The backroad highway shimmered in the bright sunlight, the heat bouncing off the blacktop in waves. A black 1967 Impala roared through the silence of a country afternoon, the echoes of classic rock streaming after it. Inside the car, Dean smiled at the feel of the steering wheel in his hands and the scenery blurring past. Sam, less enchanted with the speed of the car and the volume of the music, hunched over a newspaper, intently reading. Dean knew at a glance that Sam was Finding a Case. But Dean just wanted the open road, good tunes, and as many miles as possible between them and that graveyard in Arizona. Some pie would be an added bonus, but right now he just wanted to get the hell out of dodge.
"Dean." Sam said. Dean ignored him, pretending the music was too loud to hear him. Sam had a careful tone in his voice, like all of a sudden Dean was a fragile delicate little thing that needed coddling. Just because a guy sells his soul is no reason to think that guy is all of a sudden fragile, Dean thought. Or that he couldn't take care of himself. Or that he wasn't prepared to live with the deal he'd made. And he had to live with the deal, he had to abide by it. The alternative was just too much to entertain.
Dean resolutely pushed away the memory of those sad, desperate days in South Dakota. The image of Sammy in that cabin, lifeless and cold, flickered on the edges of his thoughts, but he tried to think of something else. Anything else. The world had gone dark for Dean in those days, darker than after John had died, darker than any other times he could remember. His whole life had collapsed into a pinpoint of unbearable loss and grief. He couldn't see a way to go on without Sam. He couldn't face the rest of his life-short as he'd intended it to be- if Sam wasn't in the world, so he'd done the only thing he could think of: he'd summoned a crossroads demon and sold his soul for Sam's life. That hellbitch had driven a hard bargain, too, offering only a year when the going rate was ten. But he'd agreed to it and intended to hold up his end, because the penalty for going back on it was Sam dead, this time for good. And he couldn't have that; Sam was his responsibility and he'd done the best he could at the time, and Sammy was a strong kid. Sam was a survivor, had been ever since he was six months old.
But can he survive losing you? His doubt whispered at him. You couldn't handle losing him. Dean frowned at the road, and then impatiently turned down the music.
"What ya got, Sammy?" He demanded. He glanced over to see Sam watching him with that pitying and sad expression in his eyes. There might have been a flicker of anger there as well, because of all people, Dean knew what it was like to have someone you love, someone vital to you, sell their soul for you. But Dean didn't want to think about that, either. "any demons to gank?"
"I don't know, Dean." Sam said, dropping his eyes to the newspaper in his lap and frowning slightly. "Have you ever heard of Neptune, California?" Dean thought for a moment, the name was familiar. Then he grinned.
"Isn't that where Aaron Echolls lived?" Dean said. "Dude, tell me we get to hunt Aaron Echolls' ghost."
"No, I don't think it's… how do you know about Aaron Echolls?" Sam said.
"Come on, Sammy, 'The Long Haul'? We must have watched that a million times with Dad." Dean said reproachfully. "All of Aaron's movies, actually. Dad was a huge fan." Sam shrugged. He wouldn't argue, but sometimes he thought that he and Dean had actually lived different childhoods. The Dad he remembered had been more like a drill sergeant than the hero buddy Dean seemed to remember.
"Anyway, so you know about the Lily Kane murder?" Sam asked. Dean nodded, his grin fading. Aaron Echolls had been an all-around bad ass action star, but killing a teenage girl over some sex tapes was definitely not bad ass. "how much do you know?" now Dean shrugged; he knew as much as anybody.
"Aaron killed Lily Kane because she had sex tapes of them. The Kane family thought Lily's brother Duncan did it, kid was a little crazy, and they covered it up. Aaron would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for Keith Mars and his daughter." Dean said.
"Veronica." Sam supplied the name. "She was Lily Kane's best friend. and the Kane murder was only the beginning."
"Of what?" Dean said, interested. Maybe the Kane girl was haunting this Veronica. A routine salt and burn would be just the thing to take the edge off.
"Well, a lot of weird shit." Sam said. "I mean, last year there was a bus crash that killed eight people. Only one survivor and she died a few months later. Veronica Mars and Logan Echolls-"
"Aaron's kid?" Dean asked.
"Yeah. They said a kid named Cassidy Casablancas claimed responsibility for the bus crash, just before he swan dived off the roof of the hotel where Logan lives." Sam paused. "and then earlier this year, there was a rapist on the Hearst campus, and then the dean of students was found dead in his office. Supposedly a suicide, but his wife's lover did it."
"So. It's a fucked up little town full of fucked up people. So?" Dean asked, bored. It was getting to soap opera-y, he just wanted to kill evil things.
"All of these things, and a bunch of other smaller stuff, is all tied to Veronica Mars. And now…" Sam paused again, thinking. "Keith Mars is in the hospital. With an illness no one has ever heard of. It's a medical mystery." Dean nodded. There was no such thing as a medical mystery, just things that regular people couldn't explain. "He ran for sheriff, won the election by a hair, and then two days later he got sick. No one knows why he isn't dead yet, but he keeps not dying and not getting better." Dean processed these facts, his mind already in hunter mode.
"So let's go talk to the girl." Dean said. Sam nodded.
"But we go there as ourselves. She's too smart. She won't trust us if we go in as feds or cops or whatever else. No disguises. No lies." Sam said. "She's been an amateur PI for years and just got licensed this year. And she's good at her job." Dean nodded. When Sam didn't speak again, he leaned over and turned the music back up. Sam subsided in the passenger seat, letting Dean have his moment of freedom. Revving the engine just to her hear roar, he pointed the car in the direction of their next hunt.
Veronica had finally let Mac talk her into coming home and having a shower. Her condition had been that she be allowed to be alone. Ever since Keith had gotten sick- a couple weeks now- no one had left her alone. Mac or Wallace were always with her, either at the hospital or here in her apartment. Because they were bored, they said. Nothing to do after exams. But she knew they were looking after her. Her friends were bad liars, or she knew them so well she could recognize when they weren't telling the truth. And she loved them for trying to take care of her; she didn't know how she'd have gotten through the last couple weeks without them. Even Logan was lurking around the hospital, full of angst and worry. She tried not to acknowledge him because that seemed too complicated. Piz had said he was going to Chicago for his internship. He'd be back in the fall and they could see where they were then. He hadn't broken up with her officially, but he was calling Wallace to get updates on Keith. Parker had stormed off back to Colorado, after a hysterical fight with Logan about Veronica. Two weeks ago, all of this had seemed vitally important, but now it was all just background noise to the questions that kept going around and around in her mind: Was Keith dying? The doctors said he was stable but critical. Did that mean he was going to die? What had happened to him? Was someone responsible for this? And if so, who? And how could she make that person pay?
Veronica shuffled from the bathroom to the kitchen. She opened the fridge and stared into it, not really seeing the contents. She was amazed at how lost she was without Keith. She'd known that she loved her dad, of course, and she'd known that he loved her. But she hadn't realized how vital he was to her, how his strength, the assurance of his love, and his unfailing belief in her, kept her going. What girl, at 19, really considers how important her only parent is to her? None, because he's just there and he just loves her and that's how it is. Except it's not how it is now, she thought. And if I lose him… but she couldn't finish that thought, couldn't entertain that possibility.
Just as she was beginning to regret her solitude, there was a knock at the door. Timely, as always, she thought cryptically, expecting it to be Logan. They were due for a showdown. She went to open the door, trying to organize the chaos of her thoughts into some semblance of order, tried to summon a witty and sarcastic comment to head him off. But it wasn't Logan, and the sight of the two guys standing there momentarily shut down her brain.
They were gorgeous. The tall one- really, really tall- made Veronica feel small. Delicate. She looked up and up and finally met his liquid brown eyes, warm with compassion and sympathy. She felt the sudden urge to let him hold her the way Logan used to, let him tell her it was okay. The other one- reasonably tall, not a giant- only looked serious. He didn't radiate that sense of safety and warmth. His face was serious, all business. She tried to guess what that business was, but they looked like… just guys. Unbelievably gorgeous guys, but just guys. Not wearing suits, no badges (and they didn't stand like cops anyway), no notebooks, nothing. And then she remembered Mac and Max's threat to send her strippers to cheer her up, and she blushed. The guys exchanged a quick look but didn't say anything.
"Look, I'm not really in the mood for a strip show, guys." She said. The shorter one grinned at her, a gleam of amusement in his eye.
"Sweetheart, I'm not in the mood for that right now either, but let's check back later, okay?" He said, in an interestingly suggestive tone. An annoyed look flickered over the tall one's face, and he nudged his partner. He wiped the grin of his face, but the gleam remained in his eye. "Look, we're here about… your dad." Veronica tensed, assessing them again. At first glance they looked like regular guys, sure, and their attractiveness was distracting, but now that she was looking at them again she saw that they stood as though they were ready for a fight. No, not a fight, she corrected herself, an attack. From me or from someone else? She glanced beyond them but saw nothing unusual. The courtyard, the street, Neptune sunning it's self in the midday heat.
"We heard about your dad, and we thought we could help. We're… sort of specialists." Sam said, his voice low pitched.
"Not doctors." She said, glancing at their hands. Too rough to be doctors.
"No. We're kind of investigators." The shorter one said, earning another nudge. "Sort of. Not like you and your dad, but we might be able to help." She considered them for a moment. The shorter one was glancing around while hardly moving. The bigger one radiated warmth and trustworthiness, but she saw that his eyes were looking around, too. He caught her eyes and offered a half smile. The memory of Logan's voice echoed in her head, telling her that she didn't trust people and could never admit she needed help. Never? Watch me, Logan. She thought as she opened the door and invited the guys in.
"You're strangers sitting in my living room." She said as they sat down. "So tell me your names."
"I'm Sam," the tall one said, "And this is Dean." He indicated the other guy, who grinned at her again.
"and I guess you know that I'm Veronica." She said. Sam and Dean, Sam and Dean. She filed the names away for future reference. They hadn't given their last names, though. If she was being untrusting and unhelpable, that would have set off red flags in her head. But she was trying here; if they could help Keith, whatever slim chance there was, she wasn't going to ruin it by being suspicious.
"Yeah. I've read quite a bit about you." Sam said. She looked at him, expecting to see speculation or judgement, or… something other than compassion and understanding. "You've been through a lot. This must seem like… too much, on top of everything else." His soft tone invited confession or tears, his voice suggested that it would be okay to let go and break down in front of him, that he would understand. This guy is dangerous, Veronica thought. Because she could feel herself wanting to confess her fears to him, to confide in him, to let him tell her it was going to be okay. But because it had never been okay, because she didn't even know what okay would look like at this point, she fought the urge.
"Yes. I've been through a lot. This is... a lot." She answered with an effort. Dean, who had been scanning the rest of the visible apartment, glanced back at her. Usually girls fell all over themselves for Sam's puppy eyes and sincerity. People in general, actually, liked to tell Sam things they would never tell Dean. But this girl… this girl didn't. He reappraised her. Her blush when she'd first opened the door and mistaken them for strippers had made him write her off as a school girl with no experience of really bad shit. Here in California, in the constant sunshine with a beach just minutes away, young and pretty and smart as she was, what problems could she really have? So her best friend had died. Bad shit like that happened all the time. But as he looked at her again, he recognized an edge to her, a sharpness that was familiar because it was like his own. Maybe normal bad shit was as bad for normal people as monsters and demons were for him. He watched her and knew she was struggling with her feelings, trying to repress them, trying to get down to business. He admired her for it; he'd expected her to get all gushy over Sam and start falling apart over her Dad, but she was holding it together pretty well. Small though she was, he was in no doubt that she was mighty. He could see it in her eyes, the clench of her jaw as she got herself under control. He smiled at her, a genuine, comradely smile, encouraging her do what she needed to do. She smiled back slowly, but it was genuine too.
"So… tell me what happened to your dad." Sam's tone had changed; he'd caught the interplay between Veronica and Dean, and knew that this wasn't the time for his compassion. All business, that's what she wanted. She shrugged and dropped her eyes, collecting her thoughts.
"He just got sick. Just… sick." She said. "And it was finally okay. He got re-elected. A close race, Vinnie lost by just a few votes, but Dad was Sheriff and things were going to be okay." She said and closed her eyes for a moment. She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and looked at Sam. "The doctors don't even know what … they've never seen anything like it before."
"Medical mystery?" Dean suggested, his face deadly serious. Sam shot him a quick look, and Dean's face fell into more normal lines. He tilted his head to one side in Sam's direction, apologizing, and then looked over at Veronica. She watched them, slightly puzzled. The way they communicated was unnerving. Almost like they could read each other's minds. Or that they knew each other so intimately, that they knew each other's every gesture and all the nuances of a head tilt. And the she wondered how intimately they knew each other. Because it would be a crying shame if Dean was already taken.
Right, Veronica. Dad's on his death bed and your libido is going into overdrive. She realized she'd been staring at Dean, and that she hadn't answered him, though she didn't think an answer was necessary.
"So. What are you investigating, exactly?" She asked, turning towards Sam.
"What happened to your dad. We might be able to help." He answered. "can I look around?" Usually he'd ask if he could use the bathroom or get a drink or something, but she'd see through that. She nodded.
"You investigate medical mysteries?" She asked Dean, her eyes following Sam. "The Mulder and Scully of medicine." Dean smiled.
"Something like that." He answered with a shrug. Sam was looking around the kitchen, looking for signs of supernatural activity. He was coming up blank. He glanced over at Dean and was disconcerted to see Veronica watching him.
"Can I ask you some weird questions?" Sam asked her. Dean sighed.
"Oh, here we go." He muttered. Veronica nodded at Sam.
"The day your dad got sick, or maybe before that, do you remember smelling sulphur? Or seeing black smoke?" not for the first time, these questions sounded crazy to Sam. She hesitated before answering.
"No. sulphur? What?" She finally said. Sam moved out of the kitchen, walking carefully through the hall.
"Did he act weird before he got sick? Like out of character, was he different?" She hesitated again, this time trying to decide what to say. Yes. He ruined evidence for me and almost lost the election. That was sort of out of character.
"No." She answered. Dean heard the lie in her voice. He looked at Sam and raised an eyebrow. Sam's eyes went to Veronica, back to Dean, and then turned away to let Dean take over.
"Okay, what's with-" Veronica started, but Dean stood up and cut her off.
"This is important, Veronica. This could be life or death for your dad. You don't want to lose him, do you?" She didn't answer, couldn't meet his eyes. "Look, I lost my dad, and there are things- don't lie about this, if it gives us a chance to save him. Was he different?" His voice was quieter than Sam's had been, and even though there was a hint of sympathy in it, it also told her that Dean would not put up with lies. She sighed and told him about the evidence Jake Kane had had on her, security footage of her breaking into his mansion.
"You broke into a mansion?" Dean asked incredulously.
"Dude, you broke into a mansion?" He said, impressed. His eyes were suddenly filled with warmth and admiration, and a certain gleam that suggested he wouldn't mind having his mansion broken into by her. "How-"
"There was- it's complicated." Veronica answered, blushing again. She didn't want to have to explain about the sex tape she and Piz had unknowingly made that had led to her bringing down Hearst's secret society. "I had my reasons. Jake kind of hates my dad, because of…" She trailed off. And that was something else she didn't want to rehash, the grudge Jake Kane had against her and her dad. At first it had been about her mom, and Lily's murder, but now Jake felt like Veronica was personally responsible for him losing Duncan, too. Which she sort of was; after all, she'd helped Duncan evade the FBI and drop off the face of the planet with his and Meg's daughter. Some might say she had masterminded the whole thing. But no one could actually prove it, she reminded herself.
"It's an old grudge." Sam told Dean. He knew what it had been about in the months after Lily's murder- it was in the case study- and he knew there was more Veronica wasn't saying. But he wanted to spare her Dean's curiosity. Taking the hint, Dean moved the questioning into a different vein.
"Okay. Who else has a grudge against your dad?" Dean asked. She felt like she was being interrogated. She'd interrogated people and been interrogated herself, so she knew what it was like.
"Start with who doesn't." She said. "I mean, top of the list right now, Jake Kane, Hank, Vinnie Van Lowe, and the Fighting Fitzpatricks. And then everyone he's ever arrested. And then work your way up." She shrugged. "What? Being the good guy means you make enemies." Her eyes flashed at him, breifly amused.
"Ain't that the truth." Dean muttered. Sam moved slowly through the halls, along the base boards. Veronica briefly wondered why, but Dean was still interrogating her.
"How about you? Any enemies?"
"Same list, but add Tim, Parker and Piz, and Madison Sinclair. And possibly Dick Casablancas, if he isn't too drunk to function." Dean raised an eyebrow at her. "I'm a good guy too." A half smile turned up the corners of her mouth, and Dean moved closer to her. She tensed for a moment, and then relaxed. He wasn't threatening.
"Do you really break into places?" He asked, this time his voice quiet so Sammy wouldn't hear.
"Yeah. I have to sometimes. I can't always charm my way in." She answered, her voice also low pitched.
"Oh sweetheart, I don't believe that." Dean said, leaning close to her. She looked into his face and felt herself almost go weak. His eyes were suggesting that he'd like it if she tried to charm him, that he'd let her get in anywhere she wanted. She managed to take her eyes away from his, only to find herself staring at his smiling lips that suggested all kinds of pleasure and fun. She took a deep breath and tried to pull herself together, but she felt herself smiling at him, inviting him to say more, to go further, to come closer and back up his words with actions. Dean, always a man of action, began to lean down to kiss her.
"Dean." Sam called from the hallway, his voice urgent. Dean knew Sam had found something, but silently cursed all little brothers everywhere, especially the big sasquatch types who were always interrupting you at crucial moments.
"Yeah." Dean called back, annoyed. Dean and Veronica leaned away from each other, into a more normal posture, and their eyes met again, sheepishly this time. She offered him half a smile, he gave her half a shrug. So that's that, Veronica thought.
"Uh." Sam replied, ignoring Dean's tone. Dean crossed the room to the small hallway. Sam glanced at him, and then indicated the top of the doorframe to Dean. Silently, Dean reached up and ran his fingers over the top of the door. His fingers came away covered in dust. He raised an eyebrow at Sam, who tilted his head towards Dean's fingers. Dean's shoulder dropped into a slump and he shook his head.
"Great." He muttered.
"I'm pretty sure, Dean." Sam muttered back. Dean nodded. Of course Sam would be, he was a walking encyclopedia of weird and he knew his stuff.
"You going to ask her?" Dean said. Sam pulled a bitchface.
"You ask." He replied. Dean raised a fist, looking expectantly at Sam. Sam rolled his eyes, but raised his fist too. They had a quick game of rock paper scissors, with Sam winning over Dean's scissors with a rock. Sam flashed a grin at his brother. Dean sighed and turned around to go talk to Veronica in the living room again, but she was standing behind him and had apparently seen Sam and Dean's whole exchange.
"Ask me what?" She said, her arms crossed. She looked from one to the other, no hint of warmth or welcome in her eyes now. "Who are you, and why does dust on a doorway matter? How is that going to help my dad?" Another look passed between the brothers. "And what is with the looking?" Dean stepped towards her, his hands up in show of nonviolence. Sam moved himself so he was directly behind Dean, trying to be unobtrusive as possible. If she tried to attack Dean, Sam was sure he could stop her, but he didn't want it to come to that.
"Okay, this is going to sound crazy, but… bear with me." Dean said, and began to explain.