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The Lamb: No More Dreaming of the Dead

The Lamb


Chapter 6. No More Dreaming of the Dead

“You got what you wanted, right? Nobody died. What is your problem, Dean? Everything turned out fine!” Sam threw his arms up in the air, exasperated.
“That…weird psychic shit, Sammy? It isn’t normal. I thought you stopped all that. I thought it was over.”
“Well, it isn’t. I’m using it to help people, Dean. I’m not like those other people. I’m not using it for evil.”
“Sammy, the Yellow-Eyed Demon gave you that…thing. You think it’s good? You think it can be used like that? It’s just going to put you in danger. It’s going to put us all in danger.”
“What happened to you in Hell, Dean? When did you lose your spine?”
“It’s all about priorities, Sam. What are you willing to give up for that little psychic parlor trick?” Dean shook his head and got in the car. He sat heavily in the driver’s seat and turned on the engine. Sam sat down silently in the backseat, his face turned away. A moment later, Buffy returned from the bathroom inside the gas station. She slid into the front seat and shut the door. Before Dean could touch the radio, Buffy flicked the dial. She found the national news station and turned up the sound.

“One brave man made national headlines today when he miraculously survived a devastating car crash in Corvallis, Oregon. The man, Mister Leonard Chilbane, age 42, was working on the engine of a neighbor’s car in the garage outside his home in Corvallis, when the neighbor, Mister James Axe, 45, accidently drove the car into the concrete garage wall. Chilbane was crushed between the car and the wall for several minutes before paramedics arrived on the scene. When the car was removed, Chilbane had several broken bones, but no internal bleeding of any kind. Doctors say his rate of healing is so incredible that they have asked Chilbane to donate his blood and bone marrow to the Oregon Department of Health for analysis. Chilbane is mobile and expects to be working on Axe’s car again by the end of the week.”

“Let me guess. Comic book superhero?” Dean blinked, turning off the radio to stare at it.
“I don’t even heal that fast,” Buffy shuddered, as though reacting to a mysterious draft. “Not even when I drink my milk and get a good night’s sleep.”
“Oregon,” Sam mumbled in the back. “Long drive.”
“If we haul ass, we can get there in a couple days. Lenny’ll be back to leaping tall buildings by then.”
Buffy reached over to turn the radio on again, and switched the player back over to a classic rock station. Dean fiddled with the volume as they drove out toward the highway, headed west.

The drive to Corvallis took almost seventy-two hours of solid traveling. Every hunter took a long shift behind the wheel, split up by restless naps or vacant staring episodes in the backseat. They stopped to eat at cozy diners along the highway, and to stretch their legs at rest stops, but otherwise continued along the endless length of the Eisenhower interstate highway system. Buffy whittled stakes into sharp and deadly splinters, so many of them that they filled their own compartment in the garrison the Winchesters kept in the Impala’s trunk. When it was too dark to see her work, she stared out at the night, watching the shadows of trees race by beneath the lazy shine of the moon. In Wyoming, Dean looked through the rearview mirror at Sam, sleeping peacefully in the back. Shrugging, he leaned an arm on the back of the front seat and touched Buffy’s shoulder. She looked up, surprised into consciousness.
“What happened?” He asked quietly, pulling his hand back to his side of the seat. The question was left open to interpretation, but at the same time, she knew what he meant.

Buffy looked over at his face, half-hidden in the darkness. In Wyoming, there were no lights on the interstate. The stars gathered in the millions above the vast open sky. There was no moon tonight, and only the glow of the lights on the dashboard played on Dean’s face. She’d asked herself that same question of him. What had happened? Was it just the stress of a job that never seemed to end? Was there more to it than that?
“I died,” Buffy sighed, turning her attention back to the window. “A few years ago, I died to save my sister, Dawn. I was finally free.”
“What was it like? Heaven, I mean.” Dean whispered, awed.
“I don’t remember much of it. But I know that I was happy. I knew my family was safe, and I could just be happy. I met Castiel there.”
“Yeah,” Dean frowned.
“It was different. He was different. I don’t know if what we shared was even real. But at the time…it was nice. My best friends pulled me out. They brought me back.” Bitterness and stress rolled over her in waves as she continued. He watched the transformation, there in the darkness. Tension brought out the small veins and ligaments in her neck and shoulders. Her muscles flexed and her skin tightened.
“Life hasn’t been the same since.”

The way she seemed to pause in the story rather than stop suggested there was more to it than that. Buffy Summers carried her history around with her like a lead ball attached to a chain. He waited, but she never said anything else. Instead, Buffy drifted back into the somber night, staring out at the stars with vague interest. After almost an hour, when Dean’s eyes had become heavy and drowsy with sleep, she spoke again.
“You crawled out of your grave too,” she murmured without looking at him.
“How’d you know?” He asked without any hint of surprise in his voice. Of course she knew. She’d done it too.
“Your hands,” she shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I could just…feel it.”
“I wasn’t in Heaven,” Dean sighed. “Sam died, and I couldn’t…I couldn’t just let him die.” Dean stared out the windshield, his thoughts flashing back to the stone cold corpse of his brother. “I sold my soul for his life.”
Without a word of acknowledgment, Buffy stretched out her hand and placed it over his. There was nothing else to say. Dean peeled his eyes away from the golden yellow stripes on the empty open highway. He glanced down at her small hand, patterned with scars and reminders, carrying the weight of all her unspoken baggage. He turned his hand over and opened the palm. They stayed that way, quiet and reflective, until sunrise.

Sam drove into the Corvallis city limits at ten minutes past eleven. The road was illuminated with lazy overhead lights, but the streets were mostly empty at such a late hour on a Monday. He pulled into a quiet motel to one side of the highway and parked the car. Dean got out of the passenger side and rented two rooms. He handed the second key to Sam and they parted ways for the night. Sam looked over his shoulder at them as he unlocked his room and stepped over the threshold. They stood close to one another, but their skin never touched. They reminded him of two frightened teens on a first date at a movie house.
Buffy set her bag on one of the queen beds and assessed the room. The wallpaper smelled faintly of stale cigarette smoke, but the floors and beds were clean. A few towels sat fluffy and clean over the shower on a steel rack. The toilet paper roll had been folded to a point. For $50 a night, it was a nice looking place. She shrugged and removed her leather jacket, swinging it around the shoulders of a high-backed chair. Across the room, Dean set a couple bottles of beer on the dresser and opened them with a flick of his wrist. The sound of their spray briefly filled the empty room. He raised his, tipped out the bottom to her, and knocked it back into his mouth. Buffy clasped her bottle in one hand and sat down on the edge of her bed.

“Dean,” Buffy started without looking at him. They hadn’t said anything more to one another since that night in Wyoming. Almost a day had passed since that moment, but she hadn’t found the courage to speak up. Since it had happened, she’d never spoken to anyone about the details. She’d never spoken to anyone involved until Castiel showed up in a booth at her old diner. It had never passed from her memory, but it had never been brought up for show and tell either.
“Hm,” Dean replied, turning his full attention to her. He set the beer down on the floor and removed his jacket. The burn on his shoulder had almost faded away. Only the faintest of red blotches remained where Castiel’s hand had raised him from Hell.
“I killed…people,” Buffy admitted, almost choking on the final word. They weren’t just people. “They weren’t just people. They were my people. They were my army, an army of girls that could have been Slayers. They were potential Slayers, the girls that might be chosen if I died. We were facing Hell-the end of the world. It was bad. I couldn’t do it alone. We trained them as much as we could, but I knew…I knew they wouldn’t make it. I sent them in anyway. I killed them.”

Buffy stared straight ahead. Her hands, her shoulders, her entire body seemed to quiver. It was only the slightest tremor, something you couldn’t see from far away. She didn’t cry. Her eyes didn’t even glisten with the possibility of tears. She only quivered. Gooseflesh popped up on her forearms for a moment before it disappeared. Her mouth formed the words again. I killed them.

Dean set the beer aside, half-empty. He got to his feet and walked across the few feet of space between them. At first, he was unsure of what to do. His mind blanked, and he could think of nothing to say. What was there to say? He couldn’t offer forgiveness or advice. He knew she had meant to do it, meant to sacrifice their lives for the greater good. He knew that she had succeeded in saving the world because they were both here, now, surviving however poorly. There was nothing to say, no solace or comfort. Dean crouched on the floor in front of her. He took one of her hands in his and squeezed it. Her skin was cold and dry, as though she’d been standing outside in the midst of winter. Her eyes looked vacant and yet so full of pain and guilt that they threatened to brim over. Her skin took on a jaundiced pallor that made her appear sickly and close to death.

He stood up on his knees until his face was level with hers. Tilting her head back slightly with his free hand, he kissed her. Her lips were dry and slightly chapped and as cold as the rest of her skin. Her mouth returned the gesture without neediness or insecurity. She wanted the feeling but not desperately. She wanted to kiss him but not passionately. He stood back and looked at her face. In her eyes, he could see himself, the same agony and the same guilt. He would tell her soon, but not yet. Not now.

Instead, he pulled the sheets and comforter back. He dug through her bag and found a large, baggy black shirt and a pair of pajama shorts. He’d never seen her wear them, but they had to belong to her. She didn’t put up much resistance, and he was able to remove her thin red muscle shirt and her tight black jeans in favor of the loose-fitting night clothes.
“I can’t sleep,” she whispered hoarsely when she looked at the bed. “I won’t sleep.”
“You don’t have to sleep, Buffy,” Dean murmured, reminding himself of the way he used to take care of Sam when their father spent nights away. “Just lie down and close your eyes.”
Buffy slid her pale and smooth legs under the covers. On the other side of the bed, Dean kicked off his shoes and took off his belt. Fully dressed in old denim jeans and a white tee shirt, he pulled back the bed covers and crawled onto the mattress beside her. She didn’t need much urging to curl up beside him. Her head rested on a few pillows alongside his abdomen and his arm tucked naturally behind her head. Dean grabbed the television remote off the nightstand and flicked on the tube. Ghostbusters was playing and Buffy found a tiny hint of a smile crossing her lips. She’d always watched this movie with her mother and Dawn. The same old scenes never seemed to get old.

By eight in the morning, the last of the sci-fi bloggers, camera men, and news reporters packed up their crap and rolled back out of town. Dean looked at Sam through the rearview mirror. They hadn’t spoken much since the weird psychic mojo back in Massachusetts, but if any day was Sam Winchester’s time to shine, it was this one. Rather than play that same old FBI card, Sam had decided to fit in with the crowd. Adjusting his thin, poorly tied necktie, Sam Winchester became Donald Tufnel, blogger and amateur paranormal hunter.
“What’s a blogger?” Dean asked, knitting his eyebrows together.
“A reporter that can’t find a paying gig,” Sam shrugged. He squirmed out of the car and flipped open a page in his notebook. “You guys should stay here.”
“Uh, why exactly?” Buffy asked.
“Neither of you even knows what a blogger is; let alone how to act like one. You’re too conspicuous. I’ll just go interview the guy and see what I can find out.”
“What are we supposed to do in the meantime?”
“Research,” Sam shrugged. “I’ll meet you guys at the library. See what you can dig up.”
“Great,” Dean groaned. “We’ve become Sam.”

Dean parked the Impala beneath the shade of a tree and slid out of the car. Buffy followed him into the library, where they were directed by a rather snotty looking librarian to the town records. The most recent newspapers sat on wooden dowel rods like pigs on a spit. The rest for that year had been neatly folded in cabinets, sorted by date.
“So, what do we want to know?” Dean blinked, looking around at the empty filing room.
“Well, we have the victim, right? Mr. Chilbane. He should have died, but he didn’t.”
“Demon mojo?”
“Maybe a radioactive spider?”
“Maybe he’s just born with it.”
“What, like a Maybelline commercial?”
“Huh?”
“Never mind. Let’s just start with Leonard and see where that goes.”

Sam met them almost an hour later, still holed up in the town records department, on the sub-basement level of the Corvallis Public Library, main branch. He sat down on the edge of a table and looked at Dean. Buffy leaned over his shoulder, reading.
“How goes the research?” Sam asked, startling both of them with the sudden burst of noise. Buffy stood back from the newspaper table and adjusted her eyes to see Sam’s features. Dean scowled.
“Mr. Leonard Chilbane isn’t a mutant,” Dean determined.
“He’s also a pretty devout Methodist, so he’s probably not working the demon mojo.”
“So you have nothing, then?” Sam frowned, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand.
“Not nothing,” Dean shook his head. “According to this article, dated about a month ago, Jimmy Sharp died from complications during a severe asthma attack while playing soccer for school tryouts. In this paper, there are ten deaths in the Corvallis area.”
“Most of them are old people,” Buffy shrugged. “One man had a heart attack at age 58, and one of them is Jimmy, but the rest are all over 75 and leave behind their grand-children and some decent property.”
“Then the next day,” Dean demonstrated by opening the newspaper to the obituaries. “Nothing.”
“And the next,” Buffy pointed to the next day’s paper. “And the next. Right up until today. No deaths in Corvallis. Period.”
“Okay, so that’s…weird.” Sam mumbled.
“No, what’s weird is that it isn’t for lack of trying,” Dean continued. “For instance, here’s Mrs. Abigail Smith. She was talking on her cellular phone and drove through an intersection. A 18 wheeler smashed into her driver’s side and the air bag refused to inflate. Her car bent around the bumper of the truck and crushed her cell phone so hard against her face that the numbers are permanently imprinted on her face. But she’s fine. She’s walking around town with numbers tattooed on her cheek bone, but she healed and walked away from it.”
“And then there’s Amos Johanssen. He’s 98 years old, a heavy smoker, and an alcoholic. He had a quadruple bypass three days after Jimmy Sharp’s death. His heart stopped beating for sixteen minutes, but he had continued brain activity. And then his heart started up again. And he lived. He finally stopped drinking and smoking, says he was saved. New lease on life. Blah blah blah.”
“There are everyday sorts of things too. Some woman had her plug pulled after her daughter decided to let her rest in peace. She’s breathing on her own in the hospital. She isn’t awake, but she’s not dead.”
“Okay, so we’re in a town where there hasn’t been a single death in a month?” Sam blinked.
“Despite extenuating circumstances…” Dean added.
“So what… Death decided to take a vacation? Go to Bermuda?”
“Doesn’t seem like such a bad idea,” Buffy muttered dreamily.
“Come on Buffy, Death’s important. Life and Death are balances. It’s nothing personal. It just…that’s the way the world works.”
“Because clearly, everyone in this room is balanced by life and death,” Dean smirked.
“Dean…” Sam started.
“No, Sam, he’s right,” Buffy interrupted. “All three of us have been dead at least once. And we’ve all been called back from wherever it is we went when we died. And now we’re here to ask Death why it left? How screwed up is that?”
“What we need to focus on is how to even contact Death without being, you know, dead.”
“And for that, we call Bobby,” Sam frowned, pulling out his phone.
“No,” Buffy shook her head. “For that, we call someone else. I just…” Buffy sighed. “I just need to look up her number.”

Buffy stood on the pavement in front of the library, her back to the glossy black Impala. She played with the buttons on her phone, fiddling with the screen until it displayed Willow Rosenberg’s phone number. A few drops of sweat rolled down the back of her neck. When she’d walked off the bus and into the desert, Buffy hadn’t bothered to say goodbye. She couldn’t look at them, couldn’t face them. And now, it turned out the Scoobies were needed again. Buffy inhaled and pressed the button on her phone. The number dialed automatically and the Slayer pressed the phone to her ear.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” Willow answered the phone conversationally, eerily. “It’s that you don’t mess with Death.”
“Will,” Buffy started.
“You’re working with him again,” Willow said darkly. “The angel.”
“Cas,” Buffy replied quietly. “Yeah, I am. A Slayer’s work is never done.”
“Dawnie…we all…”
“Will, please,” Buffy choked, trying to keep the distance between them. It wasn’t working.
“We don’t blame you, Buffy,”
“That’s not the point, Will.” Buffy paused, trying to control the flood of mixed emotions bubbling up in her blood. “Look, I just need some information.”
“About Death. I know. I feel like Cassandra at Troy. I can see you and Dean and Castiel working together toward something…it won’t end well, Buffy.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’ll do what you have to do. Just promise me you’ll be careful.”
“I’ll try,” Buffy sighed.

Sam leaned against the small square table in Dean and Buffy’s motel room. He folded a sheet of notebook paper and grasped in with one sweaty hand. Dean pulled off his shoes and sat down on one of the two queen-sized beds, covered with clean floral bedspreads.
“You know Willow?” Sam asked, surprised. Dean looked between the two of them. He wasn’t so shocked by the revelation. Willow had mentioned to him that the hunter she’d known was dead. But he’d always gotten the sense that she wasn’t really dead, not literally. It was a figurative death that the witch had meant, and Buffy Summers was the embodiment of a figurative death. He looked at her, sitting on the edge of the other bed. The sadness that normally seemed to defeat her was working overtime.
“Yes. Willow told me that the best way to find Death is to project ourselves into the Spirit World. It’s dangerous, and we need someone on the outside to keep our bodies safe. We can’t protect ourselves while we’re under.”
“So, you want me to stay here,” Sam sighed.
“Yeah,” Dean nodded. “You have a big job here, Sammy. Don’t screw it up.”
“Oh thanks,” Sam muttered.
“Dean and I are going to lie down and close our eyes. You’re going to read the incantation. By the time you finish it, Dean and I should be in a trance. If there’s trouble, you need to whisper the counter spell in our ear. That’ll bring us back, no matter where we are.”
“So what are you going to do? How are you going to find Death?”
“That’s a good question,” Dean noted.
“Jimmy Sharp was the last person that died.”
“Yeah, so? He’s dead, Buffy. We can’t exactly strike up conversation with him.”
“But that’s the thing,” Buffy replied. “He’s dead, but he’s not.”
“Back up. Completely confused,” Sam frowned.
“Check this out,” Buffy said, pulling out a piece of paper. It was a newspaper clipping from the day of Jimmy’s unfortunate death. There were ten obituaries in the paper, one of them belonging to Jimmy Sharp. “These obituaries all occurred the day before Jimmy died. That’s why they made the morning edition. Jimmy died that morning, before the edition came out. He was playing soccer for school tryouts, right? Well, at the bottom of the article, it says that his teammate, Alan Preston, was kicked violently during Jimmy’s asthma attack. He took a severe and fatal blow to the head. They rushed Jimmy and Alan to the hospital. Jimmy died moments before Alan flat-lined. They thought he was brain-dead. But just as they were about to stop resuscitation, he came back. Alan is in a coma. He’s a vegetable. But Jimmy’s dead.”
“So you think that Jimmy’s dead but…what…still around somewhere?”
“Maybe. Maybe he died but he didn’t get the chance to cross over. There are only seconds between Jimmy and Alan, but why take one and not the other?”
“So where would Jimmy be?”
“Hospital?” Buffy shrugged.

Buffy closed her eyes. She stared up at the inside of her eyelids and tried not to think. It was a difficult, even impossible task. A thousand thoughts raced through her head, each one linked to the last. She’d finally broken down and told Dean Winchester her big secret, the secret so big that she hadn’t spoken of it to anyone, ever. Since that moment, they hadn’t mentioned it. More importantly, he hadn’t mentioned it. Did he judge her? Did he understand? She couldn’t tell. Part of her didn’t want to know at all. And then there was Jimmy Sharp. She’d looked for the extra clue, but it had taken her a long time to figure out the connection without help from the Scoobies. Research had never been her strong suit. If she hadn’t spoken to Willow, would she ever have figured it out…
“I don’t think this is working,” Dean said, interrupting her train of thought.
“Ssh,” Buffy hushed him.
“Seriously, Buffy,” Dean sighed. “I think we’re going to have to drink first. I’m just not tired enough to stop thinking.”
“I know what you mean,” Buffy nodded. She sat up slowly, her head throbbing with the beginnings of a headache.
“Um,” Dean choked. “Hey, Buff?”
“What?”
“Uh,” Dean pointed. “Look…you’re…whoa…”

Buffy looked down at what he’d been gesturing at. Though she was sitting up and could feel the slight movement of gravity around her body, it appeared that she was very clearly lying down. Her head rested heavily on the single pillow tucked beneath her neck. Her eyelashes fluttered slightly in reaction to the movement of her eyes, even in slumber.
“Hey! You’re doing it too!” Buffy laughed, pointing to Dean’s prone body. Dean looked around and jumped off the bed, leaving his comatose body behind, undisturbed.
“Well hell,” Dean smirked. “I take it back. The witch was right.”
“Yeah,” Buffy nodded. “She’s eerie that way.”
“Why didn’t you mention the thing about the soccer ball to the head?”
“I didn’t really think about it until we were sitting there.”
“Ah, gotcha. I’ve been there too. Sam’s the researcher. I just get lucky sometimes.”

--

“You know,” Buffy murmured as she and Dean passed through the closed double doors and into the Corvallis Hospital. They opened somewhat mystically as soon as Dean brushed like a phantom over the indoor sensor. “I really hate hospitals.”
“Yeah,” Dean nodded, adjusting his footing to avoid a gurney passing through his midsection. It was a creepy sort of feeling-like letting your foot fall asleep while sitting cross-legged on the floor. “The last time I was in one of these places, I met Death.”
“Literally or figuratively?” Buffy asked, looking over her shoulder at him. Her face had taken on a strange appearance, as though her wishy-washy, transparent skin had suddenly lightened. Could a ghost become paler? If it was possible, Buffy seemed to be achieving it.
“Literally. I was dying. She came to reap my soul.”
“You Winchesters have died or almost died at least as many times as I have,” Buffy frowned, shaking her head. “That’s pretty rare.”
“We get around,” Dean shrugged. He considered asking if she was feeling alright. She certainly didn’t look okay. The white-washed walls seemed more colorful than the Slayer. But before he could carry on, Buffy walked up to the reception desk and peered over the records that a nurse had begun to flip through.

On the walk over, Buffy and Dean had discovered that spiritual apparitions were completely lacking in the whole moveable objects arena. Instead, they passed through time and space like, well, ghosts. Things passed through them as well: people, objects, doors, cars. While it felt like a foot with pins and needles to Dean, it felt like being prodded with hot knives to Buffy. Each time it happened, she felt a chill roll down her spine. Worst of all, she felt like something was watching her, possibly even following her. Her Slayer sense kept going off like alarm bells ringing in her ears, but every time she turned around, she saw nothing. At least, nothing out of the ordinary.

“We’re never going to find Jimmy’s room if we wait around here,” Buffy sighed contemplatively.
“You want to split up? Cover more ground?”
“Yeah,” Buffy nodded. “I’ll try the morgue. You wander the ICU.”
“Meet up in the waiting room? In an hour?” Dean confirmed. Buffy nodded. He watched her move almost shakily toward the elevator, already opened to allow for the passage of employees and gurneys. The doors shut in front of her hazy face. She definitely didn’t look right.

Dean walked over to the small plastic fire escape map on the wall beside the elevator. He ran his finger through the printed walkways and determined the location of the intensive care unit. Jimmy Sharp was already near death when he finally arrived at the hospital. If he was anywhere, floating around, waiting to cross over, it would be the last place his body had inhabited, the place to which he was tied. If Dean was lucky, he’d still be there, waiting to be picked up by Death. Dean walked down the hall, absent-mindedly reaching into his pocket for his cellular. At times like this, he would call Sam to confirm his findings. Instead, his hand passed through the place where his pocket should have been. Come on, Dean, he thought. You don’t have a body. You know this. Just do the job, find the kid, track down Death, and go back to the nice, touchable world. You miss it there. They have beer and hamburgers and pornographic video. He shook his head at his own thoughts. They disappeared, like everything else.

On the last floor above the basement level, Buffy stepped off the elevator. She’d gotten lucky. One of the men in the little metal box was a coroner’s assistant, headed to the same destination. She could have ridden that stupid elevator all day if it hadn’t been for him! The morgue level at the hospital looked similar to every other morgue she’d ever visited. The walls were painted a mellow army green, a color that resembled split pea soup, and the floors were covered with clicking, clacking linoleum tile. There were no windows in the hall, so everything was lit with dim fluorescent bulbs that seemed to tremble whenever someone walked beneath them.

Buffy watched the coroner’s assistant walk through the swinging double doors and into the morgue itself. She followed him closely, slipping into the space between the open doors before it swung closed. The room was lined with stainless steel drawers. It probably could have housed a couple hundred bodies, all lined up and ready for…whatever. Of course, right now, it was empty. The assistant sat down at a small desk in the back of the room and opened his top drawer. He pulled out an egg salad sandwich and a package of baby carrots. Buffy felt the familiar sensation of vomit rise up the back of her throat. How could anyone eat in a room usually occupied by the deceased? Almost a decade in the business of slaying and the mere thought of this guy’s job made Buffy want to retch.

She looked around one last time, but it didn’t take long to determine that Jimmy Sharp was no occupado. Wherever he was, it wasn’t in this place. Good thing too, Buffy sighed. If he was down here, waiting around for Death, he’d have a miserable time. Egg salad and carrots Guy was probably as boring as he was disgusting. Reluctantly, the Slayer passed back through the closed doors. They seemed to swing lightly as she yanked her ankle through them. Strange. On the back of her neck, her skin tingled.
“Okay,” she said aloud to the empty hallway. “Whatever you are? You need to stop following me.”
“Your wish,” a young female voice replied, “is our command, Slayer.”

Upstairs in the Intensive Care Unit, Dean slid through the locked door of his fourth room. The first three had been empty, but this one belonged to Alan Preston, the boy with the severe head trauma. Alan Preston was a vegetable. A carrot, Dean thought with a mildly amused chuckle. Poor kid. There was no way Alan could have occupied the same room as his dead soccer buddy, but Dean decided to have a look around anyway. A thin breeze drifted into the room through an air vent near the ceiling. It wafted across Alan’s unmoving body, slightly teasing the curly blond hairs on his tousled brow.
“What are you doing here?” A voice yelled angrily. Dean turned around just in time to see a fist smack him in the nose. Dean recoiled, falling backward through the end of Alan’s plastic and aluminum gurney.
“Who are you?” The boy demanded, getting ready to throw another punch.
“Whoa, kid, how the hell are you doing that?” Dean put up his hands as a gesture of peace.
“I asked you first,” the kid pouted, dropping his hand. He rubbed the fist gingerly with his opposite palm.
“I’m Dean Winchester, and I’m here looking for…well, I guess you. Are you Jimmy Sharp?”
“Yeah but… how can you see me? No one can see me.” Jimmy asked, knitting his eyebrows together to express his confusion.
“I’m like Casper, the friendly ghost. Sorta.” Dean shrugged. Since astral projection had been a difficult enough concept to grasp the first time around, Dean figured it would lose something in translation.
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, actually,” Dean shrugged. “I came to talk to you.”
“About what?”
“Uh, okay,” Dean tried to think tactfully. Jimmy was a young kid, somewhere around twelve years old. He was probably the only person he knew that had ever died. “Well, you know you’re uh…”
“I died.”
“Yeah. Ever have one of those goldfish you flush down the toilet? My mom used to tell me that they went up to Goldfish Heaven. Well, you didn’t go to Goldfish Heaven, Jimmy. You’re still here. In the hospital.”
“Goldfish Heaven? I’m twelve years old. I’m not some kid!”
“Right,” Dean nodded. “Fine. I’m not good with kids. You’re dead. You shouldn’t be here. You should have crossed over. But here you are.”
“When I died, there was this creepy old guy. He looked really pale and weird and…deflated. And then all this black smoke came out of the air vent,” Jimmy gestured to the vent near the ceiling. “The creepy old guy started yelling and I ran off while he was distracted. Every time I see the black smoke…I run. I haven’t seen the creepy guy since he came for me. I think the black smoke got him. But…it keeps coming back, and I know it’s looking for me.”
“Black smoke… I should have…” Dean started. He looked around the room and then up at the air vent. “Come on, kid. We have to find Buffy.”
“Who?” Jimmy blinked, his eyes wide.
“My friend, Buffy. We’re here looking for you together.”
“So where is she?”
“Downstairs in the morgue.”
“Oh, really? It’s weird down there. One of the guys sits in that room all day and eats egg salad sandwiches.”
“With the bodies?”
“Yeah,”
“Ew.” Dean frowned. The desire for hamburgers faded out like a dead light bulb.

“What are you doing here?” Buffy asked, looking down into the depths of the army green corridor. They stood in the shadows, two young girls. Their faces were dark and bruised and their eyes were black and haunted. One carried a broad-sword, sticky with fresh inky red blood. The other held a stake, a weapon that had ultimately been useless in combat. It still looked new. It hadn’t even been dusted with a fine coating of dead vampire sprinkles.
“The better question, Slayer, is why you are here. We haven’t seen you in a long time.” The second girl grinned and Buffy could see blood glistening between her grayish teeth.
“Maybe she’s finally ready to accept her fate,” the first one laughed demonically. “Are you ready, Buffy? We’re all waiting for you.”
“I wish I could take it back,” Buffy whispered, losing her voice suddenly. The sounds rasped on her tongue. Her ghostly skin tingled and trembled. “I’m sorry.”
“Aw,” the second one growled, advancing on her, her blade raised. “She’s sorry. She’s sorry she sacrificed us and sent us to Hell!”
“She needs to come visit and see what it’s like!”

“Buffy?” Dean blinked, looking down at the Slayer backed into a corner of the long and empty morgue hallway. She was half in and half out of the wall, blending into the scenery. Her skin looked sickly and green, but it might have been the color of the walls. They seemed to bleed right into her.
“Dean,” Buffy groaned hoarsely. She struggled to regain her composure. She looked past Dean’s shoulder and down the hallway.
“Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen…”
“Is this Jimmy?” Buffy asked, interrupting him.
“Oh, yeah,” Dean nodded. “Jimmy Sharp, this is Buffy Summers. Buffy, Jimmy.”
“Hey,” Jimmy nodded.
“So what’d you find out?” Buffy asked, guiding the two of them back toward the elevator. The doors began to pull shut. They jumped into the car as it sprang back to life and moved up the shaft.
“It’s a demon. According to Jimmy, some black smoke came in through a vent and took Death before the reaper could help Jimmy cross over.” As Dean explained, Jimmy reached over and pressed a button on the keypad. It lit up under his finger.
“Whoa,” Buffy blinked. She held up a hand to grab Jimmy’s arm but it passed through him without effect. “Okay, Jimmy, how’d you do that?”
“I got bored? I’ve been hanging out in the hospital for a month.”
“Can you teach us?”

“I’m feeling very Patrick Swayze,” Buffy sighed. She leaned back sleepily against a wall in the hospital waiting room. If she concentrated hard enough, the wall actually supported her. It was an exhausting exercise.
“What happened to you down in the morgue?” Dean asked. He’d crouched down on his knees to push a coffee stirrer across the floor. It was a pretty neat trick. Vaguely, he wondered if poltergeists had to go through this much work to get a bowling ball to take a nosedive into a kitchen sink.
“Nothing,” Buffy lied.
“Seriously,” Dean frowned, getting to his feet. He looked at her closely, examining her sullen eyes and thin mouth. In the weeks he’d known her, she’d never been particularly overjoyed, but she’d never seemed this lost before either. “What happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Dean. Let’s just focus on the case.”
“I hate secrets, Buffy. Whatever you’re hiding, it could put us all in danger.”
“Tell me your secret, Dean,” Buffy countered, suddenly bending her pretty green eyes to slits. She looked accusatory, even hurtful. She looked like a predator caught in a trap.
“I went to Hell for thirty years,” Dean shot back at her. It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was a secret. It was something he hadn’t even told Sam.
“They attack me in my dreams,” Buffy replied, turning away from him. She looked down the hallway, as if trying to gauge an escape route.
“Who?” It took effort, but Dean placed a reassuring and solid hand on Buffy’s shoulder. She didn’t turn to face him, but neither did she pull away.
“The girls I killed. They’ve been chasing me for almost a year.” Her shoulders sank and the ugly fluorescent overhead lights seemed to phase right through her as her mood sank. “I’m not afraid of anything, Dean. I’m the Slayer. I know what goes bump in the night and I face it. And I kill it. But I’m afraid of them.”
“That’s why you don’t sleep,” Dean concluded quietly.
“I can’t sleep.”

Jimmy, Dean, and Buffy sat staring at the cafeteria ladies. Idly, Dean pushed a tray centimeters closer to the edge of a table until it finally clattered to the floor with a loud bang. Buffy looked up at him, her face fizzling with surprise. They were all getting a bit jumpy. The waiting was getting annoying.
“Isn’t there something we can do? Get a sign? Put out some bait?”
“We did put out bait. He’s right there. Being bait-y.” Buffy gestured to Jimmy with his chin. The boy sat off to one side of the cafeteria, twenty feet away from his watchful hunters. His chair had been perfectly aligned with an air circulation vent, so that if the black smoke “saw” him, it would be able to get at him easily. And maybe miss the hunters at the same time.
“I just mean…well, nothing is happening. He’s just…sitting there.” Dean frowned, annoyed.
“What do you want, Dean? Neon lights and a come hither sign? We don’t want to make it obvious. He’s been hiding from them for a month!”
“Ssh,” Dean stopped her, lifting a hand to cover her mouth. It passed right through her lips and he pulled his arm away. Above their heads, a trickle of black smoke pooled out of the vent. Jimmy pushed back his chair, causing a few startled looks from the cafeteria staff. The smoke pooled into the room, gathering in size as it bolted toward the boy. Buffy gestured silently to Jimmy, batting her hand in the direction they’d already planned. Jimmy took off running, getting the smoke to follow him through the halls. Dean and Buffy pursued them.

Jimmy stopped dead in front of the hospital’s double entrance doors. He looked down one hallway and then the other, planning his escape. The smoke seemed to solidify and from the cloud stretched arms and legs. A face took shape, and to Dean it looked eerily familiar.
“Alastair,” Dean growled viciously. The demon turned, smiling a bestial grin. In his human shape, Alastair looked like the sociopathic kid on the playground. His smile was savage and toothy, surrounded by a carefully trimmed red goatee. His hair was cut close to his scalp, fiery red. He wore a dark blue button down shirt and black slacks, the perfect offset to his bright red appearance. Buffy felt a cold shudder as she looked at him.
“What do you want with the kid?” Dean challenged.
“Dean Winchester,” Alastair laughed coquettishly. “I’ve missed you.”
“Talk!”
“Why? Are you going to shoot me, Dean? Are you going to attack me? With what?” The demon giggled like a child and squeezed out of an opening in the double doors. Dean followed him, pushing through the doors without waiting for them to open.
“I can’t leave,” Jimmy whimpered, looking out as Dean and Alastair took off down the street.
“You will soon,” Buffy whispered. She could already feel the chill at her back. Over Jimmy’s head she could see them, new girls with new weapons. It was time to run. “We’ll be back for you.”
“Oh Slayer,” they cooed, stamping across the vacant hospital hallways, leaving sticky trails of coagulated blood. “It’s time…”

Buffy stood up slowly, her arms stretching out in front of her body in a familiar fighting stance. She stood in front of the boy, dead but still vulnerable to other dead things. They frightened her the way few things ever had, but that wasn’t important. The kid was in danger. He was the only thing that mattered.
“Oh look,” one of the girls grinned, “she’s fighting back.”
“Good,” the other girl giggled. “I came here for a good brawl. She’s more fun to kill when she’s feisty.”
“Will you just shut up and fight?” Buffy asked, narrowing her eyes.

They came at her from either side, swinging weapons and yelling like banshees. Neither girl had a particular form. They weren’t the specific souls of deceased Potentials. They reminded Buffy of demons or angry spirits, figments of a Hellish imagination. One, a red-head with zombie-like skin and moldy-looking teeth, carried a double-headed axe, which she swung around her head like a whip in an Indiana Jones movie. The other, tow-headed with freckled pink skin and bloodshot red eyes, had a long and thin katana. The Slayer was unarmed, but that fact had never hindered her before. She crossed the empty reception area, throwing a high kick into the face of the sword-swinging Slayerette. The girl reeled backward, actually impacted by the blow. The other girl took a hard hit to the cheek with Buffy’s fist. Maybe they hadn’t expected her to fight back. They seemed like they’d never even trained to fight. Their reactionary hits and kicks were too slow, and their offensive blows fell short. Buffy wrestled the axe away from the redhead and swung it through the air, severing the blonde’s rotten face from her neck. The apparition disappeared suddenly, leaving Buffy panting in the middle of the waiting room. A nurse crossed the divide between the elevator and the reception desk. Buffy fell back to Jimmy. The axe had dissipated along with her opponents.

Jimmy, too, had taken off. The reception area was nearly deserted. Buffy looked around, her hands shaking at her sides. Had she just battled the demons that had been wrestling with her for months? Was that it? What the hell were you so afraid of? She slid through the doorway and took off down the street. Three blocks ahead of her, Dean Winchester scrambled after a cloud of inky black smoke drifting through the dark evening. It squeezed through a crack in the stone wall of a mausoleum. Dean tried to pierce the stone as well, but it held fast against him.
“Spirit proof, right?” Dean asked the stone barrier. He forced his concentration into his hands, an effort that required more work than he’d thought. His hands slid uselessly off the door the first few times he tried, as though he were trying to wedge the door open with a wet fish. Closing his eyes, Dean took a deep breath. His fingers pried at the door and managed to bust it open. It whined on its hinges and fell down into the damp cemetery grass near his feet.
“Dean,” Alastair laughed, inviting him in with a wave of his hand. “Welcome. You’re just in time.”

The demon grinned blissfully and removed a long knife from the pocket of his pants. He stood in the center of a candlelit circle. Under his feet, a symbol had been scrawled in blood. On the symbol itself, standing in Alastair’s clutches like a sack of old potatoes, was Death. It wasn’t the reaper Dean was familiar with. This guy was old-as old as dirt itself. He had that weird deflated look that Jimmy had mentioned, like someone had sucked all the air out of his skin. His wrinkles were creased and dirty and dry. He’d probably crumble into dust if you moved him too fast.
“You can’t kill Death,” Alastair smiled thoughtfully, his eyes darkening as he spoke. “Not really. Death is a part of Life, no matter what kind of creature you are. But reapers…reapers you can kill.”

The reaper’s blood spilled upon the concrete floor, drenching the symbol with sickly black fluid. The body fell from the demon’s hand and seemed to splinter when it hit the ground. The candles extinguished, and though he did not feel the earth move, Dean knew that another seal had been opened.
“One step closer to the big party,” Alastair winked.
“You’ll pay,” Dean whispered coolly, eyeing him from the doorway.
“I’ll pay? Oh Dean, what happened to you? I miss my old friend, the ruthless Dean, the violent Dean. Who are you now, boy? Just a sad, pathetic drunk.” The demon shook his head, almost sadly. His body disintegrated into a plume of black smoke that rose toward a pinhole in the ceiling. He was gone in a moment, and the seal stood gaping like a hole in the Earth.
“Dean,” Buffy murmured, stepping into the building behind him. He stood stock still in the dark, barely breathing.
“Come on,” she urged him, touching his shoulder. He spun around and looked at her, his eyes so angry that she barely recognized him. “We need to get back.”
“Death is coming for Jimmy,” Dean murmured. “You can’t stop it. You can only postpone it.”
“He was scared before,” Buffy frowned. “I’ll talk to him.”

She stood on the path in front of the hospital entrance. Her hair was cut short and her slender body was pale but well-built. This wasn’t Death’s real appearance any more than the deflated man had been Death’s real skin, but she was less frightening. Dean recognized her immediately.
“Tessa,” he whispered, surprised to see her.
“Dean,” she nodded with a small smile. “I did not expect to see you again.”
“You’re here for Jimmy,” Dean grunted.
“Yes. He is hiding from me. He is frightened.”
“Seems reasonable. You’re going to kill him.”
“He’s already dead, Dean. Just as you were… just as Buffy was.” Tessa nodded quietly to the Slayer, but she had already taken off into the hospital. Somewhere, between the quiet pea green halls, Jimmy Sharp, twelve year old ghost, was hiding from Death.
“I should have stayed with you,” Dean admitted. He looked down at the ground. The gray cement path seemed to shimmer under the streetlights. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Yes,” Tessa nodded. “It was your time to die. Your fight has long since ended. This is borrowed time, Dean. Every day you live is a day you should not have lived.”
“I couldn’t leave them,” Dean shook his head angrily. “They’re my family. Sam…he needed me.”
“He will always feel as though he needs you, Dean. He is your brother. But you must accept your own life and your own death. Soon, your time will come to an end again. When it does, you will not be able to say no.”

Buffy drifted into the empty room where Jimmy Sharp had once lived, struggled, and died. The child sat on the bed his body had once occupied. He gazed at the white wall but saw nothing. Buffy stood next to him. She crossed her arms over her chest, found the gesture uncomfortable, and let them fall uselessly to her sides. She sat down on the bed, concentrating so she wouldn’t fall right through it. She opened her mouth to speak, but was unsure of what to say. The words came naturally, from nowhere.
“You’ve already done the scary part,” she said, allowing her thoughts to fade into memories. “You dealt with the pain. You saw your parents mourn you. That’s all the hard stuff. The easy part comes next.”
“I don’t want to leave,” Jimmy frowned.
“Why? Are you happy here? Do you feel safe?”
“No…”
“I’ve died a couple times, Jimmy. Every time is different, but the last time? I went to Heaven. It was this really great place where I got to live the life I always wanted. I knew my family was safe. I knew they were okay, even happy. And I was happy. That’s what Death is like, Jimmy.”
“But the weird deflated guy? I don’t want to be like him!”
“You won’t,” she replied, touching his shoulder. “If you stay here forever, in the hospital, you might look like him. But if you cross over…if you let Death take you…you’ll be happy. What makes you happy, Jimmy?”
“My mom,” Jimmy admitted. A single tear welled up in his ghostly eye but didn’t fall. “And soccer. I always wanted to play, but I couldn’t run much because of my asthma.”
“When you get up there,” Buffy smiled, patting his shoulder. “You’ll get to play forever without getting sick.”
“And my mom?”
“She’ll be there.”
“But how? She’s still…at my house.”
“I don’t know exactly. But she’ll be there. Trust me. Nothing to be scared of, okay?”

Buffy and Jimmy stood outside the hospital room, waiting for Death. They stood holding hands, facing the stairs. Jimmy watched heads bob up over the top step, his arm straining eagerly out from Buffy’s body. And then, all at once, he stood back and looked up at her. His large brown eyes took on a glimmer of sadness, and his brows bent over them, shadowing his long lashes.
“If you died and crossed over or whatever, how come you’re here?”
“I wasn’t finished yet,” Buffy answered quietly. She, too, watched heads bob over the stairs. Among the paper caps of nurses came Tessa and Dean. Dean’s eyes were cloudy and serious, lost in a hundred confusing thoughts. Death looked peaceful and happy. “But you are. It’s your turn.”

Buffy ignored the tingle on the back of her neck. It was nothing. She was only reminiscing about her own experiences with Reapers, the good ones and the bad. The memories of Heaven were fuzzy, but one seemed to stand out from the fog. She was wearing her prom dress and dancing, dancing to the serenade of some pop song that never seemed to get old. Castiel’s bright blue eyes stared into hers, and it made her want to smile back at him. Down the hall, Dean lifted his arm and began to run. His mouth opened and he yelled. Buffy looked up at him, jerking her mind out of her memories. The stake stabbed her viciously from behind, slicing into her abdomen and spilling blood. Her knees trembled and she turned to face her attacker. There was nothing there, not even the tingle on the back of her neck. In her mind, she could hear the faint whisper of Sam Winchester’s voice, urgent in its muttering. Dean was in the background too, somewhere close by but distant too.

“Sam! Pull the car around! Buffy! Buffy, you’re going to be okay…”

Chapter Seven: Couldn't Wash the Echoes Out

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