Any Chance Collision

Georgetown was the next step in the plan but her daddy was always telling her that life could turn on a dime. If the trick was learning how to dance, she had really screwed it up by tripping over that boy who bussed tables in the New South Dorm cafeteria.

Disclaimer: The Winchester boys aren't mine but I'd make Dean wear his boots all the time if they were.

Overall Rating: M (Language, Angst, Sex, Schmoop)

Overall Pairings: Dean/OFC (HET)

Author's Notes: This is a remix of Always Falling.

Miscellaneous: No spoilers for the show but this is unabashedly AU.

Betas: embroiderama and quirkies

Part Five: And I light up in the dark

Charlotte smelled the lasagna before she had even unlocked the front door.

Kansas was blaring from the kitchen and Dean's head poked out just as Tippy barked and scampered down the hall to greet her, dancing around her feet while she locked the door and set her keys on the small table in the hall. Dean snorted and shook his head when Charlotte leaned down to pick him up, the old joke about teaching their new dog bad tricks shimmering across his face until their eyes met.

She didn't even want to think about eating lasagna.

"Shit. You okay?"

She shook her head, holding Tippy close to the chest, and shuffled into the living room. She was tired, feeling the ache in her muscles and in the throb at the base of her skull. Charlotte kicked off her shoes and cranked up Front 242 before curling up on the couch, letting the music beat right along with her pulse and wash over her, but Charlotte couldn't forget the way a little girl named Ellie Jenkins held onto her like she was never letting Charlotte go.

And she couldn't forget the pictures of the crime scene, Ellie's little unconscious body coiled on top of her mother – whole and unharmed but covered in blood because some trick had used a shard of glass from a broken mirror instead of leaving some cash on the nightstand. Ellie was standing with a police officer in front of a flea-bag motel featuring cheap weekly rates when Charlotte made the pick up. The smell coming off of Ellie's clothes made Charlotte's eyes water, saliva still pooling in her mouth at the memory; exhaustion warring with the urge to run for the nearest bathroom.

She swallowed and closed her eyes.

Ginny Jenkins would have been twenty in two months.

The music dimmed until it wasn't even sound, just a vibration thumping through her skin, and the other side of the couch dipped down from Dean's weight. He was frowning at her when Charlotte opened her eyes, Tippy scrambling across the cushions to lick Dean's hand.

"What happened, baby?"

"I spent…" Charlotte exhaled and Tippy curled up behind her knees after she turned to rest her head on Dean's chest. Dean's hand stroked her arm and Charlotte sucked in a breath. "I spent all morning watching a little girl rock back and forth on a hospital bed because some bastard decided to fillet her mama."


Dean's muscles tensed like a spring getting ready to unfurl.

"I know." Another breath shuddered out of her with a hiccup. "Jenna says that I can't save them all – that I need to be more objective. But how…" Charlotte closed her eyes, flayed skin and a little girl's tiny braids capped with white beads burned across the back of her eyelids. "She's going to get lost in the system. It'll be hard enough finding someone willing to foster her."

She couldn't even tell him the worst part.

Ginny Jenkins' bled to death from wounds that should have been all over her body based on the force and direction of the cuts but Ginny's skin was just as whole and unharmed as her daughter's wherever Ellie's body had touched. It was like Ellie had thrown herself across her mama, a six-year-old shield.

Some brain trust had said the wrong thing in front of one of the other kids, about how Ginny Jenkins had been killed and how Ellie Jenkins couldn't have survived the attack the way that she had. When Ellie walked in front of Charlotte through the play room, the other kids parted before her like Moses parting the Red Sea – whispering the same old stories about Bloody Mary that Charlotte first heard when she was ten but there was something in the hush that the girls weren't saying. Ellie held her head high until they reached the hallway, bursting into tears and wrapping her arms around Charlotte's waist.

I don't want to be a Special One, she had whispered into Charlotte's belly.

It was the secret that only girls would tell each other. The boys wanted to fight in death on the side of the angels but it was a girl who could stare down Bloody Mary – one girl in every thousand, so strong and so good that Bloody Mary couldn't tempt her with promises of drugs or drag her down the road to sex and despair. If Bloody Mary faced one of those girls, it was Bloody Mary who ran scared.

There were no such things as demons, no such things as Bloody Mary or angels that danced in neon lights. It was a fairy tale wrapped in survivor's guilt; a story conjured by a little girl to explain to herself why her mother died and she could still breathe, throwing herself between Bloody Mary and the mirror because her mother was one of the bad girls.

Ellie's eyes were dark when she lifted her face to Charlotte's, reminding her of the ones that stared back at her when a nurse held up a mirror and told Charlotte how lucky she was that the fire hadn't burned her face, and all Charlotte could do was stroke Ellie's hair while she cried.

"We can save one."

"But what about Mackey and Winchester Restorations?"

"What about it?"

"I thought we were going to wait until…" Her voice trailed off when Dean shrugged. Charlotte sat up, curling her legs underneath her as Tippy jumped off the couch with a small bark, and touched Dean's cheek. He looked just as tired as she felt, dark circles around his eyes from getting up at 4:00 AM to arrive at the job site before the crew did at sunrise. "Are you serious, Dean?"

"Hell, yeah." He snorted, shaking his head with a grin. "We're doing better this year than I thought we would, got some new business coming in because of Mack's references." Dean shut his mouth abruptly when their eyes met, taking a deep sigh. He swallowed. "Besides, what's going to happen to that kid if we don't help her?"

"I don't know. We can't help every little girl like this but – "

The idea alone broke every rule that Charlotte had been taught about getting personally involved with a client, the textbook trap that every new social worker fell into the first time circumstance built a personal connection. Charlotte dropped her hand to Dean's jeans, poking her finger through a hole on his thigh; it was enough to feel her skin against his, even if it was just the wiry hair on his thigh and the pad of her index finger.

"But what?" Dean sucked in a breath. "You worried about that kid I beat up?"

"No!" Charlotte tilted her head up to look at him. "If we do this, we'll have to go through the entire adoption process just like everyone else. They'll find out about that during the initial background check." His eyes shone, cheeks going stiff as his jaw tightened. "You were sixteen, Dean. I don't think going to Georgetown and starting your own business are signs that you're going to be a bad father." She poked him in the belly, just hard enough for him to shake his head and smirk. "And all those weekends you volunteer for Habitat for Humanity aren't going to be viewed as a strike against you, either."

"I'm a bone fide Good Samaritan." Dean chuckled. "So, what's the problem?"

"It just that… Ellie's scarred where it hurts the most." Charlotte hand was back on his jeans, scratching lazy circles through the denim as she listened to him breathe. "The other kids are talking about it like she's a miracle. Her mama's dead and she's not and every story she'll make up for herself won't change that. It's a lot of guilt to carry when you're six." She didn't realize she was crying until Dean touched her cheek with the pad of his thumb. "Jesus, I am a walking chick flick," Charlotte added.

"Yeah," he returned lightly. "But I'm going to let you off just this once."

"Because you're the world's biggest goober."

"Is that any way to treat the man whose been slaving over a hot stove for you?" Dean stood up when the timer erupted with a buzz in the kitchen. "You're just freaking lucky I didn't have to wear an apron."

"It's Stouffer's lasagna. Your manly image is saved."

"Until you bring teddy bears to the site so I can pick out which one to give the little squirt." He grinned at her over his shoulder. "You got about forty minutes for your bath."

Charlotte smiled when Tippy followed Dean into the kitchen with a little yip of a bark and hopped off the couch, turning off the stereo before heading upstairs. A bath wouldn't keep her from seeing the crime scene photos when she leaned back and closed her eyes and the water jets massaging her back wouldn't do anything for the ache in her chest when she thought of Ellie Jenkins. She wished they had a swimming pool instead so that she could push against the water, feeling the burn in her muscles until she was too tired to think.

The water poured into the tub and Charlotte added some bath salts, something that Jess always sent Charlotte from her favorite store in Palo Alto. She was pinning her hair up into a loose bun when Dean walked into the bathroom. He leaned against the counter, staring at her while Charlotte slipped out of her work clothes and stepped out of the business suit piled around her feet.

Dean tapped a round pink case against his thigh and Charlotte's eyes widened when she recognized it. He raised his eyebrows when their eyes met.

"Kid might want a brother or a sister," Dean said softly.

She nodded, reaching over and taking the pill case from his hand. There wasn't a sound in the room – not even their breathing or the whir of the air conditioner or Tippy's nails clicking on the marble tiles – when they watched the case tumble into the wastebasket.

Dean started pulling off his clothes when Charlotte shut the cabinet door, its sharp bang echoing through the bathroom. She didn't let him get far, snapping open the button on his jeans and running a finger down the zipper. He could still make her blush, leaning down to whisper about filling her up and how fucking sexy she was going to be with his baby growing inside her belly. He slipped his hands between her thighs, teasing her with his fingers and a 'show me how you like that, baby.'

Charlotte stumbled backwards into the tub, both of them laughing when Dean caught her.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The cracks in the walls had been fixed and painted over with a cheery blue paint that Jimmy said made the yellow curtains and matching bedspread pop; Charlotte had smiled when he said it and Dean had snorted at the idea of choosing any color to make something yellow 'pop' – all that mattered to him was the fact that Ellie had picked out the color when they showed her paint chips, one hand behind her back when she looked up at them and asked if blue would be okay.

It still smelled like fresh paint, the lingering remnants of the classic Winnie the Pooh mural Dean had paid one of his contractors to paint for Ellie above her bed, and Charlotte had to step carefully through the Barbie town that Dean had built against the far wall in order to open up the window.

Dean had actually blushed when Charlotte laughed at him, watching him pull box after box out of plastic bags, and made a crack about Sam being the expert in the family since getting that Sapphire Barbie as part of a secret Santa gift exchange at school; all he had to go on was the name 'Barbie' on the box and he didn't want the little squirt to be disappointed by him getting the wrong things.

Given all the Nerf toys that were crammed into the yellow and green toy box, Barbie was going to be well-armed in her fight against the stuffed animals piled on Ellie's new bed. Dean had even bought them Nerf guns, cackling when he put his together and pumped it long enough to launch a foam rocket across the living room at her; Charlotte stooped down and kissed him on the top of his head when Dean told her it was just so that they could play with Ellie.

They had survived four and a half months of paperwork, house inspections, background checks, interviews with friends and family, supervised interaction sessions and psychological evaluations for all three of them – but it was over.

Ellie was coming home.

Charlotte smiled, brushing her fingers against the ruffle on Ellie's new pillow sham. She thought Dean's face was going to crack in two when they had both told Ellie that she could choose whatever last name she wanted, even if it was a completely new one that was just hers, and Ellie had bellowed 'Winchester' with a lift to her chin.

"Charlotte," Dean roared from their bedroom. "Get your ass in here!"

She shook her head and turned on her heel.

Dean was rubbing his hair with a towel when she stepped into the room, his clothes laid out on their old rocking chair and his boots tucked underneath the seat. Even his boxer shorts were folded, resting on top of his clothes.

"I mean it, woman!" His voice was muffled by the towel. "You don't even want to know what I'm going to do to you."

"Woman?" Charlotte snorted when Dean jumped, returning his grin when the towel dropped to the floor. "Exactly what were you going to do to me?"

"For starters?" He pulled her in close, hands slipping down to her rear-end. "I'd buy you sexier clothes." His breath was hot on her neck when he tugged open the belt at her waist, pushing the terrycloth robe off her shoulders. "I'm surprised this thing doesn't have holes in it by now."

His skin was still wet from the shower, muscles smooth underneath her fingertips, and Charlotte tilted her head up just in time for Dean's mouth to crash down on top of hers. She took a breath when his hands gripped her shoulders, waiting for him to push her backwards onto the bed like he had done most nights for four and a half months – an endurance test of different positions and basal temperatures and Dean's mouth touching every square inch of her body until she was warm and wet and wanting.

"Better get dressed," Dean said. "We're going out."


"It's the last time we can go out without worrying about the little squirt. You upset because you're not getting some?"

"I'm relieved," Charlotte retorted. "I should be as bowlegged as you are by now."

"Cute." He gestured his head towards a white pile of fabric sitting on the low dresser. "There's your stuff."

The first thing she picked up was a white bustier, soft satin and the scratch of lace vying with the cool metal clasps that trailed up the back. Underneath the bustier was a garter belt, nylons and the strapless white dress that Dean caught her looking at in a store window downtown. It was something Charlotte would never have bought for herself, not without a shawl to wear that she could drape over her arms or a shrug with mid-length sleeves, but Dean never saw what other people did – and that could still make her throat ache.

Charlotte lowered her head when his footsteps crossed the floor.

"Jesus, do I have to do everything by myself?" But his voice was soft when Dean gently tugged the bustier out of her hand, mouth dipping down to her shoulder. "Lift up your arms, baby," he whispered.

Fabric touched skin, her hips swaying backwards into his. Dean started at the bottom, closing each clasp while he swept his tongue across the skin underneath her left ear. He moved his hands slowly up her side, cupping her breasts. One hand trailed down to her belly, his thumb rubbing slowly across the whorls, before it slid between her thighs; Charlotte's hips were already rocking, goose bumps rising until she groaned and grabbed his thighs to keep from falling.

Charlotte twisted in his arms, standing on her toes to kiss him with her hands around his neck. Her nails scratched lightly underneath the edges of his wet hair before her fingers followed the muscles across his shoulders, hands digging into his biceps as she took a deep breath and pushed him backwards.

The mattress bounced when Dean collided with it. Charlotte cut off his 'holy shit' with the swirl of her tongue. She spread his thighs wide, licking down the line where his leg met his hip. He sucked in a breath when brought her lips up to his beating pulse before taking him full in her mouth. Her head bobbed in time with each throb. He tangled his fingers up in her hair and she only slowed down when his hips started to buck.

He pulled her off with a groan.


She crawled up his body, kissing up his abdomen and his chest, until her mouth met his. "I thought you'd never ask," she murmured against his lips.

Charlotte slowly lowered herself inch by slow inch, biting her lip as she throbbed around him, and hooked her feet behind his knees. He leaned up on one elbow, tongue grazing her breasts through the lace, and chuckled when she gasped. His thumb flickered with slow circles that made her toes curl in time to the heat pulsating out from her belly, and she rocked against him with a whimper – shuddering where skin met salt.

"Fuck," she managed.

"I thought you'd never ask."

And suddenly Dean's hands were tight on her hips, his pelvis rocking up and thrusting into the wet every time Charlotte lifted her hips and sank back down. All she could hear was the slap of skin against skin, nothing more than a scream and one long spasm until Dean arched his back with a groan; her pulse pounded around him as she threw back her head, her muscles loosening as she fell forward.

Fingertips brushed the sweat off the small of her back and Charlotte shivered, her forehead resting on his chest.

"Looks like girls do it on cue after all," Dean said lightly, hitching up to swallow her laugh.

The doorbell rang twice and Charlotte pulled back, narrowing her eyes and poking Dean in the stomach. "You ordered Chinese food."

"Why go out when you can stay in?"

He rolled her over before she could say anything, slipping out with a hiss. The doorbell rang two more times in quick succession, followed by an insistent knock on the front door. Dean hopped out of the bedroom pulling on his boxer shorts, bellowing 'just a minute' as he tromped down the stairs.

She smiled and shook her head when Dean started yelling about getting her bowlegged ass into the living room.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Charlotte dragged Maggie to the drug store with her when they were supposed to be meeting for lunch.

Bringing her best friend with her had been a mistake, no matter how much Charlotte needed the moral support. Maggie had burst out laughing when Charlotte stopped in the aisle, raising her eyebrow as Charlotte began grabbing tests off the shelf and reading every word printed on the boxes. She checked accuracy percentages and the test read-outs and she almost smacked Maggie at the suggestion that Charlotte should pick out the test based on the color of the box.

She was still laughing when Charlotte tossed three different tests into her basket but Maggie called her about the test results right before Charlotte was getting ready to go pick Ellie up from daycare, whooping in Charlotte's ear because there were two lines and plus signs where there should have been two lines and plus signs. She asked Charlotte how she was going to tell Dean that he had spawned before joking about Charlotte scheduling a doctor's appointment just to have the answer confirmed with a blood test before she did anything about it.

Charlotte had already called her doctor's office but she wasn't about to tell that to Maggie. A baby wasn't something left to chance, no matter the statistics that over-the-counter pregnancy tests spouted during their commercials. Charlotte stopped by the drug store on the way home from work to buy a bottle of pre-natal vitamins, replacing her regular ones in her pill case before hiding them the back of her t-shirt drawer, but she was going to wait until after her blood test came back positive to tell Dean.

And, when it did come back positive, there was the problem of finding the perfect way to do it.

Yelling that she was pregnant while the world's worst mariachi band massacred "La Cucaracha" wasn't how Charlotte envisioned the moment, all those kids yelling while Dean shoveled tacos into his mouth with the broken bits of his shells. She wanted to see Dean's eyes widen as a grin crept slowly across his face – wanted to hear his voice drop to a murmur while a flush crept slowly across her cheeks – but there was no way in hell that the man who wore jeans to his own wedding was setting foot into any of the places that Maggie had recommended.

The best that Charlotte was going to come up with on short notice was their monthly date night. They already had a dinner reservation at one of Dean's favorite restaurants – a little Italian place downtown that served the best gnocchi in the DC area – and Dean had coerced Vic into watching Ellie play Hello Kitty Cube Frenzy on the Playstation in exchange for Dean's help with his fireplace.

The whole thing was surprisingly fool-proof, requiring the help of a waiter with a bottle of sparkling cider and one quick trip to the store for the card to go along with it.

There was a bark on the other side of the door as Charlotte turned the lock, Tippy dancing at her feet just like he always did. She bent down to scratch underneath his chin. He followed her into the living room, where Dean and Ellie were curled up on the couch reading Winnie the Pooh. She stood in the archway listening to Dean's voice squeak and growl and stretch itself out while he read, watching him make faces and imitate the voices until he was chuckling as hard as Ellie was.

They both looked up when Charlotte laughed. Ellie flew off the couch, throwing her arms around Charlotte's waist with a giggle. Dean stood up, scratching underneath his ear. His mouth was open like he was going to say something but the doorbell rang and Vic bundled them out the door after they said goodbye to Ellie, both of them stooping to kiss her.

"You better have a good time," Ellie warned, waggling her finger.

Dean was still laughing when they walked to the Metrorail station, bodies so close to each other that their shoulders were touching, and the air was thick with the scent of flowers intermingled with the summer shower that was threatening to fall from the moody clouds overhead. Even when they were standing on the empty platform waiting for the train, the moisture in the air dragged out curls until her hair was laying flat on her shoulders. Dean caught her looking at her reflection in one of the movie posters on the wall.

"You're looking pretty snazzy for an old married woman in that dress of yours," Dean said. "You planning on seducing me with spaghetti and meatballs?"

"The fastest way into your pants is through your stomach," Charlotte retorted. It wouldn't be long before she was waddling through their living room wearing the biggest pair of sweatpants she owned, hoping she had enough time to make it to the bathroom without tripping over the Nerf guns Dean and Ellie left all over the floor – and it was his fault that she had never worn the dress in the first place. "Maybe I just wanted to remind you that I'm not an old married woman," she added.

"Polyester is fucking sexy." Dean grinned.

Charlotte glared at him over the edge of her glasses, frowning when he launched into his impression of Charlotte deciding between a walker and a cane. By the time the wind rushed through the tunnel, followed by the screech of the train coming to a halt at the station, Dean was cackling about how Charlotte would be bringing her walker with her the next time that she went out dancing at Jimmy's club and how he was going to sit on the sidelines and make bets with all the waitresses about how many people Charlotte could take out with it.

Her mouth twitched when the doors opened but laughing outright would only have encouraged him. They stepped inside, making their way to the nearest seats through stale air full of a sweet perfume and the aftermath of cigarette smoke. The only other passengers in the car were an elderly woman going home with her groceries and two teenagers making out at the far end of the car, with ripped jeans and tattered shirts and body piercings designed to make people stare. Dean elbowed Charlotte in the side and gestured his head in their direction.

"Want to give them a run for their money?"

He didn't even wait for an answer, grabbing her collar and hitching Charlotte's mouth up to his. By the time they both pulled back with a gasp, Charlotte was sitting on his lap with her elbows locked around his neck and Dean's hands were knotted in her hair. The old woman was gone and the teenagers were staring at them. Dean smirked in their direction while Charlotte chuckled into his shoulder.

"You sure as hell don't kiss like an old married woman."

"I was hoping some old married man would make a pass at me on the subway." She smiled up at him.

"God, I…" Dean swallowed.

"I know," Charlotte whispered, her fingers touching the corner of his mouth.

The car lurched to a stop and an electronic voice announced their station.

"Have a good night, kids," Dean said on his way out the door. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

Charlotte slipped her hand into his, standing on the tips of her toes to kiss his cheek. "What a nice way to tell them to boink on their first date, Dean."

"You must be rubbing me the right way because I'm turning into a classy guy." Dean dragged her behind him to the station gate. A blonde man ran past them as they exited out onto the street and into the sprinkling rain, bumping into Dean and knocking him backwards. "Watch where you're going," he yelled over his shoulder, patting his pockets. "At least the asshole didn't take anything," he muttered. Charlotte snorted and Dean rolled his eyes. "What?" he demanded.

"You're so classy I think I'm going to swoon."

Dean made a noise deep in his throat and Charlotte was still giggling when they turned left at Excelsior, another wave of flowers fighting its way through the rain in the air as Charlotte squeezed his hand. Her eyes focused on Giorgio's neon lights blinking through the trees, its cold fluorescent spark reflecting off of the wet leaves, but the line of people waiting outside the restaurant couldn't wipe the smile off of Charlotte's face. She stood next to Dean with one hand wrapped up in his and the other laid flat on her belly, the palm across her abdomen protecting her secret until it was time to be shared.

The sign flickered with the zap of a mosquito trap, a flash that caught Charlotte off-guard. Her legs buckled out from underneath her as she fell backwards, a crack echoing through her head as it bounced onto the pavement.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

She was in the library, body soaring to the ground after she hooked her foot on a crack, the rip and the salt clamping around her spine as she fell. She didn't remember the skidding and the screaming and nothing but dead air below her waist. She didn't remember seeing stars when she looked up at the ceiling or the way Dean's eyes shimmered when he looked down at her, helping her sit up with her book bag twisted around her shoulder.

And she didn't remember the ache in her belly – an embarrassed ache that made her flush, her hands dripping wet with it and staining her fingers with a crimson sheen until she let them flutter back down to her belly.

"Dean." Even his name hurt, something in her lungs tearing apart while he watched. "I think I tripped."

She blinked, cherry blossoms falling onto her face and lilacs smelling so strong she was drenched in them – wrapped up in sheets while the moon made her skin glow, the slow drum of his heartbeat singing 'don't leave me don't leave me' underneath her fingertips. She could see a little girl's smile capped with white beads and a laughing red-haired baby with hazel eyes and gangly legs running towards her with a limp that made her chest break open, could touch the cold rain sprinkling all over her as she whirled with a laugh.

She had legs once.

She remembered dancing while she was sinking through white fire, incandescent as her arms opened and she closed her eyes; the final jump where nothing else mattered but sliding into the water, of drifting out to the cool where the burn in her lungs would wash away in the salt on her tongue; dripping down her cheek and onto the marble of the library floor.

"Charlotte," Dean whispered. "Just hang on."

Her eyes opened with a snap, the press of his hands against hers, but it wasn't his voice that she remembered making the warning. It was hers, just as cool a balm as water – with its slow wooden creak and the rub of thread being pushed through cloth while the sun winked on the metal edge of an embroidery hoop and ice cubes clinked against the sides of her glass as she swirled her lemonade and listened.

One day, Charlotte Anne, you're going to find the boy whose smile slips past that wall of yours. And when you do, you need to hold on. Hold on until your fingers ache and never let him go.

She was running out of chances to bring the smile back, lost in the gasp that sliced through her when he whispered 'please' with everything he was in it – a tear-stained voice full of everything that made it worth getting up off of the cold marble floor and walking outside with him into the parking lot, braids swinging off her shoulders.

But her fingers were going numb along with her lungs, needles piercing through sucking gasps every time she heard a breath.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"We couldn't save the baby."

It was a brisk voice that she didn't recognize, its antiseptic tang making her stomach twist in on itself; a doctor's voice, weary and blood-stained, accompanied by the unsteady rhythm of machines. A tattered breath, shattered glass in her lungs, bubbled thick around her mouth and someone was wiping her lips gently – someone who smelled like talcum powder, the sweet perfume of a nurse.

Her belly was on fire, the pain blossoming through her chest when she heard his intake of breath; one sharp draw taking in the stitches across her abdomen, nothing more than dead weight sinking into the lumpy mattress. There was one sob so ragged that it should have left scars – just one – before the hand around her own tightened, rough calluses against her palm as the scents of oak and pine fought with sterile ammonia and a rusty tang that no amount of disinfectant could mask.


She hadn't told him about the baby.

It was supposed to be a surprise, a split second of normal – the last thing she remembered with any clarity before the thunder roared through her. He would have laughed and called her a dork but that wouldn't have kept him from smiling when he opened up the Father's Day card, cracking a joke about how the kid was going to inherit his musical taste because there was no way in hell he was letting her loose with a music collection that sucked ass.

"Charlotte," he whispered but she didn't answer. She was too tired to open her eyes, couldn't even squeeze his hand to let him know that she had heard him – couldn't even tell him that his voice was the chain that kept her from floating out of herself when she soared backwards, hitting the ground with a crack from a nightmare, and all she wanted to do was glide into the black so that the ache spreading through her chest would stop.

But his hands had pressed down on hers, held her spilling heart inside, amidst the screams and the lights and the rush in her veins that kept getting softer every time she tried to move her lungs.

Just hang on.

Dean held her hand, one thumb pressing into her palm before he began stroking along her life line. He didn't have to say anything but Charlotte heard him all the same, the 'don't leave me' that hummed through her – the 'I'll always stay if you never leave me' that was bigger than any promise they had made underneath a big white tent in their backyard.

They were both falling, farther and faster than they had ever fallen before, and Charlotte had to hold on because there was no other way to keep the line from snapping.

If Dean fell, Sam would rise.

If Dean fell –

The cool cloth at her lips kept wiping but the talcum powder turned the air sour. The nurse laughed, breath as rancid as her perfume, and Charlotte's eyes fluttered open in time to see the flicker of orange down the nurse's cheekbones; her smile showed teeth, ready to consume Dean with nothing more than a sigh and a glance from her orange eyes.

She made a clucking sound in the back of her throat, sharp staccato bursts against the white walls. "Can't save Sammy from the choice he has to make. Can't even keep Sam from drifting farther away each day the closer he gets to the Ascension. Left Ellie behind with those bastards who shot Charlie full of rock salt because she's only six and who knows what'll happen if the Circle finds either of them." The nurse smirked. "You cannot even save your broken red-haired girl in a dream."

Dean squared his shoulders and let go of Charlotte's hand. It lay there like a dead bird, fingers bent to the ceiling.

"Fuck you," he spat.

"She does not even know about the little passion plays you create every night. Do you think she will stay once she realizes you are nothing more than an empty shell dreaming wishes that turn into nightmares?" The nurse smiled again, orange sigils sprouting on her cheeks and down her arms. "The baby was a nice touch."

Dean didn't say anything, eyes hard as he stared at the wall, but his fists clenched in his lap.

I'm always Called for him. Twice in one day. And he thinks he's not important. But he is. The most important thing.

"I'm not a dream," Charlotte whispered. The nurse stopped wiping Charlotte's mouth, clutching the moist towel with a hand clenched so tightly that her knuckles went white and blood stained the cracks. "It's me, Dean. I'm right here."

She sat up, another ache blooming through her abdomen when the stitches ripping open were replaced by a soft blue glow. Charlotte couldn't fight like a Winchester and she would never bleed like one but dreams were emotions made manifest – and that thing had forgotten that they weren't just ants sitting around waiting to be stepped on, that there were other weapons besides the sword it would use to break the world.

Charlotte reached for Dean, her hand wrapping around his and holding on tight. The light screeched against the back of her eyelids when their hands touched, the ripped tatters of herself bursting apart at the seams. He blew through her, ruptured into a little boy and a fire and the baby in his arms; caught between gossamer strands while the demon howled and the antiseptic room shattered.

Holding on to him was the reason that she was made.

It was time to wake up.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Charlotte pushed up from the bed in a cold sweat, the quilted comforter falling down to her hips, and the cool breeze from the ceiling fan made her shiver. She couldn't keep her arms from shaking, staring down into her pillow while her hair fell around her face. Dean's ragged breath stripped her bare, a clumsy girl who loved to dance – a girl with a funny little snore who always used a pen for her crossword puzzles, a girl with braids she wanted him to tuck back behind her ears every time they fell forward.

A girl with the same tire swing in her front yard and a pom-pom hat she used to wear in high school.

She shook her head sharply and reached across him to flick on the small lamp near the bed. The party was still going strong, Sam's laugh mingling with Ellen's throaty chuckle and a whoop that could only have been Ash. Dean's jaw tightened when Creedence filtered its way through the cracks between them, the one song that he'd crank up in the car when they were driving so that they could both bellow about meeting each other by a big red tree. He would always grin up at her in the rear view mirror but the only thing he was staring at in their room was the ceiling.

She does not even know about the little passion plays you create every night.

"How…" Charlotte swallowed. "How long have you been having those dreams?"

"Since Madison," he said.

"Every night?" The words slipped past the ache in Charlotte's throat. Dean's only answer was silence, his eyes finally focusing on her face. They were separated by the life they would never have, memories of mothers and fathers and the lazy warmth of a summer in Georgia given to him as easily as Azazeal called fire. Charlotte's hand trembled on his cheek when Dean sucked in a breath, nostrils full of sour talcum, and her eyes burned. "Oh, God…"

Dean shrugged like a monster hadn't been ripping him apart, tempting him with promises they could never make – but, even in his dreams, Dean hadn't changed a thing about her. She still had scars and she still sang off-key and he still pulled her down with him in a tangle of arms and legs, saving a drowning girl simply by picking her up off the ground and wrapping her in a wish so strong that it should have been more than a dream.

And Charlotte had slept through the whole damn thing.

She rolled onto her side, leaning her head on one hand, and watched him.

"So much for being a hero," Dean said finally, sitting up and swinging his legs off the bed. The muscles in his lower back twitched when her fingertips lightly brushed across it.

"So much for being an empath," Charlotte retorted, trying to cross two feet and another lifetime – dropping her hand when Dean pushed off the mattress and walked away. "I'm so sorry, Dean."

His hands were hard fists, resting at his sides. "You should be," he muttered as a dart of anger shot her in the chest, a bull's-eye beating inside of her rib cage with every clench of Dean's white knuckles. He flexed his fingers and looked down at her over his shoulder. "Parading around inside my head like it's your own personal playground."

Charlotte's head snapped backwards, her eyes narrowing when she raised her chin. "You're the one who pulled me into it!"

Dean snorted. "It's not my fault that you didn't like what you saw."

Another dart hit her stomach when he reached down and started picking up his clothes, beating through Charlotte's belly as it left more scars in its wake. She couldn't even talk, his name turning into a strangled noise inside of her throat. Dean jammed his feet into his boots, oblivious to the pillow she whipped in his direction until it smacked into his chest and dropped to the floor.

"What the hell!"

"I don't believe you. You're just walking away like nothing happened."

"Sam's the Winchester who sits around and wallows." Dean's nostrils flared. "Go ahead and root around through my brain if you want to know how I really feel." He turned on his heel, whipping open the door and slamming it behind him.

Even her toes were numb as Charlotte sat up and listened to Dean's boots echo down the hall. Charlotte pulled everything she could back inside, wrapping herself up in gossamer until the only ache she could feel was her own – the phantom girl who would not move and did not breathe because being invisible hurt less than being noticed.

But Charlotte stood up when Metallica started blaring through the Roadhouse, drowning out the whir of the ceiling fan, and she opened herself just enough to see the dark-haired girl mouth 'get the hell away from me' and 'you're crazy' before whipping a book right at Dean's chest. It dropped to the floor, his eyes just as full as they had been when they were watching Charlotte's pillow, and he shut the door behind him without looking back.

Charlotte's legs were heavy as she slipped on her underwear, arms like lead as she tucked her shirt into the waistband of her skirt and tugged on the nearest sweater. Stiff fingers pushed wooden buttons through holes before tying the belt at her waist. Charlotte twisted her hair into a knot, put on her glasses and stared at her reflection in the mirror – the old pale face and thin-lipped frown that looked back at her every morning before Sam Winchester pushed her into the back of his older brother's car.

It might have been better for all of them if she had just kept running.

Sam had saved her life but Dean was the reason that Charlotte wasn't that girl anymore, the one who would have been happy hiding underneath a rock and waiting for the world to end – between his jokes about fighting gargoyles so that she could start small by saving a cow and the way he'd touch her belly, whispering about her war wounds in a low voice full of more pride than she ever deserved while his callused fingers made circles across her scars. Dean was the one who wouldn't let Charlotte leave.

There was no way in hell that she was going to let Dean Winchester turn things around so that it was her jackrabbit heart's fault.

She barreled down the steps, picking up speed past the landing, and burst into the hallway next to the bar. Charlotte collided into Sam, a tangle of arms as she smacked her forehead on his chest. He didn't let her go, wrapping her shaking body in his arms and resting one hand on the back of Charlotte's head. She was the one who pushed herself away, taking one step backwards and raising her chin to look up into Sam's face.

"Where is he?" she asked.

"You both need time…"

"I can find him myself if I have to." Charlotte didn't recognize her voice, the way it cracked every time her shoulders hitched.

Sam eyes widened. "He's playing pool." He frowned, staring down at her feet. "But you don't want to go out there without your – "

"Thank you, Sam."

Charlotte stepped past him, padding through a throng of bodies before sidling up to the jukebox. She was used to the looks and the glances, the way laughs went hard when she walked by a table full of men playing poker and sharpening their knives between hands. There was nothing inside of them that she wanted to feel but the stray flashes were enough, uneasy whispers that brushed against the back of her skull. Leah was standing next to the jukebox with her staff, cold eyes watching Charlotte's finger as it trailed down the glass, and her lips curved into a smile when "Bad Company" blasted its way through the Roadhouse.

She heard Dean's voice before she saw him, hunched over a pool table with the stick poking out behind his hip. A brittle joke rang out through the room as he lined up his shot, quirking his mouth at a gruff-looking man in a baseball cap, but Dean's smirk couldn't hide the shimmer in his eyes or the way they darkened when Charlotte stepped from the shadows and curled her fingers over the edge of the pool table. The felt against her fingertips was worn from years of hunters coming through Harvelle's Roadhouse, old losses blacked out by the crack of balls for the length of time it took to swallow shots of tequila.

There was a half-empty bottle and a shot glass sitting next to her elbow. Dean didn't say anything when Charlotte picked up the bottle and poured herself a glass, kicking it back with a trembling hand before slapping it upside down on the table. A gunshot roared through her head, a crimson chrysanthemum blooming across her chest as her body flew backwards and skidded across the sidewalk

"What do you want, Charlotte?" Dean leaned against his pool stick, rolling his eyes. Charlotte opened her mouth, shutting it abruptly when he snorted. "It was just a goddamn dream."

"If it was just a goddamn dream," she snapped, "then why are you still calling me 'Charlotte' instead of using one of your stupid nicknames?"

"Because it's your name," he managed through clenched teeth. Charlotte lurched around the pool table, steadying herself with one hand and the help of the man in the baseball cap. The man shot Dean a frown but Dean snapped his shoulders back and cocked his head, grinning down at her with a smirk when Charlotte grabbed Dean's t-shirt. "How many times do I have to tell you that I can take a scrawny chick, Charlie?"

She dragged his mouth down to hers and the way he'd whisper against her skin, hot breath leaving goose bumps as he licked sweet and sour sauce off of her belly, bubbled up past the salty tang of blood spilling between them. Her broken body flashed across the back of her eyelids – a puppet with its strings cut, hooked up to machines in a tangle of wires and plastic tubes – but Dean tasted like raspberries and he smelled like the sky after a summer storm and the scratch of grass on her back was as solid as the edge of the pool table against her hip, as solid as Dean's hands tightening on her arms.

Dean ripped himself away, pushing her backwards until Charlotte's heels rested on the floor – 'just leave me' pouring through her in the wake of his stare. His twisted mouth slashed her open all over again, a knife splitting her apart with one easy push between her ribs.

Charlotte touched his lips with burning fingertips, looking up into the glittering stones where his eyes used to be; the little girl on her crutches watching the little boy with a baby in his arms, two children with nowhere left to hide.

"Coward," she hissed.

His eyes narrowed. "The fuck?"

"Did I stutter?" Charlotte lifted her chin. "You're the Winchester who swaggers around behind a fake name and a smile." Her throat constricted but that didn't stop the words coming out in a swollen rush. She wrapped her arms around her belly, ignoring the buzz prickling the hair at the back of her neck. "If you say too much, you can blame your tequila. And if you want too much, you just turn up Metallica and drown out your breathing."

A muscle jerked in Dean's cheek, his lips straightening into a thin line and his nostrils flaring while he glared at her. Sam's head swam over Dean's shoulders, with eyes as full as his brother's and a frown that knew Charlotte Anne Webb wasn't anyone's prize – with her jackrabbit heart and a face more pinched than pretty.

She started running the second Dean opened his mouth, knocking into Jo and bursting through the front door of the Roadhouse with a crash of glass behind her.

It was raining harder outside than she remembered when Dean dragged her away from the party and up the stairs to their tiny guest room, the thunder and the lightning and the rain on the roof setting up a rhythm that Dean matched when she sprawled underneath him – tongue pushing up into her as she bucked against his face and his low voice rumbled in her belly, telling her how sexy she was every time she blushed.

And she had just broken it all to hell.

"You happy with your little floor show?"

Charlotte looked up, shaking her head sharply. John Winchester was leaning against the wall, between the window buzzing with neon lights and the front door. His Adam's apple bobbed when he swallowed, eyes just like his sons' focusing on her face with a grimace.

"You're in a war, girl. Not a soap opera." He tossed a shot glass onto the ground, alcohol and shards pooling around his boot. "The only reason I let you stay is because my boys trust you – but if you don't stop screwing Dean up with your mind games, I don't have a problem kicking you out on your ass and letting you fend for yourself." John cocked his head. "A little thing like you won't last long."

Her bare feet slapped against the mud as she scurried into the storm.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The rain on her lenses refracted the stars peeking through the clouds like a prism but that didn't keep Charlotte from tracking lines between the points of light, laying on her back in the wet grass and searching for one pattern in the jumble. Trying to find Cassiopeia made as much sense as staying as long as she had, no matter that Sam needed her and she needed his brother. None of that changed the truth of what was coming, the clouds gathering around Sam like old crows stalking a battlefield.

One clumsy girl from Connecticut acting like a twelve-year-old was a liability none of them could afford – even Ellie was preparing for what was coming, two months shy of seven and learning how to use her Gifts. All Charlotte had done since they reached the Roadhouse was translate a couple verses of a prophecy, get drunk with Jo Harvelle and spend as many hours as she could with Dean Winchester; collecting every smile and every brush of his fingers on her skin, his chest full of knots that she couldn't pick apart.

She was nothing more than the backseat passenger on the road trip to Armageddon, watching Dean get stretched thinner every single day because some thing born before time was carving out pieces of his baby brother; watching Sam become as hollow as the hopelessness in his good eye every time Sam looked into the mirror and saw the bloodshot mess bought in one skirmish with the other side, surrounded by bruises that swelled around his cheek and his brow bone.

They were all living on borrowed time.

And there were no happy endings waiting in the thunder and lightning on the horizon.

Not even in their dreams.

Charlotte heard the snort along with footsteps shuffling through the grass towards her and a dark shape appeared in her peripheral vision, sitting down next to where she was laying. Her eyes flicked up, the light from the stars bright enough to make out his jaw line, and he sighed.

Dean was one long ache, his sharp edges going soft but not quite dull when she dropped her hand next to his thigh. The buzz at the base of her skull sped up and, even flat on her back, Charlotte was turning head over heels – spinning between the hope of an apology and the fear of lost chances, both of them tangled together in a net that was dragging them into the deep.

"You're a weird-ass chick, you know that?" He leaned back on his hands to stare up at the sky. "You don't even have the common decency to run back upstairs when it's fucking raining outside. What the hell are you doing flat on your back in the rain, anyway?"

"Looking for Cassiopeia."

She rolled over onto her stomach, tucking her knees underneath her skirt and wiping the rain off of her glasses with the edge of her sweater. Charlotte's hair had fallen out of its knot, plastered to her face and neck in wet strings, and Dean's mouth twitched when their eyes met.

"You look like a scrawny little chihuahua."

"I am not scrawny," Charlotte replied automatically. She pushed her glasses up onto the bridge of her nose and glared at him over the top of the lenses. They both laughed but it didn't loosen the iron band encircling her chest. "Sam…" She shook her head sharply, trying to keep her voice light. "Sam made you come out and apologize, didn't he?"

"Nope." Dean's voice was just as light but he scrubbed his knuckles down his cheek. "Ellen got pissed when I smashed that bottle of tequila on the floor and told me to go outside and cool off. Would've been out here sooner but Jo made me clean it up. Sam told me I deserved it for being such a jackass."

"Only because I was being a stubborn bitch." Charlotte frowned, putting her hand on top of his. "Your dad was right about me." He opened his mouth when she mentioned his father, eyes darkening, but he didn't pull away when she tucked her trembling fingers between his. "You're supposed to be fighting demons and protecting Sam," she added. "You're not supposed to be fighting with the clumsy ingénue on As the Demons Burn."

Charlotte swallowed, damping down the flicker that licked up her arm and down her belly when she said it – memory mixed-up with the heat and the humidity and the hiss of water striking hot metal. Dean shivered as her white nightgown burned to ash and the fire blazed across her thighs, another shared secret as real as children that would never be born and the houses that Dean would never build.

"So what are you saying?"

The iron band constricted when Dean looked down at their hands, her heart thumping inside her rib cage as her legs twitched. He looked as young then as Sam – as young as he had looked when he dripped spicy sauce onto her shoulder and licked it off with a smile, his mouth following the slick trail past her clavicle with a butterfly's touch and a soft 'baby' that still made her shiver.

"There's a lot more at stake than the two of us living happily ever after."

"You're preaching to the choir, Charlie. We both know that I'm not making it to the end." He choked on a sound that might have been 'fuck' when Charlotte looked away, a thick noise that made her shoulders hitch, but he never let go of her hand. "And there's nothing that's going to change that," Dean added.

Charlotte picked at her skirt with her free hand, working the wet fabric through her fingers as she searched for a loose thread or a dangling spangle or an open seam – trying to find something that she could use as a focus because lifting her head just enough to see his face through the veil of her hair wasn't going to stop the buzzing in the back of her head. It wasn't going to stop the words flickering on the tip of her tongue, waiting to pour out as soon as their eyes met.

"Except that we're stronger together than when we're apart."

Dean stared at her like Charlotte Anne Webb had just started speaking Etruscan before he yanked on her arm and pulled her on his lap. Her forehead cracked against his chin with a 'shit' when Dean moved backwards to lay on the ground and Charlotte slipped to the wet grass with a 'crap' as she landed on her side.

He was still working his jaw when she rested her head on his shoulder.

"You're going to take me out before that thing squirming around in Sam's belly even has a chance to get me."

"That thing squirming around in Sam's belly has been tearing you up inside since Georgia," Charlotte retorted, clipped syllables pushing past the ache in her throat. "It gives you the world every night and then crushes it like an empty eggshell just to see how long it takes before you shatter." Her breath came out in a huff and Charlotte raised herself on an elbow to touch his face. "If Shemhezai wants another piece of you, it's coming through me."

"I'm not worth the trouble, baby. Can't even keep you safe in my own head."

Charlotte dropped back down to her side and curled around him, feeling his heart beat underneath her fingertips as they both stared up into the sky. The rain slowed to a drizzle but thick clouds still rolled across the stars, random points of light blinking down at them.

There would never be a little girl with her hair and his eyes or New Year's Eve parties in Chris McDonald's living room or warm summer days stretched out underneath the sky in the middle of a raspberry patch. But there were still days when Sam would lean up against the window in the front seat of the Impala and watch the scenery go by with a stupid grin on his face and nights when Ellie would climb onto Charlotte's lap and rest her head on Charlotte's shoulder while they both whispered nursery rhymes together.

And there was still Dean, filling her up to overflowing with the 'don't leave me don't leave me' thrumming underneath her palm.

"I don't want safe," she said softly. "I just want you."

The burn crept up her cheeks when Dean chuckled, twisting onto his side to grin at her, but it was impossible not to return his smile; resting her fingers on his lips when the iron band finally snapped and the smile reached his eyes.

"You're so fucking emo." It ended with a cackle. "And you know jack about constellations. The best time to see Cassiopeia is in November." Dean grabbed her hand when she poked him in the stomach. "That's seven months from now," he continued, rubbing her palm with his thumb. "You're just lucky that I'm sticking around with a goddamn walking chick flick long enough to show her where to find it."

"What are you going to show her in December?"

Dean snorted, rolling Charlotte onto her back, and clutched the grass along with the hair spread around her head like a fan – but he whispered 'Aries' when she wrapped her arms around his neck and started kissing up his jaw line.



I did my best to downplay the adult content. If more work is required, please let me know.

The title of this piece is a song lyric from "I Have the Touch" by Peter Gabriel. Likewise, each of the chapter titles are also lyrics from the same song. I did toy with using "Always Falling: The Apology" for about thirty seconds before giving in to the Gabriel. Interesting side note: "I Have the Touch" is also the title of the chapter in which Charlotte is introduced in Strange Angels. I am, sadly, a sucker for symmetry.

This story would not have been possible without katelennon.

Seriously. My original idea for a sequel was going to be some dorky thing based on "The Five Times Dean Sang Zeppelin and the One Time He Didn't." This silly masterpiece culminated in the final scene which was my apology for Always Falling, where Charlotte wakes up in the hospital after having a very bad dream about a world full of demons and the adventures she had there with Winchester boys.

The world should bow to Kate for saving them from the horribly schmoopy scene where Dean sang "Crazy Love" to his wife while she lay in a coma by asking me one simple question: Why wasn't Shemhezai torturing Charlotte in her dreams? She wanted to know how Charlotte's "world without demons" would differ from the one Dean created. Would she still have scars? Would she still be shy? Would she sing?

My muse, sad to say, ran roughshod over Kate's idea in the end but it is my hope that she likes it all the same.

The stories that I allude to in Charlotte's flashback to working at the homeless shelter are based on the ones in the Myths over Miami article. The stories themselves are absolutely fascinating to me and I go back and read the article at least once a year. Although the primary inspiration for the Beata in Strange Angels is the Book of Enoch from the Apocrypha, there's a lot of imagery I used for the manifestation of their powers – the blue glow, for example, and the idea of people coming back as Spirit Guardians – that I borrowed from the article. And, for the record, the part about the Blue Lady who teaches the kids songs to protect them is directly from the stories themselves. It just seemed to fit in well with Charlotte and her inability to sing.

Ellie Jenkins, for the curious, was a character I created based on the kids I read about in the article.

I made the conscious decision to include more of Sam in this story than I did in Always Falling. That is partially due to the relationship that Sam and Charlotte have in the main 'verse but also because I am horribly self-indulgent when it comes to writing Teen!Sam. I even added Sally Friedman to the story, as Sam/Sally is one of my guilty pleasures.

I did add a bit more of the "Myths over Miami" back story in the final chapter. I think the concept of the "Special One" applies to Ellie Jenkins within the context of this story and it added a nod to Supernatural that the story hasn't always shown. I did take some liberties with it – since the myths do mention that Special Ones die if attacked by Bloody Mary, but that they will die good.

Adoptions can take any length of time – some within twenty four hours, others within eighteen months. I opted for a short time frame based in part on Charlotte's job but also the situation itself. Ellie would have been classified as a "special circumstances" adoption given the murder of her mother and its potential impact on her but she also had a set of parents willing to adopt her. So I went with four and a half months.

wenchpixie is the brilliant person who came up with the idea of Dean reading stories and acting out all of the voices when I first introduced Ellie into the 'verse. I always intended to write it in the "main" storyline but it never quite worked out, especially given the fact that they're leaving Ellie behind at the Roadhouse, so I included it in this story instead.

For those who are curious, the dark-haired girl is how Charlotte sees Cassie in Dean's eyes. He had never told Charlotte her name, so she can only use a descriptive phrase to describe Cassie.

In the original story, Always Falling, the scene with Dean and Shemhezai was much longer – including a statement of "you are lucky that I did not let you know about the baby." I made that scene much shorter but thought it was a good addition to Charlotte's version of the story because it's a yearning that they both would share.

I thought the reference to Etruscan was appropriate given that the "real world" Charlotte is one thesis away from finishing her doctorate in Linguistics – especially given her focus on ancient languages. For those who do not know, Etruscan is something of a linguistic enigma – only one book written in the language has survived and it is now unreadable – and was replaced by Latin completely in 100 AD. There's some fascinating research out there if you're into language studies.

I wish I could say that I'm an expert at constellations but I researched them, too.

And lastly, though by no means least, thanks to all who stuck around for the ride on this one!