The name felt like lead on Sam’s tongue, so thick and heavy that he wasn’t sure if the syllable had actually made it past his lips.
The only reason he was aware of something cutting into his neck was the trail of red that was marking a small pathway against the stark fabric of his shirt. The dark suit and tie that usually accompanied the white-collared look were missing, but he couldn’t remember why.
His brother’s name seemed to drop soundlessly into the dark space before him. Everything felt heavy. Dull. Maybe he was dreaming.
But dreams shouldn’t smell of dust and abandonment. They shouldn’t be framed by cobwebs and wallpaper so aged that their floral design has faded into funeral bouquets. They shouldn’t have flickering candlelight and robed figures looking down on you.
No, dreams shouldn’t be like that.
But Winchesters don’t have dreams. They have nightmares. Sam smiled ruefully at the thought as he sank back into the sweet, welcoming peace of darkness.
Being a real ghost isn't as fun as being one for pretend. When you are only pretending, mom throws her hands up, squeals like a young girl, and then flees down the hallway, purposely going slow enough to let you catch up before you both tumble to the floor, all arms and legs and tangled bed sheets.
When you're a real ghost, her screams are sincere. So are her tears, and the way she claws desperately at her once lovely hair, no longer that familiar golden halo but lanky and tangled, like a witch's.
When you’re just playing, big brother acts brave. He squirts a water pistol at you and determinedly chases you around the house, shouting words that he claims are a real Latin spell (though you’re pretty sure it’s just “jibber jabber,” like dad says).
He doesn’t run away. He doesn’t beg you to leave him alone. To go. To just die, already. Die. Die. Die.
“But I think I am dead,” the small boy tried to say. “That’s why I’m a real ghost. I can’t stop playing one.”
He didn’t understand why they couldn’t seem to hear his words. He didn’t understand why they were so frightened, when as it turned out, ghosts weren’t scary after all. They were just what he was — a boy in a sheet.
And most of all, he didn’t understand why they left home that day and didn’t come back, no matter how long he waited for them, a faceless child in the window.
“Yeah, I found out where they brought him, but this place looks like a backup pad for the Addams family. I could be searching in there for hours.”
The cell phone was cradled between Dean's shoulder and the sharp angle of his freshly shaven cheek as his hands busied with a rusted lock. What a pain in the ass. He’d rather introduce the rotting wood to the heel of his boot, but handling this like a raid could get his brother killed.
“Well, you ain’t got hours. You’ve got a little less than fifteen minutes before midnight, and then those kool-aid sipping nut jobs are going to make Sam their last hurrah in this demon-summoning party of theirs.”
Dean hissed as the pick slipped, scraping uselessly against the rusted innards of the keyhole.
“Maybe somebody should tell them there’re easier ways to get those assholes’ attention than slaughtering a bunch of locals.”
“Pass them the memo while you’re saving your brother.” Dean felt a pang of gratitude for the way Bobby said that, as if there were no question about Sammy coming out of this alive. “And be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?”
There was a distinct click as Bobby hung up rather than dignifying that with a response. The hunter’s lip twitched in a smile, but it was short-lived. Dean Winchester had smirking in the face of danger down to an art, but not when the threat was to his brother. Where Sam was involved, devil-may-care grins and taunts were traded for the lethal focus of a predator.
But this predator was about to take his chances punching his fist through the glass rather than wasting more time with this lock. His fingers weren’t as deft as they should be, his movements clumsy. He had to calm down, but each passing second felt like it was taking a piece of his life with it.
God help those sons of bitches if his brother didn’t walk out of here with him tonight.
Dean shrugged off his leather jacket, wrapping the heavy material around the bulk of his fist. He began to draw back, already wincing, knowing that there was no way to completely muffle the sound of a break-in.
But the door opened on its own.
Beyond the soft groans of rusted hinges and molding wood, the hallway was filling with feathered lengths of moonlight that spilled over Dean’s shoulders. The hunter had drawn his pistol without a thought, the motion second-nature. A lifetime of patience, of waiting for monsters under the bed to spring out with soulless eyes and hungry maws, kept him still and poised, straining to pick up the sound or sight of a threat. There was nothing.
The floorboards protested as he took a few steps in, closing the door behind him to cover his back.
He felt foolish the second he whispered the name. Wishful thinking, which never did anyone a damn bit of good, least of all those in his profession.
“Shhh.” The sound came from behind. Below. Above. A hair's breadth from his ear.
This was the kind of moment that most people fear — when you understand that something, or someone, is behind you. When the primal urge to scream, to run, electrifies every cell of your body. That second when all you want to do is squeeze your eyes shut and pray, whether you have faith or not, for the unknown to disappear.
A hunter isn’t most people.
Dean spun around, his jacket thrown, hoping to catch his attacker off guard as he took aim. An icy weight settled around him, and plumes of his breath rode on the air, but there was nothing else to be seen.The alarm washed from his face with a disgusted snort.
“You have got to be kidding me! Come on! Satanic cults aren’t enough, now I’ve got to deal with ghosts, too?!”
Dean would have bet a round at Harvelle's that not much else could surprise him this evening. As it turned out, big surprises came in small packages — or sheets, rather.
Standing in the hallway, right where he had been facing seconds before, was a figure draped in white. A child-sized spook. At the corner of the cotton ghoul, there was even the tiny flap of a laundry care tag. Jagged circles had been cut near the top, the work so uneven and ragged that Dean could picture small hands struggling with blunted safety scissors. Through the holes, he thought he saw a pair of eyes shining, but in his line of work, that light could be a promise of all things sinister. He opened his mouth to speak, but a boy’s hand appeared from the rumpled folds, moved to where a mouth might be, and signaled him into silence.
Then, with that flicker all too familiar to spirits, the kind that reminded Dean of bad TV reception in trashy hotel rooms, the boy was gone.
It was the voices that stirred him awake, peeling back layers of silence which a part of him didn't want to relinquish just yet.
"Twelve more minutes."
"But he's here. Let me go get rid of him before he ruins everything."
"What the hell do you know about killing hunters?”
"I got this one, didn't I?”
"Only because you pulled the damsel in distress act. That other guy saw you. And you saw the look on his face when we dragged this big one off. Not a chance are we getting near him.” Although his eyes had not yet opened, Sam knew someone was at his side. He could feel it, in the way you could sense a stranger’s eyes on your back. "Stay here and stay quiet. He'll never find us by midnight. And once the sacrifice is complete, we won't have to give a shit about him."
"You're not— look. He's waking up. Should I give him another dose?"
"No, it'd kill him." A hand fisted in Sam's hair, pulling his head back and his gaze upward. The figures standing over him blurred and wavered, as if he were viewing them from under the surface of a lake. Was he drowning? It would make sense. It was hard to breathe. "He won't be able to move or speak for at least another half hour. Let's go. If his brother takes one step onto this floor before it's time, we'll shoot him."
Candle flames shook as the pair exited the room, making the shadows dance. The light twisted and jerked into contorted patterns, flailing on the walls, writhing on the ceiling. Sam reflexively wrenched against the bonds that held him to a wooden chair, fear coiling around his heart like a serpent. Phantom memories prowled in that fiery light, and though the room was silent, the screams of two women battered the foggy confines of his mind.
He wheezed the word, wanting to scream when all his body would allow was a fevered exhalation. A sheen of perspiration matted his hair. The overgrown bangs, now damp and lank, had become a source of all kinds of taunts from his brother. … his brother. Where was his brother? Didn’t he hear them? Hear her? They were being roasted alive, wailing, crying, blaming. Maybe Dean was burning, too.
Sam bit down to cut off the groan that had bubbled up from his chest. He could taste a cut on his lip split anew, was nauseated by the warmth of copper on his tongue.
“They gave you bad medicine.”
A child’s voice broke through the torturous cacophony around him. Candles were just candles again. Incense no longer carried the acrid-sweet scent of burning fat.
Raising his head to follow the voice made his world swim in and out of focus. He blinked away a salty bead of sweat, trying to give form to the tiny hill of white that had grown from the hardwood floor.
“You kept saying things about your brother when you were asleep.”
Sam strained to raise his hand, to reach out for the strange creature standing cautiously a few steps away, but all he managed was a spasmodic twitching of his fingers. “Where… am… I? Where’s … Dean?”
The ghost watched Sam quietly, the panic in the young man’s glassy eyes somehow familiar.
“Don’t worry.” A pale hand, its touch as light as spider webs, cold as late autumn, was placed over the darker skin of the hunter. “I won’t let him hurt you.”
The ghost boy vanished, and with him, Sam’s belief that he had ever stood there to begin with.
Eight minutes. No… seven.
The minute hand twitched forward on Dean’s watch, like the blade of a guillotine falling in slow motion. Stealth was being traded for headway as he tore through the maze of hallways, doors scattering dust as they were elbowed opened, framed paintings and mirrors playing malicious tricks as they showed him distorted reflections of a clenched jaw and the eyes of an animal poised to fight.
Whoever lived here last had left the place in a hurry. Furniture hulked in the shadows of rooms, fine china stood adorned in cobwebs. Honey, I’m home. The pretty picture of a dollhouse gone to rot.
Passing a kitchen, Dean pulled on yet another tarnished silver doorknob that lined the hall. His nostrils flared and his heart beat a little faster when damp, pungent air rose to meet him. Good. Basements were good. Basements were home to all kinds of nightmarish crap, including murder and satanic rituals. It was one of the frightening truths that hollywood horror films got right.
Like a mouth of hell, the doorway yawned in greeting. Nothing could be seen in the blackness that swallowed the lowest of the stairs. He stood, hushed and poised, both dreading and seeking a noise or a sliver of light, anything that would give away the presence of others.
He was given nothing, but this house was large. What lay below could very well be more of a wine cellar than a basement, complete with its own rooms and crannies.
The thought of his brother leeched any hesitation from Dean. No more than a handful of seconds were lost before he began to descend. A quick look around, not more than a minute, and he would head back up. Where basements failed, attics could often prevail.
Dean heard the sound of his body heavily connecting with the stairs, the choked rasp that burst from his lungs and the snap of splintered wood, before the pain registered. Starbursts of white and red exploded before his eyes, the only thing he could see now that the door above had been slammed shut. The icy sensation of phantom hands lingered on the back of his legs, making his skin crawl despite the pain that gnawed on his ribs and hip, chewed at the side of his face.
“N..o..” He growled, flecks of blood pooling on his lips as he dragged himself to his knees.
From above, there was the familiar clack of a lock being turned.
Dean’s hands scraped at the cement floor, blindly fumbling for the gun that had slipped from his grasp during the fall. Without the leverage to force the door open, his only hope would be to shoot the lock off. There was no room for aches and stings, or for fear; time wouldn’t allow either, so neither would he.
“Now is not the time to try to fuck with me! Open the damn door!”
A thin, small flashlight was pulled from a pocket that lined the inside of his jacket. He hadn’t dared expose the light before, but after that fall, any hope of a surprise attack was gone. His thumb, the nail cracked, flicked the switch.
Inches from his face, the illumination of the flashlight almost blinding when reflected against the bleached white cotton, was the ghost.
Dean struck out his fist to grab a hold of it, but the effort was wasted. He may as well have been boxing fog, for all the good it did. He knew better, but his anger didn’t nitpick over the facts of the afterlife.
“Listen, Casper, and listen good. You better get your pasty ass up those stairs and get that door open, now, or so help me, you’re going to get a lot more than a timeout when this is finished.”
At that size, a kid had to be under there. Or what once was a kid, anyway. How much of his original self was left was less than predictable. Under different circumstances, the tragedy of what was before Dean would not be lost. Dean's childhood years had been few, but precious enough that he knew a raised voice, or hand, wasn’t the right way to make a kid cooperate. Hell, it didn’t take much effort to imagine a shaggy mop of brown hair, an awkward smile framed by dimples, and the once scrawny frame of Sam playing behind a getup like that.
But this wasn’t a boy anymore. Shitty as the truth was, this kid’s thread had been cut. Sam still had an encyclopedia’s worth of a lifetime to fill, if Dean had anything to say about it. Sympathy wasn’t a luxury he could afford right now.
“My name is Thomas," the ghost said, slow and sulky. A first grader rebuking a playground name-calling. He sounded more Sesame Street than Omen.
Maybe there was enough humanity remaining under that costume to be reasoned with. Dean put up his free hand in a show of surrender. If he were standing, Thomas would hardly reach the top of his thigh.
“Alright, Tommy, it’s—“
Dean, who had been propped on one knee, was knocked to his rear. Being thrown to his ass by a pint-sized ghoul, in a Halloween costume, no less, would have hurt his dignity if the shock of impact ricocheting up his spine wasn’t such a distraction.
The flashlight had fallen between them, spinning in lazy circles on the floor. The carousel of light revealed glimpses of tiny tennis shoes which peeked from under the costume, white canvas thickly crusted in red.
Dean swallowed the disgust that rose in his throat. Not every child could be saved. Not every monster was a creature of campfire stories.
“I promise, Thomas, that I’ll help set whatever happened to you right. I swear it. But my little brother is in here somewhere, and if you don’t let me out of here, some really bad people are going to hurt him.”
The tip of one tennis shoe toed the other. The laces were too long, despite having been knotted several times.
“How do I know you won’t hurt him?”
Dean’s brow pinched. “He’s my brother. I wouldn’t hurt family.”
The ghost’s foot came stomping down, but made no sound when it struck the floor.
“You might! You might not mean it, but you might hurt him anyway!” Thomas’ voice shook, suddenly enwrapped in an anger and fear that no child should know. The hairs on Dean’s arms rose as the temperature dropped. “You — You’ll make mistakes! You’ll let him die!”
Even in this darkness, Thomas could see the change occurring in the man across from him. Spring green gone summer storm, and knuckles fisted white.
“I will not let Sammy die!” Dean shouted back. “I look out for my brother! I have always looked out for my brother!”
The flashlight leapt up from the floor. Dean narrowly avoided it by ducking quickly to his left, leaving it to smash into the wall beside his head, its glass casing cracked and the bulb fighting to stay alive. By the time he reclaimed it, Thomas was no longer in sight, but his voice fell on Dean from above.
“Then why did you let those bad people take him?”
The hunter threw himself at the stairs, the pound of his boots thundering in the quiet, the pain of his flesh and bone nothing in comparison to that which had seized his chest at those words.
Dean’s fists slammed into door. Once, twice, three times. Grime and flakes of paint dusted his nose, clung to the blood that lay thick on his temple. The wood shook in its casing as he began to throw his weight against it, grunting with the impact, again and again, only stopping when his hardest throw nearly sent him crashing back down the stairs.
“What the hell is he doing down there?” She leaned against the stairway bannister. Down aways, the moon was plump within the silhouette of a window frame. The gun which she had earlier gripped so tightly now hung casually at her side. Below, echoing between hallways, it sounded as if the hunter had gone mad. “Is he screaming?”
“Who cares.” He was pacing, his own revolver tapped against his thigh at a near manic pace. “Three minutes.”
“This whole midnight business is stupid. I bet it was thrown in just for effect. Why would demons care what time it is when you sacrifice someone?”
“Shut up. You want to skip an easy step like that and risk ruining everything? After all the work we did?”
He could see her twisting one of her short curls around a finger. In this darkness, her light hair was the only thing visible in the confines of her hood. He had told her to pull the damn thing down, before their pursuer blindsided her, but it looked like that was no longer a concern. From the sounds of things, the hunter was preoccupied with something else entirely.
“How you wanna do it? Gun?” She flashed him a smile, which he found himself returning.
“Nah. Why waste the bullets?” He brushed the edge of the robe aside and touched his thumb to the edge of a blade.
When Thomas reappeared, Sam hardly believed he was there, having written him off as a hallucination minutes before. The world had begun to reclaim its edges, and pins and needles were nipping at his arms and legs. He thought he might be able to muster a shout, just maybe, but the sound of voices outside the door kept him quiet. Whatever they had pumped into his system wasn’t keeping him down for as long as they expected, but he was nowhere near fighting form. Especially not with the thick fibers of a rope digging deep into each wrist and ankle.
“You’re kind of small for a figment of my imagination,” Sam slurred. “My monsters are usually scarier than that. Or they’ve at least hit puberty."
“Everyone must look small to you,” his visitor countered. “And I’m not a monster, I’m a ghost.” He said it with the sort of honest disdain that only a child can muster.
“Same difference,” Sam said, rolling his shoulders uncomfortably. He turned his head from left to right, taking in the candles, the strange signs painted and scratched into the walls, the cloying sweetness in the air. What attention he had been giving to Thomas was being swept away by memories lapping insistently at the edge of his mind.
“Oh.. oh, damn.”
There had been a young woman. In the shadow of a late-night diner, crouched against graffitti-tagged brick, she had been sobbing. Or was it laughing? It had been hard to tell with a needle sticking out of his neck.
“… it won’t hurt very much, it’s okay.” Thomas broke into Sam's thoughts and moved closer. He scuffed his foot against the floor and started twisting the corners of his sheet. The way Sam was staring — it reminded him of how his family had looked at him. “At least... I don’t think it will hurt. I don’t remember it very much… But when it’s over, things will be better! Because nothing will hurt anymore and we can—”
“Who are you?”
“Thomas!” He smiled brightly beneath his costume. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been acknowledged like this. “And you’re Sammy, right?”
Sam’s head was taking its sweet time to clear the fog that was keeping reality at bay, but something Thomas said made pangs of alarm twist his gut.
“Sam,” he replied. Thomas’ sneakers made no sound as he walked on the hardwood. The closer he came, the more warmth was leeched from the air around him. If it weren’t for these telltale signs, Sam might have believed a real boy was under there. “Who’s outside the door?”
Two small hands placed themselves over one of Sam’s, and he had the strange thought that the gesture was protective.
“Dunno. A man and a lady, wearing strange stuff. Hoods.” Thomas’ voice dropped to a whisper. The faux ghost eyes, comically melancholy in their awkward shape, turned up to Sam. The hunter had to bite the inside of his mouth when the dim light of the candles revealed a pair of real eyes; they were a deep brown, the color of wet earth and warm days outside, of getting your clothes more dirty than mom would have thought possible — and they were looking up to him with such desperate hope and fear that he knew this … boy … had been alone for quite a while. However, the stirrings of empathy were cut short when Thomas continued with a matter-of-fact, “They’re going to kill you soon.”
Sam jerked so forcefully that the chair jumped. A significant improvement over his paralyzation, but twitching at his attackers would hardly help. Thomas hopped back a step with the movement, startled.
“If you make noise like that, they might come in and hurt you before they do it,” he warned.
“What time is it?!” The murders had all been performed around midnight. Six bodies in six days, and he was to be the seventh. He and Dean had expected this to be a hit and run case — slam, bam, thank you, Damned. A couple of psychopaths with too much time and internet on their hands. Even the scrawls on the walls of the crime scenes had been ridiculous, laid out like the gallery of a tattoo parlor rather than a proper mapping of sigils. He and Dean had been lazy, unguarded, and now Sam's life, or worse, was to pay the penalty.
Thomas shrugged. The room had neither windows nor clocks, and time wasn’t something he paid attention to anymore. “They said they were going to do it in three minutes.”
Sam stiffened. “When did they say that?”
“Maybe a minute ago?”
Sam swore, and Thomas giggled. No matter the form, maybe kids were still kids. And so, Sam thought, maybe that meant Thomas could be reasoned with.
“Thomas, listen. It’ll be difficult, but if you focus really hard, you can pick up one of those candles over there. I need you to hold it near my wrist, okay? We have to try to burn through this rope. If I can just get one hand free, I’ll be able to—“
“No!” Thomas cried.
They both cringed at the outburst and looked expectantly to the door. When the pair failed to charge in, Sam let out the breath he was holding. He shifted within his bonds, but it was like coming out of a fever. The movement was there, but his strength was not. Perfect. Not enough signals reaching his body's nerves to escape, but enough to feel whatever torture they had planned for him. Thomas was standing to the side, head bowed, as if expecting a scolding for the shout.
Sam tried to sound calm and consoling, although a part of him wanted to do nothing more than scream. “Thomas, please. I can’t die here. I have a brother. He needs me.”
The candle flames violently danced, the air frosted within Sam's lungs, and despite Thomas' size, years of survival as a hunter made Sam's muscles coil tight in caution.
“But you don’t need him! I won't leave you, I won't! If you stay—"
A ghost begging a hunter not to leave his side. The irony, and cruelty, made Sam's words taste like graveyard rot on his tongue.
"Thomas ... I ... I can't stay. You don't abandon family like that."
For several long seconds, there wasn't a sound between them. A bead of sweat crawled uncomfortably down the back of Sam’s neck, despite the crypt-like cold that now swallowed the room whole. He should have been planning his next move, trying to find the argument that could save his life, but he found himself paralyzed as he watched a tiny hand, its nails bitten down to dirty nubs, pull away the Halloween costume like a second skin, revealing what was once the boy underneath.
"Liar," murmured Thomas.
Sam whipped his head aside as he began to cough, the bile rising up and burning in his throat. Kids. Kids were always the hardest.
"... whatever happened, you didn't deserve that,” Sam said, his voice thick.
Thomas expected a scream, or maybe an apology. His family had said “sorry” a lot in the beginning, even though it never seemed like it was for the right reasons. He never looked in a mirror, not even once, since it happened. He was too afraid to see what made the others leave him behind. And now, although Sam wasn’t looking at him with fear, his eyes were filled with pity. Thomas turned his back, the costume roughly pulled back over his head, comforting in its familiarity, even if it was his cage.
Somewhere, out there in the night, clocks were striking midnight. Both pair of eyes shot to the heavy door as it was flung open, a cry ripped from its hinges. A young man and woman, both close to Sam’s own age, were chuckling as they entered, but their laughter was cut short as they saw an alert Sam and — for all the world what appeared to be — a child in a Halloween costume.
Both of the woman’s fists were gripped tightly around her pistol. Aiming at Thomas without hesitation, she shrieked, “Where the hell did the kid come from?!”
“Who gives a fuck! We don’t have time for him now, just keep him outta the way!” her partner snarled.
Flashing in the dim light was a serrated blade, its silver teeth smiling as the man strode forward, his steps heavy on the floorboards. He walked past Sam and to a small dresser. Resting on it, untouched by dust, was a long-necked glass bottle. What sounded like a high school Latin teacher’s worst nightmare of an oral presentation began, warped vowels mangled with an unintelligible mix of hisses and abstract phrases. As it continued, a thick stream of red was poured generously upon the faux sigils that had been painted around the hunter.
Sam didn’t pay mind to any of it. His eyes were trained on the doorway, out where, in the darkness, came a sound that scared him worse than anything else from this hellish night. Even muffled by distance, choked by the dust-collecting remnants of a family long gone, he could hear the pain in the scream that echoed in the halls far below. It was a wretched sound, terrifying in both its misery and its rage.
“You called me Sammy…” An ache twisted in Sam, whose mind was catching up too slow, too late. “Thomas… where did you learn my name?”
Once more the ghost was scuffing his foot against the floor, his head turned down and away.
“Thomas!” Sam’s voice rose over that of the novice summoner’s, loud enough to make the woman wince. “What did you do with my brother!?”
The handle of the blade collided mercilessly with Sam’s cheek. Even with the remains of the drug coursing through his system, he felt the sting of split skin radiate out from the impact, fireworks flaring across his vision. But it didn’t shut him up.
“Where’s Dean?! Thomas!” Fingers clamped onto Sam’s chin from behind. They reeked of gun metal, but were too soft for anyone who knew the real meaning of a fight. Enough sensation had returned for Sam to struggle against their grip, his body thrashing against the bonds, nearly making the chair tip. His head was being forced back, the muscles of his neck burning in protest, and although he was aware of the woman screaming for her partner to hurry, to “slit his fucking throat,” it was his own shouts that thundered in the room.
“Get Dean out of here! Thomas, go help him!” To hell with the dick chanting the demonic nursery rhyme inches from his face. To hell with the knife that was now pressing along his jugular, the knife which was serrated, which wasn’t even the right kind of damn knife to use for this kind of thing, because it was bound to make this sacrifice a lot messier and more painful than it would have been were he lucky enough to be kidnapped by cultheads who actually knew the first damn thing about slicing up not-quite-so-virgins.
To hell with all of it, because his brother was in danger. He had to be. Because if he wasn’t, he’d be up here breaking heads and saving the day. That's what Dean did. Always had, always would.
Even if Sam wouldn’t be around to see him be the hero anymore.
“Thomas…” Sam’s lips peeled back, revealing teeth that were clamped together. The delicate skin of his throat was being torn, his captor’s hand shaking in its eagerness, even before the killing stroke, and the first few drops of the Winchester’s life spilled. “If you don’t help my brother, I won’t stay here with you. I swear it!” He spat out the words in desperation, neither knowing nor caring whether they could hold any truth. Dying would be scary. Dying, knowing his brother was to follow suit because of his mistake, would be damning.
The ghost chewed his lip beneath his costume. What Sam was saying was a lie, of course, but that wasn’t his fault. People who were alive just didn’t know any better. Reapers and pain and panic were long lost to his memory, but Thomas was pretty sure the process was simple: One minute you’re alive, and in the next, you’re dead. Still here, still you, just different. That’s how it always worked, right?
Over him, the woman remained on guard, her gun still trained on his small figure, but her attention was only for the young man strapped to the chair. Flames danced along her irises, and Thomas couldn't be sure if they were reflecting the candlelight or burning from within. A smile split her features, wide and greedy. He was suddenly reminded of leering jack-o-lanterns filling the porches of the neighborhood at Halloween.
“Ha, damn right you’re not staying here with him! We’re about to give your soul a one-way trip to hell.” Her giggle carried above the darkness and the chanting, carefree and sweet as early summer. She reached down to pat Thomas on the head. “Say bye-bye to your friend, sweetie."
Sam closed his eyes. If he had to accept death, he wouldn’t let this nightmare be the last memory he carried of this world. He spoke a single word, but it went unheard, and then the cascade of blood fell warm upon his chest.
The cell phone was ringing. Again. “OLD BADGER” flared bright against the display, mute and pulsing, like a cold fire. In its light, congealing smears of red shone in stark relief against the peeling white paint of the door. While the illumination from the incoming call lasted, his shadow sat beside him on the staircase. Too soon, however, the call disconnected; only the clock remained, and he was left alone once more.
If the broken and bloodied skin of his knuckles brought him any pain, he gave no sign of it. Shoulders hunched, hands clasped on drawn-in knees, Dean was giving little sign of anything. Monsters in closets; unfamiliar streets at night, only questionably deserted — the human mind could design the finest of tortures out of the unseen, and in this moment, Dean’s imagination maliciously found its entertainment by filling his head with visions of Sam’s fate. A lifetime of hunting, of dodging death at the claws and maws and unholy intentions of demons and humans alike, and it was time that dragged them down for the kill. A stupid slip-up, and the fucking tick of a clock.
He was going to destroy it all, if he lived to have the chance. Those assholes wanted to summon a demon? He’d provide. And this hell house was a bonfire waiting to happen.
Between his pounding at the door and the threats he had bellowed, he knew they were aware of his intrusion. Good. They’d come. He’d wait.
And if there were a God, let him have more mercy than Dean Winchester planned on delivering.
The shot hadn’t been clean, and the sound of death rattled in what was left of his throat as he collapsed over Sam’s shoulder. Blood ran thick and hot down the Winchester’s chest, and with disgust he wrenched within his bonds, the movement just enough to send the dying man sliding to the floor. The body twitched and kicked, as if fighting to escape the pain, and Sam felt his chest tighten as one candle was knocked to its side, its flame greedily beginning to lap at the wooden floor.
“T-they were going to send you away… she said so.”
The woman’s voice was shaking, nearly as much as the revolver that was now aligned with Sam’s face. She had moved so close that he could smell the gunpowder dusting the barrel.
Sam swallowed, grimacing. “Thomas?”
The woman's eyes rolled wildly from the body on the floor to Sam’s face, wide and panicked, but angry, too, as if a storm were stirring within the whites.
“He was a bad man!” The voice was that of the woman, but her tremulous plea carried the anxiety of a child faced with the threat of a serious scolding. "I didn't do anything wrong!"
"You're right. He was bad. But you don't want to be bad, do you?" Sam spoke quickly, for at that moment, the candle had its first taste of the spilt wine. It let out a small gasp and a cackle, thrilled with the flavor, and began to devour and spread. He could already feel its heat, like a devil breathing down his back.
The gun’s site stopped its skittish bobbing. This time, there was no question where the bullet would fly; at this distance, Sam couldn’t be missed.
“I’m not bad! I wasn’t bad ever!”
Sam was trying to hold Thomas’ stolen gaze, but it was difficult with the infinity of that barrel aimed between his eyes.
“A good person wouldn’t hurt me. Or my brother.”
The chair leapt up and away from Thomas, sailing across the small room as if Sam were no larger than a garden gnome caught in a hurricane. He flew through flame and smoke and collided with the wall, for a moment terrified that the sharp, resounding snap was the sound of his spine rather than that of wood shattering.
“Dying won’t hurt you! It’s not like that! No one understands!” Thomas screamed.
Sam started coughing. The air was becoming black and thick, and the skin Thomas wore was becoming less and less comfortable. Forearms, exposed from beneath the robe, cracked and peeled as he stepped into the flames to close the distance between himself and Sam, who almost had one hand freed from the now broken arm of the chair. “I just want you to stay! Please, stay!”
The mask of an adult didn’t hide the frightened anguish. Don’t leave me. Don’t go. I don’t want to be alone. I can handle death, but don’t let me be alone.
Surrounded by tears and fire and despair — Sam was sickened by all of it. As it began, so it would end? Was that how it had to be?
“If you let this fire kill us, no one is going to be able to stay—“ Sam began softly.
Thomas interrupted with a shrill cry of, “Stop!"
Sam braced himself and flinched, expecting a bullet, but when he opened his eyes, he realized Thomas’ screams weren’t directed at him. The ghost was looking directly above the body of the fallen man, his widened stare a twisted fusion of horror and hope.
“Wait, wait! Where are you going?!”
The hunter followed Thomas’ stare, but life blinded him to what was unfolding. All he could see was Thomas reaching out to make a swift grab at the air, but whatever he sought was gone.
The woman’s face crumpled, and what began as a soul-shaking sob spiraled into a piercing scream as Thomas shed her as easily as one might discard a coat. The ghost sank to a crouch, his pale lips stretched wide, his fists balled tight and pressed to his eyes as the woman beside him burned.
She screamed something at Sam, perhaps a plea for help, but the sight of her crippled him. He was no longer in some strange, unfamiliar house. Stale dust and the scent of abandonment weren’t burning in his nose or making his eyes itch. No — where Sam was, the room smelled of cinnamon. Of some floral conditioner that she would teasingly scold him for using too much of when he stayed over for a shower. The furniture around him was cluttered with term papers and text books rather than musty layers of neglect.
“--- YOUR FAULT!”
He jerked back to reality with a gasp. She hung above him, a human pyre, the kind of figure that haunted the darkest of his family’s nights. Fingers, blistered and raw, were still coiled around the trigger of the gun.
“You and that monster!” She spat the words as if they were venom, her eyes bulging within the frame of thick eyeliner which now scoured her cheeks with raven tears.
Sam knew it was coming the moment Thomas’ wailing stopped. The woman didn’t recognize the danger in the silence, and perhaps that was for the best. In one breath, her hatred and pain were practically palpable amid the flames, and in the next, that festering madness was wiped out. She was gone, nothing more than the broken remains of what might have once been a sister, a daughter, before the wall beside Sam so efficiently snapped her neck upon collision. What fire she took with her kindly caressed her form, blanketing her for her final slumber.
Danger in movement, danger in staying put any longer, Sam quickly decided to give up any hope of strategy and relinquished himself to the instinct ingrained upon him since childhood. His own fear and pain were swallowed down as his left hand, finally pulled free from the shattered arm of the chair, dove within the fold of his pants' pocket. Not one to openly pray, his heart still sang a hallelujah when his fingers touched cold metal. And not to speak ill of the dead, but he was pretty damn relieved that the pair’s short-lived career of kidnapping and murder hadn’t taught them to conduct a thorough search of their victims.
Several feet away, Thomas was unmoving save for the rise and fall of his trembling shoulders. Even surrounded by this nightmare, Sam was struck by the tragedy of a child that couldn’t shed tears. No time to feel sorry for him, though. Not now. Focus, act, and forget you have any emotion but the demand for survival.
Thomas’ eyes were cast to the floor, his head drooped, while Sam flipped open the knife and began fervently sawing at the rope digging into his opposite wrist. Not once did the boy speak, or move, or make any sign that he even remembered Sam was in the room. With every break of fiber, the hunter was certain he was cutting away the threads of his own life and Dean’s, but soon, the last of the rope that bound him, above and below, was removed.
His legs shook and head spun with that first effort to stand, making him draw in a sharp breath that quickly reduced him to a heavy fit of coughing. A true, healthy blaze had grown, crawling up the walls, peeling away at the ceiling. The room wasn’t large, but escape was an inferno away, the doorway playing hide and seek between blazing tendrils and acrid smoke. With nothing to gain by delaying the inevitable, he threw his arms over his face, doing what he could to shield his face as rushed into the fire.
“This," Sam thought, “This is what hell must feel like.”
Near blind, he exploded through the doorway, waves of heat chasing after. Rolling black clouds enfolded him, obscuring the way, so that one moment he was fumbling down the narrow hallway, and in the next, his feet touched only air. At his peak, Sam had fast reflexes that contradicted his size, but he was far from his finest form, and it was with luck rather than finesse that he managed a fumbled grasp at the bannister, righting himself before gravity could succeed where the man and woman had failed.
“De—!” Sam doubled over, one fist to his mouth as he hacked, his free hand fumbling in his pocket. No phone. A guy could only be dealt so many good hands in a night, as Dean would say.
His eyes watered as he stumbled down the hall, the light of the moon unable to pierce this deeply into the house. The air was cooler, clear, and Sam sucked it down like a man dying of thirst, ignoring the raw burn of it as it slid down his throat.
Where the hell had they taken him? The hallway seemed endless, each door he passed making his chest constrict. Above, the ceiling was groaning in misery.
He was trying not to think of the silence. It didn’t mean that Dean was unconscious, or that Sam wouldn’t be able to find him before the second floor came down, or that the scream he heard earlier was his brother’s last.
Sam had curled his palm near his mouth, ready to call out, when the small voice at his feet nearly made his heart leap from his throat. Thomas was in costume, once again a misplaced trick-or-treater rather than a vision of the uglier truths of life. Deep in Sam’s gut, distrust stirred; he didn’t like being unable to see past the hollow darkness that hid the boy’s eyes, secretive of the emotions stirring under the sheet.
Even in shadow, and through a child’s innocence, Thomas could read the look on Sam’s face: it was the same expression he had last seen on his father, what simultaneously felt like lifetimes and moments ago. He could have yelled, for that. Could have cried. Instead, he only felt tired. Empty. It was the kind of wariness that followed on those nights he and his brother were up late into the evening, listening to shouted words he didn’t understand but feared.
He heard Sam’s gasp as he vanished, but he reappeared at the end of the hall, a pale beacon about fifteen paces away. There was only a moment of hesitation on Sam’s part before he followed, his jogging sluggish yet determined, Dean’s name called out quietly against every door he passed along the way.
If Sam's extra show of caution offended the spirit, Thomas didn’t say so. A small part of Sam was whispering an endless stream of heated warnings in his ear, but the far larger part of his subconscious kept things more simple: Find him. Save him. Get out.
When he reached Thomas, the boy immediately vanished, as if playing a macabre game of tag. Sam spilled a few choice words that were usually under Dean’s jurisdiction.
But then, he tensed. He could have sworn he heard something — a voice, muffled but close. A second passed, another, and all was quiet.
As if he had never gone, Thomas suddenly stood a few feet away, facing a heavy door to Sam’s left. Double deadbolts, their silver tarnished, accompanied a yawning keyhole below. Sam followed the upward tilt of Thomas’ head. What was an impossible height for a child wasn’t even a lean up on tiptoes for the hunter, and a quick swipe of his hand along the doorjamb deposited a heavy key in his hand. He almost dropped it when the door shook within its hinges.
"Shit!" he exclaimed at the near loss.
Neither could see the other, but there was a simultaneous exhale of relief.
“Yeah, hold on!”
Words couldn’t describe his relief. With the click of each lock, the corner of Sam’s lip twitched upward, a little bit closer to a smile. His brother was alive, and they were both in one piece. In a hunter’s book, this would be checked off as an awesome day.
As soon as the doorknob turned, Dean spilled into the hallway. Upon seeing Sam, his eyes shone with alarm.
Sam, who had been halfway to a smile, didn’t understand the look that came over Dean’s face until he followed his gaze down to his shirt. “Oh! No, it’s okay, that’s not mine.” His nose wrinkled. “Not most of it, anyway.”
“Son of a…” Dean swiped a hand over his face, as if trying to wipe away the panic that had settled there seconds before. “You scared the hell out of me, man! When it turned midnight, I thought…” His eyes cut away, guilt etching lines in his forehead. “And then I heard a woman screaming, and I figured, well fuck, maybe a demon showed up just to tell them what assholes they were for trying to summon them with a spell that sounds like it came from a B-rate—“
The words tumbled out of Dean, raw with relief, but Sam’s half-smile had faded. His attention had drifted to the spots of crimson that were falling to the floor as Dean gestured while speaking. His knuckles were swollen, skin already darkened to the ugly shade of an overripe plum, the wounds still weeping. One look at the cellar door was explanation enough.
“— whoever said there was such a thing as a friendly freaking ghost needs to get punched in the head. I —“
Dean was cut off, his voice abruptly muffled against Sam’s broad shoulder. His brother’s arm was locked across him in a way that stirred memories of those nights when he had to assist their father in a hunt, leaving Sam, still a short, scraggly thing back then, to pace the stained rugs of hotel rooms, alone, until their return. Usually, they’d come back to find Sam quietly resentful, angry with both himself and them for being treated like an inconvenience rather than an asset to the family team. But then there were the nights when John or Dean walked through the door looking the worse for wear. On those nights, when John wasn’t looking, for just a moment, they didn’t have to be strong. On those nights, a hug from his kid brother said more than welcome back. On those nights, a hug was a mutual reassurance, a promise, to both: We’re together. We’re alive. We’re safe.
The embrace was returned, twice as tight and with a grin that took years from the older Winchester’s face. Although Sam was the one back from the dead, Dean felt as if he were the one resurrected.
“You look like hell,” Dean said when they broke apart. You couldn’t do the hug without some follow-up sass; it was a well-known if unspoken rule between siblings. Not that it was an empty tease — the bruise on Sam’s cheek had blossomed into a vivid shade of violet, the flesh puffed below his eye so that he wore an unwavering squint.
“Still better looking than you.”
The smile stayed on Dean’s face, but in a way that was nearly imperceptible but all too obvious to Sam, it took on a steel sheen. “So, where are they?”
“Gone.” Sam didn’t offer more. There wasn’t time. From above, there came a series of weakened groans and thunderous crashes. Their shadows took refuge behind them as flames descended around the corner, hissing vows to soon chase after. The brothers raised their arms, shielding their faces from the swells of heat which fell upon them like a crashing wave.
“Let’s get the hell out of—“
Dean swiveled back in the direction of the doorway, but he stopped short, his arm flung up and out in front of Sam’s chest. “Seriously not in the mood, Casper.”
Thomas, who had been standing apart from the brothers, hidden in the deeper shadows of the hall, was almost luminescent in the glow of the approaching fire. He began to retreat at Dean’s snarl, but Sam stepped past his brother’s protective gesture and kneeled.
“… they didn’t stay,” Thomas said.
Ghost. Murderer. Whatever he was now, he was once a boy. When Sam replied, his voice was heavy with regret. “That’s not always how it works, Thomas.”
“Everyone leaves!” The outburst came as a broken cry, so perfectly human in its loneliness. “Why am I always left behind!”
“You… you won’t be alone for long. You’re going to go home. To a new home. A better home. Where you should have gone a long time ago,” Sam replied.
“How!? By myself?” Thomas balked.
Dean muttered from above, shaking his head. When this kid was alive, odds were he had never even so much as gone to a neighbor’s yard by himself, and here was Sam, trying to sugarcoat a solo trip to a pearly-gated penthouse.
Sam reached to put a hand on Thomas’ shoulder, but his fingers passed helplessly through him, as if he were already no more than a reflection of what once was.
“You’ll make it,” he tried to reassure.
Behind them, the fire swallowed something it particularly enjoyed and snapped its teeth in satisfaction. Dean and Sam exchanged a knowing look, neither taking pleasure in what was to come.
“Will… will it hurt?” Thomas asked quietly.
His hands appeared from beneath the folds, and for what would be the last time, the Halloween costume was removed. Thomas clutched it to his chest, the white material no longer a symbol of the dead, but a security blanket.
It was harder to sound confident of ideals like heaven when looking into the eyes of a dead child. Sam swallowed, hard, struggling to find the words that could work past the lump that had formed in his throat.
“Yeah, probably,” answered Dean.
Sam’s head snapped in his brother’s direction, disbelieving of the callous ease in Dean’s voice. Too much of a rusted edge in his tone, too much like their father. He wanted to call him on that, ask him what the hell he was thinking, until he saw the way the muscles of Dean’s jaw were tensed.
Thomas’ lip had just begun to tremble when Dean dropped to a crouch beside Sam.
“But it’ll be over quick. After that, it’s easy.”
“How do you know?” Thomas asked it with suspicion, but Dean spoke with such confidence that the words chipped away at his fear.
“Because now that you’re ready, they’ll make sure you get to where you need to go.”
“Angels. They’re watching over you, kid.” Dean smiled, and the green of his eyes was no longer that of summer storms but the quiet mornings that followed.
Dean was surprised when Thomas smiled tentatively back, but Sam wasn’t in the slightest. His brother was clueless of his gift — of his ability — to instill strength in others. Or hope. Or trust. Or any feeling that ran the gamut of human emotion. He had a way of connecting with people that he wasn’t even aware of. And in his naivety, it was a power he wielded carelessly.
That smile was the last they saw of Thomas. He disappeared, leaving them to spend the remainder of his time tucked under the window of his old bedroom. Beneath the sill, lines of blue and green crayon turned and twisted, crossed and jumped, in a frenzy of creativity. His mom had acted genuinely proud when he revealed his masterpiece. On nights when he and his brother couldn’t sleep, they would take turns picking out pictures amid the chaos, their laughter smothering the noise of the world outside.
As the flames grew, and his home began to fall, and his bravery began to falter, he focused hard on the wax scrawls, finding the image of his new home in the markings.
They sank into the leather seats of the Impala without a word. A discarded candy bar wrapper crunched under Sam’s foot. The radio crackled then spun, rewinding a cassette that had been played so many times it was held together by little more than good faith. Under the heels of Dean’s palms the steering wheel was manipulated, pulling them out and away from the house with a spit of gravel.
It wasn’t until they were on a flat stretch of backcountry, highway tarmac, the light of the night sky replacing the yellow glow of street lamps, golden fields turned silver under the moon sailing past, that Sam glanced to Dean. His lips were moving silently to the lyrics coming out of the speaker, his fingers drumming, stiff and unevenly, with the rhythm.
“Do you believe what you said back there?”
“That you look like hell? Yeah.”
Sam ran his tongue behind his teeth, counting a beat and trying to keep his frustration from showing.
“Not that. You know what I mean. The whole… celestial thing. You really think we’ve got angels watching over us?”
Dean let out a dry chuckle. He grinned at Sam, but it was belied by the bitterness in his words.
“Fuck, no. And I don’t want to. ‘Cause if they are watching, they sure as hell don’t give a damn about us."