Title: How the Light Gets In
Fandom(s): Arrow, Supernatural
Summary: History repeats itself. This is a fact of life. It's the way of the world. Where you've been is where you'll be. The end is always in the beginning. Two hundred and eight days after fate rips Laurel Lance out of the world, leaving Dean Winchester in nearly the exact same position his father was in thirty three years ago, someone knocks on his door in the middle of the night. This is only the beginning of the story. No one ever tells you how to exist in the aftermath of a crushing loss. No one tells you how you're supposed to live without her here. No one tells you what to do when she comes home either.
Pairing(s): Dean Winchester/Laurel Lance. Implied past Dean/Laurel/Tommy.
Genre: Angst/Family
Warnings: PTSD, depression, pregnancy (past), canon character death, blood and gore, violence, alcoholism/addiction, grief/mournig, hurt with very little comfort.

Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters you recognize.

AN: Okay, here it is. The first part of the D/L fix it fic I've been working on since August. I was going to wait until mid January to post part one because I'm going away for a month and won't be able to update, but I'm spite posting now because I have no self control.

A few important notes before you read the fic:

- This fic is completely AU after 4x18 of Arrow. There might be some elements of things that happened after but I don't watch that show anymore so I'm not up to date on what's happening and it doesn't really matter for this fic anyway. I actually haven't watched any of DCTV since Laurel's death so any mentions of Sara's time traveling adventures and what's happening with Team Flash are most likely going to be AU-ish.
- Everything up until mid season seven of Supernatural happened (except that obviously Dean didn't go to Lisa and Ben at the end of season five but instead met Laurel) but it veers AU after Bobby's death.
- The Arrow timeline is tweaked a bit. The series started in October of 2012 but I'm changing it ever so slightly so that Oliver came home in late August/early September of 2012 instead.
- Updates WILL take awhile. I'm planning on each installment being as long as possible and also my life has gotten weirdly busy over this past year.


there is a crack in everything
that's how the light gets in
- leonard cohen

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Part One:

A Caged Bird

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Mary Beatrice Winchester is born at home on October 31st, 2012 at 11:23pm to two terrified parents. They love her instantly and ferociously with every inch of their bruised and broken hearts. They're just not quite sure what to do with her.

This is not news.

They have been stumbling around, scared and unsure, for nine months. Uncertainty has become their way of life. But after the baby is born, after she's given the final push and collapsed back against him, breathing heavily and trying to focus on the sound of his voice telling her he's so proud of her and the sound of their daughter's cries, and after this slimy, squawking, perfect little girl has been placed on her chest, things change. Labor was long and hellish and they have both been so focused on the situation at hand that they almost forgot that the end goal was, you know, a child. Who they have to raise. All by themselves. Forever. So, after the euphoria has been replaced by shock and they've got this shrieking bundle to look after, they look at each other, wide eyed, and the only thing running through their heads is, what have we done? Closely followed by, what now?

It's not the baby's fault. It's not her fault that she's been born to two messed up parents. Their beautiful girl - named for her paternal grandmother and her maternal great grandmother - is amazing. Beyond amazing. She's everything they could ever want. It's just a truly terrifying concept. These two human disasters raising a kid. Imagine that.

The pregnancy was, to put it lightly, unplanned; a result of birth control failure due to antibiotic use. When she stood at the bathroom sink, peering down at that plastic stick that read, clearly and firmly, pregnant, the only thing she could muster up was terror and a mumble of, ''Shit.'' He'd said the same thing (and then downed two beers in less than ten minutes) when she broke the news to him. Neither one of them had jumped for joy. For the first couple of weeks they both staggered around in shock, fumbling through awkward conversations about their options, tip toeing around each other, going through the motions of everyday life with this huge, life changing thing hanging over their heads.

It hadn't been a great time to bring a baby into their relationship.

He was grieving Bobby Singer, he was drinking more (to the point where the first thing he did when he woke up in the mornings was reach for the whiskey and he couldn't get to sleep at night without at least three or four beers), he was home less, and he seemed more interested in revenge than the woman he claimed he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. She was half-heartedly planning a wedding that she wasn't sure was ever going to happen and she was barely home herself, busy getting CNRI off the ground with Joanna, finally where she wanted to be when it came to work, money was tighter than usual, and his drinking was starting to scare her the way her father's did.

A baby had not been in the plans.

Life, as they have learned, rarely goes according to plan. Bad timing or not, they wanted this baby. They want this baby. They made the decision, together, to go through with the pregnancy, to figure shit out as they go along, to become parents, and now here she is: this tiny, fragile slip of a thing who completely depends on their sorry asses to stay alive. Can you imagine anything more terrifying than that?

They're so glad their Halloween baby is here. She's their pumpkin girl, their little bird, their Mary Bea (a nickname that quickly morphs into ''Honeybee'' as she gets older), their saving grace, but the complete and utter helplessness is a scary thing. They have no idea how to be parents. They have no idea what to do with this flailing, squalling creature.

A few days after the birth, when she opens up and confides in her father about this all consuming fear, he just chuckles warmly and says, ''Welcome to parenthood, Laurel. None of us know what we're doing.''

Parenthood, as it turns out, is a tangled mess of helplessness, joy, and an overwhelming love.

Years later, on Mary's fourth birthday, it's still the same.

Dean is still terrified 95% of the time, he loves his kid with the ferocity of a beast, and she is, without a single doubt, the greatest joy of his life. The only difference is that now he's a widowed single father and all of that is his and his alone.

See, history repeats itself. Someone told him that once. This is a fact of life. It's the way of the world. Where you've been is where you'll be. The end is always in the beginning. All of that fucking bullshit that makes your skin crawl. Makes you wonder what the point is, doesn't it? If we're all doomed to repeat the tragedies of history, why even bother in the first place? If you knew how it would end, would you even want to begin?

History, he thinks, twisting his wedding ring wistfully and remembering all of the times he used to watch his father do the same thing. What a joke.

Suppose it's an inescapable truth, isn't it? History repeats itself. It will always repeat itself. Often in the most horrific ways.

You can never get away from where you've been.

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Mary's birthday has always been a big event within her family - both Winchester and Lance. For the Lance family, she's the first grandchild. Born before Sara's miraculous reappearance, she was the only thing that could bring them all together as a family for awhile there. For the Winchester family, she is the one good and pure thing to come out of their messed up lives. For both families, but especially for her parents, she is a reason to hold on.

For such a little girl, she has managed to hold a lot of hearts in her small hands in her four years of life.

It's only right to mark her birth with a massive celebration.

Her birthday parties are always extravagant, carefully planned, and flawlessly executed. We're talking themes and games and bouncy castles. Piles of presents, a big cake, and then she gets to go trick or treating and winds up getting extra candy when people find out it's her birthday. It's the one day of the year where her family - both Winchester and Lance - can be in the same room without arguing, the one day a year without anything catastrophic happening, and every year, she goes to bed a spoiled and happy girl. Laurel did that. She did all of that. Sure, Dean has always helped but it was Laurel's rodeo, her world, and his help usually just consisted of doing whatever she told him to do. She was the one who planned the parties, started writing notes for next year's party on November 1st, made all of the reservations, hired professional photographers, and spent money they never really had in order to make sure Mary had everything that they never did growing up.

Laurel is not here this year.

If he's being honest, neither is Dean.

He tries. He's been trying for months to pretend that he's really here and not six feet underground with her or stuck in an endless loop of April 6th. He doesn't think he's all that convincing. But he needs to be here for this, he needs to be present, so he throws all of the leftover pieces of himself into planning this party. He uses the notes Laurel had been making, he invites everyone Mary has ever met, and he throws the bash at a local indoor playground that costs way too much. He recruits family and friends to help - Thea throws money at the party like it grows on trees, Sara takes an extended vacation from her time traveling adventures to help with the party and spend some time with her niece, and Sam and Cas buy an entire toy store. Because Mary's birthday falls on a Monday this year, he throws the big party on the Saturday before. There's ice cream cake, presents, almost all of the kids from her preschool are there, and Mary - who is normally shy to the point where she doesn't like interacting with anyone other than people she sees every day - has such a good time and eats so much sugar that she doesn't seem to mind bouncing around in the ball pit with kids she usually avoids like the plague.

Technically, the party goes off without a hitch. Sure, the adults probably have more fun with the obstacle courses than the kids - who spend most of their time in the ball pit or on the trampolines and staunchly avoiding climbing anything. Yes, Laurel's father cries at least twice, there's alcohol on his breath within an hour of his arrival, and he's so tipsy by the end of the party that he doesn't even notice when Sam picks his pocket for his car keys and tosses them to Sara. But Mary has a good time and nobody vomits in the ball pit, which was a real concern. She loves her presents. She loves her ice cream cake. She even makes some friends.

By the time they're packing up, she is conked out in Thea's arms and Dean is too exhausted to even think about how fucking unfair it is that there was an empty spot all day long where Laurel should have been.

On Sunday, he takes her out, says they're having a Daddy and Mary day, and tells her that they can do whatever she wants to do. She wastes no time demanding tacos and waffles and telling him that she wants to see ''fishies.'' So he takes her for a waffle breakfast, takes her to the aquarium, and takes her out for a taco lunch after making her reluctantly promise to eat her vegetables at dinner. Before they go home, she insists that they need to do one last thing, and that's how Dean winds up kneeling in front of Laurel's grave, hands in the dirt, planting flowers. It's October and the weather doesn't exactly lend itself to growing flowers and it's a shit feeling to have the dirt covering your dead wife all over your hands, but Mary wants to plant flowers for her mom, so they plant flowers. Well, Dean plants the flowers. Mary mostly sits cross legged and babbles, going on and on about her birthday party (often repeating the same thing two or three times) as if she's talking to her mom and not just a hunk of stone.

On her actual birthday, Halloween, there's a small hastily thrown together party with mostly just family and then she gets to go trick or treating. She is ridiculously excited about her Flash costume. She's been talking about it for months. Impulsively, Dean bites the bullet, swallows his pride, and asks Oliver for a favor. He won't lie: It's pretty fucking humiliating to have to beg that idiot for a favor, especially considering that their relationship has gone from unpleasant but grudgingly civil to all out antagonistic ever since April. Oliver still does it. He has his price of course (drop the lawsuit Dean had Joanna slap him with over that damn statue) but he makes the call.

When the real Flash - her second favourite superhero - zooms into their path on the way home from trick or treating to compliment Mary on her costume, it's all worth it. The groveling, dropping the lawsuit that he was so proud of, owing that douchebag a favor, it's all worth it to see the look on Mary's face as Barry clumsily - but happily - stumbles through clearly hastily learned sign language just to be able to wish her a happy birthday. Laurel would have loved to see that look on their girl's face.

Dean goes all out for her birthday. He drains himself empty to be able to give her some semblance of normal. To be able to give her happiness. None of it is good enough. He tries his hardest to give her everything but he can't give her everything. All of the ice cream and presents and candy can't fill the space where her mother should be. It doesn't heal the hurt. There is a gaping emptiness in all of the pictures from her party where Laurel deserves to be, and he can't make that better. His efforts to give her something perfect and uncomplicated all end in depressing, sleepless nights where his hands shake so badly and all he can think about is how much he needs Laurel or how badly he wants a drink. Every night always ends the same: with him thinking about how all he wants to do is pack a bag, load Mary into the car, and run far away from this toxic city that ripped their world away from them. Except he did that. He took Mary to Kansas for a couple weeks in July and it was a disaster of epic proportions, complete with full blown hallucinations and everything.

On Saturday, after Mary has opened her presents (the Black Canary action figure, the Captain America shield, the Elsa dress that she immediately puts on and gets chocolate ice cream all over, the remote control car, the disturbing mechanical dog thing that he resolves to ''lose'' as soon as possible), he catches sight of his daughter from across the room. Jody is crouched in front of her and Mary is looking strangely subdued. He watches her rub her eyes before signing, I want Mom. Dean doesn't see what Jody's response to that is because he has to leave, muttering that he needs to make a call just so that he can get away from the screeching children and the suffocating heartache subtly written on everyone's faces.

On Sunday, he's kneeling in the grass, hands full of dead wife dirt, watching his kid talk to a concrete slab. Mary traces Laurel's name without really realizing what she's doing. She looks at the picture on the gravestone quizzically, the one of Laurel's smiling face, and he can practically see the gears working in her head, trying to understand what this dirt and grass and stone has to do with her beloved mother. Mary doesn't really understand what a grave is. She knows that this is where they left Mom, that this piece of rock has her name on it, so clearly that means Mom is right here, listening. Dean is not about to take that away from her. ''Bye bye, Mommy,'' she says before they leave, waving, ''love you!'' Before Dean can lead her away, she wrenches away from his grip, runs up to the slab of stone and kisses the picture of her mother. It's hard to breathe through that one.

And on her birthday, at the end of the night, Dean still winds up right here, standing frozen and guilty in front of his daughter, wishing that there was something he could do to switch places with Laurel because she would be so much better at this.

The night goes as smoothly as possible. Everyone keeps busy, everyone stays focused on Mary, and Mary is four years old. She's sad when she wakes up on her birthday and her mom's not there but she bounces right back. That night, after he's gotten her out of her costume and into her footie pajamas with the little smiley face cupcakes on them, he asks her if she's had a good birthday. She says yes and chatters animatedly while he helps her get ready for bed. She talks about her presents and the Flash and how she thinks that Auntie Charlie and Auntie Sara should just move in with them and never leave ever again. However, when he's putting her hair brush away, she gets real quiet. She's playing with that stuffed shark that Sara can't even look at and she looks like she wants to say something. He lets it go for a minute. Figures she's just tired. It's been a long day.

He picks up a few random toys from the floor and dumps them into her toy chest, making a mental note to clean her room next weekend. He's not entirely sure how to react to the headless Barbie doll he picks up from halfway under her bed, though. Despite her weird habit of laughing in her sleep, which is far creepier than it sounds, he's pretty sure his daughter's not a budding psychopath, so he just chucks the doll on the dresser and decides to look for the head tomorrow so he can fix it. When he turns his attention back to her, she's still frowning down at her shark with this oddly contemplative look on her face.

''Mary,'' he says, and she doesn't react to the sound of his voice. He moves around from the right side of the bed to the left and says, a little louder this time, ''Mary.''

She looks up.

He pauses. Are you okay? He signs.

She doesn't respond - either verbally or in sign language.

He sighs. He flicks off the light, leaving just the lamp on her bedside table and the glow in the dark stars on her ceiling as the only sources of light. ''What's up?''

Mary shrugs. Then she asks, seriously, furrowed brow and everything, ''Can I be mad?''

He frowns. ''Uh, I don't know, honey. Who are you mad at?''

She doesn't answer. Again, he worries it's because she hasn't heard him. Hazards of being deaf in one ear. She's still a little clumsy with her sign language (mostly because her hands can't quite keep up with her head just yet) and she's getting better at lip reading every day but you can't read lips if you're looking down. Just as he's about to attempt to try again, she raises her head and answers the previous question, ''Mommy.''

That's where he freezes. Just goes completely still, wide eyed, and panicked. A complete shutdown.

It's not that Mary can't be angry. She can be. He's been angry for months. Every night, he lies awake in bed and goes over every second of that day, thinking of all of the things he could have done differently, all of the things she could have done, all of the different ways she could have lived, and it always makes him so angry. He switches from grief to rage and back again every night. One would think the worst feeling in the world is to lose someone suddenly and to know that nothing could have saved them, that you were completely helpless and so were they. Turns out the worst feeling is when you lose someone suddenly and have to live your life knowing that you didn't have to lose her, that you could have saved her, that a thousand different factors could have saved her.

Mary is allowed to have those emotions too. He'd give anything for her not to have to feel this excruciating pain but this is their life now. The pain is there. It's not going away. It's part of them now. People tell him that it'll get better but there's no real proof of that. He just doesn't want her to ever feel like her emotions hurt him somehow or that she has to keep them from him. His dad did that, and he refuses to be anything like his dad. Mary owns the right to be angry, to be sad, to miss her mom, to feel anything she needs to feel.

It's not like he doesn't want her to talk about Laurel either. Regardless of how much it hurts, Dean consciously tries to talk to Mary about Laurel every day. Things she did or said, things she liked, everything she used to do with Mary, just little ways to keep her here, keep her alive. He feels like it's important. His father never talked about his mother and it just made everything worse. The loss spread like an infection, grew roots inside of him, sprawled out through his whole body, into his bloodstream, his bones, and he had to keep all of that hurt inside because he was too afraid of his father to talk about it. He will not let Mary feel that. If she has to be without Laurel, he's going to do everything he can to make sure she remembers her.

But what is he supposed to do with this? How is he supposed to make this better? How does he navigate all of this?

''You're mad at your mom,'' he echoes dumbly, blinking and trying to come up with something that helps and isn't as stupid and useless as sorry you feel that way or some shit like that.

''She didn't come to my party,'' she pouts. ''She...'' She pauses, staring up at him with her big earnest green eyes, so much like her mother's that every time he looks at her it physically hurts. ''Mommy went away to Heaven,'' she tells him, signing along with her every word. ''She went away.'' She stops, looking entirely confused and not at all sure how she's supposed to handle that information.

''She did,'' he agrees carefully. He slips into her bed awkwardly, like he does every night. It's an extremely uncomfortable bed to be in if you're six foot one and he's pretty sure he's developed chronic neck pain from accidentally falling asleep in this bed too many times to count over the past seven months but you gotta do what you gotta do when you're a parent. Especially if you're a single parent. He pulls something hard out from under his upper back. It's the Barbie doll head. Because of course it is. On a better night, the small moment of absurdity might help ease the pain a little. Tonight is not a better night.

Mary heaves a sigh. ''I'm tired of her being in Heaven.''

''I...'' He clears his throat. ''Me too.'' He puts the doll's head on the bedside table and tries to think of something comforting. What would help here? What makes this better? ''You can be as mad as you want,'' he tells her softly. He doesn't know what else he can say. ''I'm mad, too.'' He curls an arm around her and pulls her over to him.

Even as squirmy and hyperactive as she's been today, she doesn't protest. She just drops her head to his chest and lays with her good ear pressed to his chest so she can hear his heartbeat. It's something she's done since she was a baby. There are handfuls of pictures with Mary all curled up on his chest or Laurel's chest just listening to their heartbeats. The pictures have always been bittersweet. With her progressive hearing loss, there will come a day where she won't be able to hear their heartbeats, no matter how hard she listens. Now those pictures are bittersweet for two reasons.

Dean stares up at the ceiling for a minute before looking down at Mary. She's playing with his wedding ring, spinning it around and around on his finger. When Mary had been diagnosed with Pendred syndrome - some stupidly rare genetic condition that you can only get if both of your parents are carriers; inevitably a result of the crappy Winchester luck - Laurel had cried all day long. She had mourned for the childhood their daughter wasn't going to have. She had been scared. ''I know it sounds selfish,'' she had said, ''but I don't want her to forget my voice. I don't want her to forget what our heartbeats sound like.''

''She won't,'' he'd said. ''Laur, she's the only one who knows what your heartbeat sounds like from the inside. That'll always be with her.''

It had been, strictly speaking, a lie. He'd just needed something that would cheer her up. She was grieving for a child who was still right there, blowing spit bubbles and peering up at them with a gummy baby smile, and he had wanted to ease the fear that was written all over her face. He made up some flowery bullshit and hoped that, whether she believed it or not, it made it a little more bearable. But now... He and Mary are here, they're right here, they are still right here, and they're alone. They're surrounded by all of these people who care about them and want to help but none of them are Laurel. None of them are that specific missing piece and it's so agonizing. This is a real fucked up thing they've got here, and all he can do is cling to the tiny shred of hope that maybe what he'd said all those years ago will actually come true.

He hopes that there is a part of Mary that will always remember - even if it's just a subconscious memory - the sound of her mother's heartbeat. He hopes it plays in surround sound in her dreams. Hopes it's engrained in her, stained in her memory, written on her ribs, a part of her the way his own mother's laughter is still a part of him. He hopes, somewhat desperately, that Mary still has these pieces of Laurel inside of her and that she always will because pieces are all they have now.

His mother has always stayed with him in pieces. Her laugh, the way her eyes sparkled in the sunlight, the scent of lilacs. These things follow him. They're with him wherever he goes. Time can change things. Memories are fluid - they ebb and flow. Some days they're vivid, some days they're hazy, faded and yellowed at the edges but never completely gone; illuminated in his chest, in his head, in every part of him from his fingertips down to his toes. Mary might forget her mother's voice. There's no way around that. She will lose her. Slowly, maybe, over the course of years, but she will lose her. Laurel will blur at the edges, but if Mary can hang on to her heartbeat, to the way she used to cup her cheek so lovingly, to the smell of vanilla and coffee and lavender, then a piece of Laurel Lance will always be here, just like she used to promise every night.

Dean knows this. He knows there are ways of keeping the dead alive long after they're gone. He also knows that it's not good enough. It's not anywhere near good enough. Mary deserves to have more than pieces of the mother who loved her and fought for her every single day. He wants more than pieces. More than the things left behind - the half empty glass of water on her bedside table that he hasn't touched, the book she was in the middle of reading, all of the makeup and lotions and creams and essential oils he doesn't know what to do with.

When you get married, you're supposed to end up with a spouse. All Dean has is the strands of hair left behind in her brush and a lipstick print on a coffee mug that he can't bring himself to wash. When you have kids, you're supposed to be able to watch them grow up. You're supposed to be there for the birthdays, the Halloweens, the Christmases, the scraped knees, the broken hearts. Laurel didn't even get four years.

It has been seven months.

Over half a year without her here with them. Two hundred and eight days of this exhausting half-life, and it's not getting any easier. It gets harder with every horrifyingly painful moment that goes by. There is no lesson here. There's nothing to learn from this loss, this breaking, this crushing grief. Frankly, the only thing he's learned is how to better understand the way Bukowski felt when he was writing about Jane.

''Do you remember,'' he starts, glancing down at the girl flopped against his chest, ''what your mom used to tell you before she went to work?''

Mary nods.

''No matter where I go,'' he recites, ''a piece of me will always be - ''

''Right here with me,'' Mary finishes with a decisive nod. ''Right here with you,'' he whispers. That had been a nightly ritual between Laurel and Mary. It was their thing and it was infinitely important to Laurel. She wouldn't leave the house without saying it. Except on April 6th. When she left the house that night, Mary had already fallen asleep on the couch. She had wanted to call from the hospital later on, just to hear her daughter's voice, but she was gone before she could make the call. Nobody knows that. He hasn't told anyone. It's hard to live with that one. ''She's still with you,'' he says, and Mary raises her head, eyes widened in alarm.

''A ghost?''

''No, not a - not a ghost.'' He pauses. Oh, he is so not the right person to be doing this kind of thing. This was always Laurel's expertise. She would say... What would she say? He worries at his lower lip before drawing in a nervous breath. ''You have her eyes, Mary,'' he says quietly.

She, apparently, find this hilarious. ''Nu-uh, silly. These are mine.''

''Not the same eyes, baby, but they look like hers. And your nose.''

Mary grabs her nose. ''This is my nose,'' she declares proudly. She giggles at the sound of her nasally voice.

''Yeah, that thing,'' he says, reaching out to tweak her little nose. ''Your nose looks like hers. You both wrinkle your noses like rabbits when you're unimpressed. And it's just as adorable when you do it.''

Mary's beaming now, perched on her knees and seemingly engrossed in the conversation. ''What else?''

It's late, and he should be winding her down rather than riling her up but it's her birthday. She can skip another day of school if she needs to. It's preschool. It's not like she'll miss a midterm. Besides, she hates it anyway. Tonight, it's her birthday and she wants to hear about her mother. ''Your mom was warm. She was kind and funny,'' he says. ''You get all that from her. Her kindness, especially. You're a good kid, honeybee.''

At that, Mary suddenly gets very serious. Be good, she signs.

He raises an eyebrow and signs back, What?

''Mommy says always be good,'' she says. ''I try to be good.''

He has to swallow hard. ''You're good,'' he chokes out, and has to clear his throat. ''Baby, you're the best. All that goodness inside of you is hers. You got all of that light from your mother.''

''And you,'' she says, so easily. She doesn't even think twice about it. ''Right, Daddy?''

He can't respond to that. ''Your mom is always going to be with you, Mary. I know it's not the same but she'll be with you forever, okay? She's here,'' he points to her heart, ''and here,'' he touches her temple. ''That's where we'll keep her. Sound good?''

She nods, but doesn't look totally satisfied with his words. He gets that. He's not satisfied with them either. She settles back down into bed, lying down and pulling the stuffed shark closer to her. ''I miss Mommy in the morning,'' she whispers. ''She never ever wakes me up now. Do you miss her in the morning?''

In the morning, at night, during the day, from sunrise to sunset. ''Every day,'' he answers honestly. Every day for the rest of his life. ''But we're doin' okay, right?'' He pastes on his best cheerful smile for her. ''You and me, honeybee.'' He wraps an arm around her and pulls her closer to drop a kiss to the crown of her head. ''She'd be proud of us.'' He's not sure that's true. There are some things he's done over the past several months that he definitely doesn't think she would be proud of. ''You ready for a story?''

She signs, Yes.

''Which one?''

Immediately, her eyes light up. ''Wild things!'' She cheers, and all of the seriousness from their conversation disappears. He hopes that's a good thing.

Mary hands him the book, cuddles into his side with her stuffed shark, and there's a moment - just like there is every night - where he takes in a breath, looks at his beautiful daughter with her mother's eyes and her mother's nose and he thinks, well, it could be worse. Sometimes he's not sure where he would be right now if he didn't have Mary. Back on the road, maybe. Saving people, hunting things, trying to find solace in the bottom of a bottle, half dead and looking for a way out. Other times, he knows exactly where he would be if he didn't have Mary. He would have gone with Laurel. He wouldn't have made it to May. It's just a fact. Laurel gave him the light and he would have chased it anywhere if it weren't for this little piece of her leftover.

Dean flips open the copy of Where the Wild Things Are, eyes finding the messy, shaky block letters written in blue pencil crayon in the top left corner, clearly written by a child rather than an adult. Property of Dinah Laurel Lance! Not Sara! His lips twitch and he runs his fingers over the words briefly. He looks at Mary again.

For what it's worth, he is glad he made it here with her.

He turns the worn out page of the worn out book, the one Laurel loved, Mary's favourite, and he starts to read. ''The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind...''

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April, 2016

Here is the beginning and the end of it: Death is simple. Brutally, painfully simple. People are alive - they walk, they talk, they breathe air, they eat, they drink their coffee, they browse the internet, they fuck when they want to and sleep when they can - and then they're not. There is nothing more to the story. No way to dress death up as something meaningful or beautiful. There is no reason why. It just happens.

People are here, and then they're not.

One day, you won't be here either. You'll spend the entirety of your miserable life sad and desperate, searching and scrambling to find that one thing that makes you feel alive, and then you'll die. It's life. Nobody gets out alive.

Dean Winchester has spent the past 30+ years having that particular life lesson beaten into him. It's branded into his skin. Death will happen. It will come for you, for the people you love, and it will take you apart. Sometimes you'll be able to cheat it. Sometimes you won't. You'll hurt and plead, you'll pray to a God who doesn't care about your unimportant, insignificant little life, and you'll end up alone.

You will always end up alone.

At this point in his life, after all of the loss, all of the blood he's had to wash away, all of the bodies he's had to burn, he is practically an old hat at grief. You'd think he would be used to it by now; this hollow ache, this nagging emptiness, this crater in the center of him that just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

He's not.

How can anyone ever get used to this?

The cruelty and unfairness of loss is like having the ground beneath your feet ripped away from you. That's not something anyone can shake off or get used to. If you were to ask him about pain - and we're talking about real pain here; that gaping wound, chasm in your chest kind of pain that leaves you on the floor, pulling out your own hair - he would tell you about this.

April 6th, 2016, three days before her 31st birthday, at 11:59pm.

The moment she left.

You don't know the meaning of agony until you've been in that moment. Until you have begged on your knees in a hospital hallway.

Dean comes home at five o'clock in the morning, just as the sun is beginning to peak over the hills. His entire body feels heavy. He feels like he's sinking, like someone has weighed him down with stones and pushed him into the water. There's a fog in his brain that won't let him think clearly and he feels dazed and out of it. It's shock. He's in shock. He's sane enough to realize that but not enough to know what to do about it. It's a twenty minute drive from their house in the suburbs to the hospital. He remembers the drive there. He remembers breaking every speed limit, cursing at red lights, pleading with anyone who was listening to please not take her, convinced the pain in his chest was a heart attack. He remembers every painful second of that drive. He remembers nothing from the drive home. He doesn't even remember leaving the hospital. The last thing he remembers is the way her cold hand felt as it slipped out of his for the last time when they wheeled her away from him.

It's quiet when he steps into the house, save for the sounds of the birds chirping outside as the sun rises, and the ticking of that old grandfather clock that used to belong to Beatrice Drake. He stops when he enters the house, standing frozen in his spot, keys dangling from his limp fingers. He stares into the emptiness and drinks in the sight of his home. Her home. The place where she lived and loved.

There are pictures of her here, her watch is on the coffee table, there's a pair of heels abandoned haphazardly by the door where she left them, her coat on the rack, her briefcase on the desk in the corner of the room. She decorated this place from top to bottom, picked out the paint colors, the arrangement of the furniture, the new couch, the rug on the hardwood floor. She lovingly placed all of these framed photographs on end tables and hung them on the walls until happy, smiling faces cluttered the living room like a map of their lives from beginning until...

Dean sucks in a sharp breath.

He does not have to look very hard to find her here.

She's everywhere. She's in the floorboards, the curtains, the mismatched pillows, the rings on the coffee table because she never used a coaster. She is in every square inch of this house. Dean's hands built the furniture, Mary brought spills and messes and piles and piles of toys, Thea's music wafts through the house from her bedroom on any given day, but it was Laurel who made this place a home. What is it now? Is a house still a home when the person who made it one is in a cold drawer in the morgue?

She was here, and now she's not.

What is he supposed to do with that? It feels like a violation to say out loud, to even think it, but there it is. It's a fact. The latest headline in their cruel and fucked up world.

Laurel Lance is dead.

Panic blooms in his chest - this intense, burning, breathless ache that travels from his chest down to his gut and up in his throat. It's in his heart and it's in his head and he can't breathe. His wife is dead. The mother of his child. The Black Canary. The fucking light at the end of a long and twisted tunnel. He spent so long fighting against the idea of having a family because he was so terrified of becoming his father and now here he is. In the same spot his father was all those years ago. He spent so long in a chaotic life full of misery, searching for solace in dive bars and back alley hook ups, trying to drown in sex and alcohol, stuck in the dark with nowhere to go, and then she came along and opened a window. She slowed it all down for him. And he got used to it. He got so used to it. He was happy, so he got comfortable. Too comfortable. He got complacent. He shouldn't have. Look what happened.

''Everybody leaves you, Dean,'' his mother's voice taunts in his head. ''You noticed?'' That moment has never left him. It's been years since Zachariah conjured up that demonic version of his mother and he still remembers every millisecond of that painful trick. The image of his beloved mother standing there in her white nightgown, eyes yellow, smirking, the sound of her mocking voice. It's always there in the back of his head, responsible for at least 40% of his daily terror.

Laurel used to try and comfort him whenever he'd talk about it. She'd run her fingers through his hair and remind him that he had her and she wasn't going anywhere. She told him that a lot. That she wasn't going anywhere. ''Not everyone who loves you will leave you, Dean,'' she'd say.

A bitter and hysterical laugh bubbles in his throat but he chokes it down.

Not everyone who loves you will leave you.

But here we are.

Life has made a liar out of her.

He should have been with her. Why wasn't he with her? His car keys slip from his hand and hit the ground with a clatter, startling him out of his thoughts. Quickly, he scrubs a shaking hand over his face and tries to get his shit together because he needs to not be like this when Mary wakes up. He needs to at least be coherent when he has to tell her that Mom isn't coming home this time. He presses the palms of his hands into his sore, watery eyes and takes in a few much needed gulps of air.

He can still see her when he closes his eyes. Lying there in that hospital bed. She was so still, so pale and lifeless. It wasn't her. It wasn't right. Laurel had never been still in her life. She was a hurricane. She spun and whirled, swept through everything and everyone with this endless determination, this unimaginable grace. But she was motionless in that hospital bed, a graying body, an unmovable shell. It hadn't mattered to him. She was still his wife. She was just as pretty as the day they met, he loved her just as much as the day they got married, and he made a point of telling her that, even if she couldn't hear him. It had seemed important at the time. To tell her these things. He doesn't remember why. It was just a body.

He had sat beside her for hours. Begged the hospital staff for more time. Turned down the offer to talk to a grief counselor or a social worker. Shrugged off Cas and Sam's well-intentioned but irritating attempts to get him to leave. Like it was that easy. Like he could just get up and walk away from her when he knew he would never see her again. He did his best to memorize her. Her hands, her long fingers, her arms, her shoulders, her neck, her jaw, her cheekbones, her soft lips, her soft skin, her closed eyes, her hair. He had needed that time with her. Even if she never opened her eyes, he wanted those moments, those seconds.

If it meant he got to keep her, even an eerily still and pale version of her, he would have sat there for a lifetime. He held her hand, he kissed her skin, stroked her hair, felt her get colder and colder. He did that. Him. He sat in that silence, every part of him on fire and screaming with grief, waiting for her to open her eyes and tell him it was all a joke. He sat in that stillness for hours until they finally took her away from him and wouldn't let him go with her.

Her father hadn't even been able to give her ten minutes. Her mother hadn't even cared enough to make the damn trip.

Dean drops his head, flexes his numb fingers, and tries to work out if what he's feeling is anger, grief, or shock. He's thinking D) all of the above.

''Laurel,'' he had whispered. He must have said her name a thousand times. He hadn't known what else to say. ''Laurel. ...Laur, please.''

''Dean.''

The unexpected voice sends his heart rate skyrocketing and he lifts his head, stupidly hopeful. ''Laurel?''

It's Charlie.

She's standing across the room in the doorway, silhouetted by the light spilling into the living room from the hallway. She looks sad. Her eyes are red and puffy and her lips are trembling. He's so out of it that he almost opens his mouth to ask her what's wrong or when she got there. He clamps his mouth shut pretty quickly when he remembers. She came into town for Laurel's birthday, and Laurel is dead. Instinctively, upon seeing her distress, he wants to fix her somehow. Wrap her up and protect her like he would with Mary or Thea, but he can't even make himself move.

There is a quiet moment where they both just stand there, looking at each other. The grief lying in between them is impossible to navigate. When you imagine these things happening, there are a million words that fill your head. Meaningless platitudes, all these different ways to say you're sorry for someone's loss, to be gracious, and a handful of cheesy, dumbass words to honor the dead. When you actually experience it, there are no words. There's just wailing and screaming and an incoherent string of bargaining and begging. You curse, you punch the drywall, you plead, but there are no words.

There is no way to properly apologize for the horror movie that is grief.

Dean breaks the silence, clearing his throat and muttering, ''She... She, uh...'' He trails off, feeling oddly winded. ''She didn't make it.''

Charlie does not look particularly surprised by this. Devastated, yes. But not surprised. Sam must have called her. She doesn't waste a second, letting out a sob and sprinting across the room to get to him, nearly tripping on her own two feet before she collides with him and pulls him in for a hug. She's already crying, gulping into the crook of his neck, holding onto him for dear life. ''I'm sorry,'' she whimpers. Her hand is soft and warm against the nape of his neck. Selfishly, irrationally, he tries to imagine it's Laurel's hand, Laurel's arms holding him, Laurel's body against his but his brain won't even let him pretend. ''I'm so sorry, Dean,'' Charlie says again.

He doesn't know what he can possibly say to that. He winds his arms around her slowly and that's it. The numbness and shock evaporates and it's like this crushing wave of pain just overwhelms him and pulls him under. There is sunlight streaming into the room, through the gaps in the gauzy curtains, the windows in the dining room, and all he can think about is Laurel.

Laurel was a morning person. Obnoxiously so. Aside from her general exhausted grumpiness during pregnancy, she was always so cheerful in the mornings. She sang in the shower, she hummed while she made coffee, and shook her hips to the radio while she was buttering toast. Every morning, without fail, while Dean groaned and grumbled and Mary ran into the room and tried to hide under the covers with her dad for five more minutes, Laurel would poke her head into the bedroom with this infectious, dimpled smile on her face. ''Wake up, sleepyheads,'' she'd call out to them. ''The sun has to rise every morning, and so do you.''

Dean will never hear her sing in the shower or hum some terrible 90's pop song in the kitchen, he'll never hear her yell out that she's going for her morning run, he'll never hear her say, in that sweet, light, happy voice, ''The sun has to rise every morning, and so do you.''

He crumples, finally allowing a broken, strangled noise to escape his lips as he buries his head in Charlie's red hair.

Here is the truth, the real one this time: Death is never simple. As long as there's someone left behind to mourn, to feel the loss, to suffer, it will never be simple. Death takes and it takes and it takes, and it never stops. It steals your home. It leaves you ruined. It leaves you empty. Death is this.

And this is a drowning.

.

.

.

November, 2016

She wakes up to darkness.

She opens her eyes to nothing at all, lips parting as she tries to breathe. She gasps and chokes but nothing makes it to her lungs. There's no air. Wherever this is, wherever she has woken up, there's no air here. She blinks and tries to move, still gasping and disoriented, but she can't. There's nowhere to go. She squirms desperately and reflexively tries to grab her throat but she can't even move her arms enough to reach her neck. There's nowhere to go.

She doesn't know where she is.

Panic explodes in her chest, resulting in a muffled sob clawing its way out. Everything is blurry and hot and dark and the lack of oxygen is burning her lungs and making it hard to think. There's sweat beading on her forehead. She feels dizzy and like she might throw up but she doesn't even think she would be able to do that. Desperate for air, she gropes around as much as she possibly can in the small space until she finds the roof. It feels warm and soft, like fabric. There's something hard behind it that she needs to get to. She claws at the silky fabric until her nails finally manage to slice it enough for her to tear it away, exposing the hard wood behind it.

She bangs on the roof fruitlessly. She opens her mouth and tries to scream, to call out for help, but without oxygen and with the panic turning her gasps into hyperventilation, she can't make a sound. Something hot and wet rolls down her cheeks. Tears. She remembers tears. She can feel the lack of air getting to her, slowing her down. If she's in here, wherever here is, for much longer, she will pass out and she won't wake up again. Her body will shut down. She'll die without air. She doesn't know how she knows that given that she doesn't know much of anything at this moment, but she knows it's right. Her brain cannot be deprived of oxygen for this long. Somehow, through the panic and the gasping and the crying, she feels a welcome surge of adrenaline.

The body remembers how to survive.

She pounds and scratches and punches at the roof, harder this time, harder and harder until her nails are broken and bloody and her knuckles have split. Until something cracks. One more punch and a burst of pain as wood tears through her skin and suddenly there's cold dirt pouring onto her face. But where there's dirt, there's air. She lifts herself up and pulls herself through the dirt. It gets all in her hair. It gets in her mouth, her nose, her ears, until she's choking on it, drowning in earth. She doesn't care. Her body wants - needs - air. The only way to get to the air is through the dirt. She fights her way through the dirt and through the box she was trapped in. The sharp edges of it cut through her clothes, slice at her skin, catch and pull her hair out in clumps. The jagged pieces, the suffocating dirt - it all wants to make sure she leaves a piece of herself behind.

There are voices in her head as she struggles. Voices and laughter and pieces of images, and she knows them. She knows there is joy and sorrow in this life. She knows the man with the sharp smile, all teeth and eye crinkles, she knows what his hands feel like on her skin and what his voice sounds like in her ear, but she doesn't know his name or what he means. She knows the woman with the blond hair and the sad eyes and the dimpled chin, the woman with the dark hair, the red leather, the lively ear to ear grin. She just doesn't remember how she knows these voices, these people. Are these memories or things she wanted for herself?

There is a girl, too. A little girl with sandy hair and a gummy smile who talks with her hands and twirls in the backyard. And there is love. So much of it. She doesn't know what to do with this love either. She just knows it's everywhere inside of her, all for her, for the girl with the pretty smile and the green eyes.

It feels like she has to fight through the dirt forever. It feels like there's nothing else and this is where she will die, halfway between the dirt and the air. Finally, her hand breaks through the surface and she feels the cold air on her skin. She uses every last bit of strength left in her to push herself up through the crushing weight, the squeezing vice grip of the earth, and then she's free. She digs bloody hands into the grass, clawing with what's left of her fingernails, and she heaves herself out with a great amount of difficulty.

She collapses onto the damp grass, panting and trying to catch her breath as the world spins and lurches unpleasantly, sending her stomach recoiling and into her throat. She swallows it down. The chilly night air feels good on her feverish, sweaty skin but it doesn't do anything to alleviate the way the world won't stop moving around her. All she can smell is blood and dirt and wet grass. She blinks up at the night sky through unfocused eyes. Even with her blurred vision, she can tell that there are no stars tonight. The sky is gray and cloudy, threatening rain, and a chilly wind whips through the air.

She doesn't remember this. She remembers spring. It was spring the last time she was here. There was warmth in the air, the promise of summer, flowers were blooming. She was happy. She was happy. She gives herself a minute to allow the tears of relief and fear and unexplainable sadness roll down her cheeks, making marks in the dirt smeared on her face. She closes her eyes and she hears an echo of a child's voice.

Mary.

The little girl's name is Mary.

Before everything else, there is Mary. She remembers her before she remembers the man with the strong hands, before she remembers anything else about this world, before she even remembers her own name. She remembers Mary before she remembers the way home.

I'm a mother, she thinks. I was a mother.

After a moment of trying to calm her racing heart, breathe, and gather herself together, she rolls over onto her stomach and pushes herself up onto her knees. She looks at her hands. She watches blood ooze out of her wounds and she sees the way her flesh is ripped, the way her fingernails are torn and bloody, but she can't feel it. She brings a hand to her stomach, smoothing the fabric of her ripped dress. It's a nice dress, she thinks. It's blue. This is blue, right? This color. Does she like blue? It's cold, though. It doesn't have sleeves.

Slowly, she rises to her unsteady feet. She's shaky and she feels like she might be too weak to stand but still, she rises. Her muscles aren't used to this whole standing thing. They haven't done it in awhile. She tries to shake it off, looking down at her blue dress, the long silver chain around her neck with the key shaped pendant, her torn pantyhose, her one shoe. She doesn't know where the other one went. It must not have made it out. She kicks it off and clutches the black pump to her chest.

She is wearing a blue dress. She loves a little girl named Mary who might be her daughter. There is a man with a sharp smile and deep, warm laughter who she thinks is waiting for her. It is not spring.

This is all she knows.

She tries to lick her cracked, dry lips. She must have a name. Everyone has a name. At least she thinks that's how it works. She lets the breeze ruffle her tangled hair for a minute and tries to make the cold wake her up a little. Jumpstart her brain. She pinches herself when that doesn't work. Digs what's left of her nails into her palms. She squeezes her eyes shut. She tries to remember.

She remembers...

Canary.

She opens her eyes.

Canary, she thinks. Is that her name? Is that who she is? It sounds familiar. Like it means something. There's a stirring in her gut when she turns the word over in her head. She whirls around to look at the displaced earth and that's when her eyes find the stone marker. It stands still and resolute even in the cold weather, the wind that's picking up and howling through the trees, the rain that's staring to spit down on her. She squints her bleary eyes and takes a stumbling step forward to try and make out the words etched into the stone.

DINAH LAUREL LANCE
1985 - 2016
BELOVED MOTHER, WIFE, SISTER AND DAUGHTER
ALIS VOLAT PROPRIIS

There is a small picture on the stone of a smiling young woman with green eyes who looks -

She startles, dropping the black pump and staggering back with a gasp, both hands flying to cover her mouth. That's her. That's her name, her face, her green eyes, her Latin inscription that she has tattooed on her back, her wedding picture. Her stomach recoils and her legs give out beneath her, sending her to her knees in the grass again.

This is her grave.

That slab of stone is her grave marker, her monument, her memorial. This is her final resting place - and she just woke up. There's something bubbling in her throat, climbing it's way out of her like a monster in a horror movie, and she is completely powerless to stop it. That's another thing she remembers. Being powerless.

In the Star City Memorial Cemetery, at half past midnight, Laurel Lance opens her mouth and screams.

.

.

.

When Dean opens his eyes, all he can see are the stars.

Specifically, the glow in the dark stars that he and Laurel put up when they first moved into this house when Mary was a year old. She hadn't cared about them then and she doesn't particularly care about them now, but they were important to Laurel. She had wanted to give their daughter the stars. He stares at those stars for a few moments, disoriented and sore from being cramped up in Mary's bed and then he snaps out of it. He glances over at Mary, burrowed under the blankets and sleeping peacefully with one hand over her face, the other fisted in his shirt. He releases a breath and takes the book off his chest, tossing it onto the bedside table before carefully working to extricate himself from her clutches. He rolls out of the bed slowly and by some strange miracle, she doesn't even stir.

He grimaces and rubs at his sore neck, idly wondering how she would do in a bigger bed. One that, preferably, he would be able to fit in comfortably without having to take an Advil every night for his aches and pains. He turns off the lamp, plunging the room into darkness, and flicks on her tacky Minion night light that makes her giggle. Like every night, he waits a minute before he leaves the room. Just in case she wakes up and demands he stay with her. It's happened before. At least seven or eight times since April. For the first month and a half straight, she slept in his bed with him, often sneaking into the bedroom in the middle of the night. This is progress.

She doesn't wake up tonight and he doesn't know whether to be relieved or mildly disappointed. He leaves the door open a crack and dims the light in the hallway, leaving it on enough for her to be able to find her way to him if she needs him.

Before he heads to the kitchen to clean up the mess left over from dinner, he checks on Thea. He doesn't technically need to. She's not his kid. She's not even a kid at all. She's a grown woman. But she lives under his roof and he has considered her one of his since she showed up on their doorstep with red eyes and blotchy cheeks and told Laurel, ''He left me all alone again. I don't have anywhere else to go now.'' He knocks on the door softly and pokes his head in. She's nowhere to be found. The room is dark, the bed still unmade from this morning, her makeup still strewn out on top of it from earlier when she was sitting atop it trying to make herself look like a zombie to scare the trick or treaters. He shuts the door and checks his watch. It's one in the morning. Jesus, how long has he been asleep for?

Dean finds her in the living room, on the couch, right where he left her when he took Mary to bed. Except now she's fast asleep and surrounded by candy wrappers. A lot of candy wrappers. She's had quite an adventurous night, apparently. Other than the television, which is casting a bluish light on everything as it plays the end credits of some movie, the room is dark. Dean perches on the coffee table and looks at Thea for a minute. Even in her sleep, she doesn't look peaceful. Younger, maybe - because it's easy to forget how young she is sometimes - but still troubled.

He runs a hand over his face, tired. He thinks about waking her up or even just scooping her up and taking her to bed, but he doesn't want to disturb her. He's not the only one who's had a hard day. She's run herself ragged over these past few days helping him with the party. He turns the TV off, grabs the blanket from the back of the couch, and drapes it over her sleeping form. He sweeps some of the wrappers from the table and heads into the kitchen.

There's a mess in there with his name on it. There's a mountain of dishes in the sink, dirty pots and pans, spots of tomato sauce on the stove, and leftover spaghetti and meatballs (Mary's favourite) sitting out. He gets as far as putting the leftovers away and wiping down the stove before he stops. There's a picture on the fridge from last Christmas. It's not like it's a new picture, it's been there for almost a year, but the sight of Laurel laughing, beautiful in her red dress, standing in front of the Christmas tree with Mary, hits harder than usual tonight.

God, he misses that girl.

Dean turns around, away from the picture and braces himself against the sink, staring down into the depths of the dirty dishes. It's November now. Tomorrow, he'll go to the grocery store and there will already be Christmas decorations and candy on display. It's the holiday season. The first one without her.

Thanksgiving might be okay to get through. Neither of their families celebrated it anyway. For Dean, it was one of the things that stopped when his mother died and his father decided revenge was more important than raising his kids. And according to Laurel, her mother thought it was wrong to celebrate such a heinous event, so they'd never had a big family dinner and instead she grew up with takeout and board games. Years ago, before Mary, he and Laurel had started their own tradition of going out of town for a couple of days every year, getting a nice hotel room, turning off their phones, and not leaving for the entire Thanksgiving weekend. Last year, they had taken Mary to an indoor waterpark for the first time ever and had spent their Thanksgiving evening in a hotel room, eating pizza. He thinks he can probably handle doing that alone this year. It's true that indoor waterparks are the worst places on earth but he can curb his annoyance for a few days for Mary.

It's Christmas that's going to be hell to get through.

When he lifts his head, he catches sight of his shadowy reflection in the window. He really didn't expect today to be as shitty as it was. He'd known it was going to be a rough day to get through because he's not a complete idiot, but he had mistakenly thought the party would be the most painful part. Which it was. It was painful. Having that birthday party without her was like a punch in the gut, but today has been something else entirely.

He can't stop thinking about the day Mary was born. Four years ago. 11:23 pm. She came into this world and they promised her they would never leave her. A lonely childhood had been one of Laurel's worst fears for her. They'd both had lonely childhoods. They knew how much those sucked. Now Mary is stuck with the loneliness and the ache of a dead mom, and he can't make that go away. And there's all these plans that they made. Things she wanted so badly to have, to be able to do, and now she doesn't get to do any of them.

Today was the first of a lot of birthdays she is going to miss and he can't change that. He can't give her back the birthdays, can't give Mary her mom. He tried. He would've burned the world down to bring her home if he could have, but he didn't. He failed. He failed miserably.

Most days, the pain is at a constant seven. Sometimes more like eight. Today has been a ten. Today has been a twenty.

There were a lot of little Black Canaries out on the streets tonight. He hadn't expected that either. He should have. Why wouldn't there be? Even last Halloween, there had been a few. Laurel had been over the moon when she saw them. No shit there would be more this year after everything that's happened. Still, he startled every time he opened the door and there was a tiny version of her looking up at him. Every time he passed a Mini Canary on the street, he did a double take.

Every now and then, there would be a parent who startled right back. He'd watch their eyes widen as they slowly realized that they were looking at Mr. Canary, his face made recognizable by the local news station during the events that Oliver jumpstarted at her funeral. Only one person had said anything to him - and it hadn't even been a parent. It had been his neighbor.

The people next door, the Denton family, have always been kooky. Without a doubt, they're oddballs. They have also always been kind and welcoming. Ida, the grandmother, brought over at least three casseroles after Laurel died. The two college aged kids, David and Heather, are always offering to rake leaves or clean out his gutters or babysit Mary. Sylvia and Jim, the husband and wife, used to try and get Dean and Laurel over for dinner at least twice a month. Now they keep trying to get him and Mary to come over every weekend. It's all very Leave It to Beaver. Dean isn't great at that. He's not good at trusting that no strings attached kindness. He's not great with kindness in general. He's just never entirely sure what to do with it.

Laurel had loved it. Which made sense. She is - was - the kindest person he'd ever known. Of course she would gravitate toward other good people. (Dean still has no idea what the hell she was doing wasting her time with him.) She was the one who insisted that they go over to the Denton place for dinner every now and then, she baked them cookies at Christmas, said good morning to them every day when she left for work, somehow managed to find a sweet way to let them down easy when it came to babysitting, and always made sure they stopped by for a few minutes on Halloween while they were sitting out on their lawn like they did every year.

This year, when Dean and Mary had stopped by the Denton place, both of them hesitant without Laurel acting as buffer between them and the overly nice people, Sylvia had caught sight of him looking at a little Black Canary. ''Dean,'' she had said, taking him aside. ''Are you okay?''

''I'm fine,'' he'd said, unconvincingly.

Sylvia looked out at the children running around. ''Do you think she would have been offended by all this?'' She'd asked, gesturing toward a group of children dressed like the Star City vigilantes.

''Are you kidding?'' He'd managed a laugh. ''She would've loved this.'' Way more than that statue.

''Oh,'' she'd seemed surprised, wringing her hands. ''I just worry it's insensitive.''

''Nah,'' he shook his head. ''She - She would've been honored.''

Sylvia smiled sadly and laid a hand on his arm. ''She was an amazing woman.''

He hadn't responded to that with: more than you know or she amazed me every day. All he'd said was, ''She was,'' and hadn't been able to get anything else out.

Dean abruptly turns away from the window, leaning back against the sink and trying not to look at the pictures on the fridge. Today has been one of the bad days. There's no getting around that. It would be nice to be able to have a drink. He rubs at his tired eyes and stifles a yawn. Eh, fuck it. The dishes can wait until tomorrow. He fills up the pots with warm water to leave them soaking overnight, tosses the dish towel on the table, and abandons the messy kitchen. He needs to get some sleep tonight. He barely got any last night, brain stuck on the mind numbingly depressing image of his daughter kissing her mother's gravestone.

He should probably get Thea into her actual bed too. She has a hard enough time sleeping as it is. Can't imagine that old couch is the best thing for her back, especially considering she's already mentioned having a sore back from carrying Mary around all the time. Not to mention, she's been exhausted lately. They both have.

Another unavoidable hardship of currently having such a crap life.

Without Laurel's income, which was where most of their money came from, he's been struggling lately. There are medical bills from April that he's still trying to pay off, the cost of the funeral, Mary's preschool, not to mention all the standard things like electricity and water and food and the mortgage. He had been counting on the life insurance money to at least help with the funeral and the medical bills but after Oliver told the world about her secret identity without consulting anyone beforehand, the insurance company decided not to pay a cent.

She got herself killed, was basically what the cold letter they sent him said. Here's some debt to go along with the choking grief.

There would have been even more bills to pay if Joanna hadn't staunchly refused his money over the past few months. All this time and she's still tied up in paperwork, fighting to save all of the cases that Laurel had worked on, trying to make sure the DA's office doesn't overturn any of the convictions like they keep threatening to do. She has made it her life's mission to protect Laurel's legacy and she's doing it all for free.

Meanwhile, Oliver and his band of misfits - the people Laurel considered her family - have created a half assed college fund for Mary, and Oliver wasted thousands of dollars on a statue that does nothing but erase Laurel from her own story and turn Black Canary into a martyr.

But then there's Thea...

Dean works full time now. He used to be a stay at home dad. Worked at a garage in the Glades usually during the holidays or whenever they needed extra money but mostly stayed home with Mary because that was their plan. He was going to quit entirely when they decided to try for another baby. That's what they both wanted. You don't always get what you want. He works full time now. There's no other option. He drops Mary off at preschool, stays long enough for her to stop crying because she hates it there, and goes into work. Occasionally he can take a late lunch to pick her up but most of the time, he comes home in the evening with grease stained hands and Mary's already tired and cranky and just wants dinner.

Thea, after announcing that she would no longer be putting on her leathers, wasted no time informing Dean that she was going to be Mary's nanny. Said she didn't want or need any money but she loved him and she loved Mary and she loved Laurel, so this was what she was going to do. So that's what she did and it's what she's still doing. She wakes up in the morning, works part time at the mayor's office as Chief of Staff (Dean's still not sure how you can have a part time Chief of Staff but it sounds like something that would happen in Star City), and then picks up Mary from preschool and spends the rest of the day as an unpaid nanny to a high needs little girl. Laurel would be proud of her. He knows he is.

That's where they are.

Dean has little to do with Team Arrow because he could not give less of a shit, other than Beatrice and Sara he's not overly fond of his in-laws (in his defense, they hate him way more than he hates them), most of Laurel's other friends steer clear of him because they don't know what to do with him now, but Thea is a bright spot in all of this crap. She's family. She deserves better, if he's being honest, but he's a selfish, selfish man and there's a part of him that hopes she never realizes that.

''Oh no,'' Thea's sleepy voice is mumbling when he walks back out into the darkened living room. She gropes around blindly for the remote control. ''Did I miss Beetlejuice?''

''Sorry, kiddo,'' he says, collapsing on the couch next to her. ''Holy crap.'' He pulls yet another handful of candy wrappers out from the couch cushions and throws them onto the table carelessly. ''How much candy did you actually eat?''

''I don't know,'' she says, ''a lot?'' She shrugs her shoulders. ''It's Halloween.''

''It's November 1st, technically.''

''By the time I fell asleep, I was like 90% sure I was going to puke,'' she deadpans. ''So that's how much candy I ate.'' She shakes her head and yawns. She scoots closer to him and shuffles some of the blanket over to him. ''You know, I once watched Laurel eat an entire bag of candy and it didn't even phase her. How did she do that?''

It forces a laugh out of him. ''She had a gift.''

''The gift of an iron stomach?''

''Exactly,'' he nods. ''I was awestruck the first time I witnessed her at an all you can eat brunch buffet.''

Thea snorts. ''I can imagine.''

''Except for when she was pregnant,'' he tacks on. ''She was sick for nine months when she was pregnant with Mary and she was so bitter about it. I remember the last few days, she had no appetite because she was so uncomfortable and she was so pissed she was missing out on the candy.''

''Really?''

''Gorging herself on half priced Halloween candy was her favourite tradition,'' he says lightly. ''The day after Mary was born, she made me go out and buy all the cheap candy I could get my hands on.''

''That sounds like Laurel,'' Thea muses, and he watches the smile on her face tilt from amused to sad. She shakes it off and pulls up Netflix. Instead of hauling her ass to bed, she searches through movies - presumably looking for Beetlejuice - and when she doesn't find it, her shoulders slump. ''I can't believe I missed Beetlejuice.''

''Really not that great of a movie, Thea.''

''How dare you,'' she says flatly. ''It's a classic.''

He throws her an odd look. ''What's with you and this movie?''

''It's tradition.''

''What tradition?''

She hesitates, staring at the TV for a minute and gnawing on her bottom lip before letting out a breath. ''I used to watch it with Ollie every year.'' She tries to smile, but it's bittersweet and doesn't quite make it to her tired eyes. ''I never got the trick or treating experience the way other kids did because my parents had this annual party that was really just an excuse for old rich people to schmooze and make business deals. Not the most exciting place for a kid. I usually spent the entire night restless and bored out of my skull in some elaborate costume my mom picked out. But every year, Ollie would sneak me out of the party and we'd lock ourselves in my room, eat a bunch of caramel popcorn balls, and watch Halloween movies. Beetlejuice was always the favourite. We'd wait all night for it to come on. Then when he got older and started partying more, I saw less and less of him, but he always made sure to watch Beetlejuice with me on Halloween. Sometimes Tommy was with us and I know I remember a few good years with Laurel, but mostly it was me and Ollie.'' She clears her throat, shifting uncomfortably. ''I loved those nights.''

Dean listens to her story in silence, and can't help but remember all of the holidays he spent with Sam, just the two of them. Different circumstances, he supposes, and he's sure that her memories must be happier than his. He still understands the way a sibling lives in the core of you, a piece of your heart walking around outside your body that you can't control. He looks at her carefully and thinks about the way she spent a lot of the evening looking at her phone and leaving her brother pointless voicemails where she'd say in this overly cheerful voice, ''Just checking in'' and then the smile would instantly vanish off her face the moment she hung up.

Oliver is not here right now. Oliver has not been here all night. Dean doesn't even think he's called. He narrows his eyes.

Fuck Oliver Queen, to be honest.

''So,'' he starts, ''the fact that I'm the one sitting here with you and not him means...?''

''Something came up,'' she says brusquely, pointedly lifting her chin and sticking her nose up in the air. ''He said we can watch it together tomorrow. He said that last year too,'' she mumbles. ''I wound up watching it with Laurel.''

He hums thoughtfully. It's late. It's after one in the morning and he has to wake up early to clean the kitchen - and apparently the living room too - before work. He should get some sleep. Except that this is Thea. She's been through too much bullshit and the brother she keeps adoring no matter what he does or doesn't do just keeps disappointing her, getting douchier and douchier with every passing day, burying himself in arrows while whoever the fuck Ollie used to be bleeds out of him. And you know what? Screw that. If Oliver's not interested in being Thea's family, Dean will gladly step in. This is his thing. This is what he does. He was built for this. ''Hey, have you ever seen How to Get Away With Murder?''

Thea snaps her attention to him, confused. ''Have I - '' her brows furrow '' - what?''

''It's a show on - ''

''No, I know what it is,'' she says. ''Just...'' She tilts her head to the side. ''You watch How to Get Away With Murder?''

''So you have seen it.''

''That's not what I - ''

''Laurel loved it,'' he admits. ''It's pulpy, ridiculous drama. She said it got her out of the real world for a little while. She liked the distraction.'' The corners of his lip tick up briefly. ''She got really invested in it. When there were inaccuracies with the law side of it, she'd be sitting there, shouting at the TV. She got sucked into the murder mysteries. And you know Laurel. She was a talker. She liked to analyze and have discussions about characters and motives. She liked to figure mysteries out.'' He clenches and unclenches his fist and thinks, rather suddenly, that this is the part where he'd normally go get a beer. Except he hasn't had a drink in over four years. He inhales and tries not to think about it. ''But I guess I'm not the kind of person to analyze a TV show.''

''I mean, I've listened to you rant about Star Trek for, like, half an hour before,'' she deadpans, ''but okay.''

''Star Trek is a classic,'' he responds, reflexively. ''But I see your point. Anyway.'' He stands and wanders over to the entertainment center and the bookshelf full of DVDs and Blu-Rays; an immense collection that Sara - who seems to forget she doesn't actually live here - is incredibly proud of. ''My point,'' he starts, ''is that if I could go back and listen to her ramble about the shows she liked or the books she read, I would do it in a heartbeat and I would be better.'' He starts picking through the DVD collection, searching for one in particular. ''I'd pay more attention. Join the conversation more instead of just throwing a ''you're right'' or ''I know, honey'' at her every now and then, you know?'' He looks over his shoulder briefly.

Thea is staring at him. The expression on her face can only be described as careful. Her lips are pinched and her eyes are narrowed slightly like she's waiting for him to break down. ''I really don't.''

''When someone you love cares about something, don't be a dick about it,'' he says. ''Doesn't matter how you feel about it.'' He plucks a plastic case from the collection and turns back around to face her. ''Your brother bailed. Luckily,'' he holds up the DVD and watches her eyes light up. ''You've still got me.''

''Oh my god!'' She springs to her feet, racing forward to snatch the movie from his hand. ''Beetlejuice! You own Beetlejuice?!''

''Sara owns Beetlejuice. I'm just holding it for her.''

She nods, staring down at the cover with this sweet, nostalgic smile on her face. ''That's what I used to say whenever Raisa would find my - '' She cuts herself off abruptly, clamping her mouth shut, and raises her head, looking sheepish. ''Uh, anyway.'' She brushes past him to get to the DVD player. ''Are you sure you're up for a late night viewing?''

Not really. ''Hey, I am if you are,'' he says, careful to keep his tone light and jovial. He flops back down on the couch and yawns into his hand.

He notices the look on her face, the relief that she has managed to put off sleep and the inevitable nightmares for a little while longer, but he doesn't comment on it. It would be too hypocritical. He's the one who leaves messes in the kitchen every night for the sole purpose of having something to do other than sleep after everyone has gone to bed and the house is dark and quiet and still and he's trying to avoid the nightmares - memories - of Laurel in that hospital bed, lifeless, eyes open and sightless, lips parted from when they tried to give her oxygen, the heavy, deafening sound of a flatline echoing in his ears.

Once she's put the movie in and settled back down on the couch, she turns to look at him and says, ''We're just gonna blow past your Trekkie tendencies then?''

''That's the plan, yes.''

''Gotcha.''

When he catches sight of her pulling a candy bar out of the pocket of her shirt like that is a completely normal thing to do, he reaches over to catch her hand before she can peel away the wrapping. ''Uh, maybe lay off the candy,'' he says, not unkindly. ''I don't want a Mr. Creosote situation happening in my living room. Just because I'm good at cleaning up vomit doesn't mean I want to.''

''Hmm,'' she weighs her options. ''You have a point there. I think I can already feel cavities forming.'' She tosses the candy bar back in the bowl. ''By the way, be a good dad and remind me to brush my teeth before I go to bed.''

''Please don't refer to me as your dad. I'm not that old.''

''Actually, if you'd had me when you were like sixteen-ish - ''

''All right, all right,'' he grumbles, folding his arms, ''just play the movie.''

She laughs but does as she's told. When the movie starts playing, she turns her focus to the movie. He keeps his eyes on her for a minute longer, watching the light of the television cast shadows on her face.

It's hard not to wonder, sometimes, how much of an influence Laurel had on Thea. What part of Thea's wisdom and goodness is hers and hers alone and which parts did she learn from Laurel? Dean can look at Mary and see Laurel in her so clearly. Anyone can look at Mary and see her mother. It's a given. But sometimes Thea will smile a certain way or say something that Laurel would have said and he'll wonder just how much of herself Laurel left behind in Thea, not because of blood but because of love. Someone like Laurel leaves a mark on the world, on the people who loved her. Nobody understands that better than him and the scars she left on his heart.

He looks away from her and tries to concentrate on the movie. He tries to pretend that he's paying attention, that he knows what's happening on the screen, and that he's not just sitting there, trying to picture Laurel in his head. It's starting to grate on him that the image of her smile that he carries around with him is starting to blur. He's losing her face the way he's lost his mother's. He'll never admit it out loud but he's terrified of what comes next. He's not that young anymore - he has never been more aware of that - but he's young enough that he's going to have to suffer for a long time before he sees her again. He's not prepared for that. He brushes his thumb over his wedding band. He watches the movie.

Thea lasts roughly twenty minutes before he notices her eyelids are starting to droop and another ten after that before her head drops onto his shoulder and she's out completely. In theory, if he gives it a few more minutes until she's dead asleep, he'd probably be able to pick her up and get her into her own bed without waking her. But, meh, this is good too.

He takes the remote from her limp hands, turns the volume down, and manages to grab the half empty candy bowl from the table without jostling her too much. He roots through the bowl that is mostly full of Almond Joys and Dots. Ugh. This is what happens when you let Sam buy the Halloween candy. He and Sara are the only people he's ever met who actually like Almond Joys and Dots. He's going to wind up sending Sara back to her spaceship or whatever the hell that thing is with a sack lunch full of fucking Dots. ''Ha, finally.'' He pulls a single Kit Kat from the bowl. Not exactly a Peanut Butter Cup or a Twix bar but it'll do in a pinch. He'd also prefer Good & Plenty's but nobody's ever willing to buy him any of those because apparently they're ''the worst, Dean'' and ''we can't subject kids to that 'cause it's mean.''

Just as he's fumbling with the wrapper, courageously trying not to move his left shoulder where Thea is sleeping, there is a knock on the door. Except it's not a knock. It's a bang. There is a noticeable difference between someone knocking on a door with a closed fist and someone banging on it. He tenses. Instinct tells him that a pounding on the door at almost two in the morning could be dangerous and his girls are sleeping in this house.

''Little late for trick or treaters,'' Thea mumbles groggily, lifting her head.

He drops the Kit Kat back into the bowl and puts the bowl on the table. ''Stay here,'' he orders shortly, rising to his feet. It's probably nothing. Maybe it's Oliver coming to watch the movie with his sister, or Cas has forgotten the time again. Probably nothing.

Dean opens the door -

- and the whole world changes.

It spins and shifts on its axis. There is a moment, just one little second, where he thinks he must be dead. His grief has finally killed him. This must be what happens after. This must be what coming home feels like. Or maybe this is a hallucination. His misery riddled brain trying to give him something to hold onto. That's been happening for months. But... She's not wearing her wedding dress. The flashes he gets of her are of her in her wedding dress or her Black Canary suit or that hospital gown. That's the cold comfort his brain conjures up.

This is something else. This woman standing here, half destroyed and trembling, is real. She's real. Underneath all of the dirt and the gore, the rat's nest of tangled hair, those eyes are still the same. Wild and frightened but still hers. He knows those eyes. He's waited for those eyes.

The terrified look in her eyes doesn't soften as she looks at him, staring at him like she doesn't recognize him. ''Did I,'' her voice is hoarse and barely audible. ''I think I lived here,'' she says, and looks up at him with this disturbingly, uncharacteristically despairing look on her face. ''Do you know? Can you help me?''

He can't answer that. He physically cannot answer that. He stares, unable to move or speak, barely able to breathe. It's a trick, a voice in the back of his head says. She's not real. It's not her.

The grief says, Who cares?

''Oh my god.'' Thea's shaky voice catches him off guard and he turns to face her, watching as her eyes fill with tears. ''Oh my god,'' she chokes out again, both hands flying to her mouth. She takes an unsteady step toward the woman in the doorway, hands falling limply to her sides. ''Laurel?''

.

.

.

September, 2012

''Okay, here you go. One hot dog from this specific bodega across from this specific park with sauerkraut, nacho cheese, and extra mustard.'' Dean hands the disgusting, oddly shriveled looking hot dog to Laurel, who accepts it and instantly peels away some of the foil wrapping to inspect it critically. ''Better?''

She looks up briefly. ''Well,'' she says, and at this point he thinks she might be purposefully trying to look grouchy. ''I'm still super uncomfortable because you just had to go and get me pregnant - ''

''I'm like 95% sure you were there too.''

'' - And I still feel sweaty and gross and I look like a whale - ''

''You don't look like a whale.''

'' - And there is a foot jammed into my ribs. But yes.'' Finally, a smile. ''This is better.''

His lips twitch and he rests his hands on his hips, watching her as she digs into the hot dog. All of the grumpiness he had felt earlier when she dragged him out of the comfort of his own bed because she just ''needed'' a hot dog and a milkshake has disappeared. All he's left with now is an exhausted fondness. Possibly some mild nausea. Even he doesn't have a strong enough stomach for that hot dog. ''Sooo,'' he drags out the word. ''Can we go home now?''

She looks up at him incredulously, which he thinks is an unfounded reaction to his question. ''What if I'm still hungry after I finish this?''

''Babe, it's three in the morning.''

''Dean,'' she says, and lowers the hot dog. It's far more terrifying than it should be. ''I kinda feel like I'm doing a lot for us right now, so if you could just humor me for a bit that would be great.'' She follows this declaration up with a glare that sends chills down his spine. Hands down scarier than Dick Roman and Lucifer combined.

He takes a seat on the musty blanket she pulled out of the trunk of the Impala and falls back, closing his eyes. He would much rather be at home and not in some shady looking park but she raises a valid point. She is, in fact, doing a lot for them right now. He'd probably do whatever she asked. Actually, he's not going to lie. There's a big chance he'd do anything she asked, pregnant or not.

''This is nice,'' she declares, after a minute.

He opens one eye to look at her. She's sitting comfortably on the blanket with her hot dog and her milkshake, hair disheveled, wearing sweatpants and one of his old, worn out t-shirts. She is also glowing, the starlight bouncing off of her makeup free, soft looking skin. She looks gorgeous. She always looks gorgeous, will always be the most beautiful woman in any room to him, but she looks happy right now. She's smiling and looking downright giddy about that nasty hot dog. It's a nice change.

It's not that she's been unhappy lately, but this pregnancy is definitely taking a toll on her both mentally and physically. She and the baby are healthy as can be, both her doctor and her midwife say so, but she is in constant physical discomfort and she's still got a few more weeks to go. She goes through her normal life, keeps working, goes to prenatal yoga twice a week, but if she's not working or at yoga or letting Tommy drag her out to lunch, she spends most of her time sleeping. She has also - and Dean will never ever ever say this out loud to anyone ever - gained a fair amount of weight. Her midwife isn't that concerned about it because Laurel's healthy, she was tiny before pregnancy, and she does make a conscious effort to work out and eat healthy - tonight's craving not withstanding - but he's seen what it's done to her self-confidence. It doesn't help that her father insists on greeting her with an excited and well meaning but super fucking blunt, ''Wow, look how big you're getting'' every Sunday night at dinner.

For someone who can normally shake off pain and physical discomfort, being sick and sore all the time is misery. For someone as stubborn, headstrong, and self-sufficient as she is, the loss of control and having to rely so heavily on others is humiliating. She complains about it all the time. There has been a lot of tears. Bottom line: Laurel is not someone who enjoys being pregnant. In fact, she hates it.

So it's a huge relief to see her smile like this again, so free and genuine. ''You think?'' He wipes a spot of mustard off the corner of her mouth with his thumb.

''Sure,'' she smiles. ''I mean, okay, I'll admit I'm worried this might be a waste of money considering there's a big chance it'll come back up later. But it's a nice night, the stars are out, I've got a milkshake, and I'm with you.''

''You're a cheesy romantic,'' he murmurs, tossing her a lopsided grin.

She scoffs. ''You're one to talk.''

He doesn't bother to argue. Dean is a lot of things he never thought he'd get the chance to be. He closes his eyes again, restful but not asleep, one hand resting on her warm thigh comfortably. She doesn't say anything for a few minutes and neither does he. In his half asleep state, he has this strange moment of clarity where he realizes, all at once, that this is what luck must feel like. The screwed up universe they live in has spent three decades trying to kill him. Somehow, he still ended up here, and this is a damn good place to be.

This is a privilege, he knows. To be able to exist in the same time and space as Dinah Laurel Lance. To live out your life next to her. This life he's living now is something he had given up on a long time ago. Somebody up there must have made a huge mistake for him to end up here, but fuck it. He ain't complaining.

''Hey,'' her soft voice breaks through the hush. He opens his eyes. ''You know those glow in the dark stars that people put on their kids' ceilings?''

He props himself up on his elbows and watches her crumple up the foil wrapper. ''Yeah.''

''Do you think when she gets here,'' she fixes her shirt over her expanding belly, ''we could put those on her ceiling?''

''I think that can be arranged,'' he says. She nods but doesn't say anything, chewing on her straw - a nervous habit of hers. He sits up fully and gently nudges her shoulder with his. ''Laur.''

''Have I ever told you about the astronomy phase I went through in 1995?''

''No. Have I ever told you about the 1995 Lollapalooza? Because that shit was insane.''

She gives him a flat look. ''I get it. You're older than me.''

He holds his hands up. ''Sorry. Continue.''

''When I was nine,'' she begins, and then almost immediately pauses, tilting her head to the side. ''Wait, weren't you like fifteen in 1995?''

He shrugs.

She eyes him strangely and then moves on. ''When I was nine,'' she begins again, putting the milkshake down. ''I went on a class trip to the local observatory.'' She maneuvers herself between his legs, resting her back against him. It's not the most comfortable position for him because there's something poking him in the back and the tree he has to lean against is sticky with sap but - you know. She's growing a human so he'd probably stand on his head if she asked him to. ''I thought it was amazing,'' she tells him. ''So I decided I wanted to become an astronomer.''

''I can see that,'' he muses.

''Really?'' She wrinkles her nose. ''I can't. It was a phase. Lasted a few months and then I moved on.'' She shrugs. ''At the time, I loved it. I got a telescope for Christmas, I dragged my dad out of the house at night to look at the stars, and my grandmother taught me all about the constellations.''

''Drake or Lance?''

''Drake, of course.''

Right. Stupid question. ''I guess that explains why Bea calls you Star, huh?''

''I can't believe I haven't told you this before,'' she says, casually lacing their fingers together. ''During the height of my phase, she came into my room one day with this grocery bag full of those stars and we spent hours putting them all over my ceiling in the shape of the constellations.'' That definitely sounds like something Beatrice Drake would do. ''I know that they're just cheap plastic things,'' she says softly, ''but I loved those stars. It wasn't even just about the astronomy. I...'' She trails off, tensing in his arms slightly. ''My parents got married and had kids young. My mom was still at college, my dad was at the academy, and we struggled a lot with money. I love them,'' she says, firmly. ''I do. But there were a lot of years where they weren't really around because they were both working their asses off to be able to afford food and to get their careers off the ground. There were a lot of nights where nobody tucked me in at night. I was a lonely kid until I met Tommy and Oliver.''

Dean doesn't know what to say to make that better, so he doesn't say a word. He knows about her childhood. It's not something she enjoys talking about but she does talk about it. She's shared bits and pieces over the years. He knows she and Sara used to share a bed in a crappy apartment in the Glades until she was five when they moved in with her grandparents. He knows that the six years she spent living with her grandparents were what solidified her close relationship with Beatrice and Richard. But she has a tendency to only share the good memories and just gloss over the bad ones or assure him that ''oh, it wasn't really that bad.'' That's never shocked him. She's a lot like him, and there's a lot of bad things about his childhood that he hasn't shared with her.

''But when I looked at those plastic stars,'' she says, ''I was never alone. There was a whole galaxy with me. Grandma gave me that. I guess I always imagined that if I ever had a daughter, I'd give her the stars too.'' She tilts her head back to look at him. ''Does that sound stupid?''

''No.'' He swallows thickly. ''No, it's not - It doesn't sound stupid. We're going to give her the stars,'' he tells her. ''We're going to give her the whole damn world.''

She sits up abruptly, with some difficulty, moving away from him to the other side of the blanket. ''Dean.'' She sinks her teeth into her lower lip. ''Do you...think we made the right choice here?'' She asks, gesturing toward her stomach. ''I just, um,'' she frowns deeply. ''Do you think we'll be good at this?''

Yet another question he can't answer.

Laurel is amazing with kids. She is all kindness and warmth, full of natural maternal instincts and this incredible love that just streams out of her. And hey - he likes kids too. Kids are great. Way better than adults. Sometimes he thinks he knows how to talk to kids better than he knows how to talk to adults. These are things he knows. He also knows that he and Laurel are two living, breathing disasters made of sharp edges, volatile tempers, and broken pieces. A long time ago, the world tore them apart in different but equally permanent ways and just because they managed to somehow stagger and crawl their way to each other doesn't mean they're better. They both work too much, drink too much, their financial situation is precarious at best, and there is a fucked up amount of evil in the world that a kid shouldn't have to see.

But it's too late to change their minds now. They've got a little girl cooking away, ready to meet them in a few weeks, and they were the ones who made the decision to bring her here. They're the ones who want her. Whether it was the right choice or not, it's happening. ''I think all we can do is our best,'' he tells her. ''Sound familiar?''

''Sounds like a line from a Hallmark movie,'' she grumbles.

''Honey,'' he smirks, ''you said that.''

She throws her arms up in the air. ''Well, I don't know what I'm talking about half the time! I'm way too optimistic!''

Dean laughs, even though he probably shouldn't. He curls his hand around the back of her neck and leans in close to her so he can rest his forehead against hers. ''Don't you dare change that,'' he whispers.

She exhales and brings her hands up to his face. She doesn't seem that keen on moving. He gives her a minute, listening to her breathe, and then she draws away from him. She grabs his hand and places it on her stomach so he can feel the baby kick. Which, by the way, is still weird. Amazing, but weird. He can't imagine what it's like for Laurel. There's a lot of things regarding this situation that he can't imagine what it's like for her. He's terrified, sure, but he can get away from it occasionally. His mind can wander. He can go out and get groceries or pick up dinner and forget, for a second, the paralyzing fear. She can never be removed from this. Her emotions are 24/7. No wonder she's freaking out.

''We'll figure this out,'' he tries, ''okay? We always do.''

She nods again, sniffling and rubbing at her eyes. ''I just don't want her to be lonely,'' she admits. ''We were so lonely, Dean. I don't want her to feel that.''

''She won't.'' It's not a promise he can make. It's not a promise anyone can make. He's going to make it anyway. ''I can't - I can't tell you that we'll be the world's greatest parents or that we'll know what to do as soon as she gets here but we're not... We won't leave her. She's going to have all these school plays and bake sales and birthday parties and we're going to be there for all of it.''

She smiles. It's still not as bright as he'd like it to be and he can still see the worry in her eyes but it's a start. It's all he can do. ''She's going to have great birthdays,'' she says, firmly, like she's decided on something important.

''Listen, Laur,'' he starts. ''We may be messes but whatever we need to do for her, we'll do it, won't we? We'll give her everything we can give her.''

''I know.'' She looks down and a curtain of hair blocks her face from view. ''We'll give her everything we can give her,'' she echoes. ''We'll do what we can. I just hope it'll be enough. I hope she'll be happy. I really,'' she licks her lips. ''I really want to be here for her for the birthday parties and the school plays. I want to be here for all of it.''

''And I promise you will be,'' he says, leaning in to kiss her temple. ''We both will. Because we can be. I'm a civilian now. You're a lawyer. We're...'' He pauses, trying to choke out the word. ''We're normal.'' It feels strange to say that out loud. It feels even stranger to mean it. ''Whatever else comes, at least we can give her that, right?''

''We are normal, aren't we?'' She whispers, and he watches her smile brighten. She laughs and raises her head, pushing her hair out of her face. ''Isn't that strange?''

.

.

.

November, 2016

This is not normal.

His dead wife is currently dripping blood all over his hardwood floors, breathing and alive and streaked with dirt. Believe it or not, this is not the weirdest thing that has ever happened to Dean. It's just been a long time since he's been faced with something like this.

It is her. That's clear to him even before she passes all the tests. It's in her eyes. Even the vacant, traumatized look can't take her away.

No one can be Dinah Laurel Lance but Dinah Laurel Lance.

She doesn't say a word as he runs through all of the tests, all of the things that he is supposed to do - holy water, silver, Borax, everything he can think of. She just stands there, looking around the house, eyes lingering on the pictures like she's searching for answers. Thea sobs and hugs her, clinging to her, afraid to let go, and Laurel lets her but she doesn't move. She doesn't hug her back and aside from a split second cloud of confusion as if she doesn't quite remember what a hug looks like, her expression never changes. She blinks slowly and listens to the girl she left behind sob and thank God and she is still completely emotionless and still.

It's eerie.

She doesn't have any answers for them either. She keeps repeating the same choppy, slurred sentences over and over again.

Thea asks her what happened to her hands.

Laurel looks at her bloody hands, clenches them into fists, and holds them to her chest protectively like she's afraid they're going to take her hands from her. ''I don't know.''

Thea asks her what she remembers.

Laurel says, ''I don't know. I woke up.''

Thea asks her if she's in pain.

Laurel's voice catches - the first bit of real emotion they've gotten out of her - as she says, ''I don't know. Can I - Can I have some water?''

While Thea scurries off to get a glass of water, Dean asks her, quietly and very carefully, without touching her, ''Do you know who I am?''

She looks at him for a long time. ''You...'' She swallows and tries to lick her lips but her mouth is too dry. A little sip of holy water didn't help anything and her voice still sounds scratchy and hoarse. Months of decaying doesn't exactly give you a lot of time to use your voice. ''Dean,'' she says, and his breath leaves him in this dizzying, relieved whoosh. There is no real recognition in her eyes when she says his name but she digs it out of her dry throat with confidence, and that will have to be enough.

He says her name once, just once, because it's all he can get out. ''Laurel.'' It is the first time in seven months that he has surfaced for breath.

''Here you go.'' Thea approaches Laurel cautiously to hand her the glass of water. Laurel doesn't move to take it. She looks at the water. She looks at her shaking, wrecked hands. She looks...helpless.

Instantly, at the sight of the anxiety skittering across her face, he somehow manages to pull himself together and step into her space. ''It's okay,'' he offers her what he hopes is an encouraging smile and leans over to take the glass from Thea, whispering for her to go get a straw. ''Let's sit down, sweetheart.'' Gingerly, he leads her over to the couch and helps her collapse onto the cushions. She looks relieved to be off of her bare feet, exhaling sharply. He doesn't speak as he takes a seat next to her, brushes hair away from her neck, and helps her gulp down some of the water, holding the glass to her lips.

''Thank you,'' she whispers.

He wipes a drop of water off of her chin with his thumb and nods because he doesn't trust himself to speak.

She looks at him and he watches her eyes rake over him, taking in his face, his body, those eyes piercing through him. It's a familiar feeling. He hasn't felt it in such a long time. She catches sight of his wedding ring and then looks up and meets his eyes. ''I loved you,'' she says, abruptly. It isn't a question.

He swallows. ''You did.''

''Did you love me?''

Dean has to fight against the rock in his throat to get out the words, ''Every second.''

She frowns, which isn't the reaction he had been hoping for, and tilts her head to the side. Her mouth works silently for a brief moment before she whispers, somewhat raggedly, ''Do you still?'' This completely demolished, terrified look passes across her face. ''Have I been gone too long?''

Before he can answer, before he can tell her that she could have been gone for twenty years and he would still love her, Thea comes rushing back into the room. Her eyes are noticeably red and watery. She pops the straw into the glass and steps back. She doesn't take her eyes off of Laurel. ''Um,'' she clears her throat and wipes at her eyes with her sleeves. ''Maybe - Maybe we should get you cleaned up,'' she suggests. ''You're hurt.''

Laurel, who had been watching Thea carefully, swiftly cuts her eyes to Dean. He tries to smile for her. ''That sounds like a good idea,'' he says quietly. ''We'll get you in a nice, hot shower and we'll take care of your hands. You'll feel better. Sound okay?''

She winds her arms around herself, hesitant, and then she nods. ''Okay.''

.

.

.

Dean doesn't call Sam. He doesn't call Cas. He doesn't even call Quentin or Sara, who, by now, is probably wide awake and doing her insomnia crunches. Because that's a thing she does. It's reminiscent of when Sara was dead. Dean would wake up in the middle of the night and find a note from Laurel telling him she was at Ted's gym, or with Nyssa, or he'd find her in the living room, doing yoga.

The Lance sisters are never at peace when one of them is missing from the world. You learn that very quickly when you step into their world. He can understand that better than most people.

Still, he doesn't call Sara.

In his defense, he's out of it right now. He can't make his brain work the way he knows it should. In the back of his head, where there is logic and reason, he knows that this is a fucked up situation to be in. He knows that this could be a trick. Maybe it's not her. Or worse, maybe it is her but she's...wrong. What if this amnesia isn't shock induced? What if she just doesn't remember her life? What if she doesn't have a soul? She could be dangerous. Whether he wants to admit that or not, it's a frustratingly real possibility and Mary is sleeping right down the hall. Logic and reason dictate a call for back up.

Logic and reason have no place in the half crazed heart of a man who has spent the past half a year stumbling through a miserable life. For seven months, half of him was gone and he was stuck here, splintering apart at the seams. And now she's right here. Her skin is cold but warming under his hands and her pulse is strong and steady, her vacant eyes boring into him as he helps her out of her ruined dress.

He is the one who guides Laurel into the bathroom while Thea runs off to get some clean towels and Laurel's fluffy purple robe that she loved so much. Other than flinching slightly when he turns on the harshly bright lights, Laurel doesn't say a word. When he turns the light on and he gets his first good look at her, his stomach turns. She doesn't look like her in this light. She looks so small and deflated. Her pale skin is smudged with dirt and blood, her hair is a tangled mess, and she is hurt bad. He realizes this pretty quickly. It's not just her hands or her bare feet. It's all of her. There is blood staining her dress, cuts and scratches littering her exposed skin. He's sure there's more under her clothes. None of them look deep enough to need stitches but they'll need to be cleaned and they must hurt. Her hands look awful. They're torn up and bleeding, bruised and raw, and they look like they hurt like hell.

He has this weird out of body experience for half a minute where he looks at her and, briefly, all he can think is that she's going to be so pissed about her hair when she's back to herself. When she was... Before... She never had a hair out of place. She would hate this rat's nest thing she's got going on.

There is no sign that she can feel any of these injuries. It's jarring. He knows she's in shock and most likely she genuinely doesn't feel the pain yet but it's disconcerting to watch her drip blood on the white tile and not react whatsoever. Her compliance is also startling. She just stands there, staring blankly while he takes off that beloved key necklace and undresses her. He keeps asking her, before every touch, if this is okay, if she's uncomfortable, if she'd rather have Thea help her, but she never verbally responds. She nods or shakes her head but she never actually uses her voice. The lack of clear consent makes his skin crawl.

It's strange. They are married, after all. It's not like he's never seen her naked or vulnerable. It's not even like he's never seen her in shock before. They have been through a lot of shit together. After the earthquake, after Tommy, when they finally made it home, she was so out of it - both because of the shock and because of the Xanax - that she couldn't shower by herself for two days. They've been through the stomach flu, food poisoning, alcohol withdrawal, emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs, the bad reaction he had to the flu shot a few years ago, her pregnancy, parenthood. He's watched her go through three days of prodromal labor, eighteen hours of active labor, and two hours of pushing like a fucking champ. There is no mystery left in their relationship.

But this - this is something different. This is uncharted territory.

''Oh!'' Thea's startled yelp breaks through the silence of the room and Dean turns his head just long enough to catch the stricken look on her face at the sight of Laurel standing there in her underwear, covered in wounds. She tears her eyes away quickly. ''I got the towels.'' She clutches the towels and robe to her chest. ''I - I warmed them up in the dryer.''

''Thea,'' he sighs. ''Maybe you should wait outside.''

''What?'' She shakes her head. ''No. I'm - I want to help.''

He doesn't bother arguing. He looks back at Laurel. She's still standing there, staring down at her ruined knuckles, flexing her hands. It's not often Dean thinks about September 18th. He tries hard not to think about the stifling panic he felt when he woke up in a box underground, the scent of death filling his nostrils, following after him for days, even after he clawed his way out, even after he scrubbed and scrubbed. It's hard not to remember that now.

Nobody talks much as they set about cleaning Laurel up. Thea looks pale and frightened but she's determined and focused. Laurel jumps when they turn on the shower, but she does step into the water. That is where the easiness ends. She panics under the hot spray and winds up curled in a ball on the floor, shaking and gasping, and Dean is suddenly forced to remember how heart poundingly horrifyingly traumatizing it is to come back from the dead right where they left you. It's a trauma that stays.

You can't shower because the water raining down on you reminds you too much of the dirt pouring into your eyes and your mouth and your nose. You sleep with the lights on because darkness takes you back to waking up to the nothingness of your grave. You can't even close your eyes without being right back there in the dirt, swallowing dirt and crawling through maggots and earthworms, using every ounce of strength to push through the earth that wants nothing more than to keep you. And nobody understands. Nobody gets your trauma, your pain, because this doesn't happen. People don't get up out of their graves. Once you're in there, you're in there. There's a reason why 'pulling a Buffy' isn't a common phrase.

He never wanted this for Laurel. He never wanted her to know what this is like.

Dean pulls her out of the water as soon as he realizes what's happening. She is shaking and gasping, choking on dirt that isn't there. He winds up soaked and trying to avoid her flailing fists because she tries to fight him when he grabs her, perhaps a little too quickly and harshly. He manages to awkwardly lift her up and out while Thea practically dives to turn off the water. When she sinks to the ground, making this frightening gasping noise, he goes with her, wrapping her up in a towel. He kneels in front of her and tries to figure out if he should be touching her right now. After Tommy died, Laurel had panic attacks for like four months and she always wanted him to hold her hand. She said it anchored her. He can't do that right now. Her hands are too damaged to hold. He doesn't even know if she'd want him to.

''Laurel,'' he tries. ''Sweetheart, I need you to listen to my voice. I know it's hard but try to hear me. You're not back under. You got yourself out. Okay? You got yourself out. You're safe. You're home, baby.''

Still trembling, she lifts her eyes to him. She looks around the bathroom with her wild eyes and then blinks. ''I-I'm sorry.''

''Don't be sorry,'' Thea says. ''You have nothing to be sorry for.''

''She's right,'' Dean says. ''Honey, you're doing such a good job right now. You're a badass.''

Her eyes fill with tears. She looks down at her hands once more, studying them intently, turning them over to stare at her palms. ''I-I pulled myself out.'' It comes out in this weak, shaky slur, like she's struggling just to force the words out. ''I pulled myself out of my own grave.''

''You - '' He presses his lips together. He tries not to think too much about it. ''I know. Sucks, doesn't it?'' He risks a glance at Thea. She's a little green looking and he thinks she might be regretting staying, but she just silently starts to draw a bath. Laurel startles when the water turns on and then squeezes her eyes shut. She takes in a few deep breaths that end in whimpers, and it just breaks his heart. Even the all consuming relief he feels at being able to hold her and feel her pulse can't quite take away the pain of seeing her like this.

''It hurts,'' she chokes out.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out she's not talking about her hands. ''It won't always,'' he lies.

The bath goes better than the shower. She flinches when hot water and soap gets into some of the deeper cuts and they have to change the bathwater twice because of all of the grime, but she doesn't freak out. Dean doesn't end up being a lot of help because she clings to his hand with both of hers, smearing blood on him, chipped and broken nails digging into his skin as the look on her face flickers between frightened and pained. It actually reminds him of a very specific part of her labor with Mary. She was in the thick of it, in the bathtub in their old apartment, moaning and crying and begging for someone to help her, and he couldn't help her. All he could do was tell her how amazing and strong she was. It hadn't felt like enough. He couldn't take her pain away then and he can't take it away now. She does seem more receptive to his encouraging words, however.

When she was laboring, her response to his encouraging, You're doing great, babe had been a vitriolic, Fuck off, I know!

Tonight, when she cries out in pain when Thea presses a little too hard on a particularly jagged and tender cut on her shoulder and he instructs her to breathe through it and tells her, just like he did then, ''You're doing great, babe,'' she just squeezes her eyes shut and listens to him. It's unnerving to see her so submissive, lacking her trademark fire and sass.

Thea is the one who does most of the actual work. She sponges off dirt, cleans wounds, shampoos and conditions her hair. It might be better this way. Thea has softer, gentler hands and she knows how to work most of the tangles out of Laurel's thick hair without hurting her too much. Dean can't even give Mary a proper braid, no matter how many YouTube tutorials he watches.

Once Laurel is clean, they help her out of the bathtub and dry her off while she, again, mostly just stands there. Discreetly, Dean checks for a handprint or a mark, any sign to let him know how this is happening, how she's here. There is no handprint and all of the scars and tattoos that made her Laurel are still there. The scar between her thumb and forefinger from when she had tried to make him a big birthday dinner during their second year together, the silver strip of flesh on her knee from when she was four and tried to fly, various scars from her Black Canary days that she always thought of as mission reports, even the scars from the arrow and the surgery on that last day.

She's still got her anti possession tattoo on her hip, the stars on her foot that matches the ones Sara had, and the tattoo of the caged bird that had been a drunken and impulsive mistake while she was at her worst and he hadn't been there to stop her. She still has the blackbirds on her hand that are supposed to represent them and Mary ''soaring together forever.'' Even that angel wing tattoo in between her shoulder blades that she had gotten long before him with the same Latin inscription he had etched into her tombstone.

She flies with her own wings.

She loved that.

It's all her. It's all just...Laurel.

It doesn't hit him until he's carefully drying her off and his eyes catch the angel wings, the freckles on her back, the stretch marks from when she carried their daughter, all of these things that make her who she is, the parts of her that he never thought he'd see. She's really here. He steps away from her to let Thea wrap her up in her robe. She seems to like the robe. She pulls it around her a little tighter, holds it up close to her face so she can press her cheek against the soft, warm fabric, and she even manages a quick, weak smile. He can't decide if the thing choking him from the inside of his throat is a laugh or a sob. He swallows it down and turns to grab the first aid kit from under the sink.

It's silent as Dean works on her hands while Thea combs out even more tangles. There are so many things that he wants to say. He wants to tell her how much he missed her, how much he loves her and needs her, and how sorry he is for failing her when it really counted. He wants to tell her about all of the hearts she took with her when she left because they just couldn't keep beating without her here. He wants to kiss her. But she seems grateful for the silence and the minimal touching, so he doesn't tell her any of that. He just concentrates on her hands.

With all of the blood and the dirt washed away, they don't look as bad as they did. They're bad but he had been worried about having to give her stitches and possible nerve damage. The skin on her knuckles is cut up but the bleeding is sluggish and once he cleans them up, puts some Neosporin on and wraps them up, they look better. Her nails, on the other hand, are torn away and they're still bleeding a lot. He does what he can for her, trimming away some of the sharp pieces of nails, using Q-tips to wash away the dirt and blood under her nails, and covering her fingers with band aids. It's an awkward looking contraption and it's going to be even harder for her to use her hands in the coming days, especially when the fog of shock clears and she feels the full force of the pain, but when he looks up at her, she's looking down at her hands and she looks relieved to be rid of all the gore.

''Better?'' He asks.

She manages a jerky nod and brings her hands up to her chest again.

''I think I'm done too.'' Thea puts the comb on the sink and steps into her line of vision. ''Look at you,'' she smiles. ''Good as new.'' Bit of an overstatement, but okay. ''Do you feel okay?''

Laurel blinks a few times. ''I guess,'' she says slowly. ''Everything's...'' She drops her eyes, frowning. ''It's all blurry.''

Dean and Thea exchange a brief worried look before he realizes - ''Oh, that's - you're not wearing your glasses or your contacts. Thea, can you go grab her glasses? They're on top of the dresser. And maybe grab her something to wear. Something loose.''

''Right,'' Thea gives a short, determined nod. Nevertheless, she hesitates to leave the room. ''On it.''

''Dean,'' Laurel whispers, once they're alone. ''How...'' Her eyes glimmer and she won't look him in the eye. ''How long?'' She sniffles. ''How long was I gone?''

He looks down at his wedding ring and thinks of all the time he's spent without her. He can tell her how many months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, even seconds. He's tried so hard to ignore that clock inside of him but it won't let him. Her absence was a pain that demanded to be felt. ''Seven months.''

She crumples instantly and he watches this familiar look of panic and devastation cross her face. It's a look he has only seen once before.

Despite what everyone else thinks, despite the soft smile she plastered on her face and the calm demeanor she projected to comfort everyone around her, she was not calm on that last night in the hospital. She put on a happy face for the people around her because she didn't want them to be as scared as she was. That was just the kind of thing Laurel did. It was who she was. Is. From the moment she woke up to the moment she left, she was terrified. She was groggy and in a lot of pain and, looking back on it now, he thinks she might have known on some level what was going to happen.

Before she was allowed visitors, when it was just him and she was just waking up, she was a mess. She was incoherent and scared, crying out for him and Mary and her dad and trying to get out of bed, only stopping when they threatened to get the restraints. She was puking and she kept trying to scratch at her skin because she thought something was crawling on her - both very common side effects of the anesthesia and nothing to be worried about, according to the doctors, but horrifying to see - and she had no idea what was going on. He remembers looking into her panic stricken eyes and thinking to himself, We just have to make it through the night. Tomorrow will be better.

It wasn't.

''I don't think I'm her,'' she confesses in a small, wobbly voice. ''The woman you loved. I don't think I'm her.''

He can't say that thought hasn't crossed his mind. ''Of course you are.'' What else can he say?

''I don't feel right.''

''You're in shock.''

''I don't remember what happened.'' She's breathing rapidly now, the panic in her eyes quickly growing into hysteria. ''Dean, I don't remember what happened to me.''

''Okay.'' He puts a hand on her knee cautiously. She doesn't flinch away. ''That's okay. What's the last thing you do remember?''

''I...'' She draws in a deep breath. ''I woke up. I pulled myself out.''

''Right. That's good. Do you remember anything before that?''

She clears her throat. ''I - Well...'' She frowns deeply, brows furrowing. She's struggling. She's trying so hard to remember something, anything. He can see that. He opens his mouth to tell her to take a break, but she stands abruptly, startling him into clamping his mouth shut. She moves past him to pace the length of the bathroom. ''I'm - '' She stops suddenly, eyes widening, both hands falling to her stomach. ''I'm pregnant.''

Dean's entire body goes rigid and cold.

''Am I pregnant?''

He licks his lips slowly. He doesn't know how to answer that question right now. He can barely remember to breathe. He had been hoping to avoid this for as long as possible. He packs up the first aid kit and balances it on the sink before rising to his feet. ''Laurel, I'm not sure we should - ''

''Wait,'' she says. ''Wait, no.'' She lets out a breath and rakes a hand through her wet hair. ''I was pregnant.''

He closes his eyes and tries not to let his relief show too much.

''I had - Mary.'' Her lips quirk into an almost smile. ''Mary,'' she says their daughter's name like she's talking about the most amazing thing to ever exist. Understandable. ''I remembered her. I remembered her,'' her voice hitches, ''before everything.'' A few tears slip down her cheeks and she blinks furiously. ''Is she okay?''

''She's okay,'' he assures her, taking a step in her direction. He does his best to smile for her. ''She's growing like a weed.'' When she has no reaction to him moving closer, he takes a few more steps into her space. A few hours ago, he had thought this was an impossibility. Just another thing life had stolen. The simple ability to be able to stand next to his very much alive wife. He knows he should be wary of this, he knows there are consequences, but here they are. Together. It's hard not to feel like it's a gift. ''It was her birthday today,'' he blurts out. ''Or, I guess technically yesterday. She's four now. She's so beautiful, Laurel. She looks just like you. She started preschool in September. It's the one you picked out. She's still shy, but she's getting better. And she's so kind. You remember that, right? She's the sweetest kid. That's you.'' He takes her wrists in his hands as carefully as possible, not to restrain her but to feel her pulse. ''That's all you.''

''I... I missed her birthday,'' she whispers raggedly.

''But you're here now.'' He looks down at her hands. ''I tell her about you,'' he murmurs. ''So she won't forget.'' He raises his head. ''All the time. We've missed you. You have no idea.'' It may not be the best thing to be telling her right now because she's standing here fragile and crying and the last thing he wants to do is make her feel guilty about circumstances out of her control. But the words just keep coming, like something inside of him has burst wide open. ''I didn't know what I was doing,'' he admits. ''I didn't know how to raise Mary or comfort Thea or just...do anything. It's been - We had what? Almost seven years together? You're a part of me, and then you were just gone. It was like losing a limb. I forgot...''

I forgot who I was without you, he doesn't say. He can't tell her shit like that. Not right now. He can't put that on her shoulders when she's hurt and in shock and still might be a trick. He's had this hallucination before. For months.

The first time was after the funeral. There were all these people in his house with their condolences and their casseroles and he was still pissed off about what Oliver had done and he couldn't breathe through the suffocation of his brand new life without Laurel in it, so he escaped. He ducked into his bedroom and there she was, sitting at her vanity, putting on lipstick. She turned her head to him with a laugh, red lips shining in the light, and then he blinked and she was gone.

It kept happening. He'd have these flashes of her. Vivid memories maybe, or just the insanity of grief. One quiet Sunday morning, he woke up and she was standing at the foot of the bed in her hospital gown, drawn and sickly, cut above her right eyebrow, lips blue, skin colorless.

If he was in the city at night, he'd look up and Black Canary would be on a rooftop. She'd be standing there, legs apart, superhero determination clear in her body language, silhouetted by the moonlight with her golden hair billowing behind her like a halo. The first time he saw her, he went straight to that ridiculous lair of Oliver's and demanded to know who was wearing her suit.

They had all looked at him strangely, exchanging worried glances before John said, very carefully, ''Nobody's wearing her suit, Dean. You took it. Don't you remember?''

Even his arch nemesis the Green Idiot had looked at him with this grossly pitiable expression and asked, very carefully, ''Are you...okay?'' Of course he had ruined that moment of almost compassion by narrowing his eyes, putting his hands on his hips and asking, ''How much have you had to drink tonight?''

Not a drop in four years, asshole, but thanks for the faux concern.

During the two unbearable weeks at the bunker in Kansas, she never left. He made coffee one morning, turned around, and she was standing there in her wedding dress. ''How do I look?'' She had asked, and his coffee mug shattered on the ground. ''Do you remember this? Our last uncomplicated moment.''

She wasn't a ghost. He had checked. Multiple times. She was just...a figment. She has followed him for months, one step behind him, that little fallen angel on his shoulder, simply because he hadn't been ready to live without her. He will never be ready to live without her.

He's had dreams about this too. Every night, when he finally falls into his fitful four hours, if he's not having nightmares, he's having dreams of her. He's in Iron Heights with her, fighting by her side, where he should have been, taking the arrow for her to make sure she lived. He's in the hospital watching the doctors save her life and bring her back to him like they should have. He's in the kitchen, making dinner, and there's a knock on the door. When he opens it, she's standing on the other side, gorgeous and smiling and alive, wearing her favourite dress and her favourite gray suede jacket.

''I'm so sorry I'm late,'' she always says. ''I got so lost. Did you miss me?''

Every night he says, ''Every day, pretty bird,'' and he lets her in.

Laurel comes home every night. And then he wakes up alone.

So, you know, yeah. He's a little overly cautious right now. He's not convinced.

Laurel looks at him without saying a word, tears still making tracks down her cheeks. She manages a fairly breakable looking smile and then brings a hand to his face. He melts instantly, leaning into her touch, eyelids fluttering shut. It's such a Laurel thing to do. The loving touch of her hand. She used to do it all the time. He's missed it. Her body is home and he's been homeless for so long.

''I'm sorry I left,'' she whispers, and he has to open his eyes and snap out of it.

''It's not your fault.''

She draws her hand back, letting it fall to her side. Her voice wobbles as she admits, quietly, ''I didn't want to go.''

''I know.''

She looks down at her left hand, wiggling her bandaged fingers. ''Where are my rings? My-My wedding rings. Did I lose them?''

''Oh, uh, no.'' He pulls the chain out from under his shirt. Her engagement ring and wedding ring clatter and jingle together. ''You weren't...'' He fingers the rings delicately before lifting the chain over his head. ''We took them off of you,'' he says. ''For... You know.''

Burial, he thinks. He still can't say the word.

''I wanted to keep them in case Mary wanted them someday,'' he says. Because her hands are so wrecked, he carefully places the chain around her neck instead.

She exhales, relieved, and places a hand over her heart, on top of the rings. ''Thank you.''

''Always.''

''I...'' She wrinkles her nose. ''I was buried?''

He chews on his bottom lip nervously. ''You were.''

''Not cremated?''

''No.''

''Oh.''

He grimaces. He is well aware that he hadn't been a perfect husband while she was alive but it's the failures after her death that stick with him. He hadn't been able to protect her from Oliver outing her as Black Canary at her funeral, he hadn't been able to protect her reputation in the fallout, and he hadn't been able to give her the one thing she had specifically asked for. She updated her will frequently, especially after becoming the Black Canary. One of the things that never changed was her desire to be cremated. She hadn't wanted to be buried. The idea horrified her. She didn't want them to take her blood and replace it with chemicals that might harm the environment. She'd left a note for Dean in her will about it, actually.

I'm a Winchester, it said. You have to salt and burn me. I know you don't want to but please, Dean. Please do this for me. I don't trust myself not to stay and become something I'm not. I can't be your ghost. Please don't let me rot.

He hadn't been able to salt and burn her. He had scoffed at the note with burning eyes and thought, You should've known you were always going to be my ghost. He made the arrangements for her to be cremated. Even started looking into getting a permit to spread her ashes in Big Sur. But when her parents found out, they turned on him. Accused him of throwing her away like trash. Cremation is not, apparently, something that Lances do. He'd pretty much been shut out of the funeral arrangements after that. Thea had managed to get them to at least bury her with her necklace and give him her rings but they hadn't given her the funeral she wanted. They took her to a funeral home, they had her embalmed, they put her in the ground, and he hadn't been able to protect her from any of it.

Hell, they hadn't even given her the gravestone she wanted. The original one they put up was pitiful. Reduced her identity entirely to the Canary in her and erased everything else about her. He had it replaced after a few weeks behind Dinah and Quentin's backs.

The silence between them is uncomfortable and awkward, a radical change from the way they were, and he has no idea what to do with his hands. He wants to hug her, but she still doesn't seem that receptive to hugging right now.

No one ever prepares you for this kind of situation. No one ever tells you how to exist in the aftermath of a crushing loss. No one tells you how you're supposed to live without her here. No one tells you what to do when she comes home either.

''I know it was what you wanted,'' he finally says. ''But your parents - ''

''It's okay,'' she cuts him off and shrugs, unconcerned. ''I guess it's a good thing I was buried instead of cremated, right? Because here I am.''

''Right,'' he says, heart banging against his ribcage. ''Here you are.''

.

.

.

In the bedroom, Dean leans against the doorframe and watches as Laurel drifts around the room aimlessly, like a living ghost.

She does look better. They've made sure to keep the lights off to make her more comfortable and she's finally stopped shivering. She's got her glasses on, which seems to have helped with the blurriness, although the only thing that will really help is time for her body to readjust. She's wearing one of her old maternity nightgowns that won't aggravate her wounds and her hair is dirt and tangle free. She still doesn't look like herself.

She wanders over to her vanity while Dean and Thea keep wary eyes on her. She doesn't say anything but her eyes scan the pictures tucked into the mirror. She sits down and stares at her reflection for a solid minute before Thea breaks the silence. ''Hey, are you hungry?''

Laurel doesn't react.

''We could order pizza,'' Thea suggests with a grin. ''Or, oh, Indian food! You love Indian food.''

''Thea.'' Dean pushes off the doorframe.

''Or we don't have to order out,'' Thea interjects. ''We could just make sandwiches. Or soup. Raisa always used to make me soup when I was sick. Not that you're sick. I just, um - How about a drink? I could make you some tea.'' She gives up, letting out a rattled sigh.

Laurel glances at Thea, looking torn somewhere between confused and worried. She looks back at the pictures, plucking one from it's spot on the mirror. ''Have you called my dad?''

''We can call whoever you want,'' Dean tells her.

She puts the picture back. ''You should call my dad,'' she says, decisively. ''He should know. And Sara. Sam, Tommy, and Cas too. I don't want them to think I'm dead.''

There is a prolonged moment of silence after Tommy's name slips from her lips.

''Tommy?'' Thea's voice sounds strangled. ''You want us to call Tommy?''

Laurel stands, wincing slightly. ''If that's okay, yeah.''

''Um, Laurel...''

''We'll call,'' Dean cuts in, shooting Thea a warning look. ''We'll call everyone and tell them to get over here as soon as possible. In the meantime, how about you get some rest?''

All at once, her entire demeanor changes. The quiet, calmness shifts into panic and she grabs at his arm tightly, shaking her head. ''No. No, I'm not. I'm not tired.''

''Laurel,'' Thea steps forward. ''Hey, sweetie, it's okay.''

''I don't want to go to sleep,'' she pleads. ''What if I don't wake up?''

''You don't have to sleep.'' Dean automatically moves to stroke her hair before he even realizes what he's doing. ''You can just lie down and rest.''

''We won't leave you if you don't want us to.''

It doesn't help. Laurel is still shaking her head adamantly. ''I can't. I can't. It's too much.'' She closes her eyes but immediately snaps them open again. ''It's too much like the - like my...'' Like her casket. ''I don't want to wake up and be in there again.''

''Oh, Laurel.'' Thea does not have the same reservations Dean does about hugging because she wraps her arms around Laurel without a second thought.

The idea that pops into his head next may not be the best idea he's ever had. He's going to do it anyway.

.

.

.

''Daddy?'' Mary's sleepy mumble is hoarse and confused but she still somehow manages one of those sunshine smiles when she pries open her sleep encrusted eyes and sees him there. ''Oh, hi, Daddy.''

''Hi, honeybee,'' he chuckles. ''I've got one more birthday present for you. How does that sound?''

She doesn't say anything but she doesn't seem overly cranky when he lifts her into his arms. By the time they're in the hallway, she's already rubbing at her eyes and looking around for her present. He puts her down just outside the master bedroom and takes her hand before pushing open the door and leading her inside. Mary pokes her head around the door, craning her neck to try and see her present.

For the past four years, Mary has been a constant source of wonder to him. She amazes him every day the same way her mother did - and hopefully will again. He knows he's biased but in his opinion, his daughter is the greatest kid on the entire planet. She has this awe inspiring wisdom, an incredible capacity for kindness and compassion, the same light and grace that her mother has, and even though she is hands down the shyest kid he's ever been around, she is also the bravest.

Even so, these past two hundred and eight days have been rough. No kid should ever have to endure the sudden and horrific loss of their mother, regardless of the bravery in their little bones and the strength in their beating heart. Mary has. Mary has cried and screamed and begged for her mom. She still calls out for Laurel whenever her balance issues have her tripping over her own feet, resulting in scraped knees and tears. But she still smiles. She still laughs and loves, gives the best hugs in the world, and she still keeps him going even when he doesn't want to. Especially when he doesn't want to.

The best moment of Dean's life was the moment Mary was born. The first time he laid eyes on her, he was gone. The look on Mary's face when she steps into the bedroom and sees her mom for the first time in over half a year is a close second.

There is a split second after Laurel turned around to face the little girl where Mary can't seem to work out what's happening. Her breaths start coming in these short pants like she can't quite make her mouth work as quickly as she wants it to, can't quite get the words out, but then her entire face just lights up and she lets out this shriek of joy. ''Mommy!''

This is the moment Laurel comes home.

The color returns to her cheeks and this look of utter adoration seeps into her eyes. Suddenly, as if an internal switch has been flipped on, Dinah Laurel Lance is standing there, spark and all. ''Mary,'' she breathes out, bringing her hands to her mouth.

It's all the invitation Mary needs. She throws her stuffed shark at Dean, races forward, and launches herself at her mom. Laurel catches her easily, sweeping her up off the ground and into the safety of her arms; a place the little girl hasn't been for way too long. Laurel starts sobbing instantly, crying into Mary's hair, looking so relieved and so happy and so alive. Mary curls her arms around Laurel's neck and doesn't let go.

Dean draws Thea away from the two, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her to him gently. She lets him, sending him a watery smile as she reaches up to squeeze his hand. ''That was a good idea,'' she says, letting out a shaky laugh.

He can't even speak.

Mary pulls away from the hug to look at Laurel. She sloppily brushes the tears off of her mother's cheeks and wipes them on her footie pajamas before slowly bringing both hands to Laurel's face. For a minute, all she does is look at her. And then she laughs. She looks so happy. He hasn't seen her that happy in so long. Mary is still giggling, little hands pressed to Laurel's cheeks. ''Hi, Mommy,'' she greets, and the lopsided world they've been trapped in rights itself.

Laurel chokes out a laugh. ''Hello, little bird.''

Dean knows that you'd have to be a naive fool to believe in miracles in this world. That's always been his stance on the issue. He's a pessimist. Call it a character flaw or a weakness or whatever. The world has never given him a reason to believe in miracles without consequences. Right now, he is ready and willing to be a fool.

Mary deserves good things. Laurel deserves good things. Thea deserves good things. This whole damn family deserves at least one thing. One simple, uncomplicated, happy, good thing.

Please, God, let this be a good thing.

.

.

.

end part one


AN: So, this fic is not only the product of my general bitterness over Certain Events but also multiple prompts I've gotten over on tumblr. Many thanks to the anons who sent in these prompts:

''Ok now I need some Dean/Laurel babyfic after seeing the Wolves at the Door trailer.''

''Wolves at the door has given me all the pregnant laurel feelsm can I humbly request some pregnant!laurel/dean fluff?''

''All I want from season five is for Laurel to pull a Dean Winchester/Buffy Summers and crawl out of her grave. Preferably with a BC scream!''

''Can I request a Dean/Laurel fic that isn't a fix-it fic? I love stories where she doesn't die but I'm also an angstwhore. Arrow didn't do right by her in life, they didn't do right by her in death and they didn't capture any kind of proper grief because they didnt care enough to try. Your angst fics are by far my favorite and I feel like you could do our grief justice and use Dean as the vehicle for that grief. Maybe a story where he tries to bring her back can't and has to live with the loss?''

''Do you think you could write another fic where Dean and Laurel have a little girl like in your Love is a River one? I just think the idea of Dean with a daughter is adorable!''