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The first time was when he was two. He had been sleeping outside while Mary was in the garden, but he woke up and as was typical of him, even at a young age, he wandered off and promptly into trouble.

A toddler choking shouldn't have echoed and stirred the webs of Names that surrounded Death. But.

He inhales a little and moves.

The Reaper is already there. A pretty woman with dark hair and darker eyes that go wide and startled as she sees her boss.

A young Reaper, and if she is the one assigned to the boy, one destined for a long and frustrating career.

But for the moment.

The boy is choking.

His little face turns red and he stumbles on unsteady legs.

Tessa glances between the child and Death and hesitates, uncertainty all over her pretty face.

Some lives echo. They twist everything around them. He could end so much pain, so much death now, if he took the child.

He would change the world and it's destiny, if he took the boy.

Tessa moves, a half step forward.

And Death makes a small noise in his throat, and a motion of his hand and the boy coughs. Inhales. Wails in pain and outrage.

Tessa twists to stare at him and Death smiles. “Not today.”

---

The meetings come more frequently, once the youngest Winchester is born. Death and Tessa meet three times before Sam’s first birthday. By now, she realizes that it is merely a formality.

She appears as Sam’s fever spikes, a dangerous high. She can hear Dean, whimpering in the hall, already tuned to his brother.

“That will keep us at bay even more than I stay my hand,” Death observes dryly. Tessa slides a glance at him and he lifts a small paper tray of vinegar covered sliced potatoes, still gleaming with salt and oil. “Chip?” he offers. She wrinkles her nose.

Even after meeting like this half a dozen times over two years, she still hasn’t gotten used to his obsession with disgusting food.

Death leans against the door, out of the way as Mary moves through the room, rocking the fussy Sam. Dean peers through the doorway, his green eyes wide, and for a moment, as the specter of his grisly task looms, and he once again considers everything that could be changed, could be prevented, he weighs the balance.

And stills. Another presence is here. Tessa can feel it too, and even with her nerves, she skitters closer to Death, bracing herself in front of him.

Silly child. The infant Reaper would think to protect him. He feels--odd enough--a strange stir of fondness for the girl.

Then Sam screams, a defiant shriek and the Name is gone.

It no longer tangles and echoes and the choice is ripped away.

“What…?”

The presence shifts and Death goes still. Watching.

And then it’s gone and Death smiles. How very interesting. It seems Death is not the only cosmic force intrigued by the Winchester brothers.

“What was that?” Tessa demands, her voice shrill and Death takes another chip.

Vanishes the tray with a regretful air.

“Not today, little Reaper,” he says, almost affectionate.

----

Everything changes the night of Mary’s death.

He doesn’t appear. Neither does Tessa. There are something that are written in stone, and Mary Winchester dying at the hands of a yellow eyed demon has always been one of them.

Sam and Dean are safe. Even in his home in Hell, Death can feel that.

He sighs, and for a heartbeat that feels like an eternity, as the soul of a woman he knows too well moves toward him, he wishes Tessa was here.

----

They tangle the Names often, after that.

Often enough that Tessa loses her patience and snaps at Death, a little over two years later, “Why?”

Death looks at Dean, lying on a dirty bed, his body stitched and broken and pale. Sam is curled next to him, too silent for a child his age.

An old hunter is yelling at John Winchester, and distantly, Death is pleased.

Someone should.

“His time has come, sir,” Tessa grits, and she steps forward.

A motion from Death sends ripples through the room and Tessa gasps as she hits her knees and the boys on the bed relax. Slip into a deeper, more restful sleep.

Internal bleeding, so easily missed by a drunk father and a well meaning but largely useless uncle.

All better, Death thinks, almost pleased.

“Sir,” Tessa gasps. Death stares at the boy for a long moment and then shakes his head.

“Not today.”

-----

And so the years march on, and the Winchesters brush with Death. Flirt with the abyss. Tessa sometimes watches in resigned silence, waiting for Death to finish his snack, and pronounce, Not today.

Sometimes she’s furious and familiarity that no other Reaper has ever possessed spurs her forward, spurs her anger as she rages at Death and threatens to Reap them both, and damn him to the pit for even attempting to stop her.

Sometimes, neither make a decision. That presence is there, putting Dean back together after a werewolf hunt. Luring Sam away from the edge of despair and the shine of razor blades. Soothing away a fever when John is away on a hunt and both boys are too sick to stand.

Those are the times that rattle Tessa the most, and Death too, if a creature as old as time can be rattled.

The years stretch, and they watch the brothers grow, little soldiers becoming deadly hunters.

Death knows his Reapers are bringing in souls that the hunters killed.

Even monsters know Death before they pass to Purgatory. The balance is tipping.

But there are the Names. The ones that twist up the natural order, tangle and echo. Souls who will die, well before their time.

Souls who are soothed and placed back in their destiny when the Winchesters kill.

It is, Death considers, a conundrum.

And still. When they meet.

Tessa will eye him, quietly questioning. And he will say, soft and dry, “Not today.”

----

Tessa is speaking to Dean.

A car accident. The stupidest way for a human to die, and in that ridiculous car he loves so much.

Idly, Death wonders if Dean knows he has almost died in the black Impala eight times, since he was sixteen.

Tessa is speaking to Dean and Death is, ridiculously, disgruntled.

Jealous.

Because in all the years he’s watched the Winchester, he has never spoken to them.

He has never been granted that.

Dean is fighting, trying to communicate with his brother.

Hunting.

Silly boy is dying and he is still trying to save people. A small smile twists Death’s lips, where no one can see it. Maybe this is why. Why he loves the boy so much.

Oh.

An interesting thought.

Is that why? Why he has refused, the hundreds of times, to gather up Dean Winchester’s soul? Why he has visited, watched him hover on the edge of death, a breath away--and never swung the blade that would sever the thin bond between life and death.

Because he loves the boy?

Is that why this--watching Dean with Tessa--is like a sharp blade between the ribs?

Is that why the presence that has protected and saved the brothers, through the years, bothers and reassures him?

A frown twists his lips.

Tessa is still trying to convince Dean to go into the light. But the tangle of Names is soothing and somewhere, he can feel John Winchester’s Name snap into focus. A sharp, seperate thread, tangled with only one other.

A smile twists Death’s lips, and he whispers, softly, as Tessa talks to Dean. “Not today.”