It's their third meeting. But this time Dean's not a ghost or dying, he's just there, filling in where Death doesn't want to.
He doesn't remember her, not right away. He knows her name, says, Tessa in that low rumble of a voice. But Dean doesn't know that they've met before, twice. Can't place why she's familiar, just that her presence makes his skin prickle, but not in an uncomfortable way. This, he says, is like a, god, I swear we must have slept together once or twice kind of feeling.
Tessa laughs. We've never done that.
But we've met?
Why can't I remember you?
The job is simple, Tessa thinks. Soul collecting in a hospital for a few hours, nothing too big for Dean's first day. But it's the same setting that Tessa and Dean met the first time. And for a moment she hopes it'll bring back the right memories.
Tessa looks at him. His face his emotionless as he stares at the blonde receptionist behind the desk. He's concentrating, Tessa realizes. Maybe trying to place the familiarity, understand why he's seen this before.
What? Dean asks, turning to face her.
Nothing. I just thought... he raises an eyebrow and something stirs inside her. She shakes her head, just follow me and do exactly what I do. Okay?
He takes her hand in his, beam me up, Scotty.
She isn't sure she's seen a smile as beautiful as his.
What am I doing wrong?
You can't attack them. Demanding they hand over their souls is only going to make them hold on tighter. You have to talk to them, make them trust you.
But it's just a soul! It's like a piece of paper being traded around, why do they want it so badly?
Don't you want your soul, Dean? Isn't it important to you.
What about your brother's?
But you still want his soul back, right?
Just tell me how to fix this.
Their last soul at the hospital is a little boy with floppy brown hair and big green eyes. Tessa feels Dean tense immediately behind her when he sees the child. She watches him from the corner of her eyes, waiting for him to fall apart, but he doesn't. He straightens his back and sucks in a breath like he's readying himself.
He's been sick for a long time, Tessa tells Dean, hoping some information will make him stronger, maybe.
A rare kind, she says.
The little boy turns his head to them and smiles. Dean gasps, just barely, but Tessa hears it.
He can see us? Dean asks.
Tessa nods and walks toward the boy who follows her with his eyes, smile never leaving his face. She sits in the chair by the boy's bed, the one his mother has claimed as her own for six months.
Hello, Billy, she whispers.
Who's the new guy? The child asks, thumbing toward Dean.
She looks at Dean, he's stepped closer, but not by much. Tessa knew this would be difficult for him, but Billy had to be the last one. Dean had to be the one to collect the eight year old's soul.
A friend, Tessa finally tells Billy. You know why I am here, right?
The little boy nods. Yeah, I've been waiting. Billy turns his head when Dean moves, following the hunter-turned-reaper until he stands at the foot of the bed. You took too long, Billy says to Tessa.
Earth time is different than a Reaper's time. It's been three months for you, but merely three days for me.
Billy nods. I forget.
Are you scared?
Tessa and the boy both look to Dean. He's staring at Billy with tear-filled eyes. That shouldn't happen, Tessa tells herself. Reapers aren't supposed to be able to cry. They aren't made that way. Maybe Dean really is different, she notes.
A little, Billy whispers. He finally sounds like the eight year-old he is.
What scares you the most?
Leaving my mom and my brother.
How old's your brother?
Dean nods. Like he's figuring something out, like something is finally clicking within him. He moves around to sit on the edge of Billy's bed.
They're gonna be fine once you're gone, you know that, right?
Billy just stares at Dean, tears rimming his eyes now, too. How do you know that? he asks.
Cause I got a little brother too, Dean says, hanging his head and smirking just slightly. And I was scared to leave him, just like you are. I was worried about him, wondering who he'll be without me there to keep him safe, to protect him. I was convinced that I was the only one who could keep him on the right path and make sure he did the right things. But you know what I learned? He looks up at Billy now, a smile on his lips. Tessa is sure this smile is new, born from an epiphany long overdue.
Dean nods as Billy mouths what to his question.
I learned...he sighs. A tear falls and he quickly wipes it away. I learned that people die. I would die and my brother would be on his own. But he's smart and I taught him everything I know. So I shouldn't worry so much. I know your brother's only four, Billy, but it's the same. You gotta trust that you did what you could and that your brother learned something great from you. You gotta trust that he'll be okay without you.
But what about my mom? What's gonna happen to her?
She's gonna keep loving you and making sure your little brother never forgets you.
Billy looks at Tessa, his tears falling now. Will it hurt? He asks her.
She shakes her head. No.
The boy nods once then looks back to Dean. Okay, he says, finally sitting up. Okay, I'm ready.
Dean stands up and walks closer to Billy. He takes a deep breath and says, It's gonna be okay. Then he wraps his arms around the boy and hugs him close as Billy does the same.
Tessa watches them closely. She can feel love radiating from both of them, tangible like puffs of cotton candy floating on the air. Both of them feeling for their families, mourning a loss that she is sure feels too much like victory to really evoke sadness.
Dean steps back and a light bursts from his chest, gold and red like a sunset, but cool as it permeates the air. Tessa stares in awe; her souls never do that for her. Dean is something else, she is starting to see why the angels still want him.
It's okay, Sammy, Dean whispers, letting the light strands dance across his knuckles and nuzzle against his cheeks. I'm here, I'm not leaving you.
Tessa doesn't have the heart to correct the name.
You know, I get it, Dean tells her when they sit down at one of the empty cafeteria tables. I get why you're the one. Why you had to show me this.
He isn't looking at Tessa and she's fine with that, honestly. He's concentrating again, staring off and thinking about something that she can't read on his face.
Why? She asks him. She hates guessing games.
S'like I told you the first time, he looks at her now, green eyes too bright for the situation, I can either roll over and die or I can fight. You had to show me that again, I think. Had to make me see that Crowley's just a fucking demon, not the end all solution to getting Sam back. And I can either bend over and let him ass rape me or I can fight and take back what belongs to me.
Tessa chuckles. Good ol' Dean Winchester, learning when there isn't a lesson to be taught. I don't think that –
You were right, you know? When you told me the Angels didn't have anything good planned for me. You were right.
I didn't want to be. She honestly hadn't. She'd wanted something better for Dean, something good. But she wasn't going to lie to him, she couldn't. Dean didn't need Tessa to be added on to the ever growing list of people he couldn't trust.
But you were, Dean concedes again. They were just a bunch of dicks that wanted to use and discard me like a fucking condom.
They didn't though.
No, they just used Sam instead.
Something tightens in her chest at his revelation. Tessa doesn't know what she's supposed to tell him, if anything. Nothing she says will make Dean's hurt lessen, make him feel differently about his situation. He's been collecting souls all morning and the one he needs and wants is still out of reach. Tessa can't fix that.
Dean, she says, making him really look at her. She covers one of his hands with her own. Do you believe what you told Billy? Do you honestly think that without you Sam will be just fine?
Dean doesn't answer her right away. He just sits, staring at their overlapping hands like he's fascinated with what he seems. Tessa almost moves her hand away when Dean moves his, but he only shifts his hand to lace their fingers together, so Tessa keeps herself there.
Dean watches her from beneath his lashes and Tessa is sure that if she were human her face would be bright red with blush.
I believe that my brother is fighting somewhere and that his body is hollow, an empty shell like a robot, Dean finally answers.
But do you believe that his soul is okay?
Even if he's still in Hell?
Dean hesitates. Gets that distant look in his eyes again, thinking of an answer, maybe. Tessa doesn't try to read him now, doesn't feel like predicting the wrong thing. Though she knows his answer without having to guess it. Because this is Dean and he really only has one answer when it involves Sam.
Dean is only contracted for a day. Long enough to give Death a break and to understand what it really means for Sam to not have his soul.
The little boy, Billy, sticks with Dean the entire day. Tessa hears every possible comparison to him and the way Sam was when he was eight. It amazes her a bit, how Dean remembers that age so vividly, like it happened the day before instead of twenty years ago. Dean's awareness of his brother, his avid participation in memorizing every detail down to Sam's horseshoe scar on his big to from when he walked out in the snow barefoot and cut himself on a broken beer bottle when he was nine. Tessa is marveled by it.
But at the same time she is saddened by it too. Because Dean brought the memories with him to every reaping they did. Every little boy was Sam. Every little girl was a reminder of the Christmas when Sam gave Dean the amulet. Dean aches for that, too. Tessa has heard him mention it plenty of times to the people they were visiting. It comforts them, hearing stories of Sam, but it hurts Dean. And Tessa can only think that that is just how Dean is. Sacrificing his happiness if it means he can lend to someone else's. Dean comes last.
Thanks for showing me the ropes, Dean says as he rocks on his heels. He doesn't look directly at Tessa, but she's okay with that. She doesn't want an awkward good-bye anymore than Dean does.
I was just doing what I was told, Tessa replies back.
Yeah, but no one told you to listen to me. Thanks for that.
You deserve to be put first every now and then, Dean.
He laughs. Yeah, I guess.
Tessa doesn't get to finish her sentence before Dean's mouth is on hers, his hand tangled in her hair as his tongue begs entry. She allows the action and kisses him back as best she can. She hasn't kissed many people before, and the ones she has were innocent, almost familial, never like this. The kiss is quick, though, a span of seconds instead of the centuries it feels like in her head.
Dean pulls back and rests his forehead against hers, Till we meet again?
Tessa nods her head, still dizzy and slightly breathless. Till then, she manages.
Maybe one day we'll meet on better circumstances, yeah?
Dean, she sighs. I'm a reaper, what better circumstances are there?
Yeah, I see your point. He smiles at her and she sticks by her word – it's the most beautiful thing she's ever seen.
Don't come looking for me, Dean.
When have I ever?
I see your point, Tessa says, throwing his words back at him.
She stands up straighter, moving her head away from Dean's. She doesn't want to see Dean again for a long time. Doesn't want him dying anytime soon. He deserves better, deserves to find Sam and get the chance to be a big brother without having to worry about some demon or angel messing that up. All humans deserve that, but Dean especially.
Let's try for twenty years from now, Tessa offers.
And with that, he is gone. Back to his life and what was left of Sam. Tessa touches her lips and hopes that Dean finds the missing pieces and is able to put his brother back together. Hopes that she doesn't see him again for a very long time. Hopes that Dean Winchester gets, for once, to just be a human instead of a savior.
But miracles don't happen, not in Tessa's experience.