Word-count: ~ 2,400
Written as a gift for girlguidejones for the spn_j2_xmas exchange!
Thanks to my betas quickreaver and manzanita_crow
There's a train that only comes by once a year. Most people never see it, or hear it. It pulls into a station sometime between three and four in the morning and waits for someone to board.
On a cold January night, Sarah Blake boarded the train. She was on an otherwise abandoned platform, empty save for a bench and the ticket-dispenser, in a little town just above the city. She'd gotten out here—the wrong stop—hours ago by mistake. She should've left the station and looked for a bus, or gotten something warm to drink, but she didn't. Because she was tired, partially, but also because she preferred trains to buses. Enough so that she was willing to endure a bit more cold until the next one on the Northbound line came. She sat on the bench by herself, watching her breath curl into the air.
When the train first pulled in, she thought perhaps she'd fallen asleep. It was the horn that woke her up, but when she looked the tracks were empty. Then she heard the horn again, and for just a moment she could have sworn she saw it—huge and black with steam billowing out. A large locomotive. She stood and looked again, and saw nothing but the gravel-strewn tracks. There was a noise in the air, the rustling of dead leaves and a soft howl of wind. She moved closer to the edge and glimpsed it again. Just for a moment, the old dark metal faded back into existence, just long enough for her to see the open door.
If she'd thought about it logically, Sarah would have stayed where she was, waited for a train that was undoubtedly solid, but something about this one drew her closer. She was meant to board it, she'd been invited. She walked towards the door, reached forward with her foot, and inhaled sharply when the tip of her boot met solid ground where she saw only air. Closing her eyes, she stepped further in, though she couldn't have said why. Maybe it was because she'd been invited, and it would have been rude to decline.
Inside, the train was warmly lit but chilly. It looked like it was from another age, the inside of the train car far too elaborate for the regular commuter rails that she was used to. The walls were lined with a fine deep red fabric, finely stitched golden roses. The seats themselves were just as fine, carved from dark wood and fitted with soft cushions. The rear half of the car was set up for dining, with broad wooden tables between two of the benches. The train was empty save for one passenger—an old, thin man in black with a hawk-like nose and skin so pale Sarah thought she could see bone.
He smiled at her when she entered and gestured to the seat across from him on the other side of the table.
She didn't ask who he was, because she already knew. She also wasn't afraid though perhaps she should've been. It felt, in many ways, like a dream, except that all the sensations seemed more real than they were during her waking hours. She could feel the chill in the air, smell the scent of the oil lamps that dotted the sconces in the wall, and hear the soft breaths of steam from the train's engine that made the floor quiver beneath her feet.
There was a small pot of tea on the table, and an empty cup in front of her.
The old man, Death—the end of all things—filled her cup and spoke, "Do you know why I've asked you to join me?"
She shook her head. The tea smelled good, a bit like wood-fire and spices. She looked into the mug, because looking into the man's eyes was unnerving. There was too much behind them, an endlessness that she couldn't begin to understand.
"About a month ago, you met a pair of brothers, the Winchesters."
"Yes." The tea was hot, but not hot enough to scald and she sipped at it, wondering what the two had done to attract the old man's attention.
"It's not what they've done, it's what they will do." He gestured to a plate of Oreos that hadn't been there a moment ago.
"Oreos?" she asked. They seemed out of place, incongruous with the rest of the decor.
"They're delicious," Death said, picking up one of the cookies and twisting it apart. "Tell me about Sam."
It seemed perfectly natural that he'd know her past. She wasn't unsettled by that, just curious about his question. Why would a being so powerful ask her about someone else. He could have just invited Sam for tea and Oreos. But he'd asked her, and so, Sarah thought about Sam. "He's sweet. Tall and…he's got these dimples when he smiles." Her cheeks flushed as she remembered their shared kiss. "He and his brother, they saved my life, and a lot of others."
The man smiled. "They tend to do that."
"We had this haunted painting, and it was—it was killing people, but they found out and they stopped it. Then they left." She still remembered the feel of Sam's kiss. She'd thought they could've had something, maybe.
"In one future, Sam stays with you," said Death. "Would you like to see?"
Sarah nodded, trying to keep her expression calm. She'd thought about Sam more often than she cared to admit.
Keeping his eyes on her, the man lifted his tea cup and brought it to his lips. He blinked once, slowly, deliberately, and the world around them seemed to fade.
There were images in the large train window to her right, pieces of a life she could have had, or did have in some other world. She saw herself and she saw Sam kissing her good-bye, and staying with her, his brother smiling sadly, but happy for them. She saw Sam carrying a pile of boxes into their new house and their dog running behind them.
The glimpses of this other life flickered by faster and faster, Sam smiling, picking her up and hugging her happily. Then the images slowed again, and she saw their house at night, a man with yellow eyes, Sam brandishing a knife. She heard herself scream as the yellow-eyed man grinned. A bright light filled the window, bleaching out the last image: Sam yelling her name, terror on his face.
The windows went dark again until they showed only the night outside and Sarah looked at the man across from her once more. "What happened?"
"Sam's destiny isn't one that can be avoided." Death shrugged his bony shoulders. "You died."
"Oh." Sarah swallowed, trying to think of what else she could say to that.
"He tried to protect you, of course."
"He does that."
"Sam and Dean Winchester—they never hesitate to sacrifice themselves to save each other," Death said. "Do you believe the same is true for the rest of the world? Would they sacrifice themselves to save strangers?"
"Yes," Sarah said without hesitation. "They saved me."
"But would they sacrifice each other?" he asked.
"I don't know."
Death picked up an Oreo and pulled off the top cookie, biting into the one with the cream.
"Why would you ask that?" She regretted the question as soon as it had left her lips, chiding herself for asking the being across from her something she couldn't possibly understand.
The old man smiled at her, and there was kindness there, and sorrow. "Because time, for the most part is a fluid thing. But there are some events that are so deeply set, grooves that cannot be skipped over. Such an event is coming, and how the brothers act will have a lot to do with the fate of this planet. Their choices will affect countless lives, billions of people and even myself. So what I'd like to know is this: if the fate of the world depended on one brother letting the other die, would they agree to it?"
Sarah could feel her eyes widening. "I don't know them that well…" she admitted.
"That is exactly why I'm asking you. Yours is a more neutral observation."
"I see." She thought about the question again, trying to give an honest answer. "I think they'd both sacrifice themselves, but each other? I'm sorry, I just don't know." She took a sip of tea and continued. "I think it would depend on how the one making the sacrifice felt about it."
Death nodded. "Thank you Sarah. You've been most helpful."
"I have?" The train door opened and she felt a cold wind come in from outside.
"Your own train will arrive in three minutes. I'm sorry to have interrupted your evening." Death stood and gestured towards the door.
Sarah stood and took a few steps to the exit before asking, "Will I get a chance to say goodbye to them?"
She did get to say good-bye after all.
She'd forgotten all about that night on the train until she saw Sam again, years later. He looked so different. There was a weariness about him, the brightness she'd seen in his eyes faded into something sorrowful and haunted. His voice was deeper and more hesitant, like he was weighing every word before giving it form. His brother Dean was the same, pain etched into the small lines around his eyes. They told her she was in danger, that a demon was going to kill her. She wasn't worried, because she knew they'd protect her. They put wards on the walls, the windows, the door.
Sam noticed her ring and she told him about Ian, and their daughter. She was happy. Sam said he was happy for her, and that he hadn't changed, but that was a lie. He'd been through a lot, and whatever it was had drained the hope right out of him.
The phone rang; her time ran out.
She started gasping for air—out of nowhere, choking on nothing— and that was when she remembered the train, remembered Death and what he'd asked.
Sam was still by her side, telling her it was going to be okay, while Dean frantically tore through the room looking for something. The brothers did their best to save her, but they couldn't. The terror she felt mixed with a flare of rage and sorrow in equal parts as she realized she'd never see her husband again, or her little girl. It wasn't fair. Sam was rattling off a litany of 'No, no, no,' above her and she saw the pain in his eyes as the awful realization sank in, and she wanted to tell him it was okay, it wasn't his fault, but she couldn't speak. Her throat had completely closed off.
The room around her brightened and then vanished in a sea of white as her brain shut down, not enough oxygen to keep going. She wondered for a brief moment what would comes next, if there really was something after, or if it would just end, and if it did just end, would she even know?
For a long while, everything went quiet.
The first sound she became aware of was that of an approaching train. She opened her eyes and still saw white, turned her head until she could make out a shape a few feet away. More bits of white floated past her. Snow. She sat up quicker than she should have, but didn't suffer the head-rush she'd expected. It was winter, middle of the night from the looks of the dark strip of sky she could see. It was cold. Or at least, she thought it should be cold. She didn't feel cold.
The train slowed as it pulled into the station. She was the only one on the platform, but when the door opened, she knew she wouldn't be the only one on board. There were so many voices coming from inside, laughter, excited conversations in a myriad of languages.
When she stepped forward, she hesitated, one foot still outside on the platform. There was something she should be feeling—regret, or sorrow or something else entirely maybe, but she couldn't remember why, and didn't feel a thing. She moved further in and sensed the door close behind her.
The train was filled with people, most of them in groups of three or four. Only one passenger sat alone, an old man with a hawk-like nose who waved at Sarah as the train began to pull out of the station.
There's a train that only comes by once a year. Most people never see it. Sarah Blake boarded it twice.