sam recognized it, crept across Zach's face. "Yeah, more than."
"Good." Sam ducked his head, removing the pendant, Dean's old talisman, from around his neck. It had gone through a lot over the years, that little stone figure. It was meant for more important things – not to lie languishing around the neck of a middle-aged attorney. "This is yours." He chuckled softly as he held it out toward Zach. "Not much of an inheritance, but it is protection against demons."
Zach took it from him and held it in his palm, rubbing one thumb gently over the charm's carved surface, quietly in awe of it. "I ..." He looked up at Sam again. "This was in the picture."
"My Mom's. She keeps it in an album with pictures from her college days. She doesn't know I found it, doesn't know I know who it is." Zach's hand closed around the pendant. He gave Sam a proper smile. "Thanks."
Sam nodded. He opened the Humvee's door. "Tell Cassie I said hello next time you're home."
Before he got out of the truck, Sam gave his nephew a solemn look. "Do you have any siblings, Zach?"
The young Hunter looked surprised at the question, but answered without pause. "I have two. A half sister, and a half brother, both a lot younger than me." He smiled slightly, sadly. "We're not close though. Not like..."
Sam opened his door and stepped down from the cab. "Don't be a stranger," he said quietly.
Zach was as uncannily perceptive as his father had been, although Dean's abilities were often overshadowed by Sam's. He looked Sam in the eye when he replied.
"You don't have to ask. I'll be here when and if she ever needs me." He flashed a grin. "After all, what are cousins for?"
Sam fell asleep as soon as he hit the pillow and woke late in the afternoon. Deanne made him something to eat and sat across from him making sure he ate it.
When he was finished eating, Sam laced his fingers together and leaned his elbows on the table. He hoped his overprotective daughter wouldn't haul him off to the doctor to have his head examined when he was done telling her what he had to tell her.
She looked at him and cocked that damn eyebrow, silently asking him - "What?"
Sam answered the challenge. He looked her straight in the eye, took a deep breath, and began.
"Deanne, there's something you need to know, something I should have told you a long time ago..."