Here's the Deal

Sam has never questioned what would be waiting when the road dropped off the edge of the map. The known world is flat. Here be dragons. Here be everything bad. The fact that he hasn't fallen means he hasn't gone far enough yet.

"We've got some time to kill. Do you have any questions?"

At first Sam thought the offhand "all the time in the world" comments were some kind of a sick joke from yet another entity with a questionable sense of humor. He's now pretty sure that this thing has no clue and is simply making small talk. Wouldn't you know it, Sam's been paired up with a reaper who likes to chat, and Dean will never, ever let him hear the end of this.

He has no idea what he's done to get himself into this mess, but he hopes it was something epic. Otherwise, Dean will be pissed --getting himself killed over something like tripping over his untied shoelaces won't do a thing for either of their reputations. Sam manages a small smile at the thought but the hitch in his chest gives him away – best not to think about Dean at all.

"Most people have questions," the reaper says.

"Going to hell is kind of a family tradition. Don't need to know more than that."

"Huh." The damn reaper isn't even watching the road. "That's pretty passive aggressive. You believe you're on your way to hell and don't want to know more. Not exactly the Winchester way. Do you always give up so easily when your brother's not around?"

He can't believe the thing just said "the Winchester way" and Dean in the same breath, and he'd give anything for a sawed-off full of rock salt even if it had no effect whatsoever on a reaper.

"Will you please shut up? Your job's supposed to be about getting me to wherever the hell I'm going, not getting to know me. God, and Dean says I'm a girl!"

The reaper shrugs. "Just thought you might have questions."

"Look. You want questions? Fine. How about this one -- how do I get out of this car? How do I get my life back? Why don't we start there?"

"Are you asking me how you get a second chance?"

Sam's not sure why the question should hurt like it does, but he says, "People like me don't get second chances."

"Why's that?"

"Let's just say that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

"Huh," the reaper says again, and if Sam hadn't already figured out that the thing isn't corporeal, he would have throttled it.

"Can you at least tell me where we're going?"

"Why don't you look around and enjoy the scenery, Sam? You're too worried about what's coming next."

"I'm a psychic… 'what's coming next' is kinda the point," Sam growls, but he looks out the window despite himself.

They are driving through some kind of desert. It's pretty with the sky veiled in pink and luminous around the edges. There are canyons in the distance and gulches, and Sam wonders if there are streams. His lips are dry, but the road glistens and makes promises it can't keep.

The last thing Sam remembers, he and Dean were driving through the woods. His brother had been drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and singing "Stairway to Heaven" at the top of his lungs. Dean was gunning it, Sam was daydreaming out the window, and they'd been going so fast, they were flying…

Something happened after that, but Sam can't remember what it was. Whatever it was, it must have been something big and bad. Sam's not the kind of guy who's going to die of a heart attack riding shotgun next to his brother. It's likely the reaper would fill him in if he asked, but Sam'll be damned before he gives death's errand-boy the satisfaction of knowing that he wants to know.

Sam shifts in his seat, and the reaper looks over.

"Comfortable?"

"Peachy," Sam snaps and is irritated when it makes the reaper smile.

The fact is that he's too comfortable. Either the car has miraculous suspension or they're literally floating, which would be kind of cool if Dean was around to make fun of it. Sam can't tell the make or model from the inside of the car, and he sure as hell doesn't remember getting in, so he's not even certain what he's up against. Sam's read Emily Dickenson. He wouldn't be surprised if Death's carriage turned out to be some sort of tripped out ghost car with invisible horses pulling the thing along.

The door's locked. He's already tried every trick he can think of to get out, including willing it open with his mind, but it's got some sort of hoodoo spell going and won't open up for him. Even if he could get out, he has no idea where he'd go. Sam's sense of direction is shot to hell out here. The desert is as alien to him as any place he's ever known. This is what it feels like to be alone.

They hardly ever went to the desert despite the fact that it was riddled with unholy spirits and unburied bones. But Dean never liked the desert, and he had his reasons. Sam can see those reasons now stretched out endlessly around them. It's too bright. There's no relief in shadow, in color, in foliation. There's nowhere to hide. Everything is out in the open. Dean wouldn't want Sam to be out here on his own.

"Are we almost there?" He feels ridiculous for asking but he's not sure he can stand much more. "I want to get this over with."

The reaper asks, "What makes you so sure that this is going to turn out badly?"

"Don't you guys do background checks before you yank someone off the street? Sam Winchester? 'Demonic Chosen One' ring a bell?"

"I know who you are, Sam Winchester. The question is whether you know who you are. Do you believe you deserve damnation?"

In a low, deadly voice, Sam says, "It doesn't matter what I believe. It never has mattered. I do know one thing. If my brother deserved to be damned, then I sure as hell do too."

"You and your brother made dangerous choices."

"You and your kind didn't give us a choice."

"My kind?"

"We kill things like you." Sam lets out a humorless laugh. "We also kill things like me. Ironic, isn't it? I guess I owe you for sparing Dean from having to put me down." He feels a certain jolt of apprehension. "Dean didn't put me down, did he?"

"Of course not. But would it really matter if he did?"

"It'd matter to Dean!"

The reaper laughs. "True." He points out the window. "Take a look over there. See those cliffs in the distance. Not something you see every day."

Sam doesn't want to look at the cliffs in the distance even if they are quite possibly the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. He wants to go home, even though he's been a nomad all his life. He's never really known what it feels like to be homesick, but he feels his brother's absence enough to imagine.

"Please," he begins, "my brother still needs me. We didn't end things the way we should. You don't know what he would do to get me back."

"Your brother makes his own decisions, Sam."

"Free choice, huh?"

"You sound skeptical."

Sam shakes his head. "Yeah because free choice has worked so well for me. Sorry, I'm pretty much a predestination sort of guy."

"You don't believe you've had a choice."

"I've done my best. I've always tried to do the right thing. See where it's got me? Watch Sam Winchester try to save the world while demons stand back and laugh."

"And you mark your success by the laughter of demons?"

This strikes a chord. Makes him think. But he answers, "Lately, demons seem to be the only ones telling the truth."

"Don't give up on good, Sam. The war's not over."

Sam feels the anger rising up again. "Look, I'm done with the whole inscrutable thing you've got going. You're a reaper. You're a glorified escort service. So why don't you get on with the reaping. I'm sick of this good and evil crap. You're right. I've screwed up my life all on my own. Fine. I'm willing to take the consequences."

"Sounds like you believe in free choice after all."

Sam just wants to get away from this thing. He'd climb into the backseat if he weren't just a little bit worried that he might off himself into another dimension just by moving the wrong way. But he's sick of this. Sam never likes to look back, has never been interested in judging himself for what he can't change. His dad always accused him of never learning from his mistakes, and that's probably not just his dad's crap.

But what would he have done differently if he could go back and change things? Would he have tried harder to fit into his father's life if he'd known that John Winchester really was right – evil was crouching at their door. Their little family of three was holding it back after all. Would he have left his family behind if he'd known how little time any of them had? Gone to Stanford and let himself love Jess? Could he have spared them any of this?

"Would you have done it differently?" the reaper asks quietly, and Sam stares. He had no idea the thing could read minds. He'll have to be more careful.

"I don't know."

"You did your best. You fought a good fight, but your job's finished, Sam. You don't have to worry about Dean or—"

This is just too weird, even for him – being comforted by Death.

"Is that what they train you guys to say or something? It's trite. Give it up already."

"You didn't choose this. It was chosen for you."

"Back to that. Predestination sucks, doesn't it?"

Sam can't keep this going anymore. He can't pretend that he doesn't care where he's going. It really, really isn't fair. All his life, he's tried to do the right thing, knowing that evil was right there waiting for him to screw it up. A world of salt and good intentions doesn't change the fact that he was doomed long before he knew that his heart pumped demon blood.

That's when it hits him hard, like a death vision. He sees it in shades of silver and red and grey. It's like slipping through a veil.

"What did you do?" he whispers.

"Just look," the reaper replies calmly. "Pay attention."

Sam closes his eyes and sees his mother and father. They are beautiful and in love and are younger than they look in the picture he keeps in his wallet along with the fake IDs. She's obviously pregnant, and his dad has his hand on her belly. Sam has never, ever thought of his father as gentle. Then Dean is there – and he's cute… he's so little. Sam smiles. He's just an ordinary kid, not a soldier. Dean leans close, and they're a perfect family of three. They're all smiling and whispering to each other, but Sam doesn't know what they're saying. He's outside their circle.

This is more than a vision. All that power he's been given has got to be good for something. Maybe, he can stop this. If he can just rend the veil, he could end the nightmare before it begins.

Sam forces himself to open his eyes and turn to the reaper. "Why are you showing me this?"

"What do you see? Look again."

It doesn't take much coaxing. He closes his eyes, and he's not proud of the jealousy and longing that wells up inside of him. They were so normal, while his own life has played out like some ill-conceived Greek tragedy. He had six months of normal, but he can't even remember a day of it.

"They were happy. I ruined it for them."

"What, by being born? They were waiting for you, Sam. They were happy because you were coming."

"Then they were fools."

Sam desperately tries to hold onto the vision. If only there was some way to go back and kill the baby at birth and salt and burn the bones. He could save his mother and his father. Dean couldn't sacrifice his life for a little brother he'd never known. It didn't matter that it wasn't his fault. It would have been so much better if he hadn't been born.

But that's not how it works. The vision is already fading until all he can still see is the shadow of his mother's smile.

"You were just meant to see. Reapers can't change fate any more than you can."

"Fine," Sam says. "Just keep driving then."

"Your brother loves you."

Sam stares at the reaper incredulously. Where the hell did that come from? It's as obvious a statement as saying it takes air to breathe, and he's about to say so but that's when he sees it -- a flash of black and chrome out the rear view mirror, glinting in the sun. Dean.

His brother never gives up. Would do anything for him….would make any sacrifice. Sam thought he was past feeling pain, but he was wrong.

No.

No, no, no.

This cannot happen again.

"Damnit."

"You have to make a choice now."

"Floor it!"

"You want your brother." The reaper is maintaining a steady speed in spite of what Sam tells him to do.

"No! Keep driving," Sam yells. "Drive faster!"

"I thought you wanted out—"

"My time is up, and there's a price, but I'm going to be the one who pays it. You can't let him catch up with us."

"It's not up to me. I'm only a reaper."

"Then reap me, damnit! I'm ready to go wherever it is you're going to take me!"

The reaper's voice is full of regret. "You still don't understand."

Sam Winchester has always known he's an idiot. He's always been one step behind. He has screwed up everything, everyone, he's ever loved. And yet, he's always been blindsided by it. Always the last to know.

Brokenly, he confesses, "I really don't understand."

The reaper leans across the seat, and he whispers in Sam's ear, "You are more than the worst thing you've done."

Sam shakes his head. "I'm guilty."

"I didn't say you were innocent."

The Impala is close now. Dean is going to catch up, and there's nothing Sam can do about it. He's not driving this. He has never driven his own destiny. Dean never gives up and will never give up. What will be is already happening.

"How can I be guilty and innocent at the same time?" Sam is now crying. If there was room in the car, he would get down on his knees to plead.

"Are you even listening to me?" the reaper asks, sounding unnervingly like John Winchester. "Remember what you knew as a boy. Think about what your brother gave you without asking for a thing."

"Tell me!" Sam is desperate, caught between discordant desires. "What did I forget?"

"Grace," the reaper tells him, looking exasperated. "Unconditional love. This has never been about what you deserve."

Sam doesn't have a chance to say another word. Death takes both hands off the wheel and lets Dean ram the hell out of them, forcing them off the road. It's a collision of wills, white and bright and beautiful, like sparkish flares against the desert sky.

Here's the deal. Sam's a slow learner, but it's never been about him anyway.

***

It hurts but Sam opens his eyes. The slash of light through trees is almost unbearably violent, like it's taking pleasure in his pain. But he's part of the world. He's alive and breathing and bleeding through his shirt.

His head is resting against Dean's shoulder while the rest of his body sprawls awkwardly across the passenger seat. From this angle, he can see out the window, and he's bewildered by the suddenness of trees and light and shadow. He has no idea where he's been, but he's pretty damn sure it wasn't a forest.

"Dean?" His voice doesn't sound like enough to get anyone's attention, but the arm around his chest tightens.

"I'm right here you idiot, and I got you, so shut the hell up and hold still. You son of a bitch, you gave up on me, and I can't kill you if you bleed out first. We're almost there."

"Almost there" could be anywhere. It could be a clearing off the side of the road or a cabin that Bobby told Dean about years ago or a fully modern ICU with every medical miracle that a fake insurance card can buy. It really doesn't matter, and Sam doesn't ask. Sam's back from wherever …can't remember…trying to remember…he's alive, and he's with Dean. Nothing else should matter.

But of course, that's not the way it works. Sam doesn't remember giving up, but he sort of remembers dying. He can feel the wound now, and it's grievous with blood soaking through his shirt and pants. Sam is half aware of his guts turned inside out. Dean had to have done something because there's no way he should have lived through this.

The question comes out like a shard caught in his throat. "Dean, what did you do?"

Dean is crying. Sam can feel it, the way he's trying to keep it together. Sam hates it when his brother cries. It feels like the world really is coming to an end, not quite the apocalypse but close.

Dean's not even trying to hide it, so it must be bad. "If you ever do that to me again, Sammy…don't you ever give up like that..."

Sam's close to crying himself and not just from pain. He's got to know. "Did you make a deal? Did you, Dean? You promised."

"Shut up." Sam knows that Dean is furious, but he's also terrified. "You don't have the right to tell me what I can and cannot do. Not after what you did. Don't you ever, ever…don't you treat your life like it's nothing!"

"Dean, what did you do?"

"You're my brother, Sammy."

Sam knows this. It's what sets them apart from everyone else. They are orphans in this world.

"Did you make a deal?"

It takes Dean a long time to answer. "I didn't. I would've, but there wasn't time."

"What did you do?"

"Damnit, Sammy, I prayed. I just wanted you back…you were dying. I'd have done anything."

He doesn't have to see his brother's face; Sam knows it's the truth. He lets out a slow breath, and it hurts, but he takes one breath after another. Dean's wrong about this. He did make a deal. It's just not the kind of deal that either of them understand.

"It's okay, Dean. I'm all right."

In spite of everything, Sam believes this. They're going to be all right. It feels like they're grifting their way out of this. But maybe it's something else… something like grace, and Sam can't fathom why such an archaic word would come to him now. He's most likely addled from the shock and the pain.

Sam closes his eyes and surrenders to the rhythm of the road. This is how it's always been. Call it free choice or destiny. Wherever Dean takes him, Sam will go.

The End