** See Part 1 for disclaimer and story details
Author's note: Thank you to everyone who sent such wonderful comments about this. You make my day with each and every one of them. Special thanks and grilled cheese on toast go to Lynette for her mad beta skills and her encouragement. As always, any and all feedback is appreciated.
There it was.
All of my searching and planning, the reams and reams of paper, the countless hours of internet time, the megabytes of files. I'd actually started to believe I'd never find it. And now there it was sitting right in front of me, gleaming black and chrome in the sunlight. Almost two years I'd been searching. Two freaking years of jack squat results, being anywhere from hours to months behind, trying to second guess a set of brothers who were even better at BSing their way into and out of situations than I was.
I reached out automatically, fingers shaking as they met the passenger window. I owned a classic car. I knew the unwritten rules. So why was I touching a man's car without his permission? Obvious death wish aside, I just had to. Nothing could have stopped me at that point. The glass was warm under my fingers, warm and smooth and real, reflecting my natural hair, short cropped red, and mirrored Oakleys. They were here.
"What are you doing to my car?"
I spun, the pissed off voice right behind me, and stumbled back into the Impala. My mouth opened to issue a smart ass comment of my own, but nothing came out. Seeing the car was nothing to seeing them, him, up close. He was taller than I thought he'd be.
"Why are you messing with my car?"
The question didn't merit a smile, but damned if my lips didn't twitch upward. "Dean Winchester." The two men exchanged looks before turning back to me. "Which makes you Sam."
"And you are? Since we're getting all familiar." Dean recovered quick, I'll give him that. "You're still on my car."
I searched his features and found the boy in the man's face, the smirk not hiding it from my eyes. "I'm Gabriel Stanwick," I said, the sound of my real name in the light of day strangely comforting. "And you saved my life when I was eight. Rather, your dad did." They looked at each other again, eyebrows raised in almost identical expressions. It was seriously cute.
"You're going to need to refresh my memory a little. Dad helped a lot of people." His eyes scanned my face, much as I'd done with him, obviously trying to place it without any luck. I pushed off the Impala and stripped off my sunglasses, staring him full in the face, ignoring Sam's indrawn breath. I've gotten that reaction plenty of times over the years so I don't know if it was the sudden shock of the blue of my eyes against the fiery red of my hair or if Dean recognized my face without the Oakleys. "Chicago. The antique doll. You waved to me."
Sam eyes bounced from me to his brother, face furrowed in confusion. "You do know her?"
"No, I don't. But I remember her."
"You didn't wave back."
Dean smiled, eyes crinkling just a little at the corners. "Call me antisocial. How'd you find us?"
I shrugged, slipping the sunglasses back on. I don't do sun well. "Do you really want to talk out in the parking lot?"
For the third time, they exchanged a look. Apparently they didn't need words to communicate like common mortals. Theirs was a bond I'd never had, never felt. For a brief moment jealousy thrummed through my chest before I squashed it back out of existence. It wasn't their fault I was alone in the world.
"Your place or ours?"
I didn't bother trying to keep the laugh inside. The information I'd gathered on Dean hadn't lied. The flirt and charm was like breathing to him. "Yours is probably better. It's closer."
We walked the twenty feet to their motel room where I was able to ditch the sunglasses. Sam gestured toward the chair by the table and sat on the edge of one of the beds, his brother leaning back against the dresser.
"So, Chicago?" Sam asked, hands resting on his knees. "When was this?"
"1991. Dad was tracking a series of murders that had nothing in common except the method of death." Dean met my eyes, obviously hesitant to speak.
I spared him the concern. I'd made peace with what happened that night long ago. "The victims' hearts were ripped from their chests. Every person in every house. I was the only survivor."
"Wow. That's, uh, that's... Just wow."
"Sam." Dean glared his brother into silence before digging up a leather notebook out of the canvas duffel at his side and flipping through the pages quickly. "Here it is. Dad had accounts dating back to 1912. He thought the spirit was a girl named Savannah Cavenaugh, murdered by her plantation owner father in 1910, Georgia. Heart ripped out. All records showed she'd been cremated. Dad couldn't figure out how she was still around and moving from place to place."
Sam looked from me to Dean, eyes wide with interest. "So what was it? I mean, there obviously wasn't a body to burn. There had to be something for her to latch onto."
"She had a doll," I said. The feel of that soft blond hair rubbing against my chin shuddered through me like a phantom. "Porcelain face and hands. It must have been in the room when he killed her. There were small, dark spots all over the stuffing under the clothes."
I nodded. "It had to be. My parents bought it at an antique store in Atlanta for me. They were killed not twenty-four hours after they brought it back to the house."
"I don't remember this." He took the notebook from his brother and scanned the page quickly. "Where was I?"
"In the backseat, asleep. Dad wanted to check the house's outer security during the day. All of the deaths had occurred at night so he figured it was safe to bring us along for the ride."
Dean's matter of fact tone sparked something in my gut, that same instinct that told me when someone was lying to me. "You were his look out." It sounded vaguely accusatory even though I hadn't meant it that way.
"Guilty," he said, one eyebrow lifting above the clear hazel of his eye. "Dad couldn't believe you were just standing there at the gate with the doll. He thought he'd have to search the whole house for it."
Sam looked up from the page, shaking his head. "How did he ever put it all together? I mean, that was a one in a million thread to find."
"Dad was the master."
Smiling a little at the undisguised pride in Dean's tone, I beat back yet another bubble of jealousy. "Master or not, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him."
Dean lost his smile at that. "Speaking of impossible threads, how did you find us? And why were you looking in the first place? I can't imagine it was to talk about the old days."
"Honestly, I don't know why I tracked you down. Call it one of those irrepressible urges." They didn't look like they believed me, but I didn't really care. It wasn't like we were ever going to meet again, right? "I didn't look for you, by the way. I looked for the car."
Stunned was too understated a word to describe their faces, but it was the one word that came to me at that moment. "You tracked the Impala?"
Matching groans filled the room at my simple answer. Dean rubbed his right hand over his face, the silver ring flashing in the light from the window. "Please tell me it's not that easy."
"Easy? You're kidding, right? I've been on this over two years and I have the benefit of knowing the truth, what circumstances will draw you to an area." I pushed up to my feet, a sudden restlessness filling me. "Trust me, nothing about this was easy." I'd meant it in the purely physical research sense, but something else slipped into the words without my permission.
Sam must have heard it as well because his face softened, mouth and eyes holding sympathy without pity. "I'm sorry he couldn't save your parents."
There was nothing I could say to that, so I simply returned his gaze.
"Gabriel?" Dean's voice brought me back around to face him. "What did happen that night? Dad would only say the job was done. He wouldn't tell me how he got hurt."
"Dean," Sam said, tone holding a note of censure.
"It's okay, Sam, really." I'd dealt with my parents' death long ago. The knowledge was a dull ache, it always would be, but I held no animosity toward the man who had tried to save them. "I was always a light sleeper, woke up at the smallest of noises. It drove my parents crazy, actually. But I never did figure out what it was specifically that woke me that night.
"I went down to the Red Room to get my new doll, even though I knew my mom would be mad. The dolls were antiques and were supposed to stay in the cabinet at night. But when I got to the room, there was a man standing there."
I smiled, remembering his face as he looked at the cabinet stuffed full of antiques. "Yeah. He was just standing there, staring at all of those dolls, kind of lost looking. My mom had been collecting them most of her life. I guess he wasn't expecting so many of them."
Dean snorted, lips lifting at the corners. "He must have been pissed."
"And you must have been scared out of your mind," Sam said, shaking his head.
"Actually, I wasn't. At least not yet. I don't know why, but I wasn't afraid of John. He just looked over at me, smiled. You know, this really gentle smile and said my new doll had something wrong with it and that he was here to fix her." They exchanged another one of those speaks a thousand words looks, but didn't comment so I continued. "Here was this stranger in my house and I stood there like an idiot, doing nothing. I should have been running upstairs screaming.
"He asked me which one was my new doll, but before I pointed her out, it got really cold in the room. John told me to run and he pulled this metal rod out of nowhere." I'd told the story so many times as a child that I'd become inured to it. Yet this telling, to these two men, was different. Dean and Sam would believe every word I said. I couldn't see the sun shining through the motel windows anymore. I felt the cold washing over my skin, goosebumps breaking over every inch of my body. "That's when she appeared. He swung the rod at her and she vanished. But he'd hit the lamp behind her as well. It shattered. For a second all I could hear was the sound of glass hitting the floor. John was talking to me, but I couldn't understand him. She reappeared and threw him across the room, turned to look at me. I got scared then.
"John ran over and hit her with the rod again. By that time I could hear my parents shouting, running down the stairs. John asked about the doll, really frantic, but I was too scared to answer. Dad practically flew into the room. He saw me and John and just freaked. Mom grabbed me, started dragging me out of the room. I tried to tell them about the girl, but they wouldn't listen. Dad threw one of the other lamps at John and he ducked behind the sofa. Then Dad started screaming. Loud, awful screams. The girl, the ghost, she reached into Dad's chest and tore his heart out right through his ribcage."
"Jesus," Sam muttered, yanking me out of the past with its blood and pain and back into the motel and sunshine.
I blinked, meeting his subdued gaze. "I guess Mom lost it then because she dropped me and ran over to Dad. John yelled at me to get the doll and bring it to him. He tried. He really tried to save my mom, but the ghost was too quick. She was dead by the time I got him the doll. I don't know how he kept her away from me and started the fire at the same time. The ghost burned up right in front of me."
My heart started to settle, the memories returning to just memories once again. Dean and Sam were silent, either not knowing what to say or knowing there was nothing to say. A smile lifted my lips out of nowhere. "John picked me up, took me to front door, told me to stay there. He came back with a blanket and the phone. He dialed 911 and told me to ask for help, to not move until they arrived. I don't think I'll ever forget the look on his face when he said he was sorry. And then he walked away."
Silence fell when I stopped speaking. We stared at one another across the short distance of the motel room. My goosebumps had faded, the air conditioning no longer the chill of a haunted night.
"He just left you there?" Sam asked, finally breaking the stillness. "At the house? Alone?"
Dean shot him a glare, face darkening with an old emotion. "What was he supposed to do, Sam?"
"He could have dropped her off at the hospital or the police department. She was just a little girl."
"I was Gabriel Stanwick," I corrected him before he could gather steam. "Of the Chicago Stanwicks and my parents had just been murdered. He knew no one would believe an eight year old who said a ghost killed her family. He made the right choice."
Shifting his weight on the dresser, Dean smiled a thanks in my direction. "We packed up and left Chicago that night. I think we drove two days straight before he finally stopped."
"I remember." Apparently willing to let it rest, Sam returned my gaze steadily. "He was pretty torn up for a while after that night. I think it was the first time I saw him like that."
I didn't want to ask, but I had to have confirmation. I knew the conclusions I'd come to from my research and their own words seemed to agree. "John died, didn't he?"
Dean looked down for a long moment, face darkening instantly. His brother glanced at him then nodded once.
"I'm sorry. I'll never forget what he did for me."
I stared at them, their acceptance of their insane lives suddenly filling me with… I don't know what it was. Anger wasn't right, neither were curiosity or astonishment. But I was filled with something and it hit my gut with every beat of my heart. It churned in my stomach until I wanted to hurl. They had each other. They had family. Why would they risk that for strangers who would never think of them again? How could they do that? "Why? Why do you do this? I know you've been injured. Both of you. Your dad is dead. Is there some kind of award for the most monsters killed in a lifetime that I don't know about?" They looked at each other, clearly uneasy with the abrupt turn of the conversation. Hell, I was uneasy with it, but that didn't stop me from expecting an answer. I waited until Dean shrugged one shoulder, face smoothing into assurance and a strange sort of peace.
"It's not about the things we kill. It's about the people we save."
Sam's mouth quirked up slightly into something I couldn't call a smile, his eyes never leaving his brother as I looked back and forth between them. And as suddenly as I'd been filled with that unidentifiable emotion it drained away, leaving me empty and more than a little ashamed with instant belated understanding. I was one of the people they'd saved, one of those who was supposed to move on and never think of them again. What had I done with their gift? Absolutely nothing. I might as well have died that night along with my parents for all the impact I'd had on any other human since. I had no one, had made no connections, had made no effort to make any. I was a ghost in a living shell.
I didn't want to be a ghost anymore.
Without a word, I walked to the door and flung it open. I heard them call my name as they followed, but couldn't speak. My laptop was right where I'd left it on the backseat of the Camaro and it only took moments to drag the case by its strap across the seat and onto my shoulder. Dean and Sam hovered just outside of the motel door, obviously wondering if I'd lost it. I wanted to reassure them, to tell them I was fine, more than fine, actually. I was better than I'd been since the day my parents had been killed, but I still couldn't get a sound out. I moved past them back into the room, already pulling the computer free.
"Gabriel? What's going on?"
As the familiar boot up screen flashed, I smiled, my lips stiff. "Fifteen years of work." I grabbed one of the flash drives from the case and set it into the USB slot. It only took a couple of clicks and my database was copying itself onto the drive. As the progress bar quickly darkened, my smile relaxed, starting to feel real. Looking up, I saw them staring at me with raised eyebrows. Why they'd let me go slightly crazy on them without making more of an attempt to stop me, I'd never know, but I was glad of it nonetheless. "No one believed me when I told them what happened. I was a kid who'd seen something awful. Of course it couldn't be the truth." The file transfer completed and I yanked the drive out. "I finally stopped trying to convince everyone. But I knew what I'd seen that night."
"Adults have a hard time believing other adults about the truth, even when it's right in front of them," Sam said quietly. I knew what he was trying to do and it was sweet, really. The effort wasn't necessary, but I appreciated it anyway.
I held the drive out to Dean and he took it carefully, fingers curling over the small device, swallowing it whole. "I'm not a hunter. I can't do what you do and I don't even want to try. But maybe you can use this to save some people."
He looked from his closed fist to my face, his hazel eyes both understanding and searching. "Fifteen years of work, huh?" he repeated.
I nodded, peace filling me. Maybe this was what I'd needed, what my whole life was pushing me toward. I'd never felt so calm, like I was right where I was supposed to be for the very first time. That same calm told me this particular moment was over. Our lives had never been meant to cross for any length of time. "Take care of yourselves." They nodded back, as if unsure what to say to the whirlwind of my entry and exit, maybe expecting me to stay for some reason.
I made it to the door, laptop over my shoulder, and had it opened before one final thought hit me. Turning, I took a long moment to study their faces. Unless fate chose to be even more capricious than normal, I'd never see them again. Sam's face held a smile, both wistful and content at the same time. His green eyes were filled with shadows, worries and hurts I couldn't even imagine, but something told me he had the strength to rise above them all.
And Dean? He held the flash drive, thumb rubbing along its length absently as he met my eyes. The hazel I couldn't see that day years ago now seemed branded into my brain. He had shadows as well, deep, dark and painful ones. Then he smiled. Not a smirk or a grin, but a full on eye crinkling, dimple flashing smile. His eyes lit from the inside and I knew the shadows might beat him down, but they'd never beat him. I did the only thing I could and smiled back.
"Thank you both. For everything."
Without waiting for a response, I closed the door behind me and started toward the Camaro waiting across the small parking lot. They'd never know it, but the Winchester family had saved my life for a second time. I tossed the computer case into the back seat and set one foot inside. My eyes flicked up, finding the window instantly. Dean stood in the space between the open curtains, smile dimmed, but still present. Our gazes held for one impossibly long moment before I raised one hand in farewell.
This time he waved back.
End notes: Before everyone starts asking, "Why didn't John have a shot gun filled with rock salt rounds?" I'll answer it here. In "Hook Man," Dean tells Sam about the special rounds and he's both surprised and impressed with the ingenuity. Now I know it was probably just a writer's device to explain to the viewer why a shot gun would work on a ghost, but I chose to take it as a new idea thought up after Sam left them for Stanford. Otherwise they might have written something to the effect of -
Sam: You have plenty of rock salt rounds, right?
Dean: Nah. I thought I'd use deer slugs this time. (Sam glares) Yes, Dad, I have more than enough.
Sam: Shut up.
That would have clued in the viewer as well as established the fact that Sam knows about them already. If you disagree with me I'd love to hear your reasons. It's always fascinating to see what different people come away with from each episode.
Thanks again for reading!