Dean dreamed. Or maybe not…
He caught the scent of roses, felt the heat of a summer afternoon on his shoulders, saw a perfect blue sky all around, and when he turned, a slender, black-haired woman stood on the grass behind him.
She didn't speak, but took a step closer to him.
The warm breeze suddenly whipped cold, lashing at his face, and the sky became darkly ominous, storm clouds threatening. A crushing sense of sorrow nearly sent him reeling, and as he searched Bridget's face, he shivered at the haunted expression in those eyes.
"Bridget," he said. "What's wrong?"
Not answering him, she simply turned and started to walk away, and he caught up with her in two long strides. Or at least, he should have. She continued to float one or two paces ahead of him, never letting him reach her side. Until she stopped. He came up next to her, but she didn't acknowledge his presence, her attention directed on something else entirely. As Dean looked around him, he finally recognized that they stood on the once-extensive lawn of the Thornton family mansion, as it had appeared in Bridget's time. The elegant gardens, however, were stark and neglected, tangled and overgrown, or half-burned and ragged.
Following her gaze, he saw the gazebo, standing forlorn at one end of the garden, its railing splintered in places, the roof sagging. The latticework trellises held nothing but bare, twisted vines, and somehow he knew they had once been climbing roses. Something of her disquiet communicated itself to him; he felt distinctly uneasy here. Not…threatened. But something else, something sad and grieving, spoke to him, and with a sickening jolt, he knew.
"That's where you are, isn't it?" he stated softly. "Oh, Jesus…"
She turned to him then, her blue eyes near wild with an old, old pain, and the tears slowly tracked down her cheeks. As he watched, she began to fade into the grey sky, colorless, a wraith.
"I said goodbye to him there," she whispered at last, her voice a sigh on the wind. "I waited, after the letter. I waited all summer, into the fall, and when I truly realized he wasn't coming, I…"
"Bridget, oh god…" He put out a hand to her, but she was mist, thinning, growing fainter, and his hand passed through hers even as she reached out to meet him.
"Find me," she said, imploring, despite her evident fear. "Save yourself. Before it's too late. I never meant to hurt you… I'm sorry…" The last word faded into nothingness. And she was gone.
"Bridget!" he cried, even as the world around him faded as well.
He woke, shouting, her name on his lips. Sweating, breathing in deep gasps, he pushed himself up on shaking arms, utterly convinced that the bed was caught in a tornado.
"Dean?" The sleepy mumble emerged from a swath of blankets. "Hey, Dean, you all right?" With a bit of fumbling, the little bedside light came on to reveal a tousled and yawning Sam, who was already rolling out of bed.
"Hey," Dean managed, blinking. "Yeah."
"Uh huh." Sam sat beside him, one hand against Dean's forehead. "You're still warm."
"Cut it out," he rasped, batting the hand away.
"Bad dream?" Sam studied him.
Dean could tell he didn't like what he saw.
"Uhhhh… Something like that." Dream. Or not. Dean pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes, noticing that his headache was back, the one that felt like an ice pick was jammed in an eye socket, only now someone was wiggling it up and down. When he opened his eyes, the room had at least stopped imitating a fairground ride, and he met Sam's worried stare. "I know…where she is," he said softly, unable to hide the sadness. "She…showed me." He had to look away, then.
"For real? You're sure?" Sam asked, just as quietly, but with a note of rising hope and obvious relief.
Dean could only nod.
"Dean…" Sam sighed. "I'm…sorry. I know this is hard for you. But we gotta do it. She can't stay here any longer. She's not meant to stay here. And I'm not gonna let her have you, so I'll do whatever it takes."
"I know, Sam. I know." He looked up again, to find Sam still worriedly watching him. "She's afraid, even now," he went on, seeing only her pale visage, hearing those last words again. "But she's doing it for me. 'Save yourself.' That's what she said, Sam."
Sam was quiet for a long moment, and Dean watched the flicker of changing emotions on his face. "Well," he said, at last, with a slight shrug, "maybe…I was wrong about her, in a way, if she's willing to help you now. If she's telling the truth. Not that I like her any better for it," he added, cutting Dean off before he could protest. "She's the one who put you in this position in the first place."
"Coulda been something a whole hell of a lot worse," Dean said again, wearily.
"Yeah, I guess." Sam stood up, hesitating. "How do you feel?" he asked. "Are you okay to do this?"
"Now?" Dean threw a glance at the window. "It's still dark." He squinted a little blearily at his watch. "It's, what, something like four a.m."
"You say that as if you've never dug up a grave in the middle of the night. C'mon." He offered Dean a hand. "Besides, four a.m. is practically morning."
"Maybe for you," Dean grumbled. But, he admitted, Sam had a point. Cemeteries, graveyards, tombs, crypts… Yeah, middle of the night. Just how their luck seemed to run. Either that, or their timing just really sucked.
Sam still had his hand out. Grasping it, Dean got to his feet, only to find his legs immediately folding beneath him to send him in the general direction of the floor. Even as he muttered a curse, he felt Sam snag him with an arm around his waist. The room didn't spin, it only swayed slightly, but apparently that was enough to make him drop his forehead into Sam's shoulder – and why the hell was his little brother so much taller? – and wait for the dizziness to subside.
"Maybe you should stay here," Sam said from above his head. "I can do this by myself, Dean."
"No," he ground out. "Gimme a minute."
"How about the gang, then? Ian's got plenty of muscle – he'd be good at digging. Or Lissa? Being the archeologist-in-training – bet she'd love it."
"Nah, Sammy, let's leave those guys out of it, okay? Just us." He straightened and pushed away. Or tried to. Sam still had a firm hold on him.
"How about I dig and you watch? Pretend you're in charge, you know, giving orders, bossing me around…"
"Pretend?" The dizziness, for the most part, had eased; the rest of it, well, it wasn't like he'd never felt worse and still had to suck it up and do the job. So what else was new. "Let go, I'm all right."
"Yeah, like Ginny said, I'd believe that on a stack of Bibles."
"Okay, Sam, yeah," Dean said, anger flaring suddenly. He backed away enough to give Sam a poke in the chest. "Dead man walkin' here. I feel like shit, all right? I hurt goddamn everywhere, my goddamn hair hurts, the ice pick stuck in my skull has grown to the size of a fucking railroad spike, and if I take one step I'm probably gonna turn my stomach inside out with the dry heaves 'cause I've eaten what, a piece of toast, in the last day and a half. And I swear, Sammy, if you drop me unconscious on one more goddamn couch, in whatever goddamn house we're in, I'm gonna kick your skinny college boy ass all the way back to fucking Stanford. Got that? Happy now? Is that what you wanted to hear?" The diatribe left him panting, and he was back to leaning against Sam.
After a shell-shocked pause, Sam began, "So, um…I guess you're all right, then, huh?"
Dean couldn't help it. First his mouth twitched, his shoulders shook, and then he started to laugh, the sound muffled against Sam's shirt. Startled, Sam joined in, and they clung to each other for a couple of hysterical, exhausted minutes until Dean was gasping.
"Hell, yeah, I'm just fine," he said, finally regaining his breath. He raised his head and carefully stepped away from Sam's hands to try standing on his own. When that worked, mostly, he took another step.
"Seriously, Dean," Sam said, one hand raised in Dean's direction, "stay here."
"Can't," he said, all hilarity vanished. "Gotta show you…where to dig."
"Draw me a map."
Dean shook his head. "Sorry, Sam. Gotta see this through, you know? I'm not leaving her now…not after everything that's happened."
"Yeah," Sam agreed, reluctantly, dropping his hand. "Can't say I'm surprised."
That decided, it was a mere matter of a few minutes to throw on some clothes, and since Dean hadn't (unfortunately) been kidding about the railroad spike, he located the bottle of ibuprofen and tossed down probably more than he should have. Sam hefted the ubiquitous duffel bag in one hand and herded Dean down the stairs in the dark with the other. They quietly made their way to the Impala, parked out front, and inspected the contents of the trunk under the feeble glow of a streetlight.
Dean was lightheaded and breathing hard by then. He leaned in to grab a shovel, and when he straightened, he realized he'd be in serious trouble just carrying the damn thing, much less start digging with it.
Sam reached out a hand and gave him a rather pointed look.
"In case you've forgotten, amidst all those other ailments, you've still got two cracked ribs. You aren't digging up anything. Hand over the shovel."
"I can at least carry it," he grumbled, refusing to admit defeat. He leaned heavily against the car as Sam scooped out a big flashlight and closed the trunk.
At that same instant, a brighter light spilled out of the front door for an instant, and a shadow fell across the sidewalk.
"God," Dean muttered to himself, catching a glimpse of the familiar petite figure in jeans and overly large sweatshirt before the door shut again. "Does that woman ever sleep?"
"And just what the hell are you boys up to now?" Ginny's voice was soft but not in the mood for nonsense.
"Uh, hi, Ginny," Sam said, awkwardly hanging onto both bag and flashlight, while at the same time struggling to wrest the shovel away from Dean.
"Uh, hi, Sam," she shot back, before nailing Dean with a sharp look. "Dean, what's going on? Why are you vertical? More to the point, why are you vertical – and I use the word loosely – at four-something in the morning with a shovel in your hands?"
At that point Sam got the shovel back because Dean found he needed both hands to help stay upright by balancing against the Impala. He shot a frustrated glare at Sam as his brother gave him an "I told you so" look in return. Dean ignored him and turned back to Ginny.
"Aw, come on, Ginny," he drawled, drawling only because it was hard to put the words together any faster. "You're usually quicker on the uptake than that."
The sharp look narrowed. "You know where she is."
He slanted his glance away from her. "Yeah, I do," he said, trying to mask the pain and weariness that simple admission evoked.
"And you're doing it in the dead of night…because?"
"'Cause Sam likes to do it in the dark," he deadpanned, jumping in before Sam could even open his mouth about the real reason.
He could practically hear the eyeroll, but at least Sam stayed quiet. Ginny gave a snort of laughter.
"You're welcome to join us," Dean said. "But just you. Don't go rousing the troops, okay?" At her doubtful expression, he added, quieter, "Please."
She nodded slowly. "All right. What can I do to help?"
Ginny actually wound up carrying two metal lanterns she went back to the house for, and then demanded a shovel of her own. Sam took both shovels and the flashlight. From the look on Sam's face, Dean could tell that Sam thought he should be carrying Dean instead, but Dean just growled at him and snatched the bag from Sam when Sam tried to say something about it. But Sam stayed close, and he felt Ginny's attention on him as well. He stumbled a bit, and hissed a curse at his own weakness.
The flashlight beam bobbled his way. "Dean?"
"I'm okay, Sam," he said. "Quit worryin'."
"Yeah," Sam muttered, "and maybe I should stop breathing while I'm at it."
Dean sighed. At least the damn house was only across the damn street.
"So, Dean…" Ginny sounded, for the first time since meeting her, oddly hesitant. "How, um, that is…"
They had passed through the wrought iron gate now, and were on the sidewalk. Dean led them off the pavement and onto the grass to head for the yard in the back of the house. Sam followed, a step behind, and Dean could feel Sam's stare at the back of his head.
"It's…hardly scientific," he finally answered her, reaching up with one hand to wipe the sweat off his forehead.
"Has any of this been scientific?"
"Well, now that you mention it…"
"It's okay, sweetie," she said. "You don't have to explain. I understand instincts and gut feelings. Sometimes you just have to ignore the science and go with the emotions."
He was spared from having to make a further reply when they drew closer to the gazebo. Set a bit behind the house within a neatly trimmed hedge and framed on four sides by trellises that would in the summer be flourishing with vines and flowers, it was both like and unlike the structure from Bridget's memory. It was no longer half in ruins, but Dean felt that same nauseating jolt hit him with an almost physical force when he saw it this time again in the real world.
He must've stopped, and there was Sam, with a steadying hand on his shoulder.
"Dean, you okay?"
"Up ahead," he said hoarsely, blinking at the sweat that burned his eyes. At least he thought it was sweat. "She's…there." And he staggered forward, the bag dragging at his arm, suddenly too heavy.
Oh, god, she's there. Right there, all this time, and no one knew. No one cared. She died and they put her in the ground with nothing to remember her by. The family canary would've gotten more. They just left her. They wiped her out of their lives as though she never existed, as though she meant nothing.
Though he had only seen her spirit gesture at the gazebo, saw her eyes focused with remembered dread upon it, he knew where she lay. He could feel…something…tugging at his senses, those gut feelings Ginny referred to. With unerring instinct he led them through the gate set in the hedge and straight to a patch of ground on the south side of the little octagonal-shaped summerhouse. He sank to his knees in the dewy grass and pointed to a spot near the foundation, between two of the trellises that stretched to the roof, and traced out the dimensions.
"You're sure." Sam was looking at him much too closely. "You know, we barely found any sign of a presence out here, in any of these buildings."
"I know, Sam, but that's where she is."
"Well," Sam said quietly, not questioning him further. "Let's get this over with."
Sam took the bag, insisted on Dean getting up off the grass and sitting down on the gazebo steps, and then took off his jacket to toss it over Dean's shoulders, telling him to shut up when Dean started to object. Ginny and Sam set up the lights, and with another swift glance in his direction, started digging in the soft earth. Dean shivered with cold – or fever; by this time he hardly knew – and watched.
Pull yourself together, Dean. It's just another job, right? Another job, another grave to dig up.
He'd always been good at lying, even to himself.
Sam and Ginny both worked quickly, with care, few words passing between them. He knew Sam was driven by a completely different motivation than Ginny, and he felt the glances Sam kept throwing his way even while digging. And Dean had to smile, just a bit, at seeing Ginny in action in the field.
All too soon, it seemed, Ginny's shovel scraped on something other than dirt, and she paused, sharing a look with Sam. Dean stood up, Sam's jacket slid off to lie unheeded on the ground, and he took a couple of steps closer. As he watched with growing trepidation, Ginny tossed the shovel up out of the hole and crouched down to gently sift through the dirt with her fingers. Sam stood by, leaning on his shovel, panting in the cool night air, and let her take over.
"Not very deep," Sam muttered, wiping off some sweat with his forearm.
"Got something," Ginny said. She continued to brush away clumps of clinging earth, moving it away from an ever-increasing area. "Feels like fabric."
"What can I do?"
"Move some of the dirt from here, Sam, okay?"
They worked together, intent and silent. Dean turned away, fighting a wave of vertigo, and he had to put a hand on the railing of the gazebo to steady his suddenly shaking legs.
"Dean?" Ginny called softly to him after several minutes. "We…have her."
He did not want to turn back and look. He did not want to see her…like that. But he forced his frozen muscles to respond, to move, and joined them to stand at the grave. His eyes skittered everywhere except on what was in front of him. He was dimly aware of Ginny taking his arm, of Sam beside him, and before he could change his mind, he looked into the hole they had dug. And saw Bridget.
It was nothing new. A small body, somewhat curled up, a few tatters of decayed cloth still clinging to the yellowed bones and dried scraps of flesh.
Dean spun away, staggered a few steps and fell to his knees, those dry heaves he'd mentioned earlier to Sam hitting him with a vengeance. With one arm braced on the ground and the other around his stomach, his body convulsed over and over, and tears squeezed out from under his eyelids to slide down his cheeks. There was nothing but bile burning in his throat; he coughed and spat and tried to breathe. A pair of arms had wrapped him up from behind, and he had expected Sam, but it was Ginny who held him tight around the shoulders, slightly rocking him. As the painful spasms finally ceased, he took several deep breaths, head hanging, and managed to somewhat sit up, with Ginny still holding on. Sam was there, too, he realized, squatting down next to him, with a hand on the back of Dean's neck.
"It's all right, it's all right," Ginny kept crooning.
He shook his head. "Jesus Christ, they dumped her in a hole," he said, his voice hoarse and raw. "They dumped her in a hole, covered her up, and never looked back. How could they do something like that to another human being? Those goddamned bastards."
"Dean, sweetie, I don't think so," Ginny said quietly into his ear. "I think she was buried with love, I really do. From what little I could see, she was wrapped in a blanket, and possibly some personal possessions were with her. It was a difficult time, Dean, it was war all around, chaos and death, and maybe whoever buried her just couldn't do any more than this for her."
He had a sudden flash of faces, of names. Isaac, he thought. Abigail, and Penny. They took care of her, when no one else bothered. The slaves buried her. And kept the family away. His breathing gradually evened out, his trembling limbs stilled. Ginny loosened her arms but didn't move.
"I'm okay," he said, not fooling anyone for a second.
But she patted him on the back, stood up, and said, "I know, sweetie."
Silent all this time, Sam now spoke up. "We need to finish this."
"I hate to think of all the laws we're breaking," Ginny sighed. "Finding a body on a site…" She added speculatively, "You boys have to do it this way all the time, don't you? Quick, down and dirty."
"Yeah, it's not like we ever have time to get a court order, Ginny," Sam said. "Right now, Dean doesn't have time for that."
Dean let the conversation all wash over him. Bridget was young, lively, and pretty, and she had a dimple in one cheek when she smiled, and her eyes were blue… How could that sad pile of bones be her? Oh, god. The girl who had laughed and lightly flirted with him was a hundred and forty years dead… He swallowed another sob.
"Dean?" Sam still had his hand on Dean's neck, and he gave Dean a light squeeze. "Dean."
"Yeah, Sammy, I heard. Can…can you do it?" he whispered. "Please. I…I just…"
"I got it, Dean, you stay put, okay? Hang in there, it's almost over."
He nodded, too exhausted to answer. Sam gave him another squeeze and got to his feet. Dean shut his eyes and let himself sag. He thought briefly about getting up, walking away, but he had no strength left.
Ginny and Sam conferred in quiet tones off to one side. Dean heard the soft scattering of salt as it rained down on the bones; he could smell the sharp scent of kerosene in the night air, and he waited for the whoosh of the fire as it burst into life to consume the remains. Suddenly Sam's voice rose in a panicked yell.
Dean opened his eyes to see Sam flinging himself down on the grass in front of him and grabbing his shoulders.
"Oh, shit, Dean!" he gasped, wide-eyed and pale as ivory in the lantern light. "What's gonna happen to you? That connection thing – if I burn her, I'll hurt you, won't I? Dammit!"
"Do it, Sammy," he said, reaching up to grasp one of Sam's hands. "Do it. Got no choice. If it…does hurt, well, at least it'll be fast, right?" He tried a grin. "Rather go fast."
Sam's face was pain, and disbelief, and denial. He shook his head. "I can't, oh god, I can't."
"Have to, Sammy."
"Boys? You…might want to take a look. Just over there." Ginny pointed back to the gazebo, her hand shaking with a fine tremor.
Dean craned his head, and saw her, a faint shimmer in the darkness, standing inside the summerhouse. A woman in white, he thought, with a sense of blurring déjà vu. A woman in a white summer dress, and she held a straw hat in one hand. Head tilted slightly, her gaze focused on Dean.
"Dean," said Sam softly, warningly.
"It's all right. Just make yourself useful and help me up, okay?"
Sam swore under his breath, but hauled Dean to his feet and helped him over to the steps.
"That's far enough, Sam," Dean said, when Sam showed no sign of letting go.
"Be careful," Sam told him, giving him an admonishing glare. He glared at Bridget, too, Dean noticed.
The glare didn't diminish, but at least he backed off. Dean climbed the two steps up into the gazebo, and he hung onto the railing as his balance began to waver.
She was hardly there at all – he could plainly see the wall of the gazebo behind her – but he could still make out her features, and she was smiling at him, joyful, sad, or both, and she stretched out a hand to him.
"Bridget, what's wrong? Why are you here, outside?" He met her fingers with his own, felt the chill as his hand passed through hers. But she spoke, and he heard her voice, faint, but clear. In his head…
"You found me, Dean. I had to come…to thank you. You gave me the courage to do this, to come out here again." He saw her gaze shift over his shoulder, and then she looked at him again. "Tell Sam I'm sorry. He loves you so much, and I hurt you. I hope he can forgive me one day."
Dean blushed a bit at her words, and he hoped like hell Sam couldn't hear this. "You were very brave to leave the house," he said softly. "You…know what we have to do, right? To send you back?"
Her eyes flickered, her form faded, wavered a little. "I know," she whispered. "I know it will hurt you as well, because of what I've done to you, but I will bear it for you as long as I can. I hope…I hope it will be quick." She put a finger to his lips – not that the gesture was anything more than a cold feeling on his mouth. But it shut him up when he would've said something. "I will always love my Alex, more than life. But I will always have room in my heart for you as well, Dean Winchester, for what you have done for me. Do not grieve for me after I am gone; this is how it should be." Her fingers caressed his cheek. "Goodbye, my dear. Do what must be done, before it is too late for you."
"It's all right. I'm ready to go, Dean. Please."
He nodded, and not taking his eyes from her, called quietly to Sam. "Do it, Sam. No more arguing."
"Dammit, Dean," Sam muttered.
But Dean heard the scrape of a match, and as the flames rushed up out of the grave, he saw Bridget, the ghostly one, disappear beneath engulfing fire, and cried out in wordless horror at the sight, transfixed at the memory of another burning woman. But in the next breath his world exploded in searing agony, the flames licked at his body, and his screams of pain were abruptly cut off as darkness mercifully claimed him.
Sam thought his own heart had stopped after hearing Dean cry out. As soon as he had tossed the match he'd spun around, heard him scream, and then again, in terrible pain. Arms shielding his face, Dean appeared to be writhing in torment. The pale ghost, wreathed in fire, made Sam think wildly of nothing so much as a martyr at the stake, rapturously embracing her death, and in a another heartbeat she vanished, gone in a dazzling shower of light bursting skyward. Dean began a slow topple at the same instant.
With a loud shout and a couple of leaps worthy of a superhero, Sam swooped up the steps and reached Dean's side just as he fell. Sam's knees hit the floor with jarring, bone-bruising force, but he caught Dean in a sprawling heap, which was at least enough to keep him from cracking his head.
Adrenaline pumping, mind and body numb from just too damn much, at that point Sam tuned out everything else and simply sat there with Dean against his chest, across his legs. Breathing deep, he threaded one hand through Dean's hair, and thought, It's over, it has to be over. Please let it be over, please be all right. "Dean," he said, his voice cracking. And then Dean stirred and opened his eyes, glassy, dazed, but awake and whispering Sam's name before those eyes slid shut again. Sam then just held onto him as the fire burned, the smoke spiraling lazily up into the dark. Dean lay limply on Sam's legs, his head turned away from the blaze, his pale face shuttered and still.
But the sky grew lighter, and the fire died as the body was at last reduced to fragments of bone and ash. Sam got creakily to his feet, lifting Dean, and carefully held his brother against him. Ginny had come quietly to stand beside them, and somehow, they all managed to struggle wearily back to the house across the street. They left everything lay where it had fallen, simply too tired to deal with it, but Ginny carried a small box with her.
Aside from a very quiet "I'm okay, Sam," Dean didn't say a word. But Sam got him upstairs and bundled into bed without an argument, and that in itself was worrying. He's just tired, Sam kept telling himself fervently, wanting desperately to believe it. He needs to rest, he needs time to take it all in. He'll be fine.
The day proved to be long, tiring, and painful.
Sam did little but watch over Dean and fret and wait for his brother to wake up, but he was grateful when Ginny came up at one point much later to fill him in on what she and the others had been up to. She and Lissa had gone back and carefully retrieved what they could of Bridget's remains from the grave, cleaning up and putting the site back in order, like the professionals they were. Amazingly, Ginny had somehow managed to arrange a service in the cemetery that the Thorntons had populated for nearly two hundred years. He didn't know what kind of strings she pulled, maybe the Thornton name was enough, coupled with the power of Emma's lawyers, but she found a priest to give a brief memorial that very evening at the family mausoleum.
Dean woke in the late afternoon from a broken sleep, still quiet, but Sam was afraid that if he said the wrong thing, Dean would shatter into about a million pieces. Sam had to bite his lip every time the words Are you all right? wanted to emerge – Dean obviously wasn't, and he didn't want to see Dean use strength he didn't have in trying to lie to Sam about it. It would have to be enough just to be near and ready to catch Dean when he eventually and inevitably collapsed.
The service was short, basic, and without any frills. Ginny spoke a few words of what they had learned about Bridget, and the others simply paid their respects and then departed to leave Dean and Sam alone. A silent Dean had been holding a bouquet of roses that he'd insisted on buying, and he now gently placed them next to the urn where it rested on a plinth. He turned to Sam with the keys to the Impala in his hand. Sam couldn't make out his expression at all, and sunglasses hid Dean's eyes.
"Here. I'll call you later." With that, he jammed his hands in his pockets and walked away.
Sam jingled the keys and called, "Dean?"
Head bowed, his brother just kept walking.
Sam got a phone call and the name of a bar a little past midnight, still wide awake, of course, and either walking restlessly from room to room or staring blankly at the television screen. With a relieved sigh he hung up, grabbed his jacket and headed out to locate his brother.
A bit of tricky navigating later, Sam found him, surprisingly, in an out of the way smoky blues club, not what he would have expected, given Dean's usual taste in music. Dean was sitting slouched and forbidding in a dark corner, quietly and thoroughly drunk, a glass and a very diminished bottle of Jack Daniels his only companions.
"Come on, Dean," Sam said, leaning over, trying not to flinch at the naked pain on his brother's face. "Let's get you home, huh?"
He just nodded, and let Sam help him to his feet.
Dean dreamed. Or maybe not.
Under a sky grey with clouds and the threat of rain, he stood in a muddy field. Hearing a step behind him, he turned, the familiar clawing fear rising up in his throat at what he knew he would see. But it wasn't the tall, cadaverous form and pale, wrinkled features of the reaper that met his eyes. It was a small blonde woman who smiled serenely at him, and said, "Well, that's a miracle right there."
"Oh, god." He couldn't say more than that because his voice dried up and he stared at her, shock and pain warring in his heart. He swallowed, and said, "Layla?" very quietly; not quite believing it could be her.
"What…what's a miracle?" he asked.
Her head tilted to one side. "You're alive, silly. Enjoy it. Treasure it."
"But I shouldn't be!" he burst out. "I was dying, that night. I could've saved you. Layla, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I could've –"
She reached up and laid her fingers over his lips. "Shhh." Her hand moved to cup his cheek, her thumb stroking his skin. Looking into his eyes, the smile she gave him then was sweet and luminous, and she said, "Don't be sorry. It's not your fault. You can't save everyone, Dean. I know you tried. That's all anyone can do." She brought his head down so she could place a kiss on his temple, a loving warmth that drove out the cold from the reaper's remembered touch. Stepping back, she said, "Thank you, Dean. I'll never forget."
And she flickered, shifted, her features changed, and instead of Layla, the woman standing there had hair as black as a raven's wing, and she smiled at him with sparkling blue eyes that always made him think of the sky of Kansas summers from long, long ago. The muddy field was gone, replaced by the garden behind the Thornton house, and the day was bright and clear. The roses were in full bloom, everywhere.
She wore a stunning dress of yellow silk. An iconic image floated into his mind, glimpsed from some Saturday afternoon matinee, and Dean decided that Bridget O'Connor, wrapped in nothing but a sack, could kick Scarlet O'Hara's ass any day of the week. He was gawking, and knew it. He shut his mouth. The woman crossed her arms in front of her and tapped one delicate foot.
"Well, aren't you even going to say 'hello' then?"
"Ah," he said, fumbling, blushing. "Um. Sure. Hello, Bridget."
"Thought you'd gotten rid of me for good, did you, boyo?"
"No, Bridget, no –" He broke off and narrowed his eyes at her. "Quit teasing."
She laughed. "I'm sorry, truly I am, but you looked a little bit too serious, and I can't think why. It all worked out, didn't it?"
"Are you all right? I mean, the fire…"
"It's over," she said softly. "I am fine. I am sorry it hurt you, though."
"That's okay. It wasn't that bad."
"Lying is a sin, Dean Winchester," she said sternly. "Best you be careful."
"Ah, yes, ma'am." He grinned back at her.
"Oh, my Lord, you are hopeless, truly." Then she looked over her shoulder, and said as she turned, "I don't have much time in this place, Dean. But I had to thank you again – you did what no one else could do for me, and it seems that all I've done is hurt you. I'm sorry for that, and I wish I could take the pain away." She smiled, the dimple made an appearance, and she moved closer. "I don't think Alex will mind," she whispered, as she reached up to take his face between her hands and kiss him gently on the lips. Then she kissed him where Layla had, he felt a tingle, and when she drew back, she just said, "No more Death to mar your spirit, Dean Winchester, or your bright soul." She smiled wider as she drew back. "Goodbye, Dean. Remember me."
"Always," he whispered. "Goodbye, Bridget."
She turned and walked away, turned back again to wave, and as he saw her nearly disappear in the haze of a hot summer's day, a beautiful mirage, he caught sight of a tall familiar man in Confederate gray waiting for her. Taking his arm, she waved one more time, the man nodded gravely, and they were both gone as if they'd never been.
Everything faded then, though he could still smell sun-warmed roses. Something light and silky brushed across his eyelids, cheek, settled in his hair, and he batted at it absently as he would a mildly annoying insect. Then he felt as though a drift of feathers, of soft snow, cascaded around him, and when he opened his eyes in wonder, it was morning, and he lay in a bed bestrewn with fragrant red rose petals and sunlight.
Dean closed the trunk lid with barely a twinge in his ribs, and said, "Yo, Sam! All packed. Let's hit the road, dude."
Since Ginny and her crew had been able to get back inside the Thornton house once again, they had extended their project for another month. And since they continued to rent the house across the street, Ginny had deftly persuaded Dean and Sam to stay on until Dean had had a chance to heal. Sam had quickly agreed, because Dean had been pretty much unconscious at the time.
With the burning of Bridget's remains, the fatal link severed, the bruises had at last begun to fade, his ribs knitted, and he slowly regained his strength. Mostly by sleeping about fourteen hours a day, and then getting his appetite back, something that Lissa had promptly taken upon herself to encourage. Not to mention Angie and Ian and Sam all taking turns practically waiting on him hand and foot, cheerfully ignoring his growling and snarling until it was easier to simply give in and let them… Not to mention that Ginny had developed some sort of sixth sense and was always ready to pounce and lecture him when he was fidgety and wanted to bolt.
Outnumbered and outgunned. It wasn't his fault.
He'd almost forgotten what it felt like to not be tired all the time, or in constant pain. Or at peace with himself (as much as he ever was), for the first time in over a month. A sense of balance, of equilibrium, had been restored that he hadn't even fully realized he'd lost. And Sam had finally stopped hovering and looking at him sideways every time he sneezed or coughed or rubbed his forehead, so Dean figured things were pretty much back to normal. Well, normal for them.
Though he had started to get restless a couple of days ago, that familiar itch telling him it was time to move on, he had to admit, if only to himself, that he'd enjoyed the rarity of staying in one place long enough to heal up, rest up, and generally loaf around in comfort. With home cooking and clean sheets and clean rooms without the extra creepy crawly, multi-legged guests… Dean sighed. Maybe another day or two wouldn't hurt…
Nah, time to go. Some demons out there need their asses kicked. Back to the family business.
Having said his own brief goodbyes, getting and giving kisses to Angie and Lissa (nice), and sharing a hearty handshake with Ian, Dean leaned against the Impala and watched Sam say farewell.
Ginny gave Sam a hug, passed him off to Angie, and Dean straightened up as she made her way to him. She stopped and gave him a grin, eyes slightly misty.
"Hey there, handsome."
"Hey, darlin'. Wanna go for a ride?"
Dean grinned and opened his arms; she stepped in and hugged him, hard, not letting go. Her head fit quite nicely under his chin, and he decided that she might as well hang on as long as she wanted.
"Oh, you." Ginny drew back at last, sniffing, blinking away the tears. "It just won't be the same around here without you and Sam. I'd tell you to stay out of trouble, but what would be the point? I'll know you'll take care of each other, but you listen, now. If you ever need anything, I mean anything, you call me. And if you ever decide to get out of the spook business, well, I could always use a couple of trained research assistants. Listen to me, I'm babbling." She sniffed again. "And I'm crying. I hate to cry. I get all stuffy and my nose turns red."
"You look great, Ginny." He shuffled his feet, and slanted a glance at her. "Thanks for everything," he said quietly. "I know Bridget…wasn't what you were expecting, at all, but…weird as it sounds, I'm glad I got to know her, despite everything. Thanks for what you did for her. It…meant a lot."
"Oh, sweetie, it was the least I could do. But speaking of our dear girl, I have something for you." She turned and called out to Lissa, who was laughing with Sam. "Lissa! Bring the box, would you, dear?"
Lissa waved and disappeared briefly into the house, returning with a small, rather battered metal box. Ian and Angie drifted over, smiling, and Sam, obviously in the dark as much as Dean about this, came with them. Ginny took it from Lissa and held it out to Dean.
"Remember when I said Bridget had been buried with some personal possessions? Well, this is it. We decided we wanted you to have it."
Dean took it gingerly, almost afraid to touch it. It was rough under his fingers, a little rusty in a couple of spots, about the size of a paperback book, and maybe six inches deep. He turned it over and over, then looked up at Ginny. "Are you sure? Don't you have to give it to the museum?"
"Well, if they find out, there could be trouble, but I'm not going to tell them. Why don't you open it?"
With slightly trembling fingers, he undid the catch and flipped up the lid. To his surprise, what was inside was in near-perfect condition. He looked at Ginny again.
"The box itself, as well as everything inside, was wrapped in oilcloth. Kind of like a heavy canvas, but treated to be waterproof. Kept everything dry, believe it or not."
He drew out the top item, and turned it over. A photograph. Bridget seated, with Alex standing behind and slightly to one side of her, his hand resting gently on her shoulder. Dean smiled, remembering the…dream he'd had. Together again. Happily ever after. He snorted to himself. Jesus, Dean, when did you start reading chick lit romance novels…
More photographs lay beneath, with bundles of letters and documents.
"This is where it all went, didn't it?" he said, meeting Ginny's gaze. "Her life. What they tried to take from her. She had it all along." His throat closed up, and he couldn't say anything more.
Ginny patted him on the arm. "She's yours to look after now. I think she'd want it that way."
He considered that, and then shook his head. "I think you should keep it, and write about her. Tell her story, so that people know who she is. Was. She deserves to not…be forgotten. Stick it to the Thorntons, Ginny, don't let 'em win, okay?" Dean presented her with the box.
She laughed, taking it back. "Well, since you put it so eloquently… All right. But I think you should at least keep a picture or two. To remember her by."
"As if I'd forget," he said, looking at the photograph he still held in his hand.
The memories she'd shared with him had faded dramatically in their intensity over the last two weeks, drifting further and further away from him; he would always remember herand what she'd gone through, but the emotions themselves had thankfully dissipated.
He'd walked back through the house, with Sam, a couple of days…after. EMF meter in hand, Sam had found no sign of her. The house felt oddly empty and cheerless to him, and he occasionally had that double vision in some of the rooms, seeing furniture that didn't exist, or curtains fluttering in a closed window. He left rather quickly then, and hadn't gone back.
"Just one more thing, and then we'll let you boys be on your way," Ginny was saying, dragging his thoughts back to the here and now. She drew a long white envelope from her jacket pocket and said, "Since you were our consultants on this project, I thought it only fair to pay you the usual university consulting fees." Putting the envelope in Sam's hand, she added, "And maybe a bonus, as well. You've more than earned it. Thank you, boys. It's been…interesting."
Dean had automatically begun to argue when the words "consulting fees" came out of her mouth, but she shut him up with a glare.
"Um, thanks," he said, instead.
"You're welcome. See? That wasn't so hard."
Sam grinned. "Thanks, Ginny." He kissed her cheek, and that led to more hugging in general, and Dean rolled his eyes and suffered it all quite manfully.
Yeah, time to hit the road.
The End (at last!)
(And since I'm exhausted, bereft and oddly sad now that this is done, and I've never asked before...but hey, please help to cheer me up by hitting the review button – especially 'cause it didn't work most of yesterday... Which I didn't realize until later. In the meantime, my poor fragile ego was hiding under the desk and crying, "Everybody hates it! It sucks! I knew it!" But then I went and looked at some pictures of Dean all wet and I felt much better... lol! I highly recommend it.)