I've been working on this story for about nine months now and it's truly been a labor of love. I really hope you'll let me know what you think of this first chapter.

Huge thanks go out to the wonderful people who've patiently listened and let me bounce ideas off them: Amanda, Seth, Stephen, adder574, Dianna, and bayre. Thanks to everyone else who's offered support and encouragement.

For those reading "Thanksgiving, Winchester Style or, The Importance of Pie," the next chapter should go up within the week.

The Soul Collector

Chapter 1: An Unimaginable Choice

"Ah, Sammy, Sammy, Sammy..." the soul collector shook his head, putting on an air of studied disappointment.

"You don't get to call me that," Sam growled, grip tightening on the handle of his curved blade as he stared down the powerful demon in front of him.

"Alright, alright!" the demon held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Fair enough, Sam then. Don't be so short-sighted about this." He sounded like the mid-level executive he resembled, as if trying to be tactful while advising his underling not to make a stupid decision. The condescension in his voice had Sam gritting his teeth.

"Short-sighted? What are you talking about?" Sam snapped, impatient. All he wanted was to get to Dean. He needed to see for himself that his brother was all right.

"Just think through your options there, champ. You want Dean, fine, he's yours." It was said nonchalantly, like Sam hadn't just had to go through Hell—literally—to get to this point. "But is it worth what you'd be giving up?" he provoked.

"What do you mean?" Sam asked warily. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear whatever the demon was about to say. He just wanted to get his brother and get out of there, once and for all. Unfortunately, it looked like he'd have to keep playing the demon's game for the time being, since he still didn't know precisely where his brother was being held. But his patience wasn't going to last much longer. It had been too many days without sleep, without peace, without Dean. Agonizing, desperation-filled days, and Sam was ready to snap. Frankly, he thought it was a miracle he hadn't already.

Tired beyond measure of the game they'd been playing, Sam nonetheless tuned back in dutifully. He'd do whatever it took to get his brother back, even if it meant listening to monologuing demons. Dean had so better appreciate this.

"Dean's going to be gone in a few months, Sam. He's going to Hell and there's nothing you can do to stop it." The demon's tone was matter-of-fact and he held up a hand to cut off Sam's automatic denial. "But you can still save the others," he raised his eyebrows as he put out the bait. He'd hoped it wouldn't come to this, but...well, he did have a bounty he still hoped to collect.

"Others? What do you mean others?" Sam asked mistrustfully, adding a glare for good measure.

"You know, Sam. Your mom. Your dad." The demon gave a dramatic pause. "Pretty little Jessica," his voice drew out her name just a little, caressing it.

Sam's hands clenched into fists and his teeth ground together so hard he expected to hear a crack any minute. His voice lowered dangerously, "Leave them out of this."

" 'Fraid I can't do that, Sammy." At Sam's growl the demon amended, "I mean Sam." He offered a falsely conciliatory smile. "Hey, I'm just trying to help you out."

"Yeah, I'm sure," Sam scoffed.

"Sam, I'm hurt. Here I am, offering you the chance to save your parents, the love of your life, and you're doubting my motives?" The demon shook his head sadly, "I've gotta say, not very grateful of you, Sam."

Sam faltered, knowing he shouldn't ask, knowing it was a trick, but he just couldn't let it go. The desperate thirst for answers had always been his weakness and this time was no exception. The words were pulled from him as if by an irresistible force, "What do you mean, save them?"

The demon smiled, pleased Sam had taken the bait. "Well, it's simple, Sam. You won the wager fair and square. Unfortunately. You beat me." He shrugged, as if the rest should be self-explanatory. "That entitles you to one soul. One loved one returned to you. But it doesn't have to be Dean. It could be anyone. Just think of the possibilities, Sam. You could know the mother you don't even remember." He snapped his fingers and Sam's mom appeared, wearing the white nightgown she'd been in when he'd last seen her, hair curling gently around her shoulders, eyes soft and filled with love. Sam knew it had to be a mirage, a projection, a hallucination even—something not-really-her—but he still couldn't tear his eyes away.

"Haven't you always wished for a mother?" the demon continued softly, cajoling. "Wanted to be just like everyone else? Wouldn't it be nice to have someone to watch out for you…someone to comfort you when you're upset, take care of you when you're sick? Someone to love you unconditionally?" he paused, letting his words sink in. "You need your mom, Sam. It's okay to need her—every boy should have a mother to love him unconditionally." The look he fixed on Sam was ostensibly understanding, sympathetic. Sam didn't even notice. He was too transfixed by the vision of his mom, too off-balance by this unexpected turn of events.

"But…" Sam stuttered, stunned, "but she's dead."

"Try to keep up, Sam," the demon's voice hardened noticeably. "She doesn't have to be. You could have her back." He went back to cajoling, "Or what about your father?"

Another snap of the fingers and the image of Sam's mom was replaced with that of John Winchester, standing tall and straight in his trademark jacket and jeans. Only this was the softer, smiling John from the cemetery in Wyoming, watching Sam with the same look of love and pride he'd worn that not-so-long-ago night. It brought a lump to Sam's throat. He'd never thought to see that look again. Or ever, really, if it came down to that. It had caught him off-guard that spring day, because he couldn't remember his dad ever looking at him like that before, though now he suspected that was more because he hadn't been paying attention than because John had never felt those emotions. Still, Sam's throat tightened so painfully at seeing that look now—months removed from the cowboy cemetery and a lifetime removed from when his dad had been alive and part of his life—that he wondered briefly if he would be able to continue drawing air.

Sam's reaction didn't go unnoticed and the demon continued his sales pitch, voice smoothly persuasive. Seductive. "You have so many regrets about the way you left things with him, don't you, Sam? You never got to have the relationship with him that you wanted. But it wouldn't be that way this time. You could have a second chance with him. A young man needs his father, Sam—someone to look up to, to show him how to be a man. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone to help with the hard decisions, for someone to have your back? Your dad was always too busy for that, wasn't he? But you could have that now. It could all be different this time."

Sam shook his head numbly, "But how…?"

Another snap. Jessica.

Sam felt his breath stop completely. There she was in front of him, close enough to touch, and it had been so long. She stood in a flowered sundress, vivid white against her tanned skin, with blond hair waving wildly around her shoulders and big blue eyes wide with hope and expectation and innocence. Sam had always been drawn to those things in her. Her lips were as full and red as ever and Sam couldn't help but think of the first time they'd ever kissed. Her lips had been like the rest of her—soft and sweet. Those were the words he'd always thought best described her. But she'd been so many other things, too: incredibly smart, occasionally snarky, always supportive, and unbelievably sexy. Sam cursed himself as he felt his eyes begin to burn with tears that threatened to obscure his view of her.

"Jess…" he took an automatic step toward her before he stopped himself. He didn't move or speak again; he was completely mesmerized by the sight of her. His vocal cords seemed to be paralyzed and he could feel the fingers that still gripped the curved blade begin to tingle and go numb. But still he couldn't take his eyes off her. He knew it wasn't really her, couldn't be her, and yet…he could smell the wildly floral fragrance of the shampoo she'd always used, could see the familiar light that came into her eyes as she smiled at him. And he wanted to pull her into his arms, to feel her there again, just one more time. He wanted that more than he wanted to keep breathing.

The demon noticed and smiled. He'd saved the best for last—if this didn't make the kid forget all about his brother, nothing would. "And what about Jessica? She's the one you really want, Sam. Who could blame you? Beautiful, smart, classy. Mmmm…I could eat her up with a spoon." He gave an affected shiver before continuing, his voice coaxing, "But she was more than that to you, Sam, wasn't she? She was somewhere to belong. With her you didn't feel so much like a freak." He let the word hang in the air for a moment, before continuing, "She listened to you, supported you. She was more than a girlfriend; she was your best friend. Everyone needs a best friend, Sam, and wouldn't it be nice to have somewhere to belong? Someone who was always there for you, who'd stand by you no matter what?" Another pause as he let those words sink in. "Sam? Don't you want that again?" he prodded.

The soul collector snapped his fingers again and all three of them were there before Sam, looking at him expectantly. "You could have it, Sam," he urged. "Anyone you choose, it's up to you. What's it going to be? Mother, father, best friend? Choose carefully because it's a one-time offer, Sam. No changing your mind later," he finished smoothly.

Sam stood, stunned at the choice before him. It had never occurred to him…the possibility of this had never even crossed his mind. And now…he was paralyzed. How did you choose between the people you loved when you wanted—needed—all of them? His mind felt hazy with shock and maybe…something else…it seemed like there was something important he should be remembering but his brain felt frozen, unable to get past the fact that he was seeing these people in this place, was being given an impossible choice.

If it really was a choice at all.

"No," he managed to protest weakly. "This is a trick. You're trying to trick me. Either you can't really get to their souls, or…or you'll bring them back but it won't really be them." By the end, his voice had regained its strength and he glared fiercely at the demon, tightening his grip on the handle of the curved blade to anchor himself with its reassuring weight.

"Sam, I'm hurt that you think so little of me," the demon looked at him reproachfully. "Not that I'm above cheating if I can get away with it…" he pointed to himself, "demon, remember? But it's a binding contract. I'll follow through on my end—give you one loved one back: alive, in the flesh, just as they were. I have to honor the terms, Sam. I'm bound." He let a little bitterness seep through on the last word and his expression showed how distasteful he found the situation to be. That convinced Sam like nothing else had so far, but still, he had to be sure…

"And you could really do that—really bring one of them back?" Sam persisted. "Whoever I choose, you'll give them back to me…no hidden clauses, no loopholes, no fine print?" Sam sounded every bit the lawyer he'd once intended to be. "I'll get them free and clear, no tricks?" his voice was lethal, making it clear that there would be Hell to pay—literally—if the demon tried to pull one over on him.

"I'm starting to get insulted here, Sam." There was definite annoyance in the demon's tone now, "Yes. Whoever you choose, one soul, yours for the taking, yada yada yada," he gestured impatiently with his hand for Sam to get on with it. "Make your choice, Sam. What's it going to be? Who do you need the most?"

Sam took in the figures before him. They represented so much. His parents, in one way or another, had shaped who he was. They were his past. He recalled long-forgotten daydreams of a young mind, fantasies of the life he could've had with them if things had been different. And then he thought of much nearer and dearer dreams, of the life that should've been his with Jess. He missed them all with an ache that was almost beyond bearing. How could he pick just one?

His mom had given him life, but he'd never gotten to know her. His dad had trained him to be strong, a soldier, but in some ways he felt he'd never known him either. He could have a second chance with them. And Jess…his chest tightened at the thought of her. She'd been his future, his chance at the life he'd always dreamed of—a normal life, away from the horrors he'd been raised to fight. Losing that life, losing her, had nearly killed him. How could he not choose her?

Sam's eyes burned as he stared at his loved ones, trying to imprint their faces on his memory, to hold on to all of them for just a little longer. Trying to figure out how he went on from this moment. Tears blurred their figures until they were just soft shapes that blended at the edges. How did he choose? He didn't know how to do this, didn't know how to make a choice like this and not stop breathing. His heart felt like it was being ripped apart and his chest ached from the pressure there, but he bit back the sob that wanted to escape, not willing to show weakness before the demon watching him. He forced back the tears that had gathered in his eyes, wanting one last clear look at all of them before he made his choice.

Words circled in his mind, swirling like an emotional hurricane. They repeated over and over, reverberating in his ears: mother… comforter… protector… father… hero… mentor… best friend… partner… champion… mother… comforter… protector… father… hero… mentor… best friend… partner… champion… mother… comforter… protector… father… hero… mentor… best friend… partner… champion And behind all of them, the soft resonance of love…safety…belonging. Images began to flash through Sam's mind, echoing with each word. He felt a deep peace blanket him, quieting the maelstrom and soothing his aching heart. And he knew what his choice had to be.

He took a deep breath, stepped forward, and said the only word he could.